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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is about Esperanza Cordero, a girl living in Chicago struggling to identify who she is. Through the experiences Esperanza encounters, she feels neglected living in a culture where women are considered inferior to men. Observing different figures around her, Esperanza begins to question her own identity, and starts to grab her own power, and eventually decides to be independent.
Through metaphors, epiphanies and symbolism, Cisneros conveys that repression and stereotypes with a person ultimately compels them to desire and search for self identity through experiences, and emotions Through the use of symbolism, Cisneros is able to portray how Esperanza is feeling restricted to a certain destiny as a female. For example, Cisneros uses windows to symbolize the confinement of a person. In the vignette Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut & Papaya Juice on Tuesdays, Esperanza notices Rafaela, “lean[ing] out the window and lean[ing] on her elbow and dream[ing] her hair is like Rapunzel’s” (79).
Windows are a symbol of being trapped as Rafaela can only see the world through a window, and does not get to experience the outside world. Rafaela is trapped and powerless and is locked inside by her husband. Only viewing the world from the inside, she desires to be able to dance and have fun while she is still young. Another instance of this occurs in Linoleum Roses where windows continue to symbolize confinement. Sally, who has married at a very young age, is not allowed to look outside through the window, which is the only way to connect with the outside while being locked inside.
In addition to windows, Cisneros uses the symbol of a ball and chain to define being repressed by men. Seeing the women around her, Esperanza soon realizes that being a woman, she will have the same destiny as anyone else, being a woman tamed by male figures. In Beautiful & Cruel, Esperanza declares, “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain,” (88). The ball and chain is a strong symbol of being constrained because a ball and chain is something that keeps one rooted to one spot unwillingly.
Esperanza doesn’t want to become the typical woman who is confined like other women she sees around her. Through this quote, Esperanza chooses to grab her own power and decides to become independent rather than growing up to become a prisoner of men waiting for someone to rescue her. Ultimately, through the power of symbolization of windows and the ball and chain Cisneros is able to convey that the repression of one person causes the urge to find their true identity. Restraining oneself leads to the search of self identity is presented through epiphanies throughout The House on Mango Street.
In Born Bad, Esperanza reads a poem she wrote to her Aunt Lupe. In Esperanza’s poem she illustrates true desire to be free from all constraints. After hearing Esperanza’s poem, Aunt Lupe told her to “keep writing. It will keep you free,” (61). Writing is a form of art where anyone can express themselves freely without any influences of others; writing can also be in any form, suggesting that through writing, one can find their true self. . Furthermore, in The Three Sisters, the sisters inform Esperanza that, “You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know.
You can’t forget who you are,” (105). The sisters show to Esperanza that where she has lived defines who she is, she can’t change it; no matter what others do, wherever she goes, Esperanza is still herself. She understands that she can’t change who she was, but she can change herself to find her true identity and break free from all restraints. The epiphanies of writing do not have any constraints and limitations, assisting her in her search for self identity. Cisneros also uses metaphors to clearly describe the feelings of characters who feels repressed and yearns to search for their personal identity.
For instance, Esperanza feels restrained from who she really is in the vignette Boys and Girls, as states, “I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor,” (9). Due to her gender, Esperanza feels neglected and held down; her brothers don’t associate with her outside the house, and how Esperanza has the need to take care of Nenny. Esperanza considers herself as a red balloon, symbolizing happiness, bright, and easily noticed. However Esperanza is feeling constrained as she also adds that she is “a balloon tied to an anchor,” (9) holding her down, and not letting Esperanza have any freedom.
Furthermore, Esperanza’s desire to discover self identity emerges as she states her name is “A muddy color… Mexican records… Songs like sobbing,” (10). Esperanza does not like her name and thinks of it as many bad and unattractive things. Since her name will stick with her for the rest of her life, she feels trapped inside the limitations of her name and wishes to change it to something else, showing her desire for identity. Thus, with the help of metaphors, Cisneros is able to effectively bring the character’s emotions to life and use this to point out how the emotion is derived from a place of repression.
