Messages from Scholars about History and Culture
Una Vida Aislada: The Theme of Isolation in The House on Mango Street
Essay Excerpt with Reflection
In The House on Mango Street by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros, the protagonist, Esperanza, describes her life experiences within the Latin neighborhood (or barrio) of Mango Street. This coming-of-age novel told by a series of vignettes narrated by the main character not only revolves around Esperanza, but also the people who reside in Mango Street. A common theme that surfaces in the novel is isolation. Esperanza and her fellow neighbors all experience the feeling of isolation in different ways.
It is common for young people to have awkward stages in their lives when they feel detached from themselves and society. Esperanza, the “…girl who didn’t want to belong” (Cisneros 109), constantly feels outcasted throughout the book because of her inability to be content with her identity. She also feels a strong disconnect towards her community of Mango Street. To begin, Esperanza longs for a true friend who understands her and satisfies her desire for companionship. In the chapter “Boys & Girls,” Esperanza says “Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor” (Cisneros 9). Esperanza associates her free spirit with the red balloon, and the anchor with her feeling of unexplained entrapment and loneliness within herself and her place in Mango Street. Although Esperanza does become friends with Lucy and Rachel later on in the book, they do not achieve the level of closeness Esperanza fantasizes about. In “Laughter,” Esperanza recalls a time when she made a remark about how a line of houses on the street reminded her of the ones built in Mexico, saying, “Look at the house, I said, it looks like Mexico. Rachel and Lucy look at me like I’m crazy, but before they can let out a laugh, Nenny says: Yes, that’s Mexico alright. That’s what I was thinking exactly” (Cisneros 18). Lucy and Rachel don’t see the resemblance, and they were about to laugh at what Esperanza said out of awkwardness or to ridicule her. However, Esperanza’s sister, Nenny, noticed the similarities as well.
The concepts of sexuality and male attention are foreign topics for Esperanza in the novel. She has an innocent view on romance, and is not seen as a romantic interest for the neighborhood boys. This alienates Esperanza in several ways. Firstly, she cannot relate with the neighborhood girls who are more promiscuous (like her friend Sally). Esperanza has a childish outlook on sexuality and the male gender. In “Red Clowns,” after Esperanza’s sexual assault incident at the carnival, she confronts Sally by saying “Sally, you lied. 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?” (Cisneros 99). Not only does this show the innocence and naivety Esperanza had before her assault occurred, but also highlights how differently Esperanza and Sally view sex: Sally enjoys it while Esperanza fears it.
In “Boys and Girls,” Esperanza says, “The boys and girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours” (Cisneros 8). This remark “posits the theme of gender difference” (Olivares), and shows how inexperienced and detached Esperanza is from boys. In “The Monkey Garden,” Esperanza tries to grab the attention of Sally, who was flirting with a group of neighborhood boys. She tells Esperanza to “Play with the kids if you want…I’m staying here” (Cisneros 96). Sally continues to laugh and converse with the boys; their flirtatious banter being described by Esperanza as “A joke I didn’t get” (Cisneros 96). When Sally disappears with the neighborhood boys behind a pickup truck to retrieve her house keys through kisses, Esperanza thought that Sally “needed to be saved” (Cisneros 97), and she found “three big sticks and a brick” (Cisneros 97) to intimidate the boys with. […]
This paper was a final assignment for an American literature course. The essay assignment was to choose one work of literature from a list of classics, and write a six- to seven-page paper on what the selected literature reveals about life, human beings, and/or their relationships. The instructor who assigned this paper noted that the essay question was designed to be open-ended on purpose, to encourage diverse writing topics. The instructor required that all writers find four to six scholarly journals to use as an outside source for this essay. Besides the journals, the book that is selected for this assignment is the only source that can provide textual evidence.
The classic literature that I chose to write about for this assignment was Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old. I saw myself in the main character, Esperanza. She was a Latin-American girl who felt out of touch with her heritage and identified more with the American aspect of her identity as opposed to her Mexican ethnicity. Growing up as someone who didn’t have parents who prioritized speaking Spanish, or any abuelos to learn it for, I was extremely disconnected from my Hispanic identity. I was never able to know what my relatives were gossiping about at the kitchen table, have a connection with any of my relatives in the Dominican Republic, or genuinely enjoy a bachata song’s lyrics and not just the rhythm. I clung onto the American culture, which I knew best. I selected this book not only because of the bittersweet and nostalgic childhood memories that came from it, but also because it is a short read. Being a little over 100 pages, I knew this book would be appropriate for an assignment with a closely approaching deadline. The briefness of the book is very deceiving, for the amount of substance each individual chapter encapsulates provides a multitude of interpretations unique to each reader.
