The House on Mango Street
Analysis of Major Characters
As Esperanza matures during the year that makes up The House on Mango Street, she experiences a series of awakenings, the most important being a sexual awakening. At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza is not quite ready to emerge from the asexuality of childhood. She is completely ignorant about sex and says that boys and girls live in completely different worlds. She is so much a child that she cannot even speak to her brothers outside of the house. When she becomes an adolescent, she begins to experiment with the power she, as a young woman, has over men. Marin teaches her fundamental facts about boys, but the first major step in Esperanza’s awareness of her sexuality is when she and her friends explore the neighborhood in high-heeled shoes. She relishes the power the shoes seem to give her, and she plays with the idea that physical beauty could help her escape the squalor of her surroundings. Esperanza quickly learns, however, that the patriarchal society in which she lives denies the power of female sexuality. The bum who attempts to kiss Rachel is the first in a series of men who will use force to take what girls don’t want to give freely. After being sexually assaulted, Esperanza decides to try to forget some of what she has learned about sex in the past year in order to focus on writing. By the end of the novel, Esperanza’s views on sex have evolved, and she rejects sex as a means of escape.
Esperanza’s moral sense develops from an intense individualism to a feeling of responsibility toward the people in her community. As a child, Esperanza wants only to escape Mango Street. Her dreams of self-definition don’t include the fact that she has any responsibility to her family or to the people around her, and she wishes to leave them all behind. Once Esperanza has become familiar with the people in her neighborhood, however, she begins to feel affection and, ultimately, responsibility for them. She no longer sees herself as an individual striving for self-determination. Instead, she recognizes herself as a member of a social network who must give back to her community in order to break the cycle of poverty that plagues the neighborhood. Esperanza also develops feelings of moral responsibility toward her community of women. Her negative experiences as Sally’s friend show that she has the courage to try to help her friends, even if they do not always understand that they need to help her as well. Not until she talks with the three sisters and Alicia, however, does Esperanza understand that helping the neighborhood women will be a lifelong effort.
Esperanza’s final and most important awakening is her realization of her writing ability, which gives her the means to escape from Mango Street. Because Esperanza is a writer, she is a keen observer, and we see her powers of observation mature. She is present in all of the early stories she narrates, but by the middle of the novel she is able to narrate stories based wholly on observation of the people around her. This change shows that she is becoming an artist, and also that she is becoming more detached from her neighborhood, since she does not always see herself in the stories she tells. By the end of The House on Mango Street, she knows she has become more detached from her home through her writing. Although she has not yet found a home of her own, her writing has helped her to find privacy within herself.
When Esperanza begins desiring boys, she seeks out a friend in Sally, whom boys find desirable. Sally seems to be beautiful and cruel, like the women Esperanza admires in movies. She leans against the fence at school and doesn’t talk to anyone. Rumors about Sally’s promiscuity circulate, but Esperanza doesn’t believe them. Instead, she thinks of Sally as a kindred spirit, someone who also spends her time dreaming of escaping the neighborhood. Sally, however, is not interested only in driving boys crazy and then laughing them away, as the women in the movies do. Instead, she finds safety and comfort in sex, feelings she does not find at home with her abusive father. Sally’s sexual exploits make Esperanza uncomfortable, since at this point Esperanza is interested in sex only abstractly. Eventually, this discomfort becomes extreme, and Sally ends up putting Esperanza in physical danger. Sally herself changes little, but Esperanza’s understanding of her changes dramatically. Esperanza’s experiences as Sally’s friend make Esperanza realize she has tried to mature too quickly. In the end, Sally is a pitiable, not enviable, figure in Esperanza’s life.
As the younger sister, Nenny is often Esperanza’s responsibility, and though her innocence is a major source of annoyance for Esperanza, it also signals Nenny’s independence. In many ways, Nenny is a pesky little sister. Esperanza must introduce Nenny to her new friends and keep her away from bad influences, such as the Vargas kids. Nenny also has qualities that Esperanza covets, including two names (“Nenny” is short for “Magdalena”), pretty eyes, and shiny, straight hair. Though Nenny can be a nuisance and a tag-a-long, and her actions often embarrass and annoy Esperanza, she frequently demonstrates her independence. When Esperanza, Rachel, and Lucy make up chants about hips, Nenny recites old chants that everyone already knows. Similarly, when Rachel and Lucy describe clouds with creative metaphors, Nenny gives the clouds everyday names such as Jose and Alicia. Nenny’s apparent refusal to be creative embarrasses Esperanza, but her choices suggest she has her own way of surviving on Mango Street.
Nenny and Esperanza don’t seem very much alike, but their differences in age and sociability mask their fundamental similarities. Nenny and Esperanza laugh at the same things, even those things others don’t understand are funny. More important, Nenny and Esperanza are both dreamers. While Esperanza imagines a world outside the barrio, Nenny turns the outside world into the barrio by giving the clouds the same names as her neighbors. By doing so, she enlarges her world and makes it bearable. She turns Mango Street into the center of the universe, a place where she can be happy. Nenny and Esperanza are also very steadfast in their ideas, though Nenny is less likely to go along with the other girls if her views differ. While Esperanza, Lucy, and Rachel bounce ideas off each other, Nenny pursues her own idea. She is not distracted from her dreams, even when the other girls give her dirty looks. Despite Nenny’s similarities to Esperanza, Nenny does not have as much a part in Esperanza’s narrative as other women. Esperanza observes most of the women in her life closely and gives each of them a chapter—except for Nenny. Nenny ultimately recedes from view as Esperanza pursues life beyond Mango Street.