Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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Alberto Ríos explores the relationship between authority and experience in “The Purpose of Altar Boys.” The narrator says that Tonio’s mother was an “authority” because “she was a widow.” As a woman, a mother, and a widow, Tonio’s mother had considerable experience. She was once a virgin, a girl no older than the altar boy. Perhaps an altar boy looked down the top of her white dress. She has fallen in love, been married, experienced sex, given birth, suffered the death of her husband, and raised Tonio. Her authority derives from her experience. She told Tonio the story about the parts of the eye to protect him from temptation, to preserve his childhood innocence.

The narrator claims that he also had experience. He “knew” about girls standing naked in their windows, although he does not say how he learned this. He believed that this experience gave him the right to punish those girls with his electric shock, as well as the “authority” to look down their dresses. The altar boy’s experience does not compare with the experience of Tonio’s mother. He also based his authority on his position as an altar boy, presuming to derive the right to judge and punish from being the helper of a priest. He considered himself superior to the other altar boys, claiming to be “the” altar boy who “knew,” and he thought of his electric shock as “Holy,” although he was not vested with the authority of a priest.

The ultimate authority in the poem is the Catholic Church. It is ironic, but appropriate, that the altar boy heard the story of the eye at catechism, where he was learning the church’s views of good and evil. The Catholic Church has some two thousand years of experience, including experience with altar boys. It knows that boys are liable to create mischief and, entering adolescence, likely to be curious about the bodies of girls. It knows that altar boys are human. Is this the purpose of altar boys: to exemplify human nature, to remind people that there is a bit of the devil, as well as the angel, in everyone?

The altar boy is a comic character, a prankster whose mischief is essentially harmless. What is harmless in a child, however, may be evil in an adult. A voyeur is not an attractive person. Far worse are people who commit murder and claim that God told them to do it; the altar boy was flirting with the sin of pride when he took upon himself the authority to judge and punish others. It is important that the poem is written in the past tense. The adult narrator has experience that he lacked as a boy. His concepts of good and evil are no longer naïve. Evil occurs during the day as well as at night, and the sin of pride is far more serious than stealing a glance down the top of a girl’s dress.