Study Guide

Oranges

by Gary Soto

Oranges Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Soto’s ethnic consciousness, his sense of himself as a Mexican American, permeates but does not impede the multicultural appeal of much of his poetry. By providing a cultural context to many of his poems, Soto enriches the meanings of his poems. While the incident he focuses on in “Oranges” is not particular to Mexican Americans, the predominant symbol in the poem does reflect his childhood and work experiences of picking fruit. Fruits, whether apples, plums, or oranges, become important symbols in some of his poetry. For example, in “Walking with Jackie, Sitting with a Dog,” Soto articulates a couple’s sense of hope for the future and, ultimately, life with oranges: “wequarter an orange . . ./ We lick our fingers and realize/ That with oranges now and plums four months away,/ No one need die.” Again, in “Home Course in Religion,” the young protagonist struggles to survive on a diet of Top Ramen and cold cereal when his girlfriend brings him “a bag of oranges,” which satiate his physical hunger and initiate a sexual encounter that provides him with a life-affirming vitality.

In “Oranges,” oranges symbolize a young boy’s awakening to the power and potential he holds within him. During the young man’s physical journey to meet his girlfriend, he undergoes an emotional, almost spiritual journey within himself. This archetypal journey leads him to an epiphany: He has a life-affirming power within him. The brightness he creates when he peels his orange visually reinforces the spark of love between he and his girlfriend. It is an ordinary, almost banal moment, yet in Soto’s hands it becomes a universal slice of life that is delivered poignantly and poetically.