Coming of Age
‘‘Oranges’’ is the story of a twelve-year-old boy who is crossing an emotional threshold and entering into a new period of his life, facing things that he has never encountered before. This is made clear in the first few words of the poem. The fact that he has never walked with a girl until the events related here indicates to readers that they are about to witness something that will change his life. In doing something for the first time ever, especially in entering into his first adult relationship, the boy is gaining some aspect of maturity.
A literary work about a young person who is entering into a phase of adulthood that he or she has never experienced before is referred to as a coming-of-age story. Such tales often end with the protagonist losing his or her idealism, though as ‘‘Oranges’’ shows, this is not always the case. In this poem, the narrator does pass over from being inexperienced with the opposite sex to feeling comfortable in a relationship with a girl. He does not acquire the cynicism that is often associated with a loss of innocence. If anything, the way that his walk with the girl turns out makes the boy more trusting of life and its possibilities than he was before. Though writers often use coming-of-age stories to introduce characters to the crushing responsibilities of adulthood, Soto uses ‘‘Oranges’’ to show that growing and learning can lead to a sense of wonder.
Symbolism / Empathy
The dramatic tension of this story derives from the fact that the boy finds his desires in conflict with his means. He wants to impress the girl by buying her whatever she wants, but the chocolate she chooses costs twice what he can afford. It is a situation that could end tragically, leaving the boy humiliated and cynical about women, but instead Soto shows the boy making a tacit agreement with the woman he is supposed to pay, offering her an orange for half the price of the candy bar. No words pass between them about this deal. He does not have to explain his situation; it is clear. She sees the young people together and she knows what the boy is trying to do when he buys the candy bar, just as she knows, from the fact that he has done what he can to make up the missing money with what he does have—an orange—that he does not want to cheat the store.
She is able to understand how he feels so thoroughly that she falls into an unspoken conspiracy with him, helping him keep the girl unaware that her choice of candy is a burden to him. Soto shows that empathy, the ability to understand the emotions of another person, is one of the most important human emotions by using symbolism. The title of the poem is ‘‘Oranges’’; one orange is used at the end to show that the boy has a newfound sense of warmth; the other orange is left with the woman at the drugstore, not as a substitute for cash as much as a way of giving her something truly good in thanks for her understanding.
In this poem, Soto makes a subtle comment on the different economic values that are held by people living in the same community. The boy, who is presumably from a poor background if he cannot easily afford a candy bar, arrives for his walk with the girl with two oranges in his pocket, which he must intend to share with her. His plan fails, however, when she does not want the natural, available fruit that he has, but instead finds that the manufactured, packaged chocolate on the store shelf has more appeal.
Soto does not use the girl’s choice to indicate that she is wrong to be swayed by the consumer product. In fact, the girl does not have a choice at all: the boy does not offer her one of the oranges before trying to impress her by offering her pick from the candy counter. By doing so, he is implicitly saying that the products on the candy shelf must necessarily be more impressive than the orange that he brought for her. From the way that the girl lights up at his offer of candy, it is likely that she comes from a family that is just as impoverished as his, making the store-bought product more alluring than the oranges that grow commonly around Soto’s native San Joaquin Valley.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Gary Soto, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009