Introduction to The House on Mango Street
The most popular novel of its time, The House on Mango Street, by Mexican American writer, Sandra Cisneros published in the United States in 1984 and created a trend in new techniques in the fiction writing arena. It comprises vignettes, which tell the story of a young girl, Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl of just 12, living in the Latino quarters in the city of Chicago. The novel has proved a classic in Chicano literature, winning popularity with more than 20 translations in different languages and the sale of over 6 million copies worldwide even though the novel faced the threat of censorship because of its focus on domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, and racism. It also has fetched American Book Award for Cisneros and was later adapted into a play staged in 2009 in Chicago under the name Tanya Saracho.
Summary of The House on Mango Street
The story of the novel comprises a year in the life of a young girl named Esperanza Cordero who belongs to the Chicana community. It’s a coming-of-age novel including Esperanza’s zeal to leave the neighborhood and lead a better life. Living in the poor neighborhood in the apartment has had adverse impacts on her young mind. She states that she has been living with her three brothers and sisters, and parents where she experiences a sense of inferiority on account of their shabby apartment. The girl gives a full account of her how they used to live before moving into this house. The reason is that they have been living from one apartment to another apartment as they did not have their own home. The house in this street is the last one on the list of the rented houses though it is not yet as the promised one as they used to think. According to her parents, it is just a primary abode for them. At school, she was made fun of because of her poverty and frustrated because people couldn’t pronounce her name properly.
Despite being a good house, this house has not been better than the previous ones. Esperanza, therefore, does not express her penchant for this house. Her dream is about a wooden, white, and big house with a good yard and trees, while this one is suffocating for her. Meanwhile, she takes to poetry to find expression of her feelings and starts explaining the nature of her family members especially Nenny, her younger sister, who imitates her and her neighboring friends with whom she plays such as Lucy and Rachel. Specifically, Mamacita, an elderly woman who refuses to go out of the house due to a lack of her English speaking skills.
Alicia is a hardworking girl who has high aspirations to leave this neighborhood and get a better job so have to study in the morning but her father makes her do the chores. Rafaela, the woman who won’t step out of the house because her husband locks her up as he is insecure about her beauty. Minerva, who like Esperanza is creative and fond of writing poems and has children and a husband who physically abuses her. The most interesting moment in her life in that house arrives when all the children enjoy riding the Cadillac of Louie’s cousin but he faces immediate arrest by police for the act of stealing.
As time passes, Esperanza starts becoming mature not only physically but also sexually. These changes also change her worldview and ethical framework. She shapes her mindset to become women who do not surrender to a man’s dominance, yet showcases her ability to be an attractive woman to men. She, soon, becomes the friend of a highly beautiful girl, Sally, whose proactive dressing impresses her much. She also tells about her abusive but religious father. Once, her family was having a party in the monkey garden where Sally dances with the boy she like by showing off her expensive and elegant shoes by lowballing Esperanza of her poverty who couldn’t dance with the other boys because of her torn shoes.
However, on one occasion she does not stay loyal to her and ditches her for a boy when a band of unruly men exploits Esperanza’s vulnerability. Taking this attack heavily, she starts telling about other such suppressive experiences. Specifically, the episode of the man older than her reminds her that sexual exploitation is an ill deeply rooted in the social psyche.
Such other experiences prove highly traumatic for her. She sees that patriarchy is prominent in the current neighborhood, where she feels suffocated. When she attends a funeral where the three sisters see her and predict that she’s going to leave mango street. However, her meeting with Lucy and Rachel and their outgoing aunt shows that she has identified herself with Mango Street. As of now, she decides to resort to poetry to escape the situation emotionally but later escape physically too. The novel ends when Esperanza vows to help the residents of Mango Street, for they are very much with her in her memories.
Major Themes in The House on Mango Street
- Language: The language and the power that words carry is one of the major themes of the novel. Esperanza puts herself in comparison to other Latino speaking characters such as Mamacita who stays at home due to her lack of English, while Esperanza not only wields power through language but also knows how to mix in the society and win power as well as mobility. Her effort of learning names, words, and nicknames and then recall them to put into her story shows her gradual mastery over language and its uses in social mobility and progress.
- Gender: The novel also shows the theme of gender through Esperanza, the narrator. Her girlishness develops into strong adulthood, as she continues to master the English language. Despite having won power and a bit of freedom, she instantly comes to know her vulnerabilities as she sees Sally’s situation of being exploited and her being violated by the dominating patriarchy. When every other female character leaves her in the progress of life, she comes to know this gender vulnerability.
- Othering: The othering of the Latino community in the city of Chicago is another major theme of the novel. The reason is that most of the Latino community is not well-versed in the English language. This makes them work on manual jobs and earn much less. Less earning means to live in shabby apartments such as on Mango Street where Esperanza used to point out “there” to her teacher about the location of her apartment. This otherness creeps into her psyche and stays with her until they have a house of their own.
