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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Eleanor and Park first form a connection on the bus by listening to music and reading comics together. The Walkman, the device they use to listen to music, becomes a symbol of their shared yet private space. Music is a safe haven for Park, and his way of escaping the empty chatter and social pressures from the other kids. When Eleanor first sits down next to Park on the bus, he’s listening to his Walkman on headphones, and he uses the device to try to tune out everyone else around him, including Eleanor. However, Park begins to let Eleanor into his private haven when he asks her about songs, and they start to form their friendship by discussing music. The music that they listen to together gives Eleanor and Park many of their first shared points of conversation, and the songs help them express emotions and show that they care about each other without having to put it into words. Park makes tapes for Eleanor and finds batteries for her Walkman, which symbolically represents the bond that is being forged between them. Park puts spark and energy into Eleanor’s life, and Eleanor brings excitement and curiosity into Park’s life. Like a message in a bottle, a tape in the Walkman is private and intimate. The Walkman is a space where they can communicate together free from the prying ears and eyes of everyone else around them.
In addition to listening to music together, Eleanor and Park initially develop their relationship by reading comic books together, especially Watchmen. Watchmen is the first comic that Eleanor and Park read together intentionally, rather than just pretending that Eleanor happens to be looking over Park’s shoulder. Watchmen was written in the late nineteen-eighties, when Eleanor & Park takes place, and it is set in an alternate reality that is a lot like the real world, except that there are superheroes. Eleanor and Park immerse themselves in this parallel world so that they can pretend, at least while reading, that they are superheroes in their own world. By immersing themselves in comic books together, Eleanor and Park strengthen the connection between them in real life as well as in their fantasy lives.
Comic books like Watchmen are also a central part of their relationship because characters in comic books have hidden powers that are not always seen by the people around them. Comic books present fantasy worlds in which characters who seem like outsiders are usually the ones who have the most power and richest interior lives. Eleanor and Park each feel more powerful and purposeful because of the other person. Reading Watchmen together highlights the difference between what Eleanor and Park wish their lives were like and the world that they actually live in. Park takes Watchmen to Eleanor’s house, and they read it on the steps of the elementary school. When they read the comic together, they get to be in an alternate reality where they are the heroes of their story. They must be their own superheroes, fighting the forces of evil, like Richie, together. But the alternate reality is ultimately only a temporary haven. Eleanor and Park can enjoy their escape and draw strength from the comic books’ fantasy realms, but they have to live their lives in the real world.