Oranges are Not the Only Fruit
Chapter 5: Deuteronomy: the Last Book of Law
The narrator speaks directly to the reader in this short, three-paged chapter. There is no discussion of Jeanette or her life, nor is there any reference to some of the fables previously mentioned.
The narrator explains that time deadens people's memories. People then construct stories to explain what happened in the past. Stories help to soften the passing of time by creating characters and plots that seem to be alive. But everyone makes up a different story based upon the same set of facts. The complex process of telling stories, of making histories, resembles a string full of knots that often becomes a cat's cradle in its complexity.
Often people differentiate between those stories that they believe to be fiction and history, which is considered fact. This separation between fact and fiction allows one to know what to believe. But the narrator finds this strange. If the stories known as history are easily believed then their true factual basis can be manipulated, which is what has happened over time. This manipulation of history has helped to maintain political empires and make others rich.
The creation of history also can deny past events when the historian leaves the questionable events out of the storyline. In this way historians can make history look the way that they want it to. The narrator then speaks of Cambodian leader Pol Pot who tried to start his country anew by destroying its history—burning all its documents and books. We question whether his actions were more honest than the rest of us who go around reshaping our past. The world did not think so.
Destroying so-called history that no longer pleases you generally is easy. Photos and documents can be burned and people can be destroyed. Dead people cannot testify to the truth about what happened. Some people live their lives collecting remnants of the past. These people represent a form of the living dead as they only surround themselves with dead things. Other people like the Pilgrims and the New World explorers were curious and set forth to on adventures. History later will grant their approval or disapproval.
The past is malleable and can be shaped in many directions depending on how we look at it. But stories create order and balance. The narrator always reads history books, however, with the knowledge that the information in them has been shaped. Only God knows if some event was actually true, but humans are not God. Instead, the narrator compares the act of constructing history to the act of constructing a sandwich. She advises that it is always best to prepare your own sandwiches.
The biblical book of Deuteronomy continues the story of the Hebrews who have been wandering back to the promised land of Israel from Egypt. The teachings of Moses make up the entirety of the book. His words are quoted directly as they go through list after list of how to deal with everything from how to raise your sheep, sacrifice a lamb, and marry. The book of Deuteronomy provides most of the basis for biblical law.
Unlike the previous chapters which basically parallel the contents of their Biblical counterparts, this chapter of Oranges instead turns the essence of the Deuteronomy on its head. In its formal aspect both Deuteronomy appear similar because they involve the main narrator (Moses or Jeanette) speaking directly to the reader. However, the content of Jeanette's sermon is very different from Moses's teachings. Instead of proposing a set of laws and history, Winterson questions the very nature of history and law itself. While the rules of Deuteronomy governed Jews and Christians for generations, Winterson forces us to question whether blind adherence to the rules in the Bible is appropriate since all stories are made up and furthermore have often been manipulated by the few for political or material gain.
Winterson's emphasis on the non-factual basis of stories has already been seen in the novel, although not laid out in explicit terms as it is here. The fables and mythical legends interspersed in the narrative have been placed to provide a contrast to Jeanette's life story. These fables generally appear to be completely fictional and even haphazardly constructed. By creating such obviously false stories, Winterson is pointing out the constructed nature of all stories—even those in Jeanette's life that are assumed to be true. When considered correctly, one realizes that Jeanette is making up the narrative of her early life much in the same way that she makes up the story of the Emperor Tetrahedron. Just as the story of the prince and the goose is false, so too could all of her details about her initial weeks at school be false. The reader cannot verify the truth of her history. There are no clear facts to support her fiction.
The form of this Deuteronomy chapter differs in that the narrator speaks directly to the reader for its entirety. The narrator speaks explicitly because she wants to make clear the connection between the act of telling stories and the act of telling history. It is relatively easy to see that Jeanette may be retelling her life story with her own agenda. It is more complex to comprehend that the construction of history throughout time has always been shaded by similarly subjective perspectives. In other words, one can never write a "true" history that is purely based in fact. All history should be regarded with doubt because it is just a story a historian wrote that may or may not be factual true. Furthermore, one should understand that over time historians have purposefully manipulated history to benefit the ruling political systems: events that would not be seen as favorable to the king, like a massacre for example, might never be written down.
Winterson explains these ideas about storytelling in a gentle straightforward tone with even a comic edge, such as when she compares history making to sandwich making. But in essence, she truly is delivering an introductory lecture on the main post-modern concepts of historiography, or the study of history. Winterson's suggestion that all stories should be viewed skeptically is consistent with Jean-Francois Lyotard's studies of meta-narratives. Winterson's recognition that these stories have kept certain political structures in place is clearly linked Michel Foucault's studies of how power and knowledge have been historically maintained.
In addition to its content, the unique form of this chapter also plays an important role in the novel. The second person voice contrasts starkly with the first and third person narratives that have preceded it. The act of a narrator delivering a philosophical treatise in the middle of a novel does not have many fictional precedents. By including such a speech, Winterson expands our understanding of what type of writing is allowed in a novel. The fables and seemingly unrelated stories during the novel's previous chapters already suggested that the structure of Oranges is not consistent with that of a traditional novel. The format of this chapter further persuades that Winterson is attempting to create a "meta-narrative" or a narrative about the act of telling a narrative. Such an experimental format intersects directly with the content of this chapter. Just as history cannot be created without a historian, a novel can not be written without a novelist who shapes the work according to his or her own desires. This truth applies even to a sacred text like the Bible, which had to be written by someone at sometime, and whose truths therefore cannot be held as sacrosanct. Winterson includes textual references of the Bible in her book to show that they are just fictions like the account of Jeanette's life and the made-up fables. Her point is that all stories, both in history and sacred texts, are fictions. Their reality can only be understood in their representation that could not have been made without bias.
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