Oranges are not the Only Fruit is a novel that tells many stories, but ultimately concerns itself with the very act of telling stories. The juxtaposition of legends and myths with the life of the main character, Jeanette, questions the reality of the stories told by the narrators. None of the stories can be verified with any fact, therefore they must all equally be accepted as fictions. It is for this reason that Winterson would say that her novel is not an autobiography. Winterson herself has stated that, "Oranges is the document, both true and false, which will have to serve for my life until I went to Oxford, and after that I daresay that whatever I tell you will be another document, one that is both true and false." As Winterson makes clear with her quote, the truth of the life of Jeanette is not true at all. As Winterson took pains to express in Chapter Five, no stories or histories are ever wholly true because subjective writers have written them. Winterson forces the realization that no objective reality exists anywhere. Whenever reality is represented by an art form, the realness of the reality must be called into question because it has been subjectively framed.
The idea that Jeanette is on a mythic journey thematically frames her narrative. Jeanette's birth and adoption are described with images from the story of Christ. From an early age, Jeanette believes that she will emerge as a Christlike figure who will help to save the world. As she ages, however, it becomes clear that her true quest is simply to find and accept her self. This task is not an easy, however. Jeanette's homosexual desires contradict the regulations that she has believed all of her life. To accept who she truly is, Jeanette must embark on a physical and spiritual adventure. She must both leave her home and leave her assumptions of how the world and her self are defined. Winterson borrows the standard techniques from a mythic story for Jeanette's adventure. Winterson also places other mythic characters in the novel, such as Sir Perceval, to place Jeanette's story in the mythic realm. Although Jeanette's adventure requires that she venture outside of the normative heterosexual sphere, her quest still takes the standard steps. From her birth Jeanette was destined for a mission and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that even though she has become a lesbian, her quest still continues. Even as a writer and a lesbian, Jeanette can still help to fight against the evil in the world as her mother originally intended.
An overriding theme in the novel concerns the conflict between binary factors. Jeanette's mother can only see the world as good or evil, friend or foe. Yet, Jeanette's homosexuality places her outside of the binary by showing that she is neither wholly good nor wholly evil. At the same time, Jeanette's lesbianism defies the binary gender roles that traditionally dominate society. Jeanette is a woman who does not act as a traditional woman because she does not love men. Winterson takes pains to illustrate the shifting nature of genders by switching some of gender roles in her mythical tales. She, like other postmodern feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Monique Wittig, proposes that the concept of gender is socially constructed, not biologically inherent. Overall, the construction of the world in binary systems limits and excludes those people and stories that fall outside of the definitions. By not seeing the world as a strict duality, a greater multiplicity of people can be seen as creating its essence. People are not simply black and white, but also line the many shades of gray in between.
The title of the novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit demands an explanation that can only offered through analyzing the many appearance of oranges in the story. On the broadest level, these oranges represent the dominant ideology that pervades the world in which Jeanette lives. Whenever Jeanette feels uncertain about something, her mother offers her oranges. In some circumstances, these oranges appear to strictly represent heterosexuality. But generally they represent more than just the dominance of heterosexuality; they represent the entire repressive system that Jeanette's mother espouses. When Jeanette sees Melanie after their relationship has ended, Melanie offers her an orange but Jeanette refuses to take it. Her refusal represents her refusal to succumb to the ideas of the status quo as has Melanie. Jeanette wants to remain true to her own principles and decides to head out into the world, but refuses to ever sell oranges. Throughout the entire book, Jeanette's mother believes that oranges are the only fruit, but Jeanette can see that there are others. Heterosexuality is just one way of living life, but there are many others that should be equally valued.
The presentation of hypocrisy amongst the followers of God appears frequently in Oranges. Nowhere in the novel does the main character ever decide that she is against God. What becomes clear to her as she grows, however, is that her church, like many others, often decides what God believes in ways that the narrator finds to be untrue. Jeanette initially observes that she disagrees the pastor's contention that man was "perfect" before the fall. Later, she will disagree when the church says that same sex love is incorrect and that women should not take responsibility in the church. By the end of the novel, Jeanette still feels closely aligned with God but decides that much of the church's rhetoric is false. In addition, she often observes that the church members broadly preach guidelines but do not follow them sincerely in their hearts. Winterson's commentary upon the subjective nature of stories additionally questions the notion of an accurate interpretation of God's will. In her Deuteronomy chapter, Winterson critiques blind adherence to biblical law by demonstrating that even the contents of a biblical book were shaped by its narrator. Just as the member of Jeanette's church have their own agendas, so too could have these biblical narrators—which affected the things that they wrote.
