It's impossible to ignore the critical lens through which the author portrays many of the social ills in this book. Men beat their daughters and wives. An immigrant is allowed to bleed to death in the hospital because the surgeon doesn't bother to show up. The wealthy are unable or unwilling to see the poverty and crime that has taken over a poor neighborhood in their city.
As dismal as the situation may sound, the tone of the novel is encouraging – even hopeful. Our heroine, Esperanza, has upwardly-mobile plans. Faced with the injustices that occur all around her, she doesn't sink into despair – she plans to get out of there. And while she sees herself someday living in a house of her own, she vows never to "forget who [she is] or where [she] came from" (34.3). As the novella progresses, the tone becomes more hopeful as Esperanza realizes she has an active role to play in making her community better. The novella ends with Esperanza's pledge to come back someday "for the ones who cannot out" (44.8). What could be more hopeful than that?
A little girl tells the story of growing up in a bad neighborhood, and how poetry becomes her ticket out of there. Kind of like Dangerous Minds without the Michelle Pfeiffer character. (Cue Coolio.)
Autobiography? Check. Oh, and she's going through those difficult teenage years and learning about what it means to be an adult, so it's definitely a coming-of-age story, too.
It could be said that this is the story of a house. A house on Mango Street. Pretty straightforward, right? But right off the bat the title has us asking ourselves a few questions. Whose house is it? What's special about the house? Where's Mango Street?
Let's dig a little deeper. In literature, a house is rarely just a house – that's because the idea of a "house" carries certain connotations, or ideas that are connected with the word itself. When we think of a house, our mind makes all sorts of associations. We think of things like a home, a family, and a sense of belonging. We think of location, location, location – and we generally think of a cute little two-bedroom in the suburbs. You know, like something you'd see on Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch. We also think of status, because it usually takes quite a bit of money to purchase a house, and being a homeowner suggests a certain amount of prestige.
Well, in a twisted way, The House on Mango Street is about all of these things. It is about a home, a family, and a girl who wants to feel like she belongs to community. But to a large extent the story defies the expectations we've formulated based on the title – Mango Street isn't in suburbia, for instance. It's not even in a nice part of the city. Nor is the house on Mango Street the kind of cute, tidy house that you see in television sitcoms. It's cramped and falling apart and doesn't even have a backyard to play in.
As it turns out, the ways in which the story deviates from the picture-perfect image that the title brings to mind are more significant that the ways in which it conforms to our expectations. Because, just as our vision of suburban cuteness is crushed, so is Esperanza's. And ultimately, this isn't the story of a house – it's the story of a girl, her disappointment, and where it leads her.
The last chapter of The House on Mango Street is a vignette entitled "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes." The eight little (and we do mean little) paragraphs of this segment of Esperanza's story do a lot to summarize what she has learned in the course of the novella, and who she has become.
So, presuming you've read the rest of the book, this vignette will be a bit of a recap of Esperanza's development as a character. And if you haven't read the rest of the book, read the introduction to find out why Sandra Cisneros herself thinks you'll still be able to appreciate the ending. And then go ahead and read the rest of the book, because really, it's good.
So, who is our narrator? She's a girl who likes to tell stories, a girl who makes a story for her life. She's a writer. She seems a lot surer of herself than she did at the beginning of the book, don't you think? This is a girl with a calling in life.
She's also "a girl who didn't want to belong," a statement that reveals to us how much Esperanza has changed (44.3). Only two vignettes ago, Esperanza proclaimed, "I don't belong" to her friend Alicia (42.3). Here at the end of the book, however, Esperanza has accepted Mango Street's formative role in her identity.
To emphasize our point, let's look at the fourth little paragraph in this section. "We didn't always live on Mango Street," Esperanza writes (44.4). Sound familiar? The repetition of these few lines takes us back to the opening phrases of the book. Is the narrator bringing us full circle, suggesting that nothing has changed? Nope – quite the opposite, actually. She brings us back to the beginning to show us how much she's changed. So what's different this time around? Instead of the interminable chaos of constant moving, what the narrator remembers most now is Mango Street, "sad red house, the house [she belongs] to but [does] not belong to" (44.4).
The last section of The House on Mango Street is pretty open-ended. Where is Esperanza going to go next? We have the feeling she'll be successful – after all, the three sisters predicted as much – but when will she find a house of her own? What will she write? Like the friends and neighbors Esperanza imagines leaving behind, we're left wondering what will happen to that Esperanza, where she'll go "with all those books and paper" (44.7). We're left on the brink of another story, one to which we know the ending in advance – she'll be back.
The setting is central to The House on Mango Street – after all, it's even mentioned in the title. Esperanza and her family have just moved to a poor, mostly Latino neighborhood in a city that's commonly understood to be Chicago, the author's hometown. A few contextual clues, like the car Louie steals and the song Marin is constantly singing to herself, probably establish the time period as the late 1960s (see "Allusions" for a list of cultural references from the book).
