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Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street
The Midwest Quarterly 37.1 (Autumn 1995): p67-79. Rpt. in
Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 32. Detroit: Gale, 1999. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[In this excerpt, Matchie presents The House on Mango Street as a contemporary parallel to the classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, describing the three young protagonists as similarly innocent and vulnerable, and noting that each character develops his or her own identity in reaction to a specific environment.]

In 1963 in a collection of articles entitled Salinger, Edgar Branch has a piece in which he explores the “literary continuity” between Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Branch claims that, though these two books represent different times in American history, the characters, the narrative patterns and styles, and the language are strikingly similar, so that what Salinger picks up, according to Branch, is an archetypal continuity which is cultural as well as literary. I would like to suggest a third link in this chain that belongs to our own time, and that is Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. Published in 1989, this novella is about an adolescent, though this time a girl who uses, not the Mississippi or Manhattan Island, but a house in Chicago, to examine her society and the cultural shibboleths that weigh on her as a young Chicana woman.

Though not commonly accepted by critics as “canonical,” The House on Mango Street belongs to the entire tradition of the bildungsroman (novel of growth) or the kunstlerroman (novel inimical to growth), especially as these patterns apply to women. One can go back to 19th-century novels like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), where a black woman working in the house of a white family in Boston is treated as though she were a slave. Later, Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1889) depicts a woman who goes crazy when she is confined to a room in a country house by her husband, a doctor who knows little about feminine psychology. Finally, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), the protagonist literally moves out of the house to escape her Creole husband, but cannot find a male with whom to relate in this patriarchal culture.

In Mango Street, a hundred years later, Esperanza is actually part of a six-member family of her own race, but that does not prevent an enslavement parallel to Nig's. Though not limited to a single room as in Yellow Wallpaper, Esperanza's house is a symbol of sexual as well as cultural harassment, and she, like the narrator in Gilman's story, is a writer whose colorful images help her create a path to freedom. And as in The Awakening, Esperanza dreams of leaving her house, an action that like Edna's is related to all kinds of men who make up the power structure in her Chicana world.

So in a general way Cisneros's novel belongs to a female tradition in which culture and literary quality are important. But for her, far more significant as literary models are Huck Finn and Holden Caufield, primarily because they are adolescents growing up in culturally oppressive worlds. Cisneros's protagonist, like them, is innocent, sensitive, considerate of others, but extremely vulnerable. Like them, Esperanza speaks a child's language, though hers is peculiar to a girl and young budding poet. And like her predecessors, she grows mentally as time goes on; she knows how she feels, and learns from the inside out what in Holden's terms is “phony,” and what with Huck she is willing to “go to hell” for. There are, of course, other Chicano novels that are bildungsromans, such as Tomás Rivera's ... y no se lo tragó la tierra, but none presents a better parallel to Huck and Holden than Cisneros's Esperanza.

It may seem that the two boy's books are really journeys, while Mango Street is limited to a house, and therefore set–the opposite of a geographical quest. But when one looks at the patterns of the novels, what the boys go out to see simply comes past Esperanza, so that the effect is the same. She is simply a girl, and does not have the cultural opportunity to leave as they do. What is more important is that Mango Street continues a paradigm of growth where a young person encounters an outside world, evaluates it in relationship to herself, and then forges an identity, something that includes her sexuality and the prominence of writing in her life....

Esperanza actually loves her father, though as with Holden's he is virtually absent from the narrative. As Marcienne Rocard points out [in “The Remembering Voice in Chicana Literature” (Americas Review)] Chicanas concentrate intensely on “human relationships between generations”–something not stressed in Twain and Salinger. Esperanza thinks her father is brave; he cries after the death of a grandmother, and his daughter wants to “hold and hold and hold him.” But this same father perpetuates a structure that traps women. The girl's mother, for instance, has talent and brains, but lacks practical knowledge about society because, says Esperanza, Mexican men “don't like their women strong.” Her insight into an abusive father comes through her best friend Sally, whose father “just forgot he was her father between the buckle and the belt.” So Sally leaves home for an early unhappy marriage. Another friend, Alicia, goes to the university to break the pattern of her dead mother's “rolling pin and sleepiness,” but in studying all night and cooking, too, she begins to imagine that she sees mice, whereupon her father belittles her. Esperanza says Alicia is afraid of nothing, “except four-legged fur. And fathers.” Gradually, Esperanza comes to see that the pressure on women in Chicana families comes from a system she simply, though painfully, has to leave....

