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Free Study Guide for The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

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OVERALL ANALYSIS


CHARACTER ANALYSIS


Esperanza

Without a doubt the single most important in the book, Esperanza’s story is told entirely through her eyes. This makes sense because the book is really about her, and the changes in her life over the year she lives on Mango Street. She begins as a shy, lonely, introverted girl who has no friends and often fears what people will think of her. Her father is Mexican and her mother is Mexican-American. The family moves often, and this book concerns the year they spend in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. Dreamy and romantic, and sometimes finding it difficult to fit in, she dreams about what it would be like to have friends and a boyfriend. She is generally kind and concerned with others’ feelings, even people she does not know. She is close to her family, often taking care of her younger sister Nenny and maintaining a warm relationship with her parents. She is also very interested in writing, something that is not often discussed directly in the book but is important nonetheless.

Slowly, she realizes that writing is what will keep her strong and independent. This is very important to her, because she worries about how to remain her own person in a community that often forces women to stay home with children and submit to their husbands. Writing is part of her identity, something she searches for throughout the book. She is dissatisfied with the lives women in her neighborhood generally lead, but is often unsure of what kind of future she wants for herself. She leans toward several different options, identifying herself with the boisterous Lucy and Rachel, the intelligent and demure Alicia, and the sultry, rebellious Sally. Finally, she decides that what she really wants is to be independent, and to have her own place to write.




PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

"The House on Mango Street" is Esperanza’s story, and she tells it with humor, sadness, introspection and joy. It begins when she first arrives at the house, a dilapidated building in a Hispanic ghetto in 1960’s Chicago. She tells us about the many different times she has moved, and that she has always wanted a house--but not a house like this one, which is too small and sad. This wish for a house will follow Esperanza throughout the book.

When she arrives there she is lonely and shy, and so is very attuned to the people around her. She gives a touching description of each member of her family’s hair. She describes the way her two younger brothers avoid her and her younger sister Nenny (Magdalena) when they are outside, but are friendly when no one is watching. She reveals her insecurity when she tells us how much she hates her name, which means hope in English, and "too many letters" in Spanish. It is her grandmother’s name, a woman who refused to get married until she was carried away by Esperanza’s grandfather. Though she stayed with him, she was unhappy for the rest of her life, and Esperanza is afraid of ending up like her. This is the first inkling the reader gets of Esperanza’s independent nature.

Esperanza meets Cathy, who tells her her opinion about everyone in the neighborhood. Cathy promises Esperanza she will be her friend--until she moves away on Tuesday. Cathy is clearly pompous and judgmental, but Esperanza is desperate for companionship. Soon, though, she meets Lucy and Rachel, who remain her friends throughout the book, even though they are, according to Cathy, "raggedy as rats." Boisterous, bold sisters, Lucy and Rachel convince Esperanza to chip in for a bike, which all three of them ride around the neighborhood together. At first terrified that they will not like her and then thrilled when they do, Esperanza demonstrates in this scene the pure happiness she can sometimes feel. However, she still feels close to her family, especially Nenny, in comparison. She and Nenny have a unique understanding of the world (they see a house that they agree looks just like Mexico) that Esperanza values deeply. Sometimes, though, even Nenny falls short of Esperanza’s keen understanding of the world around her. While in a junk shop, the sisters discover a music box that plays a song so beautiful Esperanza begins to cry. Nenny, while appreciating the music, does not understand its value and naively tries to purchase the box, which the owner says is not for sale.

Esperanza is fascinated by the people in her neighborhood. Young enough to be awed easily but old enough to be curious about other people’s lives, she keenly observes everyone around her. Her neighbor’s cousin, for example, stole a car and got caught right in front of everybody, or Meme Ortiz, a neighbor, looks like the sheepdog he takes with him everywhere. Marin, an older girl with a boyfriend in Puerto Rico, gives Esperanza tips on how to talk to boys, which impresses Esperanza, who is very shy. Rosa Vargas has so many children that the neighborhood gives up trying to take care of them, even though they are always getting into trouble. Esperanza knowingly points out that people who have never been to the neighborhood are afraid of it, even though they shouldn’t be. She admits, however, that the same fear and ignorance exists in her own community.