You might notice that very little of Esperanza's story actually takes place within the house on Mango Street. For the most part the action happens elsewhere in the neighborhood – on the street with her friends, on Edna's back porch, in Gil's junk shop, up in the tree in Meme's backyard, at school, and in the monkey garden next door. This has the effect of suggesting that Esperanza's community plays a large part in establishing what is, for her, Mango Street – a place that she will eventually come to see as home.
Esperanza's freedom to run around the neighborhood is a marker of her independence, and distinguishes her from the number of women in the community who are confined to the home. Whether it's because their husbands prohibit them from leaving, because they're tied down by familial obligations, or, as in the case of Mamacita, because they are prisoners of their own foreignness and fear, several female characters are trapped within their houses or apartments. By the time we read about Sally in "Linoleum Roses," the domestic setting has become a symbol for the freedom that women in the novel give up by marrying. Take a look at the last paragraph in that chapter, and see if you agree.
One of the reasons this book is so fantastic is that Cisneros manages to write in a way that is both accessible and beautiful. If The House on Mango Street were a hiking trail, it would be a walk in the park – a really gorgeous and interesting park, full of pretty flowers and cute, fuzzy animals, and maybe some kids jumping rope and sweet old ladies feeding the pigeons on a park bench.
The House on Mango Street is intentionally easy to understand, because accessibility is part of Cisneros's project. She writes in her introduction that stories create a kind of "beauty that is there to be admired by anyone, like a herd of clouds grazing overhead" (Introduction.20). In fact, she says, the book is so accessible that you should be able to open it to any page and be able to make sense of the story you find there, without knowing what came before or what comes next.
OK, you know that really great introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street that we keep telling you to read? It's really helpful in understanding why Sandra Cisneros writes the way she does. For instance, here's what Sandra Cisneros has to say about the style she developed for writing this book:
She experiments, creating a text that is as succinct and flexible as poetry, snapping sentences into fragments so that the reader pauses, making each sentence serve her and not the other way round, abandoning quotation marks to streamline the typography and make the page as simple and readable as possible. (Introduction.20)
Isn't that nice of her? Cisneros is incredibly straightforward about her writing process. After all, she's had a long career as an educator, so she wants you to understand how writing works and why she does the things she does.
So, let it be said that we totally agree with Cisneros's assessment of her own style. First off, it's readable. (As in, easy to read.) So readable, in fact, that you can pick up this book, open it to any page, and make sense of what's going on, without having any idea of what came before or what's going to happen next. Each chapter, or vignette, is its own self-contained story, while still working as part of the overall whole.
Part of this readability comes from the structure of the novel, which critics often describe as a collection of vignettes. The word vignette means "little vine" in French, and the name of the literary form comes from the drawings of little vines that nineteenth-century printers used to decorate the title pages and beginnings of chapters. So a vignette is kind of like an illustration. It's a short, descriptive passage that's more about evoking meaning through imagery than it is about plot. You'll notice that the vignettes here are all really short – some no longer than half a page – and that for the most part they're made up of short, succinct phrases. The brevity of Cisneros's language increases its readability, too. Check out "Those Who Don't" for an example of a really brief vignette.
Secondly, her style is poetic. We don't mean that it's ostentatious or flowery – to the contrary, it's natural, clear, and easy to understand. By poetic, we mean Cisneros's sentences are full of imagery, metaphors, and word games. For example, when Esperanza wants to describe what it's like having to tote her annoying baby sister around, she hits us with a snapshot image that sums up her feelings of loneliness: "Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor" (3.4).
If you listen to these phrases, you'll notice that they're sing-songy – they even play with rhyme:
There was a family. All were little. Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small. (17.1)
Sounds like a poem, right? And how about this one:
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem. (43.2)
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.
Archetypes are very exciting, because, theoretically speaking, they're supposed to be symbols that are universally recognizable. Archetypes are prototypes – stock roles or character types that carry a lot of associations. In literature, a lot of these archetypes come from mythology or folklore, but really they're being created all the time. So take "the hero," "the princess in need of rescuing," and "the John Cusack (romantic love interest) type" for example. All archetypes.
Anyway, back to Mango Street. The three sisters who examine Esperanza's hand and foretell her future call to mind the Fates – the three ancient sisters in Greek mythology who spin, measure, and cut short the thread of every human life. In some traditions, they show up three days after a child is born in order to foretell the infant's future. They know everything that will happen to an individual during his lifetime, including the moment he will die, so they're often associated with destiny and mortality.
