Why does Elena like Eugene in "American History"?

Elena likes Eugene in “American History” because he's so different and exotic. With his blond hair and Southern accent, he's not the kind of boy that Elena is used to meeting in her daily life. The fact that he likes reading books is an added bonus.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the beginning of the story, Elena confesses that her only “source of beauty and light” that academic year was Eugene.

Eugene’s family moves into a house neighboring Elena’s apartment in August. The previous occupants of the house were an old Jewish couple that Elena feels quite close to, as she often liked to observe their daily movements from a window and a spot on the fire escape in the El Building, where she and her family live. Therefore, when Eugene’s family moves into the house, Elena naturally begins to observe their movements, too.

She likes Eugene because he likes to read his books at the kitchen table for hours. Elena herself likes to read books from the spot on the fire escape; thus, it could be that she identifies with Eugene’s love for books. She says that “she kept him company on the fire escape” that summer, even without him knowing it. Moreover, both of them are studious; after they become acquainted, they choose to walk home every day together and even pick books to read from the school library together.

Although the two teenagers have a lot in common, they come from two different backgrounds. She is Puerto Rican, while he is not. Her mother warns her about being close with Eugene, but she ignores her. She believes that their commonalities downplay their differences. Towards the end of the story, Elena understands her mother’s concerns when Eugene’s mother refuses to let her study with Eugene in their beautiful two-story house.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Elena's instinctively drawn towards Eugene because he represents a breath of fresh air in her stale little world. Eugene is different from all the boys at school, both in his appearance (he has blond hair) and in the way he talks (he has a distinctive Southern accent). Elena's simply not used to this; there's something almost exotic about the new boy in her life. This is because she's grown up in an exclusively Puerto Rican apartment block colloquially known as "El Building," and so she's not used to seeing someone like Eugene.

For good measure, Eugene also shares Elena's love of reading, which again is not something that many boys of her age possess. It is this common interest that provides Elena with an opportunity to pursue a relationship with the new boy in school. Otherwise, she might not have plucked up the courage to approach him.

Unfortunately, Elena proves to be too exotic for Eugene's mom, who won't allow Elena into her house to study with her son. Although she doesn't come right out and say it, it's clear that she's motivated by prejudice towards Elena on account of her being Puerto Rican. What for Elena was something that attracted her to Eugene—their difference in backgrounds—is perceived as a threat by Eugene's prejudiced mom.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Elena—or "Skinny Bones" as the bullies at school call her—feels a kinship with Eugene because he reads, as she does. Elena is a straight A student, but is held back by the prejudice of the school from the higher classes. She is not allowed to demonstrate her knowledge. Eugene is a reader like herself and lives in her favorite house—so she naturally seeks him out. When she does, although she fears rejection and is even prepared for it, she finds someone with whom she can share her ideas, her knowledge, and her dreams. Eugene is naturally shy and quiet, so he likes to listen. Elena is outgoing, but she has no one who will listen to her. It's the perfect friendship, made stronger by the fact that they are both isolated and alone in their community.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are a couple of reasons that Elena likes Eugene. First, he lives in the house next to her tenement building and is living the life that she wants. She dreams of sitting at the kitchen table in his house to read and to eat like the older couple who lived there before. She dreams of a time when she can have a backyard to lounge in and soak up the sun; so, becoming his friend might give her access to realizing those dreams. But it's not just his house that entices her to befriend Eugene. Elena also doesn't have any friends at Public School Number 13. The majority of students at school are African American and they tease her for being Puerto Rican. She hopes that making a friend of the new boy might give her some happiness and joy at school, too. Elena even says the following:

"There was only one source of beauty and light for me that school year--the only thing I had anticipated at the start of the semester. That was seeing Eugene . . . I liked him right away because he sat at the kitchen table and read books for hours."

Elena therefore likes Eugene because he represents a new opportunity for her to have a friend at school, he likes to read books at his kitchen table, and he was living her dream.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial