Because Elio is such an intelligent and sophisticated narrator, it’s easy to forget that he’s too young to engage in a love affair with a twenty-four-year-old man. Elio’s assessment of his relationship with Oliver is so mature that the age difference between them often seems arbitrary or irrelevant. At the same time, though, Aciman is no doubt aware of the tension caused by the fact that Elio is a minor, something that not only adds complexity to the relationship, but also challenges readers to think about the power dynamic that exists between these two lovers. Indeed, Oliver is in an inherent position of authority, regardless of Elio’s emotional sophistication. As a result, Elio’s first serious relationship is about more than love and attraction—it’s also about coming of age and entering an adult world that might otherwise remain closed to him for at least another year or two. As such, Aciman explores the ways in which Elio’s process of growing up is affected by this formative relationship. One reason it’s forbidden to engage sexually or romantically with minors, he demonstrates, is that the process of maturation takes place during an especially impressionable period of life, meaning that such encounters become uniquely complex.
When Elio first admits to himself that he’s attracted to Oliver, he romanticizes the idea of being an adult. Observing the way Oliver talks about past mistakes, he wishes he too could speak like someone with experience. “How I admired people who talked about their vices as though they were distant relatives they’d learned to put up with because they couldn’t quite disown them,” he notes after his father asks Oliver if he drank a lot the night before and Oliver says, “That—and other things.” “[This remark] hinted at a realm of human experience only others had access to, not I,” Elio muses. “How I wished I could say such a thing one day.” Elio yearns to gain the “experience” necessary to speak like an adult. As a seventeen-year-old, he is on the verge of maturity, sophisticated and smart enough to recognize the difference between himself and his elders but not yet worldly enough to join this “realm of human experience.” As such, Oliver becomes all the more appealing to him, as he represents the key to this “realm.”
When Elio finally tells Oliver how much he cares for him, he’s shocked by his own forthrightness. “This was probably the first time in my life that I spoke to an adult without planning some of what I was going to say,” he realizes. This line is worth paying attention to, as it confirms that Elio sees Oliver as an “adult” and that—by contrast—he doesn’t see himself as one. And yet, despite the fact that he desperately wants to join this adult world by becoming involved with Oliver, he also recognizes the complexity of the situation, especially when they’re on the verge of kissing for the first time. Pausing, Elio realizes he isn’t sure he wants to move forward; “[…] I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point,” he notes. This kind of wavering between desire and hesitancy is the direct result of Elio’s inexperience—having never ventured into these territories with a man, let alone an adult, he realizes there will be “no turning back” once he moves forward. In other words, he hasn’t had enough sexual or romantic experiences to know with confidence exactly what he wants. By spotlighting this indecision, Aciman shows readers the complicated calculations involved in relationships between adults and minors, which are naturally unbalanced because one party lacks experience and the other does not.
While it’s true that Elio and Oliver’s relationship illustrates the complexities inherent in relationships between adults and minors, it’s worth noting that Aciman’s primary focus is on developing their love and exploring it as a more or less genuine connection. By making Elio seventeen years old, he’s able to examine the tension that arises within romantic affairs in which there’s an age discrepancy. At the same time, the end of the book charts Elio and Oliver’s love twenty years into the future, so that their bond eventually exists without the taboo implications of a twenty-four-year-old engaging romantically with a seventeen-year-old. After all, they are only seven years apart, a difference that becomes insignificant once Elio is no longer going through his formative years. Having said that, there’s no avoiding the fact that their love began while Elio was coming of age, a reality that follows him throughout his entire adult life and most likely continues to influence how he and Oliver interact even when they’re both grown men. There is no doubt that Aciman is cognizant of this tension he has created. The question, then, is does he endorse relationships between underaged boys and men? The answer is no, as evidenced by his interest in revealing the complicated ways such experiences influence Elio. But does he condemn Oliver for acting on his feelings for this seventeen-year-old boy? This is also a no, as evidenced by his treatment of their relationship as a genuine love.
Instead of providing a moral about the boundaries of love, then, Aciman allows for a sense of ambiguity, one that allows him to present Elio and Oliver’s connection as both beautiful and flawed. Even still, one can argue that Call Me by Your Name is a cautionary tale because of how well it demonstrates the volatility of relationships between adults and minors. While Elio seems to value his experience with Oliver (even when it’s painful), others might not fare so well under similar circumstances.
Coming of Age and Maturity ThemeTracker
Coming of Age and Maturity Quotes in Call Me By Your Name
Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don’t want to lose and must second-guess at every turn, the desperate cunning I bring to everyone I want and crave to be wanted by, the screens I put up as though between me and the world there were not just one but layers of rice-paper sliding doors, the urge to scramble and unscramble what was never really coded in the first place—all these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon—smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer.
