The upbringings of Jeanette and Celie play a major role in their eventual lesbianism even though the early lives of these two characters couldn’t be more different. Some critics, such as John Mullen, have commented that Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit could be Winterson’s autobiography1, as both the author and her main character share the name ‘Jeanette’, both are adopted into very strict religious families and Winterson also grew up to be a lesbian. Jeanette’s mother, Constance, raises her in an environment that is strongly against sex because of her attitude that it is ‘unholy’.
In one example, they hear the neighbours “fornicating”(P. 52) and her horrified mother begins singing “Ask the Saviour to Help You”(P. 53). She despises sex so much that she adopted Jeanette so she didn’t have to have sex to have a daughter, much like the Virgin Mary in Christianity. Anindita Sengupta calls Jeanette’s mother “a dour, mean-spirited woman who loves God and sees the world in terms of black and white”2, which Jeanette agrees with when she comments “She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies”(P. 3).
Being raised by a passionately religious mother obviously had a huge impact on Jeanette, and she may have turned to homosexuality because she grew up in an environment where sex was completely taboo, and she associated sex with heterosexuality, but not homosexuality. Celie, whose childhood is the complete opposite of Jeanette’s, was brought up in an uneducated family in South America. She is raped and abused by the man she calls ‘father’ at the age of 14, and similar physical abuse is present throughout most of the text, albeit from different males.
Her father calls her “Ugly” (P. s 9 and 10) and “Evil” (P. 5) and tells Mr. ___ that “she tell lies”(P. 10), not only setting up Celie’s hatred of males but also a lack of self confidence. In the 1930s, which is when The Color Purple is set, the Deep South had a strong social hierarchy, with women and black people at the bottom.
Men were seen as the dominant sex, and it was acceptable for men to beat their wives, and even children, as a way to assert authority and possession, which can be seen when Mr. tells Harpo “you have to let ’em know who got the upper hand”(P. 34) and “cause she’s my wife”(P. 22) when Harpo asks his father why he beats Celie, both examples showing the normality of Celie’s physical abuse. Unlike Jeanette, who has a sheltered, secure upbringing, Celie suffers most of her childhood.
Jeanette is brought up with strong beliefs that sex is taboo, but Celie is raped as a teenager and simply told “You better shut up and git used to it”(P. 3), showing the contrasting views on sex between Celie’s father and Jeanette’s mother. Through her sexual abuse, Celie developed strong negative associations with sex and men, which could’ve lead to her assumed lesbianism. Neither Celie nor Jeanette grew up exposed to a stable heterosexual relationship, which could have veered them away from heterosexuality.
Celie’s parents had a very unstable relationship; they showed very little love. Even when her mother was ill, he would be “pulling on her arm”(P. 3), bothering her about having more children when she said twice that she wasn’t well enough to have another child. It’s hinted they had a bad sex life when the father rapes Celie and says “You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t” (P 3). Even when Celie is forced to marry Mr. ___ she is mistreated and abused by him, leading her into the belief that marriage is about loveless suffering. He treats her like dirt and has no respect for her, and because Celie knows no different, she expects this of all heterosexual relationships,