“Oranges” is a free verse narrative poem. This form makes the poem itself seem much more like a story or reflection. The first-person narrative technique lends a personal, intimate tone to the story. It is as if readers are encountering Soto’s adolescence firsthand, with the intimacy and awkwardness entailed therein. Soto does not rely on rhyme to control the flow of the poem; instead, he uses enjambment to impact the speed with which the reader moves through the work. Through the use of enjambment, the sentence and even the meaning of each line carries over into the following lines. This creates a feeling of connectedness in the poem. The poem is driven by a clear central narrative: it becomes evident that the first date takes up the entirety of the poem’s content, and thus there is a sense of cause-and-effect as the date—and poem—unfold.
The only clear break in the poem occurs in line forty-three with the indented word “Outside.” Previously in the piece, Soto does not break the poem into stanzas or sections, even when the characters step into the store from the cold. This is an indicator that something in the poem’s content has changed. Most notably, the shift revolves around the poem’s title, “Oranges.” Right before the break in the piece, Soto’s speaker has given away one of his oranges to make up for the fact that he does not have enough change for the chocolate. Now, after this exchange, the speaker refers to the girl as “my girl” rather than “a girl” or “the girl.” It is implied that this exchange of the orange has facilitated a shift in the speaker’s relationship with the girl. He now has gained the confidence to think of her as being with him. There is something symbolic about the exchange of the orange that pushes this relationship forward, marking a narrative shift.
There are several important symbols within the poem. The most prominent is, as the title suggests, the oranges. Soto’s speaker begins “weighted down” with the two oranges. Here, the oranges can be taken to represent the speaker’s good intentions and innocence. This does not mean that the oranges are holding him back somehow but instead that he is hyperaware of their presence. Considering that this is the speaker’s first date, it makes sense that he feels the “heaviness” or importance of the situation. When the speaker pays with the orange because he does not have enough money, it is another manifestation of his good intentions. He sets the orange “quietly” down, and the woman “held” his gaze. The diction reflects the adolescent tone of the situation. In offering up one of his oranges, the speaker exposes his youthful uncertainty—one that is appropriate for a twelve-year-old. Later on, the speaker begins to peel his orange as the girl eats her chocolate. Though he did not have enough money to purchase a drug store treat for both the girl and himself, he is quite content with the orange. The orange is so “bright” that from a distance, it looked like “a fire in [his] hands.” Observing the way the oranges are treated throughout the poem, and considering that the oranges are its namesake, this is especially significant. These oranges open up possibilities: they are used as currency, the image of fire connotes passion and confidence. It is as if the oranges push the boy and the girl forward, together, much like their youthful good intentions.
Another symbol and motif throughout the poem is the presence of light. Contrasted against the cold winter night, there are many instances of brightness in...
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“Oranges.” In line ten, the girl’s porch light “burned yellow . . . in any weather.” The girl’s face is “bright” as she steps onto the porch. Already, Soto has established the prominence of light; both the girl and her place of residence exude brightness. At the drugstore, the girl has “light in her eyes.” The girl in the poem seems to be a beacon of positivity, as evidenced by the language used to describe her. She, like her porch light, seems to shine in the darkness and in any weather. Thus, per presence directly contributes to the speaker’s feeling of “making a fire in his hands” at the end of the poem.
In “Oranges,” Gary Soto conveys an achingly accurate portrayal of adolescent angst involving a young boy’s first date and first love. As with many of his poems, such as “Home Course in Religion,” “Black Hair,” “The Plum’s Heart,” and “Walking with Jackie, Sitting with a Dog,” Soto relies more on images and the repetition of images—in this poem, oranges—and short, succinct phrases to unify his poem rather than a particular rhyme scheme.
This short narrative poem chronologically follows a twelve-year-old boy’s journey to meet his first date. By using first-person point of view, Soto personalizes this particular experience and establishes an immediate intimacy with his audience, as they recognize the inherent affinity with the subject. The audience experiences the young person’s timidity, apprehension, and sense of joy as he prepares to meet his first date.
With a tone that is more reflective and gentle than in many of his earlier poems, especially those in The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), Soto conveys the poignancy and frailty of first love, articulating this frailty by juxtaposing the warmth and temerity of the young boy’s feelings with the cold, external environment of December. This contrast between humans and nature begins as the boy sets out to meet his date: “frost cracking/ Beneath my steps, my breath/ Before me then gone.” Despite the cold and sometimes harsh environment, it does not impede his quest.
In this somber, bleak setting that is not conducive to love, the young boy seems more vulnerable as he struggles with his own insecurity and doubts. His qualms, however, begin to diminish when he reaches “Her house,” a feeling that is mirrored by his external environment: “a dog barked until/ She came out.” Surrounded with bright images of light, she dispels his fears and insecurity and reinforces his strength and determination to continue. Confidently, he leads her down the street, and they enter the candy store, their destination.