- Lives of Women: The story comprising vignettes also shows that it is the story about the lives of women. Although Esperanza talks about a few male characters they mostly live on the fringes. She, on the other hand, learns about marriage, motherhood, and other feminine responsibility from her mother, Marin, and Sally. However, as soon as she becomes young, she abandons this storying of the successful marriage due to the examples of Minerva, Mamacita, and Rafaela.
- Home: The novel also shows the importance of home through Esperanza’s story of her house located on Mango Street. The nostalgic recalling of her house and then strong desire to have their own house show that she, too, has an American dream. Although they finally get home yet it is not the house that she has desired. The story of the house on Mango Street, however, stays in her psyche, reminding her childhood, desires, dreams, and frustrations.
- Identity: The theme of identity in the novel emerges as a Latino individual in two ways; gender identity as well as Latino identity. When Esperanza dreams about adulthood and married life, it refers to her gender identity of which she is becoming aware of with her growth. However, when it comes to Latino identity, it emerges in the shape of their Spanish background as well as the Spanish language. For example, Meme Ortiz often becomes confused when she sees her double names and Mamatica does not come to terms with her confusing identity. Esperanza also faces the same dilemma throughout her life.
- Sexual Awakening: Esperanza comes to know about her sexual awakening when she meets boys and knows their interest in femininity. She feels that as Louis is being treated like a queen by Sire, she, too, deserves to be a queen of somebody. She, however, also knows the risks of feminine awakening in her. The punishment that Sally gets and Rafael meets, too, points to her fears of being a female.
- Coming of Age: The House on Mango Street also shows the theme of coming-of-age of Esperanza who knows that with adulthood comes responsibilities along with independence. She learns that although she is growing older, it has its own limitations, specifically, when it comes to being a female. That is why she declares that tameness is not her fate; rather, she would carve out her own path in American society.
Major Characters The House on Mango Street
- Esperanza Cordero: The first-person narrator of these vignettes, Esperanza is quite young of just eleven. She hates her name and wants to be called by some other name when she used to live in the Mango Street house. She is rather ashamed of the shabby outlook of her apartment as well as the penury in which the family has fallen on account of their ethnic and linguistic background. However, her desire to have a good house with a backyard never goes away even when she experiences her femininity having an upper hand in the patriarchal domination of Chicago. Her ideals of Mamatica and Rafael soon lose their appeal as she carves her own figure before becoming a writer.
- Mama: Another figure that constantly reverberates in her words, as well as sentences, is her Mama, who is not only a selfless, busy lady but is also a facilitator of her children to let them integrate into the American social fabric. An icon of femininity, she stays in Esperanza’s imaginations for a long on account of the lessons she has taught and the personality she has exuded to her. Sexually, gender uniqueness and robust figure are the hallmarks of Mama which do not let any other figure takes hold of Esperanza, specifically, until she is at home.
- Nenny or Magdalena: Her younger sister and lifelong friend, Nenny is the defender of Esperanza when she takes up brawls with the neighboring girls and is a constant refrain in her life full of frustrations and childish failures. Nenny is another figure after her mother who becomes an ideal for her on account of her strength and power to defend herself as well as other siblings. However, Esperanza does not like her obliviousness to others when playing.
- Sally: Sally is Esperanza’s best friend who often presents an example for others to follow. Being a flirtatious and experienced one, she becomes a bad role model for her to hook boys though she faces severe beatings from her father on account of her advanced thinking and determination to overcome her weak femininity.
- Alicia: An embodiment of putting her education into practice, Alicia is full of passions to make progress in life. She is fed up of doing menial jobs that the mothers used to do at that time and demonstrates to Esperanza how to change life as well as a career by changing the neighborhood and residential area. However, it does not work for Esperanza who has not forgotten Mango Street, let alone her house, and friends.
- Marin: Belonging to Puerto Rico, she appears in the novel doing babysitting and staying at home. She comes into contact with Esperanza when she teachers her and other girls of the area about the shenanigans of the boys. Despite having a fiancé, she does not stop dreaming American boys taking her away into the suburbs. Later, she goes back to Puerto Rico.
- Papa: Papa is Esperanza’s father who rarely appears in the novel. Working as a gardener after arriving from Mexico, he sets a yardstick for Esperanza to educate herself.
- Cathy: The significance of Catch in the novel lies in her association with Esperanza as she is her first friend in the neighborhood and then moves quickly away. She is not of Latino origin and as she leaves immediately within a week from the neighborhood, her impact on Esperanza is minimal.
- Carlos and Kiki: Both are Esperanza’s family members and appear quite often in the novel. Their appearance is often associated with Esperanza’s concept of the home where they also occupy a room.
