The poem ‘‘Oranges’’ by Gary Soto is frequently included in anthologies of literature as a sole example of Soto’s writing. Readers praise it, finding it to be pleasant and unchallenging. The assumption that this poem is about a charming courtship between innocent children may be touching, but it does not really respond to the facts given in the poem. ‘‘Oranges’’ does reaffirm the basic goodness of life, but its view of young love finding its way is anything but sweet.
The poem tells readers nothing about its narrator at the start except that he is telling about a time when he was twelve years old. In the story, the boy goes to a girl’s house one December morning to walk with her. The fact that it is just a walk with her, nothing more, is quaint enough without it being something he has never had a chance to do before, and readers are naturally inclined to root for the innocent, nonthreatening child. Though it may be his first romantic experience, the walk together is not spontaneous: the girl is waiting for him wearing makeup, and she runs out to join him on the sidewalk as soon as he has arrived. Soto refers to this as walking together, but it could also be properly called a date.
The boy shows up for his date bearing a humble present: two oranges, presumably one for her and one for himself. Curiously, Soto does not mention any dialog passing between the two children, so readers do not know why their date follows the course that it does. Does he have the idea to go to the drugstore, or does she? Or was it the thing he suggested when he asked her out originally, the premise of their date? The basic foundation of their relationship is left unexplored.
What readers are told is that, arriving at the drugstore, the boy gestures to the candy counter, offering the girl her choice of candies. This causes the poem’s dramatic complication as the girl’s choice is a candy bar that costs twice as much as he has with him. For a moment, humiliation looms, but the boy immediately fixes things by making a deal with the sales lerk without a word passing between them. He puts on the counter a nickel and an orange, and seeing before her a poor young man who is desperate to impress a girl, recognizing his discomfort, realizing that he would not do anything so strange unless he had to, the woman behind the counter chooses to play along and accept his offer without drawing attention to it.
As they walk off together, the girl remains blissfully ignorant of what has just transpired. She holds the boy’s hand for a short while. The poem ends with the boy feeling a sense of power, as if, instead of an orange, he holds fire itself in his hand, warding off the December cold. It is as if he has tapped into one of the basic elements of life, of humanity itself.
In some sense, he really has touched upon one of life’s building blocks because he has, over the course of this poem, learned a great deal about what makes the world go around. The oddity here is that many readers find this poem cute, seeing it as an insignificant story about an awkward young lover. There is a young couple in ‘‘Oranges,’’ but their relationship is hardly romantic. Longing occurs and deals are struck, but what does not show up in the poem is love.
A young, inexperienced boy would know little about love, of course, no matter what he knows about wanting to love—this is what inexperience is all about. His unfamiliarity with what he is doing may explain for readers why everything seems strange to him. Soto captures his uncertainty perfectly in the poem’s removed, objective tone. ‘‘Oranges’’ tracks the events that transpire with focus and clarity, but it never dips below the surface to offer up what the boy thinks about anything, including what he thinks about the girl he is so desperate to impress. Of course he ‘‘likes’’ her—they would not be taking this walk otherwise. His liking her naturally means that he wants her to like him, too, but somewhere beyond the range of the poem, the boy’s desire for the girl has passed a fork in the road. One path leads toward the selfless, shy love that so many readers see when they read this work, and the other leads toward a drive to possess the girl, which seems to be the direction that the boy has actually taken.
What makes the poem seem charming is the boy’s apparent insecurity. He is so desperate for the girl’s esteem that he jumps into a situation and quickly finds himself over his head. It is not prudent of him to offer the girl anything she wants from a candy display that holds items costing more than he can afford. There are innocent explanations available for such fecklessness. It may be that he comes from a life of such poverty that even such a small financial transaction is strange to him, and so he has no idea, when he makes his offer, that the nickel he is holding might not be sufficient. It might seem to him like such a grand amount that it can purchase anything. Or it may be that he assumes for some reason that the girl will understand that his offer of ‘‘anything’’ applies only to the less expensive items. If he operates under some civil code that makes him avoid embarrassing others, he may assume that she understands the same rules. Or it may be that he is so driven and wild in his need to impress her that the reality of his finances just does not cross his young mind.
Whatever it is that compels the boy to make an offer he cannot support, he finds himself suddenly, unexpectedly in the potentially catastrophic position of having to take back his offer, admit his poverty, and tell the girl that she can only have some less expensive candy, if such a thing exists. This would be catastrophic because of the shame he would have to bear, though, in a larger sense, it might be good for their budding romance to test the girl’s patience. If she were to lose interest in the boy after finding out that his finances are limited, she might be someone he would be better off without.
This, after all, raises the seamy aspect of Soto’s poem. The tender romance that it presents is, at its center, based on a successful financial transaction. The boy expects this, but then he is just a frightened and inexperienced child. More discomforting is the fact that the poem itself offers no hint that the boy is naı¨ve in his understanding of relationships. The girl’s affections never do prove any more substantial than the boy’s purchasing power.
Instead of showing that the boy is childish in his nervous desire to be her financial supporter, the poem goes on to verify his expectations. After he provides the girl with her desired chocolate, the poem refers to her in line 47 as ‘‘my’’ girl; after that, the boy takes her hand, but their one affectionate moment is cut short so that she can get to her real interest, her candy. It is the transaction that holds them together, not an emotional connection.
Yet this is not a cynical poem; it is just cynical about romance. There is a true emotional exchange in the poem. The boy starts his walk with two oranges, one for himself and one as a gift for the person he cares about, and at the end of the poem the two people left with the oranges are the ones who have found an honest human connection.
Though readers may be inclined to focus their attentions on the relationship between the young boy and girl, it is the boy’s silent arrangement with the grown woman that really provides this poem’s moral center. Both ‘‘sales’’ and ‘‘lady’’ in the title that Soto gives the clerk serve to make her seem more alien, putting her at arm’s length from the couple at the center of the poem. The poem sets her up as a bit player, a functionary, a prop who is no more important to the story than the used car lot or the tiered candy display, but she ends up providing the poem’s one big surprise and its one big emotional moment.
In recognizing the boy’s dilemma, this cashier stands in for all readers who sympathize with him, acting as readers would like to believe they would act to help out the poor, clueless, longing child. She joins into a conspiracy with him to hide his financial shortcoming. Their conspiracy is not a deal hammered out at the bargaining table, but is instead arranged spontaneously, with one silent glance. This boy’s embarrassing financial situation is a common one: the clerk recognizes it, and she then goes one step further by accepting an orange, a token gesture, for cash, absorbing a financial loss. It may be a small gesture, but it is a much greater tribute to their common humanity than anything that transpires between the boy and the girl. Whether their aloofness is due to their youthful anxiety or the financial exchange at the heart of their relationship is debatable, but one thing is clear: the boy and the girl are joined by a candy bar. The boy’s exchange with the saleslady is based on the sort of recognition that holds the human race together.
It is natural that readers would want to focus their attention on the boy’s discomfort in this poem, finding him endearing in his youthful attempt to impress the girl he desires. But the cuteness, unfortunately, just is not there. The poem shows no bond beyond the candy that the boy gives the girl to buy her affection. This is not the heartwarming tale that many readers want to project onto the events that are actually explained on the page. Even worse, though, is the fact that summarizing this as a ‘‘young romance’’ poem might cause some readers to miss the true wonder that Soto is revealing for them, which is the magical way in which humans of different generations and genders can see themselves in one another and are willing to reach out to help.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Gary Soto, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
David Kelly, Critical Essay on ‘‘Oranges,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.