Study Guide

The House on Mango Street Themes

By Sandra Cisneros

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Esperanza identify herself? Do ethnicity, cultural heritage, sexuality, and gender play a part in forming her identity? What about her place of residence, her relationships to her family, and her interest in writing? Which of these aspects are the most important?
    2. How does Esperanza's identity change over the course of the novel? Do you see a difference in the way she presents herself in the first chapter and the last? What has changed?
    3. Why does Esperanza feel like changing her name? What does her name have to do with her identity? Why do you think she feels that Zeze the X would be more appropriate?
    4. What aspects of the protagonist's identity could we change without dramatically altering the narrative? Could we make the protagonist male? Could we change the protagonist's race, age, or sexual orientation? What if her family were wealthy, instead of poor? What if we made her a musician instead of a writer? What if she were the youngest child instead of the oldest? Which of these changes would alter the story the most? How do you think they would affect the overarching message of the novel?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    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.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. When does Esperanza begin to have a dream that's different from that of her parents? What direction does her dream take, and how does it become different from her parents' dream?
    2. What characters other than Esperanza have big plans for the future? How do these characters influence or inspire Esperanza?
    3. At the end of the novel, are we left with the feeling that Esperanza will achieve her goals? What makes us think so?
    4. Why do you think the idea of a house is so central to Esperanza's dreams for the future? What are some of the key features of Esperanza's dream houses? Why do these particular dream houses inspire her?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is Mango Street considered to be in a "bad neighborhood"? What events, attitudes, or social conditions cause people to perceive the neighborhood as bad? Are these perceptions false?
    2. Esperanza dismisses people's fears of her neighborhood as totally unfounded. Is she right? What about her fears of going into a white neighborhood? Do those fears have any basis in reality, or are they based purely on prejudice?
    3. Why are there so many single mothers in Esperanza's neighborhood? Is this a problem that has to do with social class?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Innocence

    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.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. In the chapter "The Family of Little Feet," why does Mr. Benny describe the high-heeled shoes the girls are wearing as "dangerous"? Where else in the text do we hear an adult describe a child's clothing as dangerous? What sort of danger does grown-up clothing pose to the children? Where does the danger come from?
    2. What happens to Esperanza in the monkey garden? How can this be read as a loss-of-innocence experience?
    3. Why is the story of Esperanza's rape followed by the story of Sally getting married? What connection do you see between Esperanza's forced sexual experience and Sally's young marriage? What is the tone of the novel at this point?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Gender

    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.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Some critics have complained that Cisneros's portrayal of sexism in this novel is a slander of Latin American culture. Do you think that gender and gendered relations are linked to culture in the book? Is sexism portrayed as an integral component of Latino culture?
    2. Women are constantly portrayed as occupying a place by the window in this novel. What does their position say about the role of women in this society?
    3. How does Esperanza defy the gender roles that her society endorses? What effects does her refusal to abide by traditional gender roles have?

    Chew on This

    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 and Femininity

    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.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why do you think this book is dedicated "To the Women"?
    2. How does feminine beauty function in the novel? How is beauty used as a source of power? What are the pitfalls of beauty?
    3. What roles do women occupy in The House on Mango Street? Do any of the female characters act in ways that contradict traditional gender roles?
    4. How does Esperanza come to identify her own femininity? Is she a feminine character, or does she see femininity as a source of weakness? In the end, is Esperanza comfortable with her gender?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    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.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. How does a foreigner become un-foreign? What examples do we see in the novel of characters who manage to assimilate into a new society? What sorts of sacrifices do they have to make to be successful? What do they gain?
    2. Does Esperanza feel like a foreigner in her own community? How is her feeling of not belonging similar to the experience of being a foreigner? How is it different?
    3. How does the use of language in the novel indicate a character's foreignness?

    Chew on This

    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 Home

    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.

    Questions About The Home

    1. How do Esperanza's ideas of home change over the course of the book? When, if ever, does she finally come to feel like she has a home?
    2. If we think of "home" as a sense of belonging, what other characters do we see in The House on Mango Street who don't have a home?
    3. Do the homes that Esperanza envisions for herself differ from the home that she envisions for Sally? How so? What kind of dream home do you think Sally would envision for herself?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. What kinds of things does Esperanza inherit from her family members? Consider her great-grandmother, her Mama and Papa, and her Aunt Lupe.
    2. Does Esperanza seem to have a close relationship with her brothers? What do you think are the factors influencing this?
    3. Besides the Cordero family, what other families do we see in The House on Mango Street? How do they affect our understanding of the relationships that Esperanza has with her family members?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How do Esperanza's notions of friendship change over the course of the book? What does it mean to be a friend at the beginning of the book when she meets Cathy, Lucy, and Rachel? What does it mean to be a friend to Sally at school? What does it mean to be friends with Alicia at the end of the novel?
    2. Can Esperanza's pledge to come back to Mango Street after she has gone out and made a place for herself in the world be seen as an expression of friendship?
    3. Why does Esperanza want so desperately to be Sally's friend?

    Chew on This

    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.