Whip-smart, brave, and definitely not "nice"(21.35), Eleanor Douglas stands out in a crowd from the minute we meet her. For one thing, she doesn't look like anyone else—or dress like anyone else for that matter, either. She's got flaming red hair, tons of freckles, and a figure she compares to someone who "ran a medieval pub" (4.30). And though it's 1986, Eleanor sure doesn't dress like Molly Ringwald. Eleanor wears men's clothing—think: button-up shirts, blazers, and men's ties knotted in her hair or around her wrists.
At first, Park isn't sure why she wants to call attention to herself with her clothing, since her hair pretty much stops traffic anyway. Although part of it seems to be Eleanor's poverty—her family doesn't even supply her with shampoo or a toothbrush, and her clothes come from Goodwill—most of it seems to be Eleanor's own style. Park's ultimate theory about Eleanor's fashion sense is right on:
He got why Eleanor tried so hard to look different. Sort of. It was because she was different—because she wasn't afraid to be. (Or maybe she was just more afraid of being like everyone else.) (35.165)
Eleanor is different from other kids. She comes from an intensely poor family, governed by her terrible—and abusive—stepfather, Richie. She doesn't feel like she fits in, but instead of resisting this, Eleanor embraces it. It is a sign of the fight she has in her, of her refusal to just disappear the way her mother has.
Eleanor's been through a lot, and her traumatic family life is a constant source of terror for her, plus she's been abandoned in different ways by both her mom and her dad.
At the beginning of the story, Eleanor's recently returned from a year living with another family. The worst part? Her mom left her there, saying she'd be back in a few days, but then just never returned. Eleanor's mom didn't even call for the last six months Eleanor was away. Eleanor knows her dad doesn't care about her either—so much so, that when he calls her at school, Eleanor's "surprised he even knew what school she went to" (17.26). Yeah, he's definitely not in the loop.
Eleanor's stepdad, Richie, is another story. Eleanor lives in constant fear of his attention for reasons we can only imagine. We know he's violent and abusive, and Eleanor spends most of her time at home trying to be as invisible as possible.
Richie is a looming, evil presence in Eleanor's life, and Eleanor hates him more than anything in the world. "That demon. That bastard" (11.25),she thinks, and if we're being honest, that's letting him off lightly. With sexual abuse implied, and physical, verbal, and emotional abuse appearing nearly every time Richie does, he is a terrifying and inexhaustibly oppressive force in Eleanor's life.
Eleanor's horrible home life makes one thing clear: She's exceptionally resilient. Despite living in a house that would probably make most people non-functional, Eleanor remains funny and perceptive. The parts of narrative told from her point of view are often sharp and snarky, and she tends to think of other people before she thinks about herself. Her heart, in other words, hasn't completely hardened in self-protection, though we wouldn't blame her if she let it.
Eleanor's also bright and talented—she brings the house down in English class when she recites poetry—and she's passionate about books, comics, and music. After she leaves, her English teacher laments that it's "pointless to read Macbeth out loud without Eleanor" (55.6). At one point, Park tells Eleanor:
"You just seem like yourself, no matter what's happening around you. My grandmother would say you're comfortable in your own skin." (19.175)
Unfortunately, Eleanor doesn't really agree. She's especially self-conscious about her weight, and when she first starts dating Park, she can't imagine what a guy like Park could ever see in her. She also thinks she acts cowardly and selfish when it comes to her family situation, but we think she's dead wrong—she thinks about her mom and siblings all the time, even though they often add to her problems.
Eleanor's romance with Park is a huge part of her life, and over the course of the book, we see Eleanor learn to accept that she's worthy of Park's love. Initially she isn't sure why Park would like someone like her. The first time they talk on the phone, she says:
"Why do you even like me?" (19.268)
But eventually, Eleanor accepts that Park does love her. "He was hers," she thinks. "To have and hold. Not forever, maybe—not forever, for sure—and not figuratively. But literally. And now. Now, he was hers" (42.51). This acceptance of herself as worthy of Park's love makes it even more painful when she has to leave him in order to survive. Eleanor is so devastated that she can't even open his letters afterward, and while we don't get a clear explanation of why, we're thinking it's at least partially because she'd just miss him too much.