Stanza I opens with the speaker looking back on his childhood. He recounts the story of the first time he walked with a girl, when he was twelve years old. He brings us into the sensory experience of this moment, noting that he is cold and carries two oranges in his pockets. It is December; frost cracks beneath his feet and he can see his breath in front of him. The speaker reveals he is walking towards the girl's house, which stands out because its yellow porch light glows 24/7.
Once the speaker arrives at the girl's house, a dog barks at him. The girl quickly joins him on the sidewalk, and the speaker notes that she is pulling on a pair of gloves and her cheeks are red with rouge. As a greeting, the speaker touches her shoulder and leads her down the street. They pass a used car lot and some newly planted trees towards a drugstore. They enter the store.
Inside the drugstore, a saleslady greets them. The speaker turns to the candy aisle in the store and tells the girl to pick out whatever she wants. In response, the girl's face lights up in a smile, and picks out a chocolate.
The speaker tells us that the girl's chocolate costs a dime but that he only has a nickel in his pocket. He does not say anything to the girl, though, and instead wordlessly places his nickel and one of his oranges on the counter with a downturned gaze. When he looks up at the saleslady, she catches his gaze, and a moment of understanding passes between them: "The lady's eyes met mine, / And held them, knowing / Very well what it was all / About," (39-42).
In Stanza II, the speaker and his love interest are back on the street, watching cars whiz past. The fog hangs heavy in the air. The speaker and his beloved hold hands for two blocks until he lets her hand go so that she can unwrap her candy bar. While the girl eats the chocolate, the speaker peels his orange. He notices that it is so bright against the winter landscape that someone standing very far away might think that he is holding a fire in his hands.
"Oranges" tells the story of two young lovers on their first date, which is a walk to a drugstore in their neighborhood on a cold December day. Instead of focusing on the characters' thoughts or emotions, the poem instead places emphasis on the outside world. The winter landscape, in fact, takes center stage. There are countless details that build the winter scene: the speaker is "cold" (3), "frost crack[s] / beneath his steps" (5-6), his breath is visible (6-7), the beloved is wearing winter "gloves" (14), the "fog hang[s] like old / coats between the trees" (44-5), and the speaker's orange stands out against "the gray of December" (52). In "Soto's Oranges," Julianne White notes how the descriptive language in the first few lines "emphasize[s] the chill of the weather, mimicking the sound of walking on snow."
While winter imagery prevails throughout the poem there are several bright images that contrast with the bleak setting. The first warm image is the girl's home, where a yellow porch light is constantly glowing: "Her house, the one whose / Porch light burned yellow / Night and day, in any weather" (9-11). When the girl first leaves her home, her cheeks are "bright / With rouge" (14-5). In the store after the speaker offers her any candy she would like, he notices a "light in her eyes" (28). Finally, when the speaker peels his orange after the successful transaction at the drugstore, the brilliantly-colored orange stands out against the cold landscape: "I peeled my orange / That was so bright against / The gray of December / That, from a distance, / Someone might have thought / I was making a fire in my hands" (50-5).
The tension between hot and cold imagery throughout the poem gives us insight into the emotions of the characters. The moments of warmth evoke feelings of excitement or joy which we otherwise would not pick up on in the rest of the poem. The opening image of the poem evokes the speaker's nervousness at the beginning of the poem, while the closing image, which contrasts it greatly, shows his feeling of confidence and self-assuredness after the date has gone well. In this way, the end of the poem communicates the speaker's victory over that which he cannot control—he beats the winter cold with his bright orange, and he wins his sweetheart's affection even though he did not have the funds to buy what she wanted.
"Oranges" contains 55 short lines, each of which is generally only three or four words long. Despite the fact that there is no set rhythm within the poem, the short lines cause the poem to flow quickly, creating a fleeting impression as you read. As White argues in "Soto's Oranges," "the narrative format and the absence of rhythm and rhyme make the poem read more like a short story." As a result, the poem's form reflects this time period in the speaker's life: "the relative short length of the lines, resulting in a visually lengthy poem, reflects the fleeting aspect of adolescence, the period that has passed since the incident in the poem occurred, and how adolescence seems drawn out while one is enduring it, but in reality, disappears all too soon."