I knew exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him the first time, and each time I played it, I was sending it to him as a little gift, because it was really dedicated to him, as a token of something very beautiful in me that would take no genius to figure out and that urged me to throw in an extended cadenza. Just for him.
We were—and he must have recognized the signs long before I did—flirting.
Perhaps, in this, as with everything else, because I didn’t know how to speak in code, I didn’t know how to speak at all. I felt like a deaf and dumb person who can’t even use sign language. I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code. So long as I had breath to put words in my mouth, I could more or less carry it off. Otherwise, the silence between us would probably give me away—which was why anything, even the most spluttered nonsense, was preferable to silence. Silence would expose me. But what was certain to expose me even more was my struggle to overcome it in front of others.
I saw his star almost immediately during his first day with us. And from that moment on I knew that what mystified me and made me want to seek out his friendship, without ever hoping to find ways to dislike him, was larger than anything either of us could ever want from the other, larger and therefore better than his soul, my body, or earth itself. Staring at his neck with its star and telltale amulet was like staring at something timeless, ancestral, immortal in me, in him, in both of us, begging to be rekindled and brought back from its millenary sleep.
What baffled me was that he didn’t seem to care or notice that I wore one too. Just as he probably didn’t care or notice each time my eyes wandered along his bathing suit and tried to make out the contour of what made us brothers in the desert.
What never crossed my mind was that someone else who lived under our roof, who played cards with my mother, ate breakfast and supper at our table, recited the Hebrew blessing on Fridays for the sheer fun of it, slept in one of our beds, used our towels, shared our friends, watched TV with us on rainy days when we sat in the living room with a blanket around us because it got cold and we felt so snug being all together as we listened to the rain patter against the windows—that someone else in my immediate world might like what I liked, want what I wanted, be who I was. It would never have entered my mind because I was still under the illusion that, barring what I’d read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman—with men and women.
At my age, [Chiara’s] body was more than ready for him. More than mine? I wondered. She was after him, that much was clear, while all I really wanted was one night with him, just one night—one hour, even—if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that. What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it.
He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point—except that I didn’t have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I’ll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was.
How I admired people who talked about their vices as though they were distant relatives they’d learned to put up with because they couldn’t quite disown them. That and other things. I don’t care to remember—like I know myself—hinted at a realm of human experience only others had access to, not I. How I wished I could say such a thing one day—that I didn’t care to remember what I’d done at night in full morning glory. I wondered what were the other things that necessitated taking a shower. Did you take a shower to perk yourself up because your system wouldn’t hold up otherwise? Or did you shower to forget, to wash away all traces of last night’s smut and degradation?
Did I want this, now that something was being offered? And was it in fact being offered? And if I wanted or didn’t want it, how would I live out the day till midnight? It was barely ten in the morning: fourteen hours to go . . . The last time I had waited so long for something was for my report card. Or on the Saturday two years ago when a girl had promised we’d meet at the movies and I wasn’t sure she hadn’t forgotten. Half a day watching my entire life being put on hold. How I hated waiting and depending on the whim of others.
And yet another part of me knew that if he showed up tonight and I disliked the start of whatever was in store for me, I’d still go through with it, go with it all the way, because better to find out once and for all than to spend the rest of the summer, or my life perhaps, arguing with my body.
I’d make a decision in cold blood. And if he asked, I’d tell him. I’m not sure I want to go ahead with this, but I need to know, and better with you than anyone else. I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me.
No, I didn’t hate it at all. But what I felt was worse than hate. I didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to think about it. Just put it away. It had never happened. I had tried it and it didn’t work for me, now I wanted my money back, roll back the film, take me back to that moment when I’m almost stepping out onto the balcony barefoot, I’ll go no farther, I’ll sit and stew and never know—better to argue with my body than feel what I was feeling now.
I don’t know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry. And rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder. I was crying because no stranger had ever been so kind or gone so far for me, even Anchise, who had cut open my foot once and sucked and spat out and sucked and spat out the scorpion’s venom. I was crying because I’d never known so much gratitude and there was no other way to show it. And I was crying for the evil thoughts I’d nursed against him this morning. And for last night as well, because, for better or worse, I’d never be able to undo it, and now was as good a time as any to show him that he was right, that this wasn’t easy, that fun and games had a way of skidding off course and that if we had rushed into things it was too late to step back from them now— crying because something was happening, and I had no idea what it was.
Perhaps what I liked far more was the evening. Everything about it thrilled me. Every glance that crossed my own came like a compliment, or like an asking and a promise that simply lingered in midair between me and the world around me. I was electrified—by the chaffing, the irony, the glances, the smiles that seemed pleased I existed, by the buoyant air in the shop that graced everything […]
In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!