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The House on Mango Street

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#1 Rafv Nin IV

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Posted 26 August 2008 - 12:08 AM

This book was required reading for my high school freshman English class last year. I hated it more than I hated my English teacher (and that's saying something!). When I wrote my literary analysis, I decided not to suck up like the vast majority of students. I got surprisingly good scores. Anyway, here goes:

A bitter but ineffective tale of abuse, neglect and poverty, Sandra Cisneros’s vignette-style novella, The House On Mango Street, aims to change the views of the middle- to upper-classes concerning those on the bottom of the caste pyramid. Notions of space, time and grammar are taken on a roller coaster ride as Cisneros struggles to portray the confused life of an immigrant. If the reader is able to understand nothing else, he at least should be astounded by the incredible ability of the human mind to confound and mix once-logical thoughts.

The conventional rules of our language that allow a child from the west coast of the United States to converse with an intellectual from Britain need not apply to Cisneros. After all, she aims to show us the complete view of a young, bewildered girl who has an amazingly incomplete knowledge of the world around her, such that the reader must find her either autistic or moronic. But I digress. Cisneros offers as chapters short, rambling word-jumbles from which the reader is supposed to derive significant meaning. Most of her segments have neither connection nor a definite subject. Esperanza, Cisneros’s narrator, has the grammatical skills of a second-grader. Semi-colons, colons, and other marks of higher punctuation are noticeably absent. Cisneros seems to be targeting the vague, unfocused poetic style of E.E. Cummings in her writing.

The House On Mango Street revolves around the insignificant life on an insignificant road of an insignificant girl with a name miles longer than her worth. Esperanza has lived twelve years at the start of the novella, and the reader stays through another year of her disjointed saga. She hates the poverty that envelops her family and neighborhood with a burning passion; she vows to escape it. However, Esperanza is either unmotivated or hopelessly ignorant, as she rarely resists the inequities forced over her, and never attempts to run away and escape her hell-hole. Throughout the story she matures physically and mentally, and gains new ways of hating life and expecting the world to grant her a favor, but not once does it ever occur to Esperanza to do something herself about her desperate condition besides holding others in contempt.

Esperanza was undoubtedly chosen by Cisneros as narrator because she, of all the characters, most closely resembles Cisneros herself. Both Cisneros and Esperanza were lonely as children. Cisneros had no close friends because of constant moving from home to home; Esperanza was much the same. “We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember.” (3) Esperanza is preoccupied with the trivial parts of life, and spends more time describing the sort of shoes she wears than on the deep philosophical questions which, by answering, she could gain the determination to defeat Mango Street. “Everybody wants to trade. The lemon shoes for the red shoes, the red for the pair that were once white but are now pale blue, the pale blue for the lemon, and take them off and put them back on and keep on like this a long time until we are tired.” (40) The voice of Esperanza rambles and shifts from the sensible to the illogical and prefers to entertain the reader with constant metaphorical riddles than state anything outright: this casts doubt on whether Esperanza herself knows anything outright. Esperanza is the logical choice of narration because, among the malnourished and eccentric people of Mango Street, she most closely resembles a human being; this is clearly irrelevant, though, because Cisneros obviously does not care about logic, as evidenced by her random strands of fiber left for the reader to weave.

The House On Mango Street offers a rich cacophony of relationships within its paper cover. These range from the dysfunctional family of Esperanza’s friend Sally to the even more dysfunctional Vargas family. Sally suffers from an abusive father. “A girl that big, a girl who comes in with her pretty face all beaten and black can’t be falling off the stairs. He never hits me hard.” (92) On the other hand, the Vargases are described in this brilliantly disassembled Cisnerosian passage: “They are bad those Vargases, and how can they help it with only one mother who is tired all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying and who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come.” (29) Esperanza also takes into account the equally diseased world of man-woman relationships. “It wasn’t what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn’t want it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it’s supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you lie to me?” (99) Clearly, Cisneros would have us all believe that humans are anti-social creatures that never have successful couplings.

