annotation by Marya Summers
The acclaimed first book of fiction from the feminist poet Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street relates a young writer’s experiences as a Latina growing up poor in America in a series of powerful, poetic vignettes. Esperanza begins her story with the introduction of the house in the opening, eponymous chapter. The one-bedroom house, shared by six, represents progress for her family: they are finally homeowners. Still, the narrator is ashamed of the house, which both demonstrates poverty and symbolizes girlhood; the house is personified and depicted as “small,” “red,” “tight,” and “swollen” (4) – terms easily interpreted as symbolically vaginal in this coming of age story. The narrator’s quest is to escape this house so that she may return on her own terms and help those who could not escape.
Presenting issues of gender and poverty in the Hispanic community, Cisneros explores the psychology of the female experience through her narrator. Women are often sexual prey and property, both victimized and protected in men’s houses. Some women own their own property (like Edna and her mother), and even then, men pose a danger (Edna’s brother sold it when they weren’t looking). Edna now owns a home and lives alone with only a daughter. The house becomes a symbol for the world. Esperanza dreams of owning her own house. “Not a flat. Not an apartment. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own” (108). She wants her own world – a complete one on her terms.
While the book exists as written text, it reads like spoken language with all its fluidity, lapsing into dialogue without quotation marks (sometimes without paragraph breaks) and shifting person without warning. This chatty quality contributes to the sense of the narrator as an authentic, dynamic person. The author effectively disappears behind her narrator, whose voice matures as she does.
The author’s word choice adds to the richness and resonance of Esperanza’s story. It is no accident that Esperanza means two different things. That “in English it means hope” (10) suggests that her command of the language is her hope, her ticket out of poverty; that it means “sadness” and “waiting” (10) in Spanish asserts the disadvantages she has inherited. Cisneros gives her narrator a simple vocabulary that still is capable of imaginative descriptions and keen observations. In this way, the author is true to her character as she presents her narrator as writer-material. In essence, as Cisneros creates Esperanza as a writer, she creates esperanza in the reader for the narrator’s chance at a literary future.
Furthermore, Cisneros’ syntax and grammar reflect the psychology of the narrator. For instance, in an early chapter like “Hairs,” Esperanza relates her observations about the family members’ hair in short, simple sentences – that is, until she gets to her mother. Then she devotes an entire paragraph for indulgent and convoluted description. However, the paragraph is comprised of only one sentence and a fragment, and even in all her linguistic zigs and zags, the narrator achieves the grammatical sophistication of only a compound sentence. In fact, throughout the book, complex sentences are few.
For all its chattiness, for its convolutions and repetitions, there is something lean in this approach to story-telling. As vignettes, it works as the memory does, recalling the past as a series of images told in the voice of the self at the time. The reader is given only those scenes that are essential to portraying the emotional and psychological experience of the narrator’s childhood. Rather than providing a traditional, linear narrative, where one event leads to the next, (though the events are told in a chronological sequence), Mango Street gives us Esperanza’s episodic reportage. Her vignettes are like the house’s tiny windows, both offer glimpses of a vast world.
Though there is no true resolution (the narrator’s life is still in progress, after all), the book concludes with the chapter “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” which echoes the opening chapter. Reminded of the family’s slow progress, the reader believes Esperanza’s resolute dream that her writing will liberate her from Mango, but as the book concludes, hers is a dream yet unrealized.
This book was recommended to me because as I have been writing my memoir, the story has been presenting itself in a series of unrelated scenes rather than as a fluid, cohesive narrative. Because, like Cisneros, I was a poet before I tried my hand at storytelling, my vignettes also have a poetic quality. Reading The House on Mango Street provided me with a fine example of how a series of vignettes can effectively develop character and advance a narrative. The book also helped me to appreciate not only what was so artfully and movingly presented, but what was missing; a few well chosen scenes can go a long way if their language uses the compression that is usually more often employed in poetry than in prose.