‘‘Oranges’’ begins with a narrator looking back at his childhood. He remembers a particular experience of walking side by side with a girl. All that readers know about the two characters in this poem is that he is twelve years old at the time of its events, and that she is presumably twelve or near that. When the poem begins, the narrator is alone, having not reached the girl’s house yet.
In the third and fourth lines, the speaker introduces the oranges that are referred to in the title of the poem. There are two of them, and the boy is on his way to pick up his date, so readers might infer that he means to share the oranges with the girl. They are not represented here as something positive, though, but rather as a burden. In addition, he allows his focus to stray from the poem’s main situation, his first experience with a girl, and instead makes a point of dwelling on the cold weather.
Lines 5 through 7 offer readers a graphic, sensory description of the cold of the day that had been referred to earlier. Soto’s description of frost on the ground and breath condensing as it is exhaled indicates that it may have been an unusual cold snap, as most of his poems are autobiographical and take place in Fresno, California, where he grew up: the average temperature in Fresno barely touches the freezing mark at night in December. The fact that the weather was strangely colder than usual could account in part for the prominent place it has in the speaker’s memory.
Lines 8 through 12 show the young protagonist approaching the house of the girl he is to go walking with. Though he has never been out with her before, he knows her house well, having looked at it in the night and in the day, familiar with the porch light that burns continuously. Almost as foreboding as the cold weather is the fact that her dog barks at the boy; readers can assume that the barking dog is hers because she comes out of the house in response to its noise, with no mention of the boy knocking or ringing a doorbell.
The fact that this is no casual meeting, but a prearranged date, is indicated in line 13 by the fact that the girl comes to the boy when she sees him. The fact that it is a date is implied in line 15 by the fact that she has taken the time to apply makeup to her face, wanting to make herself look appealing. She has a bright, happy face, and he smiles, and in line 16 the narrator makes a point of mentioning that he touched her on the shoulder, a significant enough gesture to mention, though nothing is made of it.
Lines 17 through 21 describe the neighborhood that they walk through together. It is a commercial area that has a used car lot that twelve-year-olds would feel comfortable cutting through, and it is a conscientious enough community to have recently planted new trees in an effort toward civic beautification.
In lines 22 through 24, the poem describes the feel of the old time drugstore that they enter. The bell rings when the door is opened so that whoever is working there, involved in other things, can know when a customer has entered the shop. The saleslady is a matronly woman who approaches her customers with individual care and attention. The narrow aisles indicate an emphasis on stocking products, without the kind of savvy attention to customer psychology that goes into organizing modern shops.
The boy’s grand gesture in lines 25 through 27 is obviously the fulfillment of what he has been planning all along. He gestures to the candy display, offering to buy whichever candy she picks.
Though it is never explicitly addressed, readers can infer that these two young people live in poverty. For one thing, the girl reacts with glee to an offer of a candy bar in lines 28 through 30, implying that she does not have much chance to purchase any candy for herself. The most obvious indicator of their depressed situation, however, is the fact that the boy does not even have the price of a candy bar in his pocket; he only has a nickel, while the candy bar she chooses costs a dime (lines 31–33).
In lines 34 through 38, the boy quickly thinks of a way to deal with the embarrassing situation of having offered to buy the girl a candy bar but not having enough to pay for it. He does not object, or draw attention to his poverty. Instead, he approaches the woman who is running the store and silently offers her a deal, offering her half of the price of the candy and one of the two oranges that he brought along to share with the girl.
One of the most significant actions in this poem occurs in lines 38 through 43. The boy and the saleslady establish eye contact across the candy bar, nickel, and orange that he has put on the counter. From the look in his eyes, she can tell why he is not offering her the correct price of the candy he wishes to buy, and why it is so very important to him to buy that candy without being embarrassed. Soto does not even bother to tell readers that the woman allowed him to pay half the price of the candy with an orange, leaving readers instead to understand that his offer has been accepted from the empathy that develops between the boy and the salesclerk.
The second stanza starts on line 43 with one word, indented, to give readers a sense that more than the setting has changed: the mood of the poem has changed, too, as the boy and the girl have reached a new point in their relationship, with a new closeness. While the first stanza emphasized the coldness outside when the boy was walking alone, the descriptions in the second stanza, lines 44–46, show that the day has warmed a little bit: the hiss of the cars as they pass on the street shows that the frost that once crunched beneath the boy’s feet has melted, and the fog that hangs in the air would not be possible if the weather were below freezing.
In lines 47 and 48, the boy takes hold of the girl’s hand. She does not object, but still he does not hold it for long, letting go in line 49 after only two blocks. He knows that she accepts him, but that the chocolate that he has bought her is very important to her as well.
The last six lines of the poem, lines 51–56, contain an extended description of the orange that the boy peels as the girl is unwrapping her chocolate bar. Soto does not explicitly describe what makes it so special; that much is made clear through the events that preceded this moment, with the boy bringing an orange for the girl he likes and the salesclerk accepting the orange as payment. Instead, the poem leaves reader with a visual image. The brightness of the orange is contrasted with the grayness of the dark, cool day, and then it is described as looking from afar like a fire in the boy’s hand. Since the connotations of fire, in this context, are all positive, readers are left feeling that the boy’s outing with the girl has warmed and enlightened him, and that the one orange left is an emblem of the special feeling that came over him that day.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Gary Soto, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009