Truly, all three books are wrought with violence, which the protagonists seem to forgive....

Esperanza also feels for the victims of violence. What is interesting is that she sometimes interprets violence in a broad sense as injustice, or something in society that keeps people homeless, or in shabby housing. In the attic of her new house she'll have, not “Rats,” but “Bums” because they need shelter. She has visions of the violence done to Geraldo, “another wetback,” who rented “two-room flats and sleeping rooms” while he sent money back to Mexico; killed one night by a hit-and-run driver, he (in the minds of his people) simply disappeared. That violence becomes worse when individuals are confined to their homes. Mamacita, the big woman across the street, is beautiful but cannot get out because she “No speak English”–a phenomenon doubly tragic because her baby sings Pepsi commercials. But mostly Esperanza identifies with wives mistreated by men who confine them to their homes. Raphaela is locked in because she is too beautiful for her jealous husband. Earl, a jukebox repairman, and Sire, who drinks beer, hold their wives tight lest they relate to anybody else. Things like this make Esperanza's “blood freeze.” She dreams of being held too hard. Once, after letting a man kiss her because he was “so old,” she says he “grabs me by the face with both hands and kisses me on the mouth and doesn't let go.” So, like Holden and Huck, this girl cares for others because of the violence done to them (and herself) in all kinds of contexts....

Ironically, Esperanza already has a family whom she loves, but that does not free her, for her father is gone and her mother stuck. She ... longs for friends, talking first about a temporary friend Cathy who then moves away. Later, she takes some of her sister's money to buy a share in a bike with her neighbors Rachel and Lucy so she can play with them, but that is fleeting. As she matures and sees what is happening to people, she picks four trees, which like her have “skinny necks and pointy elbows.” Others, like Nenny, do not appreciate those trees, but for Esperanza, they “teach,” helping her to realize that like them she is here and yet does not belong. And like the trees Esperanza, who thinks in images, must continue to reach. Her goal, like that of Huck and Holden, is not to forget her “reason for being” and to grow “despite concrete” so as to achieve a freedom that's not separate from togetherness.

All three protagonists have friends who fail them, usually in some kind of romantic context....

Esperanza's best friend Sally is ... a kind of romantic. She paints her eyes like Cleopatra and likes to dream.... Tragically, it is Sally who betrays her friend and admirer in the monkey garden (an animal pen turned old car lot) where she trades the boys' kisses for her lost keys, while all concerned laugh at Esperanza for trying to defend her friend with a brick. Later, Sally leaves Esperanza alone at the fair next to the “red clowns” (at once comical and tragic figures) where she is molested because her romantic friend “lied.” Actually, the whole experience is a lie, given what she had been led to expect.

Still, all three have a moral center, a person they can count on, or should be able to....

[Esperanza] has a little sister, Nenny, for whom she feels responsible. Nenny, however, is ... too little. Esperanza often refers to her as “stupid” and in the chapter on “Hips,” where Esperanza is becoming more aware of the sexual role of a woman's body, she says Nenny just “doesn't get it.” Her real hope comes in Aunt Lupe who is dying–“diseases have no eyes,” says the young poet. In a game the girls invent, they make fun of Lupe, and for this Esperanza, like Huck, feels she will “go to hell.” Actually, it is Lupe who listens to the girl's poems and tells her to “keep writing.” That counsel becomes the basis of Esperanza's future apart from Mango Street.

It is important to recognize that the three novels contain religious language that at once seems to undercut traditional religion, and in the mouths of the young seems to say more than they realize....