Images of death and dying constantly surface in Oranges and act as a commentary upon the lugubrious world surrounding Jeanette. Most members of the Society of the Lost live almost like the living dead. They worship ancient rhetoric about a dying martyr and refuse to let their living spirits guide them. Jeanette, on the other hand, nourishes her spirit and represents life. When heading to Melanie's house, she grabs flowers off cemetery graves for her love. The image of these fresh flowers in the midst of such decay points to the contrast between Jeanette's acceptance of her living true self and the lifeless regime that the Society for the Lost promotes. The contrast can be seen again when Jeanette and Katy stay at the guesthouse for the bereaved. The owner of the guesthouse, a Society member, discovers the love affair of Jeanette and Katy during their stay. The subtext of this discovery is that the passion and life present in Katy and Jeanette stood out so much that it was noticed. Ultimately, Jeanette will come to be an attendant at a funeral parlor and will be charged with preparing the dead for their final placement. The irony in Jeanette's position is striking, because she actually she has been helping to care for the living dead throughout her days. Jeanette appears to be one of the few people up for the task.
A "mackintosh" is a British word for a raincoat. Jeanette's mother buys her a one after Jeanette rips hers. The raincoat is too large and a brilliant color pink. Jeanette hates it. This raincoat symbolizes a final attempt by Jeanette's mother to force her into something that she is not. Its pink color suggests the femininity or girliness that Jeanette's mother wants Jeanette to maintain. When Jeanette's mother forces it over Jeanette's head, Jeanette thinks of The Man in the Iron Mask. The main character in that story is confined in prison with a mask over his face for many years. For Jeanette, this pink raincoat symbolizes the ideological mask that her mother is trying to keep on her; it requires that Jeanette become a heterosexual and follow her mother's ideas. After Jeanette leaves the store, she feels nauseous because of the raincoat. Her physical distress arises because Jeanette knows on an unconscious level how little this coat matches who she truly is. Ironically, it is Jeanette's sickness that leads her to look around the marketplace and see Melanie, her first love. Apparently, Jeanette is still able to peer out through her iron mask of a pink raincoat to liberate herself. Her mother's final attempt at symbolic imprisonment no longer works.
The names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are used twice in the novel, once for the three white mice Elsie Norris places in the painted fiery box, once for the sorcerer's three ravens. The names come from the biblical book of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego worked for King Nebuccanezzar during the period that the Jews were in exile. One day, the King ordered them to pay homage to a golden religious idol, but the three men refused because they were devout Jews. For their disobedience, the King cast them into a fiery furnace. The three men, however, did not die because God rewarded their faithfulness. When the King looked in the furnace, he saw them alive with a creature that appeared to be an angel. The King freed the men, promoted them, and praised the greatness of their God.
The martyrdom and eventual success of these three men mirror that of Jeanette. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jeanette refuses to pay homage to an idol, or actually an "ideal"—that of homosexuality. For her disobedience, her church members punish her in various ways. Despite these hardships, Jeanette does not die. It is her faith in her own interpretation of God that will save her. Jeanette's unwillingness to grovel beneath religious ideas that appear idolatrous to her, such as homophobic notions in the church, brings her final salvation. This metaphor contain a scathing commentary upon Jeanette's church by suggesting that through their misunderstanding of the word of God they are actually going against his ways. Nevertheless, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego testifies to the way that the faithful will be protected in the midst of persecution. Just as it worked for these three men, so too will it work for Jeanette. She too will become freed and promoted in society, with the greatness of her version religion recognized.
The stone pebble has a dual yet interconnected meaning in the novel. At first, the pebble appears to be a possible weapon. The orange demon throws it to Jeanette after her fantasy about the Forbidden City, a location in which a stone could kill a person. Because of the power of a stone in Jeanette's fantasy, the pebble initially appears to be a tool that could help Jeanette conquer her enemies, whether they be her mother, or her church members. When the pebble appears the second time, the raven Abednego coughs it up (it represents his heart) to keep Winnet Stonejar (Jeanette's mythical alter ego) safe. Here the pebble becomes a talisman that evokes the fable of Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel used pebbles when they went into the forest so that they could find their way home. The pebble from the raven also helps to guide Jeanette/Winnet toward her home— which ultimately is her true self. The pebble will stay with Winnet as she wanders through the forest and eventually makes it to the city. In the end, the pebble will become both a weapon and a way home. Jeanette finds her true self through her writing. In the act of creating her novel, she is liberating her self. In the act of writing a novel, Jeanette is also able to fight against the oppression that she suffered in her years. The pebble has both guided her home and allowed her to fight.