On the Subway Essay
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“On the Subway” is a poem by Sharon Olds that unfolds “to convey a sense of fear, ambiguity, inequality, and inner city tension. The situation is set by the title, and this makes all that follows clear as far as its meaning is concerned.”(para. 1). Ms. Olds tells the story through the narrator who while riding the train observes that she is alone with a young black boy. “While nothing really happens beyond the two observing each other, the poem still manages to shed light to inequality, prejudice, and stereotypes.
The poem begins with the narrator telling the story of the two of them alone on the subway train through her observations and predisposed prejudices. There are many Symbolic references about class, race, and inequality made throughout the story.
As the story begins the first symbolic reference unfolds as the narrator describes the boy’s feet and his shoes. As she goes on to further describe the boy’s shoe laces we get the sense of the imbalance of equality of the races.
While the sneakers themselves are black it is the laces that are white and form a complex pattern which is referred to as intentional scars. The author uses the white laces to symbolize the imbalance of power that the young boy has had have more power to face as a minority. They also suggest that since the laces keep the shoes on or together that they. The laces could also be symbolic of the markings left on the boys’ ancestors back in the day when they were slaves and had received a beating thus bearing the scars of the beating.
The woman also uses the boy’s clothing to further symbolize the stereotypes and the injustices between the races. She is fearful of the boy because of the type of clothing that he wears. She feels that because he is dressed in clothing that is considered to be more urban and open that he was dressed like someone who would be a mugger. The woman who was clothed in fur was covered. The woman is fearful of being attacked because she is more affluent and therefore more of a target. Both the boy and the woman are sizing each other and without really knowing one another they both have their own feelings about each other. The boy knows that since the woman is a white woman she is covered in fur and therefore she has more affluence and power. The woman is truly fearful of the boy because of her own preconceived thoughts about race. She cannot look passed what the boy looks like woman is uncertain of the boy. She looks at him with fear that he can attack her at any moment because of her affluence.
The author continues to discuss the separation of races by discussing how much easier it is to be a White person than it is to be an African American. The poem indicates that being white offers privileges that being African American does not. It is the color of her skin that has provided her with better opportunity and separated her from the boy on the train.
This poem is relevant today as it exemplifies stereotypes and inequalities that are still present in our society. The woman on the train represents wealth and power. The boy represents missed opportunity and poverty. The woman on the train feared that she was going to be attacked by the boy on the train simply because of past experiences and making judgments on someone simply based on the color of his skin and how he was dressed. Chances are that had the boy on the train been white the woman on the train would not have the same fear or feel the same way. Even in our society today we have people who are still quick to make rash judgments while not having all the facts or making a decision based on past experience.
I also think the poem does reference some compassion between the boy and the woman by the end of the poem as the woman mentions that both races can be misunderstood and that both of them can get hurt or be harmed by being judged. They each have struggles that they have to overcome.