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”On the Subway” by Sharon Olds

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 850
  • Category: Poems

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Thesis: Sharon Olds in, On the Subway, organizes the poem in three parts to present the contrasting lives of a Caucasian woman and an African American boy, which displays the narrator’s realization of the bond they share because of their similar fear of each other.

In the first several lines, Olds presents the setting of the subway car, and the separation between its passengers. A notable simile illustrates the obvious differences between the white narrator and the boy, “His feet are huge, in black sneakers laced with white in a complex pattern like a set of international scars.” The stereotype of the boy’s “huge” feet helps the readers understand the ethnicity of the boy. The laces represent the whip strokes “black” slaves received on their backs in the time of slavery. The “white” laces also symbolize the white people’s control on the lives of black people. Shoes would be useless without the tightening of the laces. The “intentional” scars demonstrate the deliberate force white people manipulate for their own good.

This visual imagery contributes in setting the oppressive mood between the travelers. Similar to society, the two are described as “stuck on opposite sides” of the car because of their racial differences. The narrator’s portrayal of the boy shows her fear of him, “He has the casual cold look of a mugger, alert under hooded lids.” She again categorizes him with a stereotype, based off of his “cold” and isolated features, of black people as more likely to perform misdemeanors. This defensive technique proves her fear of the boy because of his ethnicity. She calls him a “mugger”, a “hooded” thief, ready to steal what she owns. The negative visual imagery here displays the dark personality of the boy and the fearful tone.

The fearful tone shifts in the second section. She views the situation through introspective thinking, instead of typecasting the boy. She feels quite uncertain stating, “I don’t know if I am in his power- he could take my coat so easily, my briefcase, my life-“. She stills sees his physique instead of the person behind it. This occurs because of her discrimination against the boy. This train of thought soon breaks as she realizes her own power, “or is he in my power, the way I am living off his life, eating the steak he does not eat, as if I’m taking the food from his mouth.” She comprehends the power white society hold over black society. The boy lives in poverty while she floats in a sea of wealth, stealing food from his “mouth”, wearing luxurious “fur coats”. Now she is the robber, “he [is] in [her] power,” and he has reason to feel afraid of her. Another example of metaphor shows society’s perception of black individuals, “…the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the nation’s heart, as black cotton absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it.” The metaphor alludes to slavery, the “black cotton” signifies black people, and “the heat of the sun” illustrates the anger, frustration and mistrust felt by society towards black individuals. This displays complete inequality and racism. Her insecurity of which truly holds power over the other, wealth and accepted background or strength and anger stemmed from discrimination, demonstrates the uncertain tone.

The last section emphasizes the final change in tone. After the first apprehension of her own power over the black boy, it leads her to realize the connection between them. Although both are complete opposites, they also possess a few similarities, “this life he could take so easily and break across his knee like a stick the way his own life is being broken…” They both have fear of each other. Her dread of his strength and how he could “break her”, corresponds to his fear of her influence in society. He knows the power she holds over him could “break him” the same way. The comparison shows the strengths of the strangers, one physical, and the other social. They also share the similar bond of pain and struggle through life, “…the rod of his soul that at birth was dark and fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling ready to thrust up into any available light.” This metaphor proposes that “at birth” every soul, no matter what ethnicity, is pure and “rich”, ready to “thrust into the light”. Like a “seedling”, bursting through the soil, struggling to survive and exist with equal opportunities in a complex world, these two characters do the same. It demonstrates the struggle both white and black people undergo throughout their lives. The similarities make them equal, one and the same. These several insights deteriorate the woman’s racist barrier and help her better understand the boy sitting across from her.

Sharon Old’s manipulation of organization, imagery, tone, and several other poetic devices illustrates the differences between the narrator and the black boy on the subway car. These differences and her philosophical thinking, eventually help the woman notice the fear, pain, and struggle, both individuals deal with in the society they live in.

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