After sketching out the neighborhood in general, Esperanza begins to detail those who deviate from the norm. Alicia, for example, is studying at the university, even though she has to take care of her family since her mother is dead and she fears her father. While Esperanza likes Alicia, there is a sense that something is wrong in Alicia’s life, since she seems to hallucinate: she sees frightening mice. This is the first time the book hints at the struggle of trying to be an independent woman in that neighborhood: Alicia is successful, but she appears to pay a high price.

Esperanza highlights the poetry of everyday life that sometimes appears unexpectedly. Darius, for example, a boy who is "sometimes stupid and mostly a fool," points out a cloud one day and tells the children it is God. This strikes Esperanza as wise. Soon after, Nenny, Rachel, Lucy and Esperanza are talking, and their discussion about the different names for clouds and snow leads to an inventive name-calling game. Another day, Esperanza and her friends are given several pairs of ladies’ shoes. With these beat-up old shoes and some imagination, the girls transform themselves into glamorous ladies, parading up and down the street, awed by the way their own legs look. However, when a "bum man" offers Rachel a dollar to kiss him, the other girls get worried and they all decide to go home. While they enjoy the excitement of pretending to be women, they cannot yet deal with the consequences.

In another effort to appear grown-up, Esperanza decides she wants to eat in the "canteen," where kids who live too far to go home for lunch eat. Her mother at first dislikes the idea, but then gives in. When Esperanza is confronted by a nun at school who knows she lives close enough to go home for lunch, she breaks down and cries, unable even to speak. Many of Esperanza’s attempts to be mature backfire in this way. She imagines herself to be something she isn’t (an independent child who doesn’t need to come home for lunch, for example) but cannot always succeed at the game. However, sometimes she exceeds even her own expectations. At a family party, she wears a nice dress but, since her mother forgot to buy her new shoes, she must wear her old shoes. Feeling self-conscious, she refuses to dance, until her uncle tells her she is beautiful and forces her out on the dance floor. Feeling safe and loved, she dances freely, and when everyone admires her she almost bursts with pride. The most significant admiration is from a male cousin about her age. She is made utterly giddy by the attention--though earlier when he himself asked her to dance, she said no, because she was still shy about her shoes. Again, she is not mature enough to feel relaxed with boys, but she is clearly interested in, at least, the theoretical idea of spending time with them. This aspect of Esperanza resurfaces in "Hips," where she, Rachel, Lucy and Nenny make up songs while jumping rope about what their womanly hips will be like when they get them. The songs are funny and exuberant ("Some are skinny like chicken lips") and mostly speculative: the girls wonder what they will use their hips for. They are all somewhat nervous about growing up, but their games make them more comfortable--and, for Esperanza, so does making fun of Nenny for being younger. In fact, she draws a greater and greater distinction between herself and her younger sister as the book progresses, which further reveals her interest in appearing adult.

Esperanza is pulled back into immaturity, however, when she begins work at her first job, at a photo finishing store. She tries to appear confident, but she is clearly intimidated by all the older people on the job, until a seemingly nice older man comes in for the afternoon shift and befriends her. She is grateful, until he asks her for a birthday kiss. As she leans in to kiss his cheek, he grabs both sides of her face and kisses her on the mouth, not letting her go. Though the chapter ends there, the reader understands the consequence of this: just when she is beginning to feel safe in a frightening place, she is, in a sense, betrayed by someone she trusted. One senses that, instead of feeling bold at her first job, she feels small and insignificant.

Esperanza reveals her tender side when she comforts her father after he tells her his own father has died. Though she depends on her father, she does not seem dismayed by his breakdown into grief. She simply holds him as he cries, thinking of how much she values him.

Esperanza, while still a child in many ways, is no longer able to childishly deny responsibility for her own actions. Thus, she feels tremendously guilty about a childish game she played with Lucy and Rachel. Esperanza’s Aunt Lupe was an invalid, a woman so stricken by disease she was blind and could not leave her bed. Nevertheless, she was kind to Esperanza. She listened to her read books, and encouraged her to continue to write her own poems and stories. Though Esperanza appreciates this, she and her friends one day decide it would be funny to imitate Lupe’s voice and gestures. Unfortunately, Lupe dies the same die, and Esperanza must deal with her guilt. This is an important way for Esperanza to realize that what she liked about her aunt was her interest in her writing--and, by extension, Esperanza realizes how important her writing is to herself.

