A Point of View
The House on Mango Street is narrated by the adolescent Esperanza, who tells her story in the form of short, vivid tales. The stories are narrated in the first person (“I”), giving the reader an intimate glimpse of the girl’s outlook on the world. Although critics often describe Esperanza as a childlike narrator, Cisneros said in a 1992 interview in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World: “If you take Mango Street and translate it, it’s Spanish. The syntax, the sensibility, the diminutives, the way of looking at inanimate objects-that’s not a child’s voice as is sometimes said. That’s Spanish! I didn’t notice that when I was writing it.” Incorporating and translating Spanish expressions literally into English, often without quotation marks, adds a singular narrative flavor that distinguishes Cisneros’s work from that of her peers.
The House on Mango Street is set in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. Esperanza briefly describes some of the rickety houses in her neighborhood, beginning with her own, which she says is “small and red with tight steps in front.” Of Meme Ortiz’s house, Esperanza says that “Inside the floors slant-And there are no closets. Out front there are twenty-one steps, all lopsided and jutting like crooked teeth.” Mamacita’s son paints the inside walls of her house pink, a reminder of the Mexican home she left to come to America. The furniture in Elena’s house is covered in red fur and plastic. Esperanza gives the impression of a crowded neighborhood where people live in close quarters and lean out of windows, and where one can hear fighting, talking, and music coming from other houses on the street. Esperanza describes the types of shops in the concrete landscape of Mango Street: a laundromat, a junk store, the corner grocery. Cats, dogs, mice, and cockroaches make appearances at various times. However, while Esperanza gives fleeting glimpses of specific places, the images that the girl paints of her neighborhood are mostly understood through the people that inhabit it.
Just like Esperanza, whose identity isn’t easy to define, critics have had difficulty classifying The House on Mango Street. Is it a collection of short stories? A novel? Essays? Autobiography? Poetry? Prose poems? The book is composed of very short, loosely organized vignettes. Each stands as a whole in and of itself, but collectively the stories cumulate in a mounting progression that creates an underlying coherence; the setting remains constant, and the same characters reappear throughout the tales. Cisneros once explained: “I wanted to write stories that were a cross between poetry and fiction-[I] wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after.” Despite the disjunctive nature of the stories, as they evolve, Esperanza undergoes a maturation process, and she emerges at the end showing a more courageous and forthright facade.
Despite certain underlying threads that link the tales in The House on Mango Street, the stories nonetheless remain disembodied from the kind of master narrative that typifies much of American fiction. The stories have a surreal and fragmented quality consistent with short, impressionistic glimpses into the mind of Esperanza. Rather than relying on long descriptive and narrative sequences that characterize many novels in English, Cisneros reveals dialogue and the evokes powerful imagery with few words. With a minimum number of words, Cisneros includes humorous elements like the nicknames of her playmates, family, and neighbors-Nenny, Meme, and Kiki, for example-but also with few descriptive elements she evokes the ugliness of violence and sexual aggression swirling around her in the barrio. The author’s carefully crafted, compact sentences convey poignant meanings that can be read on different levels. Seemingly simple dialogue reveals deeper, underlying concerns of the narrator. A straightforward dialogue between Esperanza and Nenny about a house that reminded the girls of Mexico in the story “Laughter,” for example, evokes the connection of the girls to one another and to the country of their heritage. The bizarre yet moving experiences of Esperanza evoke a social commentary but do not explicitly state it. Cisneros strikes a tenuous balance between humor and pathos, between tragic and comic elements.
Several important symbolic elements characterize The House on Mango Street. First, the image of the house is a powerful one. The house that Esperanza lives in-small, crooked, drab-contrasts with the image of the house that Esperanza imagines for herself in “Bums in the Attic”: “I want a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens where Papa works.” But the metaphor of the house is more than pure materialism. The house represents everything that Esperanza does not have-financial means and pleasant surroundings-but more importantly, it represents stability, triumph, and transcendence over the pressures of the neighborhood. Throughout the book, especially in stories such as “The House on Mango Street,” and “A Rice Sandwich,” Esperanza struggles with the embarrassment of poverty: “You live there? The way she [aunt] said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there.” Another important symbol in the book are the trappings of womanhood-shoes, makeup, black clothes-that fascinate and intimidate the adolescent Esperanza, who carefully observes the other women in her community. Although at times these signs of womanhood leave Esperanza feeling betrayed, in “Beautiful & Cruel,” she sees them as potential for power: “In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.”
Cisneros’s writing is often compared to music in its poetic, lyrical quality. The House on Mango Street has a strong aural character, and the author clearly has an interest in sound that comes through in much of her poetry. Esperanza speaks in a sing-song voice, with the repetitive quality of a nursery rhyme. Cisneros’s tone is at once youthful and lighthearted, but displays a tragic or menacing tone at times. Cisneros once commented, “I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with reverberation.” In her more recent works, Cisneros has outgrown the girlish voice of Esperanza and takes on more mature themes while retaining this distinctive lyrical quality in her writing.