For Esperanza, religion is a cultural thing; in her Catholic world, God the father and Virgin Mother are household terms. But for this young poet, religion takes on mythic or poetic dimensions. She sees herself, for instance, as a red “balloon tied to an anchor,” as if to say she needs to transcend present conditions where mothers are trapped and fathers abusive. She even sees herself molested in a monkey garden (a modern Eden) among red clowns (bloodthirsty males). She appeals to Aunt Lupe (Guadalupe, after the Mexican Virgin Mother), who tells her to write, to create. In the end, when Esperanza meets three aunts, or sisters (her trinity), she in effect has a spiritual vision, one which she describes in concrete language. One is cat-eyed, another's hands are like marble, a third smells like Kleenex. The girl uses these sights, smells, and touches to envision poetically her future house. As with Huck and Holden, there is something she does not fully understand. What she knows is that through these comadres (co-mothers) she will give birth to something very new. Like the two male protagonists, she longs for a respect and compassion absent in her experiences on Mango Street, and these women are her spiritual inspiration.

The ending of Mango Street is also very significant in terms of literary continuity. Just prior to the end Esperanza meets the three aunts at the funeral of a sister of her friends Lucy and Rachel; they tell her she cannot forget who she is and that if she leaves she must come back. In the end the girl recognizes that she both belongs and does not belong to Mango street. Then she vows to return to the house because of the “ones who cannot” leave. One reason for this is her writing, which has made her strong. She plans to “put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.” What this means relative to other women's novels is that she reverses a trend. In Our Nig, Nig is dissipated in the end. The protagonist of Yellow Wallpaper goes crazy before literally crawling over her dominating husband's body. Edna in The Awakening swims to her death rather than face a culture that will not recognize her identity. Not so with Esperanza. She is strong (something Mexican women should not be), perfectly aware of the problems with a patriarchal culture, and because of her love for her people, albeit abused and dehumanized, vows to return, and it is the writing which gives her the strength....

There is one other way in which Cisneros seems to look to her predecessors for literary and cultural continuity, and that is the way she as an author comes into the text....

In Mango Street Cisneros has created the voice of a child, who is also a poet, a writer. For the most part that voice is consistent, but sometimes not. Once when Esperanza is playing an outside voice puts her friends and herself in perspective:

Who's stupid?

Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza and Nenny.

In this case it is the author who seems to be speaking. And when Lupe is dying, and Esperanza helps lift her head, suddenly we are inside Lupe: “The water was warm and tasted like metal.” Here the author's presence is unmistakable. Perhaps Cisneros's most significant intrusion comes when Esperanza says that Mexican men do not “like their women strong”–a comment that belongs more to an adult than a child, and it seems to underpin the whole novel....

So Cisneros, like Twain and Salinger, seems to enter the narrative to help define its ultimate meaning. Unlike the boys' quests, however, this novel is a collection of genres–essays, short stories, poems–put together in one way to show Esperanza's growth, but in another to imitate the part-by-part building of an edifice. Indeed, the house on Mango Street does not just refer to the place Esperanza is trying to leave, but to the novel itself as “a house” which Esperanza as character and Cisneros as author have built together. Huck may go out to the territory, rejecting civilization, and Holden may tell his story to gain the strength to return, but Esperanza through her writing has in fact redesigned society itself through a mythical house of her own.

In this regard, Lupe once told Esperanza to “keep writing,” it will “keep you free.” At that time the girl did not know what she meant, but in the end Esperanza says “she sets me free,” so in a sense the house is already built–a monument to her people and her sex.... Indeed, Esperanza is very different from the other women in the text. She has learned from them and not made their mistakes. So she is not trapped like her mother, Alicia, or Sally, or the others. Like Huck and Holden, she is the example for other Chicana women whom Cisneros would have us take to heart. Indeed, as the witch woman Elenita predicted earlier, Esperanza elects to build a “new house, a house made of heart.” And in the tradition of, but distinct from Huck and Holden, that is just what she has accomplished.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Matchie, Thomas. "Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Short Story Criticism, edited by Anna J. Sheets, vol. 32, Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FH1420004087%2FLitRC%3Fu%3Dwash43584%26sid%3DLitRC%26xid%3D1e48de7b. Accessed 16 Oct. 2018. Originally published in The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, Autumn 1995, pp. 67-79.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004087