Study Guide

Eleanor & Park Themes

  • Family

    Although Eleanor and Park connect as fellow misfits, their families are worlds apart. Eleanor & Park gives us vivid pictures of two entirely different kinds of families: Park's loving, stable home life is in direct contrast to Eleanor's desperate, badly broken home.

    Not only that, we learn a lot about our two main characters because of the way they fit in—or don't—with their own families. Eleanor's been abandoned by her family, leaving her an outcast even in her own house, and Park doesn't always see eye to eye with his dad. Families make all the difference in the world; Park's family brings Eleanor and Park together, but Eleanor's family rips them apart.

    Questions About Family

    1. At first, Park's family doesn't approve of Eleanor. What changes their attitude as the story goes on?
    2. Does Park think he "fits in" with his family? Why or why not?
    3. How does Eleanor's relationship with her siblings change throughout the book?
    4. Compare and contrast: Park's family Christmas versus Eleanor's.

    Chew on This

    Park's parents have a loving relationship that helps Park understand his love for Eleanor.

    Eleanor's not optimistic about love because she's never really seen it up close.

  • Isolation

    So we're going to use a broad umbrella here. Isolation, or aloneness, is a big theme in Eleanor & Park, and we think that includes the feeling of being different, and not fitting in. There are many kinds of isolation at work in this story—the isolation Eleanor feels because she's new at school and because she's targeted by bullies; the isolation Park experiences in his own family since he doesn't feel he's like his dad or his brother.

    In a way, both Eleanor and Park are isolated from their peers, set apart by their interests and their personalities. And then there's Eleanor's actual, physical isolation. She's so cut off from the world in Richie's house that she doesn't even have a phone line.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. When Eleanor starts school with Park, she's immediately bullied by the other kids. Why do you think she's so instantly cut off from the rest of the group?
    2. When we meet Park, he's isolating himself using headphones and music. Does Park want to be isolated, or not? Why does he pull away from his peers?
    3. Richie isolates Eleanor's family from the world, even refusing to let Sabrina drive a car. Why do you think he does this? 
    4. Eleanor pulls away from Park at the end of the book, cutting off communication for months. Why do you think she doesn't write or call?

    Chew on This

    Park keeps his distance from the kids on the bus, but he doesn't really like feeling alone.

    Sometimes Eleanor isolates herself deliberately, but sometimes her family's responsible.

  • Love

    We can't really talk about Eleanor & Park without talking about love, can we? From the Romeo and Juliet references, to the intense descriptions of their first encounters, this book is all about love. More than that, it's about first love, and what it's like to fall for someone when you've never been in love before. This story challenges the idea of love at first sight, and definitely makes us think about what it means to intensely connect with another person.

    Questions About Love

    1. Park tells Eleanor he loves her almost immediately, but we actually don't know if Eleanor ever says it back. Do you think that's what she wrote on the postcard? If so, why does she wait to tell him?
    2. Park sees a lot of his parents' relationship in the connection he has with Eleanor. Why?
    3. How does Rowell start to let us know that Eleanor and Park might be falling in love? 
    4. Eleanor thinks Shakespeare was "making fun" of young love when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Do you think her opinion would be different if you asked her about Romeo and Juliet at the end of the book?

    Chew on This

    Eleanor and Park did actually fall in love at first sight—they just didn't know it.

    Eleanor definitely tells Park she loves him on the postcard she writes.

  • Suffering

    Sometimes, the pain and suffering described in Eleanor & Park is overwhelming. Eleanor's not only bullied at school, she's bullied horribly, in a scar-you-for-life kind of way. And the terrifying situation in her house is hard to even imagine. Eleanor's been abandoned by her mom, forgotten by her dad, and threatened by her stepdad, while her mom endures abuse on a daily basis, and Eleanor and her siblings huddle in fright. This book forces us to address suffering, and what happens when characters like Eleanor have to deal with it every day.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How does Eleanor deal with suffering at school? Is she the kind of person who asks for help?
    2. Sabrina's gone from a bad marriage to a very scary one. How has this changed her?
    3. Apart from the obvious bruises, how can you tell Richie abuses Sabrina? How does her behavior give it away?
    4. Poverty is yet another way Eleanor's family suffers. What are some of the details that let us know how serious their poverty might be?

    Chew on This

    The threat of Richie's abuse hangs over Eleanor's head for most of the book, and it seems like this threat causes as much fear and suffering as abuse itself.

    Eleanor thinks that sleeping through the noises of her mom's abuse is even worse than waking up. She's right.

  • Courage

    With all of the suffering in Eleanor & Park, it's amazing our beloved characters can face some of the horrible situations they're up against. But both of them—Eleanor in particular—have plenty to spare in the bravery department. What does courage mean in this story? Maybe it's the ability to stare down a bully, but maybe, some days, it's deciding not to let the bad guys win.

    Questions About Courage

    1. How does Eleanor show her courage at school when she's bullied?
    2. Park makes a few very brave decisions in this story. What do you think Park does that's particularly courageous?
    3. Eleanor and Park aren't the only characters in the book who display bravery. Park's dad shows a lot of courage in letting Park drive Eleanor to safety. Do you think this is a difficult decision for him to make?
    4. Do you think Eleanor would call herself brave? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes it takes more courage to let people go than to keep them with you.

    Eleanor's decision to leave Park is incredibly brave, but she also doesn't really have a choice.