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Observing the variety of influences around her, Esperanza starts to question who she is and builds up a desire for independence. Throughout the book, Sandra Cisneros effectively uses symbolism, epiphanies, and metaphors to portray the emotions and experiences each character faces. Through the search, Esperanza learns many lessons such as self identification is something one needs to find, not something that is given. Cisneros is not only able to give life to the characters but is also able to convey that restraining a person, the want of self definition transpires.
Author: Brandon Johnson
House on Mango Street Theme
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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Language
Throughout The House on Mango Street, particularly in “No Speak English,” those who are not able to communicate effectively (or at all) are relegated to the bottom levels of society. Mamacita moves to the country to be with her husband, and she becomes a prisoner of her apartment because she does not speak English. She misses home and listens to the Spanish radio station, and she is distraught when her baby begins learning English words. His new language excludes her. Similarly, Esperanza’s father could not even choose what he ate when he first moved to the country, because he did not know the words for any of the foods but ham and eggs. Esperanza’s mother may be a native English speaker, but her letter to the nuns at Esperanza’s school is unconvincing to them in part because it is poorly written.
Esperanza observes the people around her and realizes that if not knowing or not mastering the language creates powerlessness, then having the ability to manipulate language will give her power. She wants to change her name so that she can have power over her own destiny. Her Aunt Lupe tells her to keep writing because it will keep her free, and Esperanza eventually understands what her aunt means. Writing keeps Esperanza spiritually free, because putting her experiences into words gives her power over them. If she can use beautiful language to write about a terrible experience, then the experience seems less awful. Esperanza’s spiritual freedom may eventually give her the power to be literally free as well.
The Struggle for Self-Definition
The struggle for self-definition is a common theme in a coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, and in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s struggle to define herself underscores her every action and encounter. Esperanza must define herself both as a woman and as an artist, and her perception of her identity changes over the course of the novel. In the beginning of the novel Esperanza wants to change her name so that she can define herself on her own terms, instead of accepting a name that expresses her family heritage. She wants to separate herself from her parents and her younger sister in order to create her own life, and changing her name seems to her an important step in that direction. Later, after she becomes more sexually aware, Esperanza would like to be “beautiful and cruel” so men will like her but not hurt her, and she pursues that goal by becoming friends with Sally. After she is assaulted, she doesn’t want to define herself as “beautiful and cruel” anymore, and she is, once again, unsure of who she is.
Eventually, Esperanza decides she does not need to set herself apart from the others in her neighborhood or her family heritage by changing her name, and she stops forcing herself to develop sexually, which she isn’t fully ready for. She accepts her place in her community and decides that the most important way she can define herself is as a writer. As a writer, she observes and interacts with the world in a way that sets her apart from non-writers, giving her the legitimate new identity she’s been searching for. Writing promises to help her leave Mango Street emotionally, and possibly physically as well.
Sexuality vs. Autonomy
In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s goals are clear: she wants to escape her neighborhood and live in a house of her own. These ambitions are always in her mind, but as she begins to mature, the desire for men appears in her thoughts as well. At first, the desire to escape and the desire for men don’t seem mutually exclusive, but as Esperanza observes other women in the neighborhood and the marriages that bind them, she begins to doubt that she can pursue both. Most of the women Esperanza meets are either trapped in marriages that keep them on Mango Street or tied down by their children. Esperanza decides she does not want to be like these women, but her dire observations of married life do not erase her sexual yearnings for neighborhood boys.
Esperanza decides she’ll combine sexuality with autonomy by being “beautiful and cruel” like Sally and the women in movies. However, Esperanza finds out that being “beautiful and cruel” is impossible in her male-dominated society when she experiences sexual assault. In her dreams about being with Sire, Esperanza is always in control, but in her encounter with the boys who assault her, she has no power whatsoever. The assault makes Esperanza realize that achieving true independence won’t be possible if she pursues relationships with the men in her neighborhood. She puts aside her newfound sexual awareness, rejoins Lucy and Rachel, her less sexually mature friends, and spends her time concentrating on writing instead of on boys. She chooses, for the present, autonomy over sexuality, which gives her the best chance of escape.
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