“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.” (89) Esperanza chooses to fight gender discrimination softly and in the same manner as the rest of her resistances. She takes no definite stand except in her own mind. Wishing to be a woman with the social position of an upper-class man, Esperanza refuses to accept the prejudices and inequities, but many are forced upon her regardless of her weak efforts to resist. Esperanza shuns sex, as all of her experiences have been negative. “They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again.” (100) However, Esperanza does not push hard enough for her natural rights, and her futile efforts are swept aside by another of Cisneros’s floods of pessimism. Cisneros implies that the only way for the impoverished to find relief is through the unearned help of those who have already obtained fiscal independence.

Short and detached, The House On Mango Street is so disjointed that nearly every chapter has its own unrelated ideas, and the novella is spectacularly lacking in the category of central themes. Several of the more frequently echoed motifs and themes are mentioned below. Much of the book reeks of the struggle between sexual ties and independence. Esperanza learns of the wide world of sex, and the many ways it can be used to abuse and degrade. Among these experiences (all negative) are her friend Sally’s efforts to escape physical abuse by entering sexual abuse and Esperanza’s own rape. Every sexual experience in the story is rife with the destruction of independence. Cisneros claims that independence and sexuality are mutually exclusive. As independence and liberty are clearly good things, the reader can only conclude that sex, and, consequently, reproduction, are evil, and that the propagation of our genes, and the continuation of our race, necessitates violence and hate. Another motif throughout the tale is poverty (its relation to prejudice is another motif). Cisneros explains that poverty is as quicksand where even the strong drown. Esperanza never wins a battle against prejudice. This is because she does not work hard enough. I refuse to believe Cisneros’s idea that we are at the mercy of a few powerful deities that are poor chess players.

Esperanza comments on the unfairness of the current establishments. Through her character, Cisneros shows how men are overpowered and women powerless. She neglects to show that the abused can refuse to be hurt. Cisneros does hit the bull’s-eye concerning the idolism of celebrity and beauty. She claims (correctly, too!) that those whom we hold as our role-models, and that which we often strive to achieve, should not be held as the ideal. Esperanza learns the truth: that the products of good looks fail in comparison to the products of a strong mind. “We are tired of being beautiful. Lucy hides the lemon shoes and the red shoes and the shoes that used to be white but are now pale blue under a powerful bushel basket on the back porch, until one Tuesday her mother, who is very clean, throws them away. But no one complains.” (42) Cisneros leaves the sickened concept of altruism alone. She holds that those with ability should slave for the benefit of the incompetent, on the sole basis that the needy cannot provide for themselves. Esperanza believes that, through her own ineptitude, she deserves to drain the power of those who have earned their own status. Although Esperanza decides that she hates society, she is remarkably undetermined to change it in the slightest. Throwing blindly in the dark, Cisneros hits home in some of her critiques; most, however, are woefully inaccurate.

Cisneros takes the reader on a snipe hunt for morals and themes. Her writing is deliberately confounding, and enveloping the rare truth lie innumerable falsehoods. Esperanza reflects the view of Cisneros herself; she believes that the ones who do not work should have an easy ride piggy-backing on those that strive for progress, and that wrongs can only be righted by an outside, unearned force. The House On Mango Street shows all the signs of failed attempt to alter the minds of society; Cisneros’s crusade of planes crashes in a remote mountain range, leaving the society she wished to transform completely untouched.

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#2 Vortigern


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Posted 26 August 2008 - 12:56 AM

What a brilliant review. :p I love your style, man. By the sound of it, that's a crap version of Gabriel García Marquez's 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude', which, though strange and oddly phrased in many instances, and with one sentence over a page and a half long, was a great book in the end, just a bit of a struggle to get your teeth into.
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#3 Beleg


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Posted 26 August 2008 - 01:25 AM

I've read that book. You do an excelent job of critiquing it.
*Goes too find awesome Midssumer nights Dream review he did for an essay*
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#4 Puppeteer


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Posted 26 August 2008 - 12:57 PM

An excellent and a funny review. Particularly like the comparisons, eg. the "plane" in the final paragraph :p Originality gets better marks than conformity!

Edited by Puppeteer, 26 August 2008 - 12:57 PM.

#5 Rafv Nin IV

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Posted 26 August 2008 - 03:30 PM

I wrote it shortly after finishing Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and it's pretty easy to tell the influence it had. I think anyone who reads something of Rand's is guaranteed to be an asshole for at least a month afterward. :p

I thought it was my crown piece of my freshman year. It certainly beat all my vignettes. I hate having to write vignettes. They all end up sucking drastically. :p

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