Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) is a memoir written by Jeanette Winterson. The novel is considered to be a more factual follow-on to her hugely successful, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) which was part fiction, part non-fiction and part fable.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal

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Table of contents

    A fable is a myth or parable that often has a moral lesson or theme.

    Sensitive content alert. This article contains themes including discrimination, abuse and suicide that may affect some readers.

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

    Jeanette Winterton was born in August 1959 in the city of Manchester. Her mother was unable to support her, so in 1960 her adoptive parents, Constance and John Winterson, moved her to their home in Lancashire. Both of her parents were Pentecostal Christians, but her mother was especially religious and raised Jeanette to fulfil her own dream of becoming a missionary.

    Pentecostal Christianity is a variation of Evangelical Protestantism. There are many different types of this religion, but they are usually characterised by the firm belief that the Bible can be interpreted literally, including the book of Genesis.

    Most Pentecostal Christian religions condemn homosexual or lesbian relationships.

    As a teenager, Winterson’s emerging lesbian sexuality caused a backlash in her conservative Pentecostal Christian environment. Her mother organised for her to go through an extensive exorcism after discovering Winterson’s relationship with another girl in her church. At 16, she chose to leave home to freely express her sexual identity without condemnation.

    Despite her tumultuous upbringing, Winterson graduated from St Catherine's College, Oxford, with a degree in English Literature. She then moved to London to work for a publishing house, Pandora Press. Her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize.

    During the 1990s, Winterson’s works were less successful, and her public image was sometimes controversial. The publication of her second, more factual autobiography, Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy, was considered a return to her earlier promise and won a Lambda Literary Award. Outside of her novels, she has written British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award-winning screenplays, essays, and poetry.

    Winterson was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2016 and awarded a CBE in 2018.

    She is currently divorced from her ex-wife Susie Orbach and a tenured professor at Manchester University.

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? chapter summary

    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? is a memoir. Relaying the story of Winterson’s upbringing from early childhood until her early career, it is a more in-depth, more factual version of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

    A memoir is a type of autobiography that only includes the details of the author's life up until young adulthood.

    At the age of six months old, Winterson is adopted by a religious, working-class couple who are unable or unwilling to have their own children. The reason is never mentioned directly. Mr and Mrs Winterson are outwardly respectable, but due to their religious extremism, the realities of life in their two-up, two-down home are less so. Winterson’s mother initially raises her within the Pentecostal Christian faith but already shows abusive tendencies fairly early on.

    She does not permit Winterson to be given free school lunches, meaning she often went without. Mrs Winterson, as Winterson refers to her mother, also distrusted secular books, so she burns any novels she finds in the house. Instances of being locked in the outside coal shed or out of the house until nighttime are described to further illustrate the type of cruelty that Winterson grew up with.

    As her LGBQT+ sexual preferences become more apparent and a three-day exorcism doesn't succeed in converting her to heterosexuality, Winterson’s parents become increasingly abusive.

    Exorcisms are an ancient religious or spiritual practice found around the world. Typically the purpose of an exorcism is to purge a person who has been taken over or possessed by evil spirits or demons.

    Traditionally, in Christianity, the person being exorcised was not viewed as evil, just possessed. The exorcisms were not supposed to be a punishment. The original intention was to cure the person who was believed to be unwillingly taken over by demons.

    When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, The Devil led us to the wrong crib. (Chapter 1)

    Winterson describes how both of her parents hit her. Eventually, at the age of sixteen, she is given the choice to leave home or give up her preference for other women. This is a key scene, which led to a comment from Mrs Winterson that became the title of the novel. Winterson describes trying to explain her lesbian relationship to her mother, who will not accept it.1

    After leaving home, Winterson works odd jobs, lives in a friend’s Mini for a while and then gets the help of a kindly, widowed English teacher. The teacher, Mrs Ratlow, tutors her for her Oxford exams, organising another opportunity when her first interview goes badly.

    Winterson relays how she is described as 'the working-class experiment' but goes on to earn her degree. The memoir then jumps forward almost 25 years to 2007. Winterson’s then-current relationship is ending, and she admits to hitting all of her partners. At a similar time, she discovers that she is adopted and has an emotional and mental breakdown, attempting suicide. Winterson survives the suicide attempt and goes on to track down her birth mother. She also discovers that she has a half-brother and an extended family, who she can get to know.

