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Symbolic citrus

| Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mary O'Reilly

Orange. A color, a rhymeless word (although Eminem would disagree) and a fruit that can be found at your local supermarket. To most people, the orange is just citrus from the produce section, but to authors and artists, it is a symbol of wealth.

From literature to Renaissance paintings, artists have made use of oranges to symbolize ambition and luxury. Following the advent of America, the orange would go on to represent the “American dream” and everything the nation had to offer — the most overt example of this being in The Great Gatsby,” its titular figure having “five crates of oranges and lemons [shipped every Friday] from a fruiterer in New York.”

But when did oranges become emblematic of wealth and success? Oranges were first cultivated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago in modern-day India and China. When European colonists travelled to the East, they were captivated by this foreign, unfamiliar fruit and brought it back with them.

The colonization of America brought oranges to the southern shores of Florida in the 1500s; from there, the fruit would come to symbolize the ethos of ambition that has dominated the U.S. ever since its inception. This can be seen in “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the Michael Chabon novel which tells the story of Jewish cousins whose Nazi butt-kicking heroes make them moguls in the comics industry. The comic writers’ boss, Anapol, offers them an orange he brought back from his vacation in Miami Beach. Later, while on the subway, Joe Kavalier takes “the orange that Anapol had given him [out of his pocket]. It was big and smooth and perfectly spherical, and oranger than anything Joe had ever seen. No doubt it would have seemed a prodigy in Prague, monstrous and illicit.”

In the 1940s, when the book is set, the bright and rich tone of the fruit elicits the warmth of the sunshine state and embodies the American Dream that immigrants such as Joe Kavalier hope to achieve. Furthermore, the image of the orange stands in stark contrast with the suffering and famine that have plagued Joe’s Jewish relatives in Europe during World War II — its foreign nature symbolizes all that America has to offer.

While oranges have become easily available in all developed countries in the 21st century — including in Kavalier’s home country of Prague — the fruit has nonetheless maintained its identity as a symbol of wealth, primarily due to its abundance (and the abundance of fruits in general) in affluent nations like America. In HBO’s critically acclaimed drama, “Succession” a show centered around the greed and avarice that has corrupted American society — oranges sit on the front of Kendall Roy’s desk, serving as mere office decor.

In my home, fruit fills the fridge and decorates our kitchen countertop. These are not just the apples of rural Pennsylvania, but fruits from all corners of the globe: mangoes, raspberries, papayas and, of course, oranges. The majority of these fruits will eventually perish and grow rotten. Even still, my mother will go to the supermarket and buy more pieces of fruit, hoping that someone will eat them but inevitably throwing most of it away.

This fruit, once a sign of wealth and cherished for its rarity and exotic allure, now often rots in thousands of homes in America and Europe while still being sought after in countries less fortunate. Even in the 21st century, an orange (fruit in general, really) is still considered a symbol of wealth, drawing a line in the sand between those who have and those who have not.

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