The House on Mango Street revolves around one girl and her struggle to fit the puzzle pieces of her identity – ethnicity, gender, cultural inheritance, sexuality, and economic status, to name a few examples – into a coherent whole. All of these facets come into play as Esperanza learns that, more than anything else, what defines her is her ability to tell stories. Her writing allows her to reconcile herself to those aspects of her background that made her feel uncomfortably different from her peers, and she emerges a confident writer with ambitious plans.
Though The House on Mango Street explores many facets of Esperanza's identity, the most central element of her identity is the role she adopts as a writer.
The dreams, hopes and plans of the characters in The House on Mango Street are often symbolized by a house – check out our discussion of houses in this novel in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more on this. For Esperanza's Mama and Papa, the idea of happiness and security is summed up in the image of a white house, big enough for their whole family. They pass this dream down to their children, but Esperanza takes it and makes it her own – her dream becomes having a house all to herself, in which she can be free to write.
Solitude is an essential component of Esperanza's plans for the future – without a space to call her own, she'd be unable to fulfill her goals of being a writer.
Social activism has always been a part of Esperanza's dreams and hopes, though she doesn't realize it until the end of the book. When Esperanza says she "won't forget who [she is] or where [she] came from," and pledges to let bums stay in the attic of her dream house, she's envisioning doing her part to create a better society.
Like many of the issues that come up in The House on Mango Street, social and class distinctions are discussed in a sort of oblique way. They're never given a name. Our protagonist, Esperanza, never comes out and says, "Hey, my family is poor!" No. That would be way too easy (and way too boring). Instead, we figure out that poverty and class distinctions are an issue by pulling clues from the text. The residents of Mango Street live in crumbling, run-down apartments and houses. They envy the beautiful, well-kept houses in nice neighborhoods of the city. And no one, not even the mayor, seems to want to help them resolve their problems.
Though this novel poses categories of class difference, it's not a novel about class warfare or revolution. Esperanza's plans for social activism and reform involve helping individuals, including herself, to pull themselves out of the poorer class and enter the wealthier class.
The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Esperanza. Like many coming-of-age stories, this one deals with Esperanza's loss of innocence and familiarization with sex. Tragically, her education in these matters isn't voluntary – while Esperanza tries to cling to a childhood that she's not really ready to leave behind, she's threatened by sexual violence as soon as she enters adolescence. Esperanza is forcibly initiated into the world of sex when a group of boys rapes her at a carnival.
Esperanza's environment, in which she moves freely as a child, becomes a threatening place as soon as the girl enters the gendered and sexualized world of adulthood.
For Esperanza, sexual interactions with men are never voluntary, and always pose a threat to her independence. Esperanza is constantly pressured to accept the greater and greater infractions of her freedom posed by sex.
Esperanza is not a big fan of the gender roles that keep women in her community oppressed. Men on Mango Street beat their wives and daughters and confine them to the home. Just being a women is sometimes cause enough for abuse – a fact that we observe in the beatings that Sally constantly receives, and in Esperanza's rape. Esperanza offers us a critique of the way men and women relate to one another, and refuses to conform to the expectations placed on her sex by getting married or even acting in a feminine way. For our protagonist, defying gender roles and remaining independent is an act of rebellion, and a source of power.
In The House on Mango Street, gender is portrayed as a social construction – something that people learn as they grow up, not something they're born with.
Men have it easy on Mango Street – it's much easier for the male characters of the novel to live up to the gender role prescribed for them than it is for women.
Women occupy a central role in The House on Mango Street. Almost all of the major characters are women, and the protagonist's understanding of her own femininity motivates much of the story. Esperanza perceives beauty to be a major source of feminine power, and she admires and envies beauty in her female relatives and friends. But she also notices that beauty is not an infallible weapon, and that it can backfire – the beautiful women in the novel are often the ones who suffer the most at the hands of men. In her struggle to define her own femininity in a society that is often oppressive to women, Esperanza seeks new forms of feminine power – ones that will allow her to maintain her independence.
Esperanza ultimately rejects beauty as a source of power because she sees it as a double-edged sword that can both control men and trap women under men's control.
By the end of the novel, Esperanza is poised to become what is, in her society, a kind of New Woman – soon to attain a level of independence that was unheard of for women in earlier generations, and possessing the confidence, education, and means to exist in the world without relating to men in a hierarchical way.
Set in a Latino community in Chicago, The House on Mango Street contains many characters who are or have been foreigners in some way. The novel explores the feelings associated with foreignness and exile, like loneliness, isolation, shame, and a sense of not belonging. It also describes some of the social attitudes towards foreignness, from fear on the part of white people who venture into the Latino neighborhood by mistake, to apathy on the part of hospital workers called on to tend to a dying Mexican man, to condescension on the part of neighbors like Cathy who are eager to make themselves look superior in some way.
For Esperanza, the experience of being an adolescent bears a lot of similarities to the experience of living in exile – she feels isolated, misunderstood, and lonely, and thinks she doesn't belong. Foreignness in this book is characterized by an inability to communicate, and foreigners are able to overcome their isolation only when they learn to communicate in a new language. Like a foreigner who assimilates into a community, Esperanza overcomes her feelings of isolation and grows more connected to her environment through the mastery of language – in her case, through writing.
The idea of home and houses are central to The House on Mango Street, as you may have noticed when you read the section "What's Up With the Title?" and our discussion of houses under "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." Esperanza's major challenge in this novel is to overcome her feelings of isolation and experience a sense of belonging, which is another way of saying she needs to feel at home. For Esperanza, it's important both to have a home that she can point to as a way of explaining a past that she can be proud of, and to have a vision of a home in her future – something to inspire her.
Esperanza needs both a house she can "point to" to legitimize her past and give her a way of explaining where she comes from, and a house that she can keep all to herself – one that allows her privacy and isolation – in order to inspire her and enable her to create.
Esperanza's relationship with her family provides her with a sense of belonging – even when she does her best to deny it. Like a lot of adolescents, Esperanza doesn't always feel close to her family. She thinks her little sister Nenny is a drag, she rolls her eyes at her parents' long-shot dreams of winning the lottery, and part of her hates going to visit her sick aunt in her smelly old apartment. But every once in a while, Esperanza betrays her feelings of love and connectedness to the people she's related to. Esperanza's connection to her family is a major reason she ends up feeling like she does – at least part of the time – belong to the house on Mango Street.
Though Esperanza inherits an attitude of independence from her mother and paternal great-grandmother, her family's tendency to challenge traditional gender roles does not extend to the men in the family – Esperanza's brothers, in particular, seem to act within the bounds of traditional masculinity, and this prevents Esperanza from being close to them.
For a girl who feels as isolated as Esperanza does, making friends becomes an urgent and persistent goal. The House on Mango Street deals with the theme of friendship as Esperanza struggles to form connections with her peers and thinks about what her relationships mean. Esperanza experiences a wide variety of friendships over the course of the novel that seem to increase in intensity and meaning. From the obligatory time spent babysitting her little sister, to the spontaneous connections made with neighborhood girls over a shared bicycle, to the empathy and advice offered to her by Alicia, Esperanza grows more and more mature in her friendships.
Many of the friendships portrayed in this novel seem based around something trivial – like a gift, a shared bicycle, or the loan of a hairbrush – and something more significant. The trivial item often hints at the more significant emotion that binds two friends together.
Over the course of the novel, Esperanza establishes friendships that grow increasingly deeper and more meaningful. At the beginning of the book, Esperanza's friendships are easily formed and just as easily broken. By the end, Esperanza's friendships are based on a true commitment to improving the lives of people in her community.