So, it's no coincidence that Esperanza meets the three sisters at a wake for a baby – after all, it's sort of the job of the Fates to show up at births and deaths. So here they are, doing the whole birth and death thing, and they encounter an ambitious little girl, our heroine, Esperanza. They can sense how weirded out she feels about being at a wake, because "they [have] the power" (41.5). So they offer her a stick of gum, examine her palm, and manage to guess her secret desires. Because of their mythological power, the sisters' confirmation of Esperanza's plans to escape Mango Street give us confidence that she'll actually make it. And after the previous two chapters, in which Esperanza is raped and Sally gets married to a macho loser, we could use some cheering up.
The garden near Esperanza's house comes into play at a significant time of her life. She's caught in that awkward period of adolescence where she still wants to act like a little kid, but she's also starting to think about grown-up things like sex. Sounds like she's poised for a loss-of-innocence moment in grand Garden of Eden style.
The archetypal garden, like the Biblical Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, is a place where it's always springtime, people live in harmony with nature, and everyone runs around naked without being embarrassed about it. Life is generally awesome. And that's pretty much what the kids on Mango Street find in the monkey garden (minus the naked part, because Chicago has a shortage of fig leaves). At first, when the neighborhood children take over the garden, it's "a wonderful thing to look at in the spring," full of flowers and fruit trees (38.4). The garden becomes their refuge from the prying eyes of adults, a place where they can play their games and build "no grown-ups allowed" clubhouses. They even start a rumor "that the monkey garden had been there before anything," heightening its Eden-esque qualities.
Which brings us to the second half of the garden-as-Eden archetype – the part about The Fall. (You know, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, realize the fig leaves aren't really hiding anything, start wearing clothes, and get kicked out of Eden.) The monkey garden slowly becomes corrupted, presaging the fall from innocence of its virginal occupants. Weeds start to grow in its flowerbeds, and it fills up with dead cars.
So it's no surprise when Esperanza, who wants to play games with the kids even though someone says she's getting too old, figures out something about sex when she watches Sally go off in the garden to kiss Tito and the boys. A talking snake may as well have given her an apple.
Of course, Esperanza doesn't adjust well to this sudden revelation. And afterwards, "the garden that had been such a good place to play" doesn't seem to belong to her anymore (38.24).
Our narrator is a young girl named Esperanza Cordero. For the most part, we see things from her point of view. Esperanza explains what her new house on Mango Street looks like, for example, and shares her personal feelings of loneliness and shame with us. But sometimes we read a paragraph or two, or even a whole chapter, in which Esperanza provides us with a seemingly impossible perspective. She writes about things she couldn't possibly have seen, because she wasn't there. What's the deal?
Well, she's a writer. And writers have very healthy imaginations. Take a look at this paragraph from the chapter "Marin":
Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a start to fall, someone to change her life. (11.5)
While she might not be there to see Marin dancing under the streetlight, Esperanza is able to envision the scene. That's the first time we see Esperanza narrate a scene that she's invented, but it happens again when she imagines the domestic setting of "The Family of Little Feet," or the kitchenettes and two-room flats of "Geraldo No Last Name." Esperanza doesn't really know what Rafaela thinks to herself when she's trapped in her house alone at night, but she can imagine it. It's still a first-person narrative voice, but she becomes a peripheral narrator for those few paragraphs. It seems Esperanza's not a completely self-centered narrator. She's not just concerned with telling her own story, but also with giving voice to the experiences of the members of her community who don't – or can't – speak up for themselves.
A young Esperanza Cordero is suddenly forced by a plumbing accident out of the world of apartment-living to which she has grown accustomed, and into the world of Mango Street.
Though her family's new house isn't what she dreamed it would be, there's much to explore on Mango Street. Esperanza and her sister meet many new characters, like Lucy and Rachel, Meme Ortiz and his dog with two names, and Gil the junk store owner. Characters like "Cathy Queen of Cats" and the "Old Woman Who Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do" lend the story a bizarre nursery-rhyme, Alice in Wonderland feel. (And did you notice that in the chapter "Edna's Ruthie" Esperanza memorizes "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass? Esperanza and Alice do have a lot in common.)
The little things that Esperanza has notice become more dramatic as she and her friends enter adolescence. The mood of the story grows increasingly dark as Esperanza recounts her experience of being forced to kiss an old man at work, and her observations of the ways in which Rafaela, Minerva, and Sally are mistreated by the men in their lives.
The threat of sexual violence that has lingered in the background becomes a reality for Esperanza when a group of boys rapes her at the carnival.
OK, here's where Esperanza's development deviates in a major way from Booker's "Voyage and Return" model. While Esperanza does dream of escaping Mango Street, she never actually does so in the course of the book. She envisions a "house of [her] own," but it's still just a fantasy at this point. And her escape, when it happens, won't be a return to her old, familiar surroundings, but a progression. So, unlike Alice who returns from Wonderland, Esperanza doesn't wind up right where she started, wondering if her whole experience has been a dream. Instead, she stands at the brink of her dream world, ready to jump in when she grows old enough and strong enough.