    The book, while not having a completely happy ending, is concluded with the thought:

    I would rather be this me—the me that I have become—than the me I might have become without books, without education, and without all the things that have happened to me along the way. (Chapter 15)

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? analysis

    Winterson has said that:

    Part fact, part fiction is what life is.2

    This is an interesting insight into her approach to the original story of her upbringing, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which combined fiction with fable and non-fiction. As a memoir and not a novel, Why be Happy When You Can Be Normal? leans more towards fact than fiction. Let's look at some literary devices used in this version of Winterson's life story.

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? symbolism

    Winterson makes use of symbolism in her memoir that is useful to understand for further insight into what she is trying to communicate to the reader.

    Jack and the Beanstalk

    A key symbol used in the memoir is that of the fairy tale 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. Winterson uses the beanstalk as both a symbol and a metaphor. In the fairy tale, the beanstalk gets Jack access to the Giant’s world, but he is also forced to cut it down to save himself from the Giant. Well, after making off with a golden hen, a bag of money and a singing harp.

    This appropriation ties into a common theme in Winterson’s work, that of the underdog competing against the odds. As with the story of Jack, she infers that the reality is that it is possible to make off with elements of other worlds but ultimately, the beanstalk connecting the two needs to be chopped down.

    The Royal Albert China Tea Set

    Mrs Winterson is depicted as a deeply unhappy woman who is in many ways quite spartan. She does not permit much excess in her life or Winterson’s – apart from what many would refer to as religious excess. In contrast, is her Royal Albert china tea set. This symbol of the English middle classes is kept in a glass cabinet and never used. The tea set is a multi-faceted symbol of Mrs Winterson’s unattainable happiness, her aspirations, and her need to deny pleasure or enjoyment in her life and the lives of others.

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? themes

    There are several themes in this memoir, but perhaps the main theme involves dysfunctional families and the effects that they have on the people who are part of these systems. Children and young adults, as Winterson depicts, are often the ones that suffer the most in these dysfunctional situations. Tied to this key theme is the theme of hyper-religious hypocrisy.

    To the Wintersons, their abuse, both physical and emotional, is seemingly justified by their religious beliefs. Most Pentecostal religions have doctrinal statements that overtly condemn homosexuality. However, Mrs Winterson also bakes all night, so she doesn’t have to sleep in the same bed as her husband. It would be difficult to describe their marriage as an example of a successful heterosexual union.

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: characters

    Really, this is a novel with two central characters, Mrs Winterson and Jeanette Winterson, the author. Let's look at them in a little more detail:

    Mrs Winterson

    A hyper-religious woman, she either cannot or will not have her own children, so she adopts Jeanette Winterson. She is depicted as unhappy, abusive and extremely controlling. Her influence on Winterson’s life far outweighs that of Mr Winterson, who is defined by his relative absence.

    Jeanette Winterson

    Winterson is an LGBTQ+ character and narrator, trying to find an identity within a mostly hostile environment that condemns her sexuality. Her relationship with her adopted mother is complex and enmeshed. Despite the abuse and its lasting effects on her, as well as finding her more accepting birth mother, Winterson still said:

    She was a monster, but she was my monster.'3

    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal - Key takeaways

    • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a memoir written by LGBQT+ author and poet Jeanette Winterson.
    • It is considered to be the more factual version of her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.
    • The memoir makes use of symbolism such as the fairy tale of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the Royal Albert china tea set.
    • Key themes include dysfunctional families and hyper-religious hypocrisy.
    • The memoir won a Lambda Literary Award.

    1. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The Spectator. 2011

    2 Part Fact, Part Fiction Is What Life Is. Slate. 2012.

    3. On A Path To Salvation, Jane Austen As A Guide. New York Times. 2012.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal

    What is a synopsis for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir written by Jeanette Winterson about her childhood and early adult life. It depicts the struggles of a lesbian woman growing up in a hyper-religious and abusive environment.

    How many pages are in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    This depends on the edition but a popular edition has 240 pages.

    When was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? published?


    Who wrote Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    Jeanette Winterson.

    What are some key themes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    There are many themes but two important ones are considered to be dysfunctional families and hyper-religious hypocrisy.

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