Esperanza visits "Elenita, witch woman," at her apartment. Elenita is a neighbor who has many boisterous children and lots of tacky furniture. She is a fortune teller, and Esperanza pays her five dollars to read Tarot cards for her. With cartoons playing on the TV in the background, Elenita tells Esperanza that she sees a "home in the heart." This is disappointing to Esperanza, because she wants a real home, far away from Mango Street. The fortune is significant for the reader, however, because it confirms what we are already learning about Esperanza: she is too independent to be tied to any one place she lives. She herself does not realize this yet, and is still ashamed of living on Mango Street.

One night at a dance, Marin meets a boy named Geraldo, who has recently emigrated from Mexico. After the dance, he gets hit by a car and killed. He has no identification, so Marin goes with him to the hospital. Esperanza relates the story, impersonating non-Hispanics who hear the story: "Just another wetback. You know the kind. The ones who always look ashamed." Though these comments seem to be attributed to the police or hospital staff, because they are non-specific they implicate everyone who doesn’t understand "the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange." Esperanza feels bitter about the situation. This is one of the few points in the book where she comments about a general experience shared by many people she knows; usually, the power of her stories comes from their intimate, specific nature. Here, Geraldo’s story is meant to speak for many Mexican immigrants, highlighting the alienation they experience in the U.S. when their "home is in another country." This is also true of Mamacita, whose story is related a few chapters later. Her husband brought her and their child from Mexico, and now she is miserable, always wanting to go back there, never leaving her apartment and refusing to speak English. She fights with her husband about leaving constantly, and when her son begins to sing a song he heard on TV, she begins to cry. Although Mamacita is somewhat ridiculous, with her enormous body and tiny pink shoes, she is also tragic. She symbolizes the difference between Mexico and Chicago, and the pain, alienation and loneliness that difference can cause.

Ruthie is a "tall skinny lady" who lives with her mother, Edna, Esperanza’s neighbor. Ruthie plays with the kids and laughs all by herself, while walking her dog. She says she is married and that her husband is coming to get her soon, but he never does. The kids love her, because she dotes on them and doesn’t talk down to them. When some adults invite Ruthie to play bingo with them, she stands on the porch, calling to Edna, asking her if she should go. Edna is non-committal, and Ruthie stands there hesitating until finally the people leave. The kids let Ruthie deal the cards in their game that night. The difference between what Esperanza knows and what the reader can learn from her stories is evident. Clearly, there is something wrong with Ruthie, and while Esperanza may have some vague awareness of that, she does not entirely understand it. The reader, on the other hand, sees right away that a grown woman who depends greatly on her mother and spends much of her time playing with children is, in some way, maladjusted. The same technique is used in the story of the Earl of Tennessee. He works nights and keeps to himself, so no one in the neighborhood really knows him. They are all interested in him, but somehow they disagree about what his wife looks like: some say she is blond, others think she is redheaded. Esperanza, who relates the story, does not know the truth, which is evident to the reader: Earl is bringing prostitutes to his home. Esperanza casually gives us just enough information to figure this out, but does not know enough to realize for herself what the information means (he brings the women to the house holding their arms tightly, and they never stay long, for example.) This story has several functions: it offers another aspect of the character of the neighborhood through Earl, and also highlights the nosiness-- and innocence-- of the rest of the neighborhood.

With the arrival of Sire, Esperanza’s world begins to change; or, rather, the reader is made aware of a change in Esperanza. The last time she met a boy, it was her cousin at a family party, and even then she could not bring herself to dance with him when he asked her. Now, Sire, an older, intimidating boy, watches her as she walks by his house every day, and she finds the courage to look back. She is still frightened, but refuses to let him see that. Her parents tell her not to talk to him, but she is fascinated by him and his girlfriend Lois. She wants to stay out late the way they do. She is now sick of imagining what might happen if she went out with a boy, dreaming about it, and simply wants it to happen. "Everything is holding its breath inside me," she says, "...waiting to explode like Christmas."


Esperanza feels a bond with the four skinny trees planted outside her window by the city, because, like her, they continue to grow and get stronger even though they don’t belong there, even though the odds are against them. It is clear that, although there will still be major blows to her self-esteem later in the book, Esperanza is beginning to find strength in herself.

