Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Gender Expression and the Importance of Identity
Throughout Eleanor & Park, both protagonists exhibit traits that were not considered traditional for their respective genders in the 1980s. Both Eleanor and Park are discovering their own identities and how they feel most comfortable projecting these identities in the world. Eleanor and Park also often reverse what might be considered to be traditional gender roles. Park frequently tells Eleanor that he loves her, but Eleanor doesn’t say it back to him. Eleanor is physically larger than Park, but Park is more emotionally sophisticated than Eleanor.
Eleanor dresses in men’s clothing frequently, which is partly out of convenience, since she gets her clothes from Goodwill and doesn’t have many options. However, she also chooses to wear men’s clothes, dressing up in a shirt and tie for her phone date with Park because this outfit makes her feel powerful and confident in herself. Most of the taunts that Eleanor receives are less directed at the fact that she wears men’s clothes and more at her strange accessories, her size, and her bright red hair. The bulk of teasing and insults that Eleanor has to endure are based on femininity and sexuality, either having too much or too little of it. The all-female space of gym class is a place where Eleanor doesn’t feel comfortable—not necessarily because she thinks of herself as male, but because the other girls in class have gone out of their way to make fun of her in her very revealing gym suit. Eleanor also feels sexually threatened by Richie at home, although she doesn’t explicitly realize this fear until the end of the novel. Wearing men’s clothes helps Eleanor give herself the protection she seeks in a masculine identity.
Other characters’ reactions to Eleanor and Park’s appearances vary. Though Park is afraid that all the kids in school will make fun of him for wearing eye makeup, most of them end up either being indifferent or complimenting him on looking cool. In some ways, Park gets the best of both worlds when he puts on eye makeup. He feels transgressive, dangerous, and sexy in eye makeup, since wearing makeup seems like a forbidden fruit. A few kids do tease him, but overall, they don’t pay him too much attention.
Park’s father is furious with Park for wearing eyeliner, since he thinks that makeup is for girls, and he desperately wants Park to be more masculine. Park’s dad’s rigid approach to gender expression comes less out of his desire for Park to fit in and more out of his own fears and prejudices. Eventually, Park’s dad realizes that Park’s self-expression actually gives Park more confidence and makes him more of a grown-up. One of the ultimate tests of becoming a man, to Park’s dad, is the ability to drive stick shift. When Park announces that he needs to drive Eleanor to Minnesota, Park’s dad tells Park to drive the manual truck, which Park hasn’t been able to do for the whole novel, but suddenly, Park is able to drive it flawlessly. By operating the stick shift, Park demonstrates that he is ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, and Park’s dad can finally separate the concept of being a man’s man from the concept of becoming a full adult.
Outsiders vs. Insiders
Both the protagonists of Eleanor & Park feel like outsiders at school and at home. At school, Eleanor gets picked on because of her appearance. She makes herself deliberately look like an outsider by wearing strange clothing, but she also is an outsider because she’s more intelligent and creative than most of the other kids, who want to conform and be popular rather than be themselves. At home, Eleanor has literally been an outsider for a year, since she has just returned after Richie kicked her out. Even though she’s back in the house, Eleanor feels like an outsider in her own family. Her siblings have pulled away from her, and they act like they’re on Richie’s side, even though they’re still terrified of him. Eleanor’s mom is nice to her, but she tries to get Eleanor to assimilate back into the family and pretend that nothing is wrong, rather than listening to what’s really going on in Eleanor’s life. Park also feels like an outsider, though in a more subtle way than Eleanor. Park can externally fit in a bit more easily, but on the inside, he feels different. At school, he’s learned how to get by, since he escapes into his own world of music and comics, but even though he pretends to be friendly, he doesn’t really connect with the other kids, since he doesn’t care about their social drama. At home, Park also feels like an outsider, because he feels like he’s disappointing his dad, who wants his sons to be traditionally masculine.
Throughout the novel, the relationship between who is on the outside and who is on the inside becomes more complicated. On the one hand, both Eleanor and Park feel isolated and disconnected from their worlds, yet when they find each other, they become deeply connected in their own private space. Eleanor and Park are the insiders in their world, and everyone else is the outsider. Eleanor sees Tina as the ultimate insider at high school, because Tina is conventionally pretty, popular, and mean to people who aren’t in her circle of friends. However, Tina is jealous of Eleanor when Eleanor becomes involved with Park, because Tina still likes Park. Tina feels like the outsider in Eleanor and Park’s relationship. At the end of the novel, the boundaries between insiders and outsiders start to dissolve, at least temporarily. Tina and Steve, who have ostracized Eleanor throughout the whole book, help her escape from Richie. Even though Tina and Steve appear to have so many differences from Eleanor and Park, they realize in the end that they can all be united in the common cause that is defending Eleanor from harm.