Eleanor is immediately identifiable as someone who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the kids in high school. Her physical appearance sets her apart as different. Not only is she very curvy with distinctive, bright, curly red hair, Eleanor often dresses in men’s clothing with loud accessories. Eleanor knows that she doesn’t fit in, but instead of attempting to shrink into the background and try to disappear, she takes the opposite approach and makes herself standout even more. Her outfits are part of her defense mechanism. Eleanor knows that kids will pick on her for dressing strangely, so she can steel herself for this form of bullying. The outfits also signal that Eleanor wants to remain an outsider, and that she has no interest in trying to assimilate with other kids.
Eleanor might seem different initially because of the way she looks and dresses on the outside, but she also sticks out because of what’s on the inside. Eleanor is extremely intelligent, which makes teachers notice her in a positive way. Even the other students, who are much more interested in social drama than schoolwork, notice her talent for recitation in English class.
Eleanor hasn’t had many strong adult role models in her life. Although her mom is kind to Eleanor, she doesn’t stand up for herself or for her kids against Richie. The main father figures in Eleanor’s life are either absent or abusive. Her father abandoned her family, and Richie, her stepfather, is emotionally and physically violent, creating a toxic environment at home. Eleanor has had to learn how to fend for herself through her own resources and strength of character. Because she has faced so many difficulties, Eleanor tends to put up a protective wall around herself, becoming prickly and defensive around other people instead of being open and welcoming. Eleanor has not had many positive experiences with being able to trust other people, so she finds it difficult to be vulnerable and let other people in.
When Eleanor meets Park, for the first time, she has a connection with someone who is also an outsider, but whom she can trust and with whom she can be herself. Park’s love and respect help give Eleanor the confidence to let some of her defense mechanisms down. However, these defenses are very deep-rooted, and some of them might be irreversible. When Eleanor moves to Minnesota, she finds it too painful to think about Park. She can take the lessons she’s learned about accepting herself and trusting others into her new life, but instead of continuing to believe that Park will wait for her, she has to let him go in order to survive.