Eleanor and Park | Study Guide

Rainbow Rowell

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Course Hero. "Eleanor and Park Study Guide." August 23, 2019. Accessed October 25, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Eleanor-and-Park/.

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Course Hero, "Eleanor and Park Study Guide," August 23, 2019, accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Eleanor-and-Park/.

Eleanor and Park | Themes

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Abuse and Fear

At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor returns home to her family after a year away. Eventually, readers learn that Eleanor's mom, Sabrina Trout, sent Eleanor away to protect her from Richie Trout, Eleanor's volatile stepfather. At the end of the book, Eleanor leaves again—and again it's to escape Richie.

Richie controls the family by making them fear him. He plays the role of dictator, ruling with cruelty and oppression. When Eleanor first returns home, she's horrified to hear her siblings call Richie "Dad." "He is our dad now," Eleanor's sister, Maisie, says simply. To Eleanor this seems insane. There is nothing fatherly about him—aside from the affection he shows for Maisie, which Eleanor finds more disturbing than reassuring.

The family lives in privation, eating grilled cheese for dinner while Richie eats steak. They wear secondhand clothes and never have enough clothing. The younger kids are sent outside to play after dinner, no matter what the temperature. All five children share one room, with just one bunk bed. The boys sleep on the floor. There is no bathroom door—and no privacy.

Then there is the verbal and physical abuse. Yelling is Richie's default communication mode, and he'll even shoot a gun if necessary to get his point across. Early on Eleanor pretends not to see bruises on her mom's wrist. She wakes to hear Richie and her mom fighting, and she sees new bruises on her mom's face.

Later, Eleanor realizes that it's Richie, not the bullies at school, who has been writing the vile, sexually explicit comments on her schoolbooks. Park says, "Maybe he won't hurt you," but Eleanor recognizes the danger she's in. She thinks, "He'll get around to me. When there's nothing and no one else left to destroy." She notes how he "waits up" for her and watches her. The threat of sexual violence makes Eleanor run away. She wants to rescue her siblings too, especially Maisie, who has been sitting in Richie's lap way too often. But Eleanor can't be a hero now; she has to save herself.

Bullying

As if her home life isn't bad enough, Eleanor also faces bullying at school. She's full-figured, redheaded, and oddly dressed—a combination that's hard to ignore and easy for mean-spirited teens to mock. It starts when she steps on the school bus and Tina calls her "Bozo"—a decidedly unclever insult based on Eleanor's bright red hair, which matches that of Bozo, a once-popular TV clown. Tina's hostility continues for quite some time, and others follow her lead. "Watch it Raghead," Tina says another time, this time comparing Eleanor's hair to menstrual blood. Eventually, Tina and her pals cover Eleanor's locker in sanitary pads, and then they flush her clothes down the toilet.

When Tina's boyfriend, Steve, leads a chant of "Go. Big. Red," Park gets upset enough to deliver a martial arts kick to Steve's mouth. Park instinctively wants to protect the outsider, Eleanor, not only because he's a kind person but also because as an Asian American, he knows what it's like to be an outsider.

Park tolerates others' racist comments and questions. He sits quietly on the bus, reads, and tries not to attract attention. Being different forces him to have a thick skin. Eleanor has a thick skin too. The bullies may leave her close to tears at times, but she stands up to them and always maintains her dignity. Nor does she make any effort to tone down her appearance to attract less attention; instead, she plays up her differences.

But Eleanor knows evil when she sees it. She refers to Tina as a demon early on in the book—the same term she uses to describe Richie, another bully, another person with power who wields it cruelly.

Acceptance and Outsiders

Both Eleanor and Park are misfits in their ways, and both long for acceptance—maybe not from everyone, but from those they care about. At the beginning of the novel, Park, one of the few Asian Americans in his school, tries to "get by" by avoiding attention. Even at home, where he has a warm, loving family, he feels a bit like the misfit son; his younger brother looks like their Caucasian father, Jamie Sheridan, but Park looks like his Korean mom, Mindy Sheridan.

As he gets to know Eleanor, Park begins to feel more comfortable about his otherness. He even starts wearing eyeliner. Eleanor—queen of the loud outfits—has helped him loosen up and express himself. But she's had her own struggles with outsider syndrome. Unlike Park, she has no supportive family—on the contrary, her stepfather does his best to make her feel like a pariah. She's poor, too. At school, kids bully her relentlessly because of her appearance. Eleanor can be hard on herself as well; she refers to herself as a "fat girl" in a self-castigating way.

As Eleanor and Park come to accept and appreciate each other, they also come to accept themselves. And their outsider traits bring them closer together. They bond over a love of edgy comics and music—art forms often created by, about, and for outsiders. They find their own private world of misfit connection.

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