OK, so where does the return part come in? Well, Esperanza does promise that, when she finally goes away, she will ultimately come back for the ones she leaves behind. So The House on Mango Street leaves us on the cusp of a new adventure – a new "Voyage and Return."
OK, so at first glance The House on Mango Street may not appear to be a good candidate for a Classic Plot Analysis. The structure of the novel isn't very novel-esque – each chapter can be taken on its own as a self-contained story. In fact, critics often refer to the book as a collection of vignettes, instead of a novel. (A vignette is, by the way, a French word meaning "little vine," to give you some idea of its significance as a literary term. A vignette is a short, descriptive sketch that often contains little or no plot or narrative structure. It's descriptive. It's evocative. It's a doodle.) The vignettes in Mango Street are often so short, and so artfully written, that they seem more like poetry than prose. See our discussion on "Writing Style" if you need more convincing.
"Wait a second," you might say. "You mean to tell me that you're going to try to apply an interpretative structure reserved for novels to what seems to be a collection of vignettes?"
Yes. We are. We're sassy like that. Our point here is that, despite each vignette's ability to stand alone as a work of literature, The House on Mango Street isn't completely fragmented. The little stories are connected to one another – characters develop, and early events shape later ones. We think we can interpret the book using the traditional plot analysis that we use to look at novels. Let us try to prove it to you.
We meet Esperanza and learn that she and her family have just moved into their first ever house. She's disappointed with it – this is not the house she's been dreaming of her whole life. It's tiny and falling apart and she has to share one bedroom with her three siblings and her parents.
Esperanza introduces us to the other residents of Mango Street. Esperanza's just a kid, but even from her perspective we can see that most of her neighbors live difficult and complicated lives. Poverty, crime, and apathy are endemic. Whole families are crowded into tiny apartments. Single mothers struggle to raise too many children.
One day Esperanza and her friends are talking about hips, and the next she's slammed with the responsibilities of adulthood. Like consoling her father on the death of his father, and having to get a job to help pay for her high school education. As she enters into adolescence, Esperanza is torn between her desire to remain independent and free, and her curiosity about boys and sex. To make matters much, much worse, Esperanza begins to notice that being a woman on Mango Street often means being mistreated by men – her female friends and neighbors are physically abused, confined to their homes by their overprotective husbands, and abandoned to raise children on their own. Maybe she doesn't want to grow up, after all.
While she waits for her more sexually experienced friend Sally to finish hooking up with a guy at the carnival, some boys accost Esperanza. It's so painful for her to recount that she never says exactly what happens, but it seems that one of the boys rapes her.
Esperanza's friend Sally, whose father frequently abuses her, gets married to escape the beatings, only to end up living in a virtual suburban prison. Esperanza, on the other hand, longs for freedom. At a funeral, she meets three elderly sisters who read her palm and divine her secret wish to leave Mango Street. They confirm that she'll achieve her dream, with one hitch – she has to promise to come back. Esperanza's reaction? No freaking way – she's never coming back to this crummy neighborhood!
Esperanza's friend Alicia helps her realize that she has a responsibility to return to Mango Street to help the people who can't leave as easily as she can. After all, if she doesn't do anything to help, no one else will.
Esperanza clings to her dream of leaving Mango Street to live independently and pursue a career in writing, but she accepts that she can never forget where she came from. She resolves to come back some day for the people who cannot escape.
Again, The House on Mango Street doesn't necessarily fit perfectly into this kind of plot analysis, since it's not a novel in the strictest sense of the word. This is how we'd film the movie. How would you do it?
We'd argue that Act I takes us from the beginning of the story, when Esperanza and her family move to Mango Street, to the day she starts her first job. An old man's request for a birthday kiss may seem innocent enough, but when he forces Esperanza to kiss him, he initiates her into the patterns of gendered violence that she has observed amongst her neighbors.
Esperanza continues to grow up – and we all know what that means. She starts to develop a healthy curiosity about sex, but at the same time wants to preserve her independence from men. Her desire to live independently and to escape Mango Street increases as she witnesses the way in which the women of her neighborhood are often mistreated by their husbands. This act takes us to the darkest point in the story – when Esperanza is accosted and raped by a gang of boys.
Tension mounts as we learn that, in a discouraging turn of events, Sally has gotten married. Her husband takes her away from her father, but keeps her shut up in a house and isolates her from her friends. Is this Esperanza's fate as well?
Never fear – at a wake, Esperanza's destiny is confirmed by three elderly sisters, who say that she'll manage to escape Mango Street, but that she must promise to come back to help those who cannot leave as easily. Esperanza resists this request for a while, but she comes to realize that she owes it to her community to come back and try to make things better some day.