Critical Analysis of "Rites of Passage" Why would any boy in the first grade claim that he has the ability and strength to kill a toddler? "We could easily kill a two-year-old", (22) is what the birthday boy states in Sharon Olds' "Rites of Passage", a poem in which a young boy's birthday party becomes the pruning ground for many of his peers. The boys are overly competitive and compelled to prove their manhood to one another through intimidation by way of physical threats. All the while, the mother of the birthday boy observes the behavior as "Rites of Passage" into the male dominated world of adulthood. The mother of the birthday boy reveals the occurrences of her son's party. She is a conscientious yet respectful parent, knowing when and when not to interfere as seen when she scrutinized the exchange between two party goers, "I could beat you / up, a seven says to a six", (12-13), determining that it was nothing more than boys trying to prove that they are forces to be reckoned with, no longer toddlers they were yesteryear.
Despite her maternal wisdom, she is sarcastic when describing the children at the party, comparing them to their adult counterparts. She alludes to this from early on in the poem, "short men, men in the first grade / with smooth jaws and chins" (3-4), highlighting the fact their faces are smooth yet contradicting it with the fact that they are men. Later on, she describes their behavior in terms of predominantly male professions. "They clear their / throats a lot, a room full of small bankers, /they fold their arms and frown". (10-12) With this image, she immediately removes the reader from the setting of the party, to one of a stuffy room of a board meeting full of balding, middle aged men, and just as quickly as she reminds you that it is a young boy's party in the next line by identifying to arguing boys with their age, "a seven says to a six" (13). This is also observed in the last lines of the poem, "they clear their throats / like Generals, they relax and get down to / playing war, celebrating my son's life" (24-26) where she attributes very aggressive male behavior to that of young boys.
Her sarcastic tone also is apparent in the images used to enhance the scene. Prior to the mention of generals, she likens the image of birthday cake to that of a turret, a common component of war machines, with this passage: "the dark cake, round and heavy as a / turret, behind them on the table". (14-15) Yet, when she describes her son, there is a hint of admiration in her sarcasm: "chest narrow as a balsa keel of a / model boat". (17-18) Like the light strong wood of the balsa tree, the boy's stature is small yet his personality strong as he takes control of the group with the following excerpt: "speaks up as a host / for the sake of the group. /We could easily kill a two-year-old, /he says in his clear voice". (20-23) With his statement, he is able to end the squabbling among his guests.
Sharon Olds transforms a common, everyday occurrence of a boy's birthday party into the passage from one life stage into another. Her use of sarcasm correlates the actions and mannerisms of boys to those of men. The imagery supplements this by comparing ordinary objects to those associated with men bringing to surface the impact our society and culture has on our children.