Finding the yin to your yang is a quest most people spend their lives searching for. In the novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, written by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante are teens on their way to discovering who they are. The narrator of this novel is Aristotle, aka “Ari.” The struggle with race, family, and sexuality, through the minds of our adolescent main characters, leads them to discover that they are both weird, but they are both normal. The two fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The question is, is this a puzzle for two friends? Or, a puzzle for two people who are destined to be more than friends? For Aristotle and Dante to become men, they must go on a journey and figure out what it means to be a man.
In the novel, the two main characters battle the challenge of sexuality and masculinity. Sexuality defines a man’s social status in adolescent years, even though adolescents are still trying different things to see what they will become. The novel states how Aristotle and Dante can become men by giving examples of high school trials and tribulations, as well as family pressures. “I wasn’t the type of guy who cried,” Ari says (Saenz 61). But what kind of guy can cry and still be a man? Being a man means that you need to be poker-faced in all events of life. Men are not supposed to show any emotions aside from anger and disgust. If a man is seen crying, or distressed, he is seen as less than a man. Aristotle and Dante discover this when Dante sees an injured bird on the ground that had been shot by some kids in their neighborhood. Dante cries, and Aristotle doesn’t. Ari is seen by the reader as more of a man, more masculine than Dante, because Ari doesn’t cry like Dante does. This doesn’t mean Dante is weak per se. It just means that Dante is more emotion-driven. Dante may be seen as feminine by the reader because of his willingness to portray emotions that many men would not–such as crying–but he is still biologically male. Does being tough, mean, and angry makes you a man? Does that mean that any person who identifies as female but is tough, mean, and angry should get a sex change and identify as male? That sounds a bit absurd. What it means to be a man changes drastically depending on your environment, but there are still a few well-known rules that men must follow in terms of presenting themselves.
Being a man also means being dominant. Society trains its participants very differently in thinking about how a heterosexual male presents himself. A strong man could stop a mugging or could build something—now, that’s a man. But if people think about a homosexual male, they may picture someone who is not seen as masculine, and unable to build something or fight, and therefore is not seen as a man. According to stereotypes, being a man means you need to be tough, heartless, and strong, which leads our adolescent minds to believe that it also means a man must be heterosexual. “He was slow, methodical, careful. He made me feel as fragile as porcelain,” Aristotle says. (Saenz 144). He felt as though he was being stripped of his masculinity by how gently Dante was treating him. Men aren’t to be cared for; why would a man need help? Needing help is a sign of weakness, and no man is supposed to be weak. Aristotle wanted to be a man; he wanted to be treated like one, but he felt weak. Aristotle felt like less of the man he feels his family expected him to become.
Being defined as a man is something that changes with ones’ lifestyle and environment. How someone identifies themselves can be described in many ways, but Saenz helps describe the rules/guidelines that Aristotle and Dante desire to grow up by, determined by family and school influences. They desire certain things that people in their lives have conditioned them into believing are necessary for them to all be the same. These two teenagers were born into and grew up with Hispanic families in a Hispanic neighborhood in Texas. “I still look more Mexican than you do,” Aristotle says (Saenz 72). How does someone look more Mexican than someone else? Is it that they have different clothes? That they speak more Spanish than the other person? In the book, Dante agrees with Aristotle that Dante is a “pacho”—a “half-assed” Mexican—because Dante doesn’t look like a “real Mexican.” In Aristotle’s eyes, Dante has had a seemingly less challenged life; he has possessions so his life must be easier. Dante hardly speaks Spanish, doesn’t have the features of a “true Mexican,” and hasn’t had many hardships like a “true Mexican” would. He is weak, airy, lacking in struggles, quiet, and not heterosexual. Dante doesn’t say he wants to be more of a Mexican but he also doesn’t say otherwise. He seems much less fixated on those aspects of his life compared to Aristotle. Aristotle is focused on his brother, his masculinity, and his outcast self.
Being a man means that you are tough and emotionless. Being a Mexican means you are tan-skinned and can speak Spanish. Being heterosexual means you are a true man. Being homosexual means you are a “girly male” who needs to “man up.” No tears. Boys don’t cry. Men don’t cry…Right? Saenz presents the road of discovery that Aristotle and Dante go on together, and the story of how their lives unfold, instead of how others see their lives unfold. To be a man in society, you need to follow the rules. Luckily these rules are always subject to change.
Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012.