Once inside the candy store, he faces a dilemma bigger than the cold: how to pay for the 10 cent candy she chooses when he only has 5 cents. He reaches inside his pocket, takes out a nickel and one of the oranges he has kept hidden in his jacket, and sets “them quietly on/ The counter.” Stanza 1 ends with the saleswoman’s compliance because she knows “what it was all/ About” and accepts his payment. The saleslady becomes his co-conspirator, allowing the boy to avoid embarrassment, validate his feelings, and complete the special purchase.
With the aid of the saleswoman, the young boy triumphs over the cold harsh environment that mirrors his insecurities and foreshadows his potential embarrassment. His reward: the love of the young girl. The poem concludes simply, poignantly with the innocence and beauty of first love. Through juxtaposition, Soto effectively and convincingly reminds the reader of the impact, innocence, and apprehension of first love.
Soto is at his best when he delves into particular events and universalizes them for the reader in language that is simple and direct rather than abstract and honest rather than pretentious, and it is this structural form that dominates and influences the success of “Oranges.” The language and the form of the poem—brief, succinct lines with very few dashes and commas and even fewer periods—emphasize the brevity of the experience: a moment in time, a brief slice of life. The structural technique that reinforces the brevity of the moment is called enjambment, the process of continuing a thought from one line to the next without stopping or pausing. The form also reinforces the young boy’s apprehension, excitement, and innocence and the purity of the situation. While Soto uses many images to portray the thrill and angst of a first date, the dominant images are those associated with cold and warmth.
From the very first line of the poem, Soto contrasts the pervasive power of the cold, external environment with the vulnerability and warmth of the twelve-year-old boy. It is a cold December day; frost cracks beneath his feet, and “dogs bark,” yet he carries something warm and bright within him as symbolized by the two oranges he secretly keeps hidden and protected from the cold, unfeeling environment.
Because the oranges are not in season, they, too, like the boy’s feelings, are vulnerable to the cold. If taken out and exposed too quickly to the elements, they would wither and lose their warmth. Just as his pocket protects the oranges, so, too, does he guard his feelings for the girl. Therefore, this fruit symbolizes the boy’s latent spirit, his sensitivity, which he has to protect. Unconsciously, the oranges seem to provide him with the strength and warmth to continue on his journey, and prepare him to face his most difficult predicament. If he can overcome the cold and his own feelings of doubt, he can overcome anything.
His fears are assuaged as soon as he sees the young girl’s home. The light on her front porch functions like a beacon: Her “Porch light burned yellow/ Night and day,” perhaps suggesting the potential constancy of her love. As she runs out to greet him, her “face bright/ With rouge, he overcomes his shyness, smiles, “Touche[s] her shoulder” and walks her “down the street” to their destination: the drugstore.
Now assured of her reciprocal feelings from the “Light in her eyes” and the smile on her lips, the young boy unknowingly is ready to face his most serious contest: paying for a piece of candy she wants when he does not have enough money. He overcomes the dilemma by taking a nickel from his pocket, “then an orange,” and placing them “quietly on/ The counter.” Even though the saleslady accepts his offer, realizing the importance of the moment and not wanting to embarrass him, the moment is truly his. He controls the situation; he has reached deep within him, made himself vulnerable, and has triumphed over his fears.
As he leaves the store, he is oblivious to the “cars hissing past” and the “Fog hanging like old/ Coats between the trees.” Now, he takes his “girl’s hand” in his “for two blocks.” He releases it only when she unwraps her chocolate and he peels his orange “That was so bright that.Someone might have thought/ I was making a fire in my hands.” Indeed, the fiery brightness of the orange visually symbolizes the spark of romance that now exists between him and his young girlfriend. The symbol of the orange reinforces the poignancy of the poem: The young boy’s feelings are small and vulnerable and need to be protected against the harshness of the environment. Yet he also now knows he can create fire with nothing but his own hands.
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Cooley, Peter. “I Can Hear You Now.” Parnassus 8, no. 1 (1979): 297-311.
De la Fuentes, Patricia. “Mutability and Stasis: Images of Time in Gary Soto’s Black Hair.” American Review 16 (1988): 188-197.
Murphy, Patricia. “Inventing Lunacy: An Interview with Gary Soto.” Hayden’s Ferry Review 18 (Spring/Summer, 1996): 29-37.
Olivares, Julián. “The Streets of Gary Soto.” Latin American Literary Review 18 (January-June, 1990): 32-49.
Soto, Gary. “The Childhood Worries: Or, Why I Became a Writer.” Iowa Review 25 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 104-115.
Williamson, Alan. “In a Middle Style.” Poetry 135 (March, 1980): 348-354.
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.