These musical lines appear early in "Oranges," as the speaker makes his way to the girl's house for their first date. The lines are packed with imagery that brings the winter day to life: the boy is "cold," the frost "crack[s]" under his feet, and he can see his breath in front of him in the air. The onomatopoeia that comes with "cracking" gives us a sensory description of the boy's walk. The "oranges" in his pockets are shielded from the cold weather outside.
This moment helps to build the scene of the first date. The weather emphasizes the importance of the moment—the boy and the girl are going on on a walk despite the cold—as well as the awkwardness between the boy and the girl. Throughout the date, the speaker and the girl don't say anything to each other, and instead the landscape around them takes center stage.
These lines also help to set the mood of the poem. The short lines, paired with the cold scene that is described, makes the mood somber and nostalgic. The description of the speaker's visible breath, which is "before [him], then gone" communicates the fleetingness of adolescence as well as the speaker's power within this scene. The speaker acts upon the natural world, stepping on the frost and emitting his warm breath into the air, but the power of the cold setting prevails.
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
In these lines, the speaker has finally made it to the girl's house. As soon as he gets there, the girl goes out to join him. She is in the process of pulling on her gloves, which insulate her hands from the cold weather. Her face is "bright with rouge," which suggests that she has put on makeup in preparation for her date. The redness of the girl's cheeks contrasts with the gray weather outside, bringing life into the scene. In the lines before this passage, the speaker is coming alone, and the only objects that have a bright color, the oranges, are hidden inside his pockets. The girl's red cheeks, therefore, communicate a shift in the poem, as the speaker is no longer alone and their date can commence. It is a moment of movement and a moment of change.
Some readers might think that a young girl putting rouge on her cheeks is uncharacteristic for someone of that age. That the girl wears makeup suggests that the boy and the girl are reinforcing traditional gender roles during their date. It also communicates the newness of their encounter—the girl's face is not completely done up with makeup. Instead, she has merely put rouge on her cheeks, which is a nod towards what may come in the future, once she is a full-grown adult.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them
These lines portray the moment of recognition between the speaker and the saleslady inside the drugstore. Even though no words are said, the moment is emotionally charged. The boy uses body language to show his intention: he places the nickel and the orange on the counter with his gaze downturned. Similarly, the lady uses body language to relay her response to him: "the lady's eyes met mine, / and held them." A moment of understanding passes between the boy and the saleslady that transcends the normal social boundaries that normally separate two strangers in a financial transaction. Instead of asserting her power as an adult or as the proprietor of the store, the saleslady answers the boy's wordless request with a moment of generosity that does not actually appear in the lines of the poem. Once she sees the boy's need, the boy and girl leave the store, and it is not until halfway through the second stanza that it is revealed that she sold the boy the candy bar.
In a sense, the boy's nickel and orange are a code meant only for her. The saleslady deftly decodes it, and responds with generosity. This moment of wordless communication is powerful in a poem that is bereft of spoken language. In the same way that the boy communicates with the girl through touches, he communicates his need to the saleslady through his body language and actions. His silence is a sign of humility and subservience, which gives us more insight into the speaker's character. The saleslady's response is to "hold" the boy's gaze in a moment of nurturing, as if she were holding him in her arms.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.
In these final lines, the boy finally eats one of his oranges. The bright color of the fruit contrasts with the gray coldness of his surroundings, looking as if a fire were being created in his hands. Here, there is a double contrast between the gray setting and the bright fruit, and the cold weather and the perceived warmth from the fire in the final line. These contrasts communicate the tension between the awkwardness of the first date and its successful conclusion, when both the boy and the girl are happy. It seems as if, in the final lines of the poem, the boy has overcome all the obstacles in his path when setting out for his first date: the cold weather, his nervousness, his lack of money to buy the girl the chocolate that she wants, and the awkwardness between them.
As a result, the boy feels a sense of victory and power. This feeling suggests that the boy has come of age in an important way. As David Kelly argues in his critical essay on "Oranges," this moment suggests that the boy has learned an important lesson: "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." Of course, one of the first advances that ancient humans made was the discovery of fire, which allowed them to begin building civilization. By seemingly holding fire in his hands, the boy has tapped into this ancient advancement, which teaches him something about humanity and survival.
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....