Reading this book again after several years, there were many themes I could have chosen. There are the themes of sexuality and femininity, the emphasis of male dominance in minority cultures, the loss of innocence, the myth of the American Dream, and the desire for personal autonomy. However, I needed to choose something that could be spread across six to seven pages, as the assignment requires. I chose the theme of isolation, as both Esperanza and several of the other characters in the book experience this sensation. In the book, there is a juxtaposition between Esperanza and the residents of Mango Street. While Esperanza feels isolated due to her cluelessness about how she interprets her identity sexually, ethnically, and emotionally, the residents of Mango Street feel isolated because of spousal abuse, immigration, and familial confinement. I was able to write seven pages in total, because of my ability to connect five different characters to the theme of isolation and foreignness. I structured this essay by first talking about Esperanza and how she relates to the theme, and then about the other characters and their relation to the theme.
There was a specific method I followed in order to find appropriate scholarly journals to use for this final paper. I used the official library website of my college to find reliable databases like ProQuest and Gale Literature Criticism. I would open each journal that was suggested, and search for keywords like “identity,” “outcast,” and “foreign.” I used those words since they pertain to the theme that I planned on writing about for my essay. If I notice those words or anything similar highlighted frequently in the text, I would read the selected journal more carefully to determine if it fits the narrative I want to push for this assignment. The same strategy was applied for certain side characters, like “Mamacita,” “Geraldo,” “Marin,” and “Rafaela.” These were the characters that I wanted to connect to Esperanza and the sensation of foreignness, so I needed in-depth analyses of them to help construct my notes.
I felt very overwhelmed prior to writing this essay, since there was so much evidence that was applicable to the theme of isolation. The lengthy page count on top of the other finals I had to complete for separate classes made me realize I had to do some planning. To help utilize my time strategically and organize my thoughts, I created a large flow chart that is separated by the different characters in the book. Esperanza had the largest section, while the minor characters did not have sections that were as detailed since I only had one chapter of specific information about them to go by. The flow chart consisted of multiple boxes and lines. These were used to display and connect textual evidence and personal interpretations of each character. The personal interpretations were then perfected to become thoughtful literary explanations that were included in the essay. For instance, Esperanza’s flowchart started off with her name. Then another box connected to a statement that summarized how Esperanza fit into the theme of isolation. Next, I made three larger boxes titled “Friendships,” “Sexuality,” and “Ethnicity.” These are the reasons why Esperanza feels the sensation of isolation and detachment in The House on Mango Street. In each of these labeled boxes, I copied and pasted evidence from the scholarly journals that were relevant to each category, along with a parenthetical citation of the authors’ last name and the page number of the journal. I did the same thing for the book by reading each chapter and extracting evidence that could pertain to the three topics, including parenthetical citations for each as well.
Creating this flow chart was an essential step to writing this final paper. Taking the time to plan what I was going to include in this essay not only made writing the paper a lot quicker, but it helped calm my feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. I also believe that choosing a book that I genuinely like made the essay more enjoyable to write. I received an “A” on the paper, which validated all the hard work I have done to create an essay that I am wholeheartedly proud of.
Betz, Regina M. “Chicana ‘Belonging’ in Sandra Cisneros’ the House on Mango Street.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 352, Gale, 2014. https://www.jstor.org/stable/rockmounrevi.66.18. Accessed 7 Nov. 2021. Originally published in Rocky Mountain Review, 2012, pp. 18-33.
Burcar, Lilijana. “Shortcomings and Limitations of Identity Politics and Intersectionality in Sandra Cisneros’s the House on Mango Street.” Acta Neophilologica, vol. 51, no. 1-2, 2018, pp. 25-38. http://dx.doi.org/10.4312/an.51.1-2.25-38.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 1991.
Olivares, Julian. “Entering the House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros).” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 193, Gale, 2005. Gale Literature Criticism, link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1100059820/LitRC. Accessed 7 Nov. 2021. Originally published in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 209-235.
Kondali, Ksenija. “Living in Two Languages: The Challenges to English in Contemporary American Literature.”ELOPE ; English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries, vol. 9, no. 2, 2012, pp. 101-113. http://dx.doi.org/10.4312/elope.9.2.101-113.