Study Guide

The House on Mango Street Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Sandra Cisneros

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Houses

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.

The Three Sisters

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 Monkey Garden

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).