Saturday, August 2, 2008

Coming of Age in The House on Mango Street

Recently, I had my wife read Sandra Cisneros' first novel, The House on Mango Street. It's a simple tale "of a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago," "[t]old in a series of vignettes stunning for their eloquence" (says the blurb on the the back cover). It's been a while since I read it, but as I was mining my old school files for blog possibilities, I found this short critical essay that I wrote for the novel writing class I had. We read a couple of novels to practice reading as writers and I really enjoyed this one for its simplicity and innovative appeal. After rereading what I've written here, I think I'll pick up the novel and read it again.

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Coming of Age in The House on Mango Street

In Sandra Cisneros’ novel, The House on Mango Street, all Esperanza wants to do is leave the “sad red house” of her childhood, “the house [she] belong[s] to but do[es] not belong to” (110), the house that hangs always on the edge of her memory, turning her away while at the same time calling her home. This state of liminality, of nether worldness, characterizes Esperanza’s experience throughout the whole of Cisneros’ novel: She broods over the edge of childhood, more mature than her peers, but is not yet able to see into the adolescent realm, to participate in teenaged games. Learning in and through such liminality and coming into oneself, one possible theme of The House on Mango Street, is characterized by ceremonial rites which initiate the wanderer (in this case, Esperanza) into the next phase of his or her development. One such rite of passage occurs in Esperanza’s life when she gets her first job and learns what is expected in the grown-up sphere by watching the older women work and by innocently falling prey to the guiles of a horny old man. And while she does not yet fully understand the workings of this world, the first stage in her initiation into young womanhood has begun. She has moved forward and can never go back, no matter how much she desires to return. Hence, she begins to view the happenings of her life in a more mature (and often harsh) light. While sitting with her crying father (whose own father has died) and confronting the blindness of disease through her aunt’s eyes, she learns the value of familial support and feels the tugging of a family’s painful bonds of hope tying her to generations gone before. At this same time, and even as a result of these experiences, she begins to “dream the dreams” (61) of individuation, to build her own self from the lives of her forebears, thinking about what she would do if her papa died and taking her aunt’s advice to “keep writing” because “it will keep you free” (61).

Also characteristic of this exploration between two worlds is Esperanza’s desire to leave home, and thus her family, for good, to find something better somewhere—anywhere—else. She denies her place in Mango Street over and over, most notably with Elenita, the fortuneteller, who tells her that she will find “a home in the heart” (64) when all Esperanza wants is a home away from Mango Street. She only begins to accept her place when Lucy’s and Rachel’s aunt “with the marble hands” (105) tells her that when she leaves, she “must always remember to come back” for “the ones who cannot leave as easily” (105). And though she does not wholly understand this charge, she accepts her place as a “special” one who will “go very far” (104) because she has, only a short time earlier, completed her final initiation rite by choosing to leave the paradise of childhood, represented by the monkey garden, and subsequently falling from innocence at the hands of the boy with the “sour mouth” and “dirty fingernails” (100). Through this experience, she learns once and for all that the world of men and women is not anything like the world embellished in “books and magazines, everything that told it wrong” (100; emphasis mine). Rather, it is a sometimes bitter reality where not everyone can have what they want or even what they need. This is her ultimate point of turning, her final passage into young womanhood, the point wherein she fully realizes that she has to be the one to change poverty-stricken Mango Street into a better place; that even though she might have a real home of her own someday and she must have a home in her own heart, she must also reach out from this point of wholeness, from her centering point, and go back to Mango Street to gather, to encourage, to console “the ones [she] left behind. […] the ones who cannot out” (110). It was only when she comprehended this that she truly came into herself.

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Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1984.