The poem's diction and language are simple and straightforward. This creates an objective and conversational tone. You might have noticed that despite the fact that the speaker and the beloved's first date is the context of the poem, the speaker and his love interest do not actually exchange any words. Instead, they communicate through body language. For example, when they first meet up, the speaker smiles and "touche[s] her shoulder" (16). Later, when he tells her to pick out whatever she wants, the girl shows her pleasure with a smile: "Light in her eyes, a smile / Starting at the corners of her mouth" (28-30). Finally, the speaker and his beloved communicate their interest by holding hands, until they release each other's hands to enjoy their respective treats. The coldness of the winter day reflects the sparseness between the speaker and his beloved—their interactions are barren and purely external. There is a sense of awkwardness that prevails between them. As David Kelly argues in his critical essay on "Oranges," the poem's tone communicates the awkwardness between them: "[The speaker's] 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."
Alongside the poem's objective tone, Soto plays with perspective within the poem which keeps the speaker distant from the reader. In the first place, the speaker introduces himself by placing us in his memory: "The first time I walked / With a girl. . ." (1-2). In this way, even though this poem is about an emotionally-charged moment, the perspective of the poem distances us from these emotions. This distance from the speaker extends throughout the poem; we learn nothing about his emotions or thoughts. We don't even hear him say anything out loud. Thus, readers are unable to fully place themselves in the speaker or the girl's shoes. In the final moments of the poem, we are taken far away from the speaker again as he imagines what he would look like from a distant perspective: "I peeled my orange / That was so bright against / The gray of December / That, from a distance, / Someone might have thought / I was making a fire in my hands" (50-5). At this moment, the speaker is well aware of this distanced perspective; we get the sense that as he looks upon this memory he, too feels as if he sees himself from a distance. This is how we often look back on our adolescence as adults; often, our emotions and motivations from our youth seem foreign to us once we are grown.
Like the relationship between the speaker and the girl, no words are exchanged between the speaker and the shopkeeper. For many readers, their encounter at the end of Stanza I is the most compelling moment of the poem. This is because genuine understanding passes between the speaker and the saleslady that transcends any need for spoken language: "When I looked up, / The lady's eyes met mine, / And held them, knowing / Very well what it was all / About," (38-42). Unlike the frosty awkwardness between the speaker and the girl, there is a true connection between the speaker and the saleslady where she sees his need and responds with generosity.
Critic David Kelly suggests that the relationship between the speaker and the saleslady is more powerful than the relationship between the speaker and the girl within the world of the poem. In fact, Kelly confidently asserts that the theme of love is actually completely absent within the poem's 55 lines: "Longing occurs and deals are struck but what does not show up in the poem is love." In fact, Kelly argues that the speaker and the beloved's interaction can be reduced to a simple financial transaction rather than the stirrings of first love: "After [the speaker] 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."
In many ways, the transaction between the speaker and his beloved reinforces traditional gender roles. According to prescribed gender roles, when it comes to heterosexual couples, the male is the "provider" who is meant to financially provide for the girl. He takes the lead during their date, beginning with their first moments together when he "touched her shoulder, and led / Her down the street" (16-7). After he buys her the candy bar that she wants, the girl becomes "my girl" (46, emphasis added) and only releases it to "let" her enjoy her candy (48). As Kelly argues, these moments communicate a kind of relationship between the boy and the girl that has nothing to do with love: "[the speaker's] liking her naturally means 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 towards selfless, shy love that so many readers see when they read his work, and the other leads toward a desire to possess the girl, which seems to be the direction that the boy has already taken."
In Kelly's view, in contrast to this awkward and perhaps transactional connection between the speaker and his beloved, the speaker and the shopkeeper share a genuine connection. Kelly writes, "at the end of the poem the two people left with the oranges are the ones who have found an honest human connection." Ultimately, the moment between the boy and the saleslady communicates something deeper, in Kelly's view, about the human condition: "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."