Rafaela is one of the many women Esperanza hopes to avoid becoming like. She is beautiful, young, and married to a husband who will not let her out of the house without him, because he is afraid she will run away. She dreams of dancing, and throws money down to the street so that the kids will buy her exotic juices, like coconut and papaya. Rafaela is a sympathetic figure, but she is also pathetic, since she spends her life dreaming about things she wish she could do. This is reminiscent of Esperanza’s grandmother, who, we learned earlier in the book, was forced into marriage and stared out the window for the rest of her life. Esperanza sees this in her friend Minerva as well. Minerva writes poetry, which she shares with Esperanza, but she is also weak, allowing her husband, who left her with young children, to return and then leave endlessly. She is never able to improve her situation, spending her time crying and praying.

Esperanza refuses to become like this. She is more interested in Sally, a beautiful girl who knows how to use her beauty to gain power over boys. Even though she has few female friends, Sally is awe-inspiring to Esperanza, who understands Sally’s need to escape from her home (where she must return every day, removing her makeup before entering.) Esperanza, like Sally, wants adventure and love. She doesn’t want to believe what other people say about Sally. Esperanza says she wants to be "beautiful and cruel," much like her new friend, or like a femme fatale from the movies. She wants to use her beauty to have power over men, but never marry one. She does not want to take care of anyone. She listens to her mother when she tells her to stay in school, because she sees how dependent her mother is on her family and community: though she has lived in the city all her life, she cannot even find her way downtown on the train alone. This maybe why Sally, who seems very independent, appeals to Esperanza. However, as the story progresses, Sally becomes less and less appealing. First, Esperanza sees what her family life is like. Her father beats her whenever she talks to boys, but when she tries to move out for a while, he apologizes, and she immediately forgives him. Of course, soon after, he beats her again. She keeps it a secret, telling only Esperanza, and maintaining in public that she is just very clumsy.

Another conflict between Esperanza and Sally is seen in "The Monkey Garden," an abandoned garden where the children play. One day, Esperanza is playing with the younger children (something she has been told she is too old for) when Sally, standing at the edge of the garden, starts talking to some boys in the neighborhood. They take away her keys and demand kisses before she can have them back. Though they are all laughing, something about this bothers Esperanza. She tells one of the boys’ mothers, but the woman brushes her off. She then gets a few bricks with which to fight them, but when she finds them, they (including Sally) are annoyed and tell her to go away. Feeling foolish, she runs away and cries, alone in the garden. She feels estranged from Sally, who is so eager to grow up she won’t even play in the garden, for fear she will ruin her clothes. But she also feels vaguely humiliated, simply because she is out of synch with the group. She says that when they laughed, "it was a joke I didn’t get."

Later, it seems that Esperanza’s vague feelings of unease are proved accurate. Sally takes her to a carnival, where she meets a boy. She tells Esperanza to wait for her and disappears. She never comes back, and Esperanza is molested by a group of boys. Esperanza, humiliated and angry, accuses Sally of lying--about coming back, and also about what being with boys was like. Even though her main attacker says, "I love you, Spanish girl," her experience with him is nothing like love. Finally, Esperanza’s break with Sally is complete when Sally gets married before the eighth grade to a marshmallow salesman she meets at school. "She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape," says Esperanza. She is very aware, however, of what a meager escape it is: like Rafaela, Sally is forbidden to leave the house, and like Sally’s father, her husband is violent. By this stage in the book, Esperanza is sure she does not want to end up like any of the women she knows--except, perhaps, Alicia, the university student.

Esperanza’s new-found confidence (she does not idolize any other characters in the book after Sally) is solidified when she meets the Three Sisters, aunts of Lucy and Rachel. Mysterious, almost ghostly women, they call her over to them and examine her hands. They tell her she is special, and instruct her to make a wish. Though she does not tell the reader what she wishes for, one of the Sisters takes her aside, telling her she must remember to come back for the people who cannot leave Mango Street as easily as she. Esperanza is shocked, as if the Sister read her mind. And, though she continues to dream of her own house, and rejects Mango Street in a conversation with Alicia, saying that she will not come back until someone fixes it up, Esperanza finally begins to accept Mango Street as part of her. Earlier, she had asserted that she would not forget where she came from once she became rich. Now, she knows exactly what she wants her house for (writing and a sense of independence) and she recognizes that, through writing, she can ease the pain associated with Mango Street, as well as understand how it fits into her identity. Her search is not over--she has not left her neighborhood yet--but she now has the tools to realize her dreams. The book ends with her looking ahead to her new life, but also resolving to return for those who need her. It seems that the whole book has been a realization of that resolve, a way for Esperanza (and Cisneros) to go back to her community, even though it is mostly written in the present tense.

 

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