- Louie: She is the eldest of the Oritz house and comes into contact with Esperanza through her friendship with other family members. Her cousin appears in a stolen Cadillac once and is arrested on the same day.
Writing Style of The House on Mango Street
Despite having written in the first-person narrative, The House on Mango Street shows the use of vignette or short memory flashbacks that occasionally bring forth fresh characters out of her sunken memory and makes them memorable on account of minor follies or achievements. The sentence style suits the vignette style writing as they are short, curt, and concise given mostly in colloquialism. The diction suits the sentence style and is easy and simple. The popularity of the novel lies in this simplicity as it suits the student as well as adult readers.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The House on Mango Street
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises different life stories from the life of Esperanza about her house, the street, and the neighborhood. The falling action occurs when Esperanza comes to know that she does not belong to Mango Street. The rising action occurs when Esperanza realizes that whether she likes it or not, she is going to be an adult in any way.
- Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora as given below,
i. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. (House on Mango Street)
ii. One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away. (Mango Says Goodbye Sometime)
The examples show the repetitious use of “before that” and “One day I will.”
- Allusion: The novel shows good use of different allusions. For example,
i. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse—which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female—but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong. (My Name)
ii. Marin’s boyfriend is in Puerto Rico. She shows us his letters and makes us promise not to tell anybody they’re getting married when she goes back to P.R. (Marin)
These examples show references to geographical locations as allusions used in the novel.
- Antagonist: Esperanza is her own antagonist as she worries about hiding her identity, growing up very soon, and the opinions of people around her.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Esperanza and her friends and the internal conflict is in her mind about her desires and reality.
- Characters: The novel shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young girl, Esperanza, is a dynamic character as she shows a considerable transformation in her behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Nenny, Kiki, Miran, Mama, Mamatica, and Alicia.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Sally leaves Esperanza after they meet in the Monkey Garden and she runs away leaving her alone to face the attack.
- Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows as given the below examples,
i. We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. (The House on Mango Street)
ii. The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their
universe and we in ours. My brothers for example. (Boys and Girls)
The mention of the house in the first and boys in the second foreshadow that both events are going to play a vital role in the life of Esperanza.
- Hyperbole: The novel shows various examples of hyperboles such as,
i. The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours. My brothers for example. They’ve got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the house. (Boys & Girls)
ii. Nenny, I say, but she doesn’t hear me. She is too many light-years away. She is in a world we don’t belong to anymore. (Hips)
Both of these examples exaggerate things as boys have no universe and Nenny is not so far away as it should take light-years.
- Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
i. But in Spanish my name is madeout of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name—Magdalena—which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. (My Name)
ii. My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. (My Name)
These two examples show images of feelings and movements.
- Metaphor: The House on Mango Street shows good use of various metaphors as given in the below examples,
i. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. (My Name)
ii. Cathy who is queen of cats has cats and cats and cats. Baby cats, big cats, skinny cats, sick cats. Cats asleep like little donuts. Cats on top of the refrigerator. Cats taking a walk on the dinner table. Her house is like cat heaven. (Cathy: Queen of Cats)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows comparing her great grandmother to a chandelier and then Cathy is compared to a cat in the second.
- Mood: The novel shows various moods; it starts with a nostalgic mood but goes through a joyous, troubled, including calm and peaceful mood through the story and finally ends on a happy note.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, The House on Mango Street, are houses, streets, women, and falling.
- Narrator: The novel is narrated by Esperanza who is also the protagonist of the novel. Hence, from the first-person point of view.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications as given below,
i. But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. (The House on Mango Street)
ii. The nose of that yellow Cadillac was all pleated like an alligator’s, and except for a bloody lip and a bruised forehead, Louie’s cousin was okay. (Louis, His Cousin & His Other Cousin)
iii. They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. (Four Skinny Trees)
These examples show as if the house, the Cadillac, and the trees have lives and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Esperanza, the young girl, is the protagonist of the novel, The House on Mango Street. The novel starts with her description of the house and moves with her reminiscences about people, things, and places.
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as,
i. What do you think about when you close your eyes like that? And why do you always have to go straight home after school? You become a different Sally. (Sally)
ii. Sally, who taught you to paint your eyes like Cleopatra? And if I roll the little brush with my tongue and chew it to a point and dip it in the muddy cake, the one in the little red box, will you teach me? (Sally)
These examples show the use of rhetorical questions posed by Esperanza not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel, The House on Mango Street, is the Latino neighborhood of Chicago, USA.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes as given in the below examples,
i. The only people who ever enter the garden are a family who speak like guitars, a family with a Southern accent. (A House on My Own)
ii. Beauty that is there to be admired by anyone, like a herd of clouds grazing overhead. (A House on My Own)
iii. Not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking. (Laughter)
iv. I want to be
like the waves on the sea,
like the clouds in the wind,
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin. (Bord Bad)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.