The House on Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
We've talked a little bit about houses in The House on Mango Street in the section "What's Up With the Title?" so you might want to check out that section first before you start here. But the title "house" isn't the only one in the novel. For Esperanza, the idea of having a house of her own becomes sort of an obsession – she starts seeing houses everywhere. The image of the house becomes a symbol for various ideas, some of them contradictory. We're going to examine two sets of meanings attributed to houses in the novel: let's call them "Shame and Fantasy" and "Confinement and Independence."
Let's start with the shame factor. Esperanza is so ashamed of her "sad, red house" that she denies she even lives at 4006 Mango – as if by negating the fact she can somehow erase the year she's lived in it (44.4). Her temporary friend Cathy's embarrassment over the slanted floors and crooked steps of her house is evident when she offers the lame excuse that the steps were "made that way on purpose […] so the rain will slide off" (9.3). The characters' shame in their houses seems to be wrapped up in their feelings about wealth and status. For Esperanza and for Cathy, their houses aren't just houses – they're expressions of their families' poverty.
On the other hand, houses also become the embodiment of the characters' fantasies about wealth and happiness. Looking for a way to escape their own meager residences, the characters fantasize about living in beautiful houses in wealthy neighborhoods. Here are some examples: Esperanza's family drives into the hills on Sundays to ogle the homes of the rich. Cathy brags that one day her father will go to France to find their long-lost relatives and inherit the family house. Esperanza's Papa holds up lottery tickets and talks about owning a house with three washrooms. And Esperanza promises to let bums stay in her attic when she has a nice house of her own. These fantasies are the flip side to the feelings of shame provoked by the run-down housing that the characters actually live in.
The image of the house is used in another way, too – it can be a symbol of the confinement of women, or a sign of women's liberation and independence. Houses owned by men are prisons for women like Esperanza's great-grandmother, Rafaela, and Mamacita, who lean on the windowsills, itching to be let out. In this context, windows become an expression of longing, and sort of a teaser of freedom for the women condemned to lives of domestic captivity. Esperanza herself has a window-leaning experience in the story "Sire," by which we understand that she's feeling stuck and frustrated. Sally, in contrast, doesn't even get a window – she contemplates the cage formed by the walls, floor, and smooth ceiling of her new suburban house. We get the picture – Sally is being held prisoner by a new husband who won't allow her any outlets to the world.
Sally's reality is totally different from the house that Esperanza dreamed up for her – one with flowers, big windows that she can open to let the sky in, and a room all to herself, and without any nosy neighbors or domestic chores. Esperanza's dream house is an expression of female independence. And she wants one for herself, too. "A House of My Own" sounds like a reference to a famous essay by Virginia Woolf, called "A Room of One's Own," in which Woolf argues that a woman needs both independence and a room of her own in order to write. Esperanza says that she wants a house of her own, "not a man's house" or "a daddy's" (43.1). This last house image, which occurs near the end of the book, seems to trump all the other ones. It's Esperanza's vision of perfect happiness.