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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Romeo and Juliet weaves throughout both the form and the content of Eleanor & Park. Shakespeare’s famous romance is one of the most iconic stories of teen love that has ever been told. The title of the book echoes the title of Romeo and Juliet, except with the genders of the protagonists in the opposite order. The gender reversal in the title foreshadows the gender-neutral traits that both Eleanor and Park demonstrate in their appearances. Eleanor likes to wear men’s clothing, puts on a tie for her first phone date with Park, and refers to herself as the “Han Solo” of their relationship. Park feels more powerful and sexy when he’s wearing eye makeup, which makes his dad very upset, since eyeliner is traditionally feminine, and Park’s dad has a difficult time accepting anything but “traditional” gender roles.
Eleanor and Park read and discuss Romeo and Juliet in English class, and their interpretations of Shakespeare’s play mirror how they perceive the world. Eleanor puts her guard up and says that she thinks Shakespeare must be making fun of Romeo and Juliet. Eleanor hasn’t had many role models of people in truly loving relationships, so she doesn’t have much evidence to believe in true love. Park, on the other hand, wants to believe that all people can and should want to experience love when they are young.
Several scenes in Eleanor & Park echo certain famous moments in Romeo and Juliet. When Eleanor and Park first hold hands, they realize they like each other, just as Romeo and Juliet first flirt by touching hands as a precursor to kissing. Eleanor thinks of Park as the sun, which directly echoes Romeo’s famous description of Juliet as the sun. The flipped genders in this echo continue to emphasize that the backbone of the love story doesn’t depend on the genders of the protagonists, but rather on the depth of emotion between them.
But Eleanor & Park does not follow exactly the same plot as Romeo and Juliet. Even though there are points in the story when the protagonists are not allowed in each others’ houses, for the most part Park’s family accepts Eleanor, even if Eleanor’s evil stepfather will never be able to accept Park. The protagonists are separated at the end of Eleanor & Park, but neither of them dies. Instead, they sacrifice their relationship so that Eleanor can be safe. Romeo and Juliet helps set the mood for romance in Eleanor & Park, and the homage makes the contemporary love story feel like a beautiful yet doomed fable.
Throughout Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad insists that he wants Park to learn how to drive stick shift, and he takes Park in his truck for lessons. To Park’s dad, being able to drive a stick shift is a sign of masculinity and strength. Park is reluctant to practice driving the truck because he doesn’t feel very connected to a traditional masculine identity. Throughout the novel, Park is afraid that he is disappointing his dad because unlike, his younger brother, he’s not very interested in activities like sports and hunting that his dad associates with masculinity. Park associates his failure to drive a stick shift well with letting his dad down, since Park doesn’t think he’s living up to the version of himself that he thinks his dad wants him to be.
However, when Park drives Eleanor to Minnesota, he is suddenly perfectly capable of operating a stick shift. His dad tells him that he can drive Eleanor on the condition that he take the truck, which is his dad’s way of saying that he has to demonstrate grown-up strength if he is going to take this journey. Park had never been able to drive a stick shift before because he had never needed to. Now, however, Park has a purpose. Standing up for Eleanor gives him power and responsibility, and he takes charge over his life. Driving a stick shift, it turns out, is less about asserting masculinity and more about asserting adulthood.