Monday, October 15, 2012

After Apple-picking (Part One)

It's autumn now, so we drove the kids out to a farm to sit on bales of hay and look at pumpkins, because you are legally and ethically obligated to do things like that when you have kids.  But while we were picking apples in the orchard, my mind drifted to books, because, come on, what could possibly be more literary than picking apples?  Am I right?

I have been able to live a productive and fruitful life without ever walking into an orchard.  Picking apples from a tree, while a necessary fact of life for generation of humans past, is now a curiosity, something urbanites like myself pay twenty bucks for the privilege of doing.  So I was a little surprised to feel a primal satisfaction in plucking those round things off the trees and dropping them in my bushel.  And I started thinking about the following examples of fruit in literature, and how they often symbolize transgression or sin.  And some of them can get quite racy!

  • The Bible.  Naturally, I started thinking about the book of Genesis and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This story isn't really about apple-picking, of course--it's a metaphor.  And it's useful to know that the word "apple" does not appear in the Bible,  It's only a "fruit"that the first couple takes a bite out of, and the fact that we imagine it as an apple should tell us something meaningful about our imaginations.  And maybe about apples.
  • The Battle of Troy And then there's the judgement of Paris.  As long as we're talking about the apple as a symbol of female temptation and the ruin that follows, don't forget that it was an apple that Paris gave to Helen, the winner of the beauty contest that started the whole mess in Troy.  (Here's Raphael's PG-13 painting of The Three Graces, each of whom is holding an apple.)
  • Fairy Tales Did I just say that apples represent the corruptive power of female temptation?  Well, we should also include the apple in Snow White.  And don't forget the cover of Twilight, which I have never read and can't tell you much about.
If you are reading a book and you see a character eating fruit or berries right off of a tree, you can bet the that character is about to have a fall from grace.  The main character in The Awakening by Kate Chopin picks fruit immediately before meeting the man with whom she will have an affair.  In Something Wicked This Way Comes, the boys are actually high in an apple tree stealing fruit when they spy something shocking in their neighbor's bedroom window.  Esperanza from The House on Mango Street eats berries or something before having her first nightmarish sexual encounter.  Apples are no joke when it comes to fiction.

Outside of apples, though, there is a lot of literary imagery that surrounds the activity of picking other types of fruit, specifically pears.  
  • The Confessions of St. Augustine St. Augustine famously stole from a pear tree when he was a youngster.  He stole them not because he was hungry, but merely for the thrill of doing something sinful.  According to him, "There was no cause for [this] evil but evil itself."  It is an unforgettable moment of spiritual introspection, and it is worth quoting at length:    
In a garden nearby to our vineyard there was a pear tree, loaded with fruit that was desirable neither in appearance nor in taste.  Late one night...a group of very bad youngsters set out to shake down and rob this tree.  We took great loads of fruit from it, not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs; even if we did eat a little of it, we did this to do what pleased us for the reason that it was forbidden.
  • The Canterbury Tales Finally, I could not speak of fruit picking without discussing the pear tree in The Canterbury Tales.  Talk about PG-13!  Let's just say that something bawdy takes place between a woman named Januarie and a man named Damyan in a pear tree.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, you really should read it.  
More about apples tomorrow.  

Sources Cited:

Augustine, The Confessions.  Trans. John Ryan.  New York: Doubleday, 1960. 


  1. I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that this little beauty is in part two...

    1. Ah, how could I forget "Goodbye, Columbus"?