  • Appearances

    No matter when you go to high school, appearance is always something teens struggle with. Social status can sometimes be determined on looks alone, and that's something both Eleanor and Park experience in this book. Eleanor's immediately shunned because of how she looks, and Park's friends never fail to remind him that he doesn't look like anyone else in Omaha.

    On the flip side, Eleanor and Park both express themselves through clothing (and in Park's case, makeup), making a statement with the way they look and asserting their differences. Rowell uses physical appearance in Eleanor & Park to tell us a lot about her characters, whether it's Eleanor's colorful fashion sense or Richie's rat-like face.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Eleanor's very self-conscious about her weight, but she wears bright, colorful accessories and unusual clothes. What does that tell you about her?
    2. What does Park like about his appearance, and what doesn't he like? How can you tell?
    3. How important is appearance in Eleanor and Park's neighborhood? 
    4. Park's mother, Mindy, is a beautician. How does she think differently about appearance than someone like Eleanor?

    Chew on This

    Mindy and Park use makeup differently, but Mindy understands why Park wants to wear eyeliner.

    Eleanor dresses in men's clothing because she doesn't want her stepfather to see her as a woman.

  • Abandonment

    In Eleanor & Park, abandonment primarily pertains to Eleanor and her family, and it's a big part of Eleanor's life. She spent her childhood with a father who never cared about her, and then spent a year in another family's house, thinking she'd been abandoned by her mother.

    Once she's back at home, Eleanor repeatedly gets the message that she's not a member of the family—she barely has a place to sleep, she can't take a bath, and most of her possessions are gone. That has to have a big impact, and just might explain why she finds it easier to sever all ties with Park for a while at the end. Abandonment's the only thing she's ever really been shown how to do.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. In Eleanor's head, Richie kicked her out of the house, and she blames herself for it. Is that really what happened? 
    2. How did Eleanor feel about living with the Hickmans? 
    3. Eleanor casually mentions that while she was at the Hickmans, her mom stopped calling her one day, and didn't call for six more months. How do you think Eleanor can be so casual about such a devastating situation? How does this affect her relationship with her mother?

    Chew on This

    Eleanor's been abandoned in more ways than one: Her mom left her at a neighbor's house, but her dad abandoned her long before that.

    Sabrina initially took Eleanor to the Hickmans to save her from Richie, but when she didn't call for six months, she hurt her just as badly.

  • Gender

    Eleanor wears ties; Park wears eyeliner. Eleanor hates makeup; Park doesn't do sports. They have passionate discussions about gender roles in comic books. Oh, and Eleanor's the Han Solo in the relationship, which probably makes Park Princess Leia. Eleanor & Park's protagonists like to question traditional gender roles, pushing the envelope of what it means to be a stereotypical guy or girl. It's just one more thing that sets them apart from everyone else—and makes them perfect for each other.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Park has grown up thinking he's "girly" compared to his dad and brother, even though he's good at taekwondo. Why does Park think he's "girly?"
    2. Eleanor likes to dress in men's shirts and ties, and she hates makeup. Are there any other ways she opts out of traditional femininity?
    3. Why do you think Eleanor, in particular, likes to question gender roles? What frustrates her about comic book heroines?
    4. Park's dad has a particularly hard time accepting Park's decision to wear makeup. Why is this so difficult for him?

    Chew on This

    Park decides to wear eyeliner to point out the fact that he's not a stereotypical guy, and at last, he's proud of it.

    Park's mom has an easier time understanding why Park wants to wear eyeliner, than understanding why Eleanor doesn't want to.

  • Race

    From the opening pages of Eleanor & Park, it's clear that race is a big deal. It's the first thing we hear the kids talk about on the bus, and in this white, Midwestern town, anyone who's not white is an outsider. In Omaha in 1986, racist slurs are casually tossed around—this is not the PC world of today. Rowell makes us aware of what it must have been like to be a minority in a place with almost no other minorities at all. And guess what? It ain't easy.

    Questions About Race

    1. What do we learn about the Flats, the neighborhood where Eleanor and Park live? Is it a diverse place? What kind of people live there?
    2. What's it like to be a black person at Eleanor and Park's school? How about an Asian person?
    3. What kinds of assumptions do people make about Park based on his race? 
    4. How much does Park identify with being Korean?

    Chew on This

    Even though Park doesn't really know anything about being Korean, it's a huge part of his identity, just because he happens to look Asian.

    Park's disinterest in his Korean heritage is a result of his mom's efforts to fit in in the United States.

  • The Home

    Park comes from a well-adjusted home, with happily married parents and a cheerfully decorated house, while Eleanor's family is broken and dysfunctional, and her run-down house doesn't even have a bathroom door. We know Eleanor doesn't feel at home in her family's house—in fact, she doesn't really have a place she even feels safe there. Eleanor & Park looks at two completely contrasting ideas of home, and by showing us such different houses, we get to think about what a home really means.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Does Eleanor ever really feel "at home" anywhere throughout the book? Why or why not?
    2. How does Park feel about his own house? 
    3. What kind of differences does Eleanor see between her family's house and Park's house?

    Chew on This

    Eleanor shows us that home can be a state of mind—when she's with Park, she feels more at home than anywhere else.

    Mindy may have decorated Park's house to look nice, but the real reason their house is comfortable is that she and Jamie have a loving relationship.