Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s award-winning novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe tells the story of the friendship between two Mexican-American teen boys. As they learn to navigate the world around them, their experiences range from exploring art to dealing with conflict both inside and outside of their homes. The Books Unbound (B.U.) members found the story’s depiction of the trials and tribulations of friendship authentic, and could relate to numerous issues — or secrets of life — presented within the book, including sexuality, prejudice, self-identification, cultural performance, experimenting with substances, and the impact of war and traumatic accidents. Check out the round up below for main discussion topics and the Books Unbound members’ rating!
Main Discussion Topics and Insights
One of the main elements of Aristotle and Dante is the romance that unfolds between the two boys. In most places in South Carolina, it’s no easy task to discuss LGBTQ+ issues. That proved especially true with the B.U. members. None of them identify as LGBTQ+ or have had much interaction with others that identify as LGBTQ+. At the start of our discussions of the book, they believed that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle that “isn’t right,” and that, under certain circumstances, people can “turn gay.”
As relative strangers to LGBTQ+ issues, then, Aristotle and Dante showed the B.U. members a different perspective of coming out. Sáenz’s development of the book’s namesake characters makes it seem impossible that the two boys would not fall in love. Indeed, in spite of — or because of — their stark differences, they seem destined for each other from the very beginning. Even though Aristotle doesn’t express his love for Dante until late into the novel, the B.U. members said they intuited that he loved Dante all along, and that Dante’s influence did not transform his sexuality.
The B.U. members also noted that, while there is plenty of comic relief throughout the book, the love between Aristotle and Dante possesses a certain gravity. They argued that they think that’s due to the fact that they’re both boys, and that affection between girls is generally treated with less severity in our society.
Social Construction of Identity and Authentic Cultural Performance
The bulk of our discussion about Aristotle and Dante focused on individuals figuring out and expressing their identities. We noted that while the romance between Aristotle and Dante is a big part of the story, the two characters’ identities are determined by much more than their sexuality — something that’s true of everyone, both fictional and real.
Each person embodies many identities throughout the course of their lives, and adolescence is often a concentrated period of trying to figure out exactly which identities we want to possess. In other words, we all ask ourselves, “Who will I be?” We perform each identity with a mix of social and cultural practices that include, but are certainly not limited to, speech, dress and body posture. They’re how we tell others, “I’m like you,” or “We’re different.”
After discussing the ideas of social construction of identity and cultural performance, the B.U. members and I talked about Aristotle’s and Dante’s struggles to figure out who and what they are. Aristotle tries to negotiate how to be Mexican-American, and often says that he feels more white than Mexican. Meanwhile, Dante battles with his parents about what not wearing shoes signifies. For his mother, it’s poverty; but for Dante, it’s liberation. And, of course, both Dante and Aristotle deal with issues of gender performativity.
Conflict Resolution Within Families
Dante and Aristotle find no shortage of secrets to try and discover the answers to within their own families. For Aristotle, this is especially true. Rather than engage in meaningful discussions, his family is reluctant – and even refuses, at times – to talk with him about tough issues like having a brother in prison and his dad’s traumatic experience in the Vietnam war. Later, Aristotle learns a totally new secret: that the reason one of his aunts was considered the black sheep of the family was because she was lesbian.
In contrast, Dante is extremely open with his mother and father. Perhaps it is through his influence Aristotle’s family slowly, but surely begins to open up and talk to each other. Aristotle’s former hostility towards his father’s silence disappears once he understands why it’s difficult for him to reveal the gore and guilt that came from the Vietnam war. Similarly, Aristotle’s relationship with both of his parents improves when they agree to acknowledge his brother’s existence rather than keep it hidden in a bedroom drawer.
My favorite moment is when our conversations turned to which cultural groups each of us belongs. The B.U. members and I have some groups, or identities, in common, like being from Charleston, being readers, and being a part of prison culture. But more interesting to me are the ones that we don’t have in common, such as race, education, and age group. Despite our differences, we are able, through our love of literature, to come together and have wonderful, insightful conversations.
I also liked discussing how sometimes, like Aristotle, we feel like we don’t belong to certain groups that we are a part of or, in contrast, like we do have certain identities that we would rather not have. I think this amused the B.U. members quite a lot, since they seemed to have previously been under the impression that adulthood promises some sort of magical identity resolution. For my part, I feel that aging out of adolescence has only led to discovering more ways of learning how to find myself.
Books Unbound Member Rating
1.7 out of 5.
The B.U. members’ opposition to same-sex romance brought this rating way down. They all reported that they would have given it 5 stars had it been about heterosexual romance. Despite this, they were able to relate to many other issues in the book, including developing romantic feelings for close friends (though of the opposite sex).