Upon first reading "Oranges," many readers understand it to be a poem about first love. The poem's situation points to this theme: the speaker, a young boy, is setting out on his first-ever walk with a girl. He notices the girl's physical beauty, including her "face bright / with rouge" (14-5) and the "light in her eyes, a smile / starting at the corners / of her mouth" (28-30).
As a gesture of his interest (perhaps, even, of his budding love for the girl), the speaker takes her to a drugstore and tells her to pick out anything that she wants. She picks a chocolate that costs a dime, but the boy only has a nickel. Nevertheless, he does not say anything to the girl and instead wordlessly barters with the saleslady, offering his nickel and an orange as payment. In this way, he sacrifices one of his oranges for the girl's happiness.
However, David Kelly argues that while "Oranges" seems to be about first love on the surface, the way that love is presented in this poem is actually much more complicated. He argues that though it is evident that the boy likes the girl, the poem does not tell us if love actually buds between these two characters. He writes, "[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 the selfless, shy love that so many readers see when they read this work, and the other leads towards the desire to possess the girl, which seems to be the direction that the boy has actually taken."
In the end, the love that we see within "Oranges" is open to interpretation, in part because of the sparse language the poem contains. Many read the poem and remember their first love, thus imbuing the lines with their own emotions and memories. The speaker becomes a smitten young boy who acts out of the generosity of his heart in order to please the girl. More cynical viewers might believe that the boy merely wants to "possess" the girl and that is why he buys her the chocolate; the interaction between them thus amounting to little more than a financial transaction.
Though the speaker and the girl in "Oranges" are young, they conform to prescribed gender roles in many ways. First, the boy picks up the girl from her house, which matches the pattern of many first dates between a man and a woman. Second, the girl puts rouge on her cheeks in an attempt to make herself more attractive for the young boy.
Throughout their walk, the boy takes control over the situation, which reinforces traditional gender roles between them. When the girl first emerges from her house, the boy "touche[s] her shoulder and [leads]" her down the street (16). At the drugstore, the boy tells her to pick out whatever she wants, thus reinforcing the idea that the man pays for the woman during dates. After the drugstore, the boy seemingly has more power than the girl in their encounter. He takes the girl's hand, who has become "my girl" (46, emphasis added). Later, he "let[s]" her unwrap her chocolate bar to eat it.
In "Soto's Oranges," Julianne White argues that through his encounter with the girl, the speaker is able to "assert his new-found manhood." She notes the examples above, which suggests that the boy "feels a sense of control over the girl, . . . the situation, and his own life."
Kindness extends throughout "Oranges." First, the boy and the girl are kind to each other, as they awkwardly embark on their first date. The boy tries to show the girl a good time by taking her to a drugstore for candy, and the girl goes along with his lead. Most importantly, kindness is conveyed through the saleslady, a complete stranger to the young boy, who understands that the boy is short on money. In this brief encounter, the saleslady wordlessly agrees to accept a nickel and an orange as payment for the girl's chocolate: "I didn't say anything. / 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, knowing / very well what it was all / about" (34-42). Instead of sending the young boy away or calling attention to his lack of complete payment, she implicitly understands his motives and generously accepts his nickel and orange.
The encounter between the shopkeeper and the boy is one of "Oranges"'s most memorable moments. This tender scene shows us an important moment of mercy and a genuine connection between strangers that could have so easily gone the other way. When the boy places the candy on the counter, his gaze is turned downwards, thus wordlessly communicating his embarrassment and shame in this moment. However, the saleslady's "eyes meet" his, and there is no judgment in them, only kindness (39). As Julianne White notes in "Soto's Oranges," this encounter between the saleslady and the boy leads to the overall message of the poem: "Soto's message is a simple one: as adults, we have taken for granted those simple events of childhood that lead us to our maturity, our grace, our sensitivity."
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....