"Oranges" is narrated by a speaker who is looking back in time at a memory from when he was twelve years old. He is not given a name in the poem and his physical attributes are not described. Instead, the poem focuses on the facts of this memory: the little boy walks down the street, picks up a girl from her house, and they go on a walk together that includes going to a drugstore. He leaves for the walk with two oranges and a nickel in his pocket, though his motive for bringing the oranges is unknown.
We don't know where the boy lives or what his neighborhood is like. Instead of focusing on the particular details of the boy's character, Soto focuses on what is important about this memory: the boy's emotional tenor as he takes a step towards maturity.
Clues from the poem suggest that the little boy is excited about being with the girl and has romantic feelings towards her. When he first sees the girl, he "touche[s] her shoulder" (16). At the drugstore, the boy asks her to pick out what she wants and does not give her a price limit. Later, after they have left the store, the boy holds the girl's hand: "I took my girl's hand / In mine for two blocks" (46-7).
In the end, the speaker comes off as an earnest and gentle twelve-year-old. Though it is not made explicit in the poem, perhaps the shopkeeper accepts the boy's trade because she sees his earnest nervousness in this moment. Either way, he is able to silently convince the saleslady to accept his offer as recompense for the five cent difference between the price of the candy and the money he has.
The girl goes on a walk with the speaker of the poem on a cold December day. We don't know much about her besides the fact that she is roughly the speaker's age, her house's yellow porch-light is turned on 24/7, she goes out to meet the speaker as soon as he arrives at her house, and that she has put rouge on her cheeks in anticipation of their walk. She chooses a chocolate at the candy store, unaware that the boy is unable to pay for it. She seems to be an easygoing character; the boy leads her towards the drugstore early in the poem (16).
The saleslady appears in the second half of the poem, after the speaker and the girl have arrived at the drugstore. We know nothing about this character besides the fact that she is presumably older than the boy and the girl and that she accepts the boy's exchange of a nickel and orange for the chocolate bar. We might assume that she is a conscientious worker due to the promptness with which she makes her way to the front of the store when the boy and girl arrive. We might also assume that she is generous and kind due to the fact that she accepts the speaker's barter. Instead of asserting authority over the boy, kicking him out of her shop, or humiliating him for not having enough money, the saleslady wordlessly reads his intention and accepts his offer.
Many readers admire the saleslady in "Oranges" even though she appears in a scant few lines. This is because she not only accepts the orange from the boy but she also does not draw attention to it, thus saving the boy from embarrassment in front of his date. She intuitively understands the speaker's motivations without a word passing between them and extends compassion towards the boy, which counteracts the coldness of the landscape outside the door.
In his critical essay on "Oranges," David Kelly suggests that the shopkeeper stands for the reader within the world of the poem: "In recognizing the boy's dilemma, the 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."
Oranges Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Oranges is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think the line suggests that the boy knew the store clerk would understand that he did not have enough money for the chocolate that the girl picked. Indeed, the store clerk did understand and accepted the orange as partial payment for the candy....