The House on Mango Street
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
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.
Women’s Unfulfilled Responsibilities to Each Other
Early in the novel, Esperanza says that boys and girls live in different worlds, and this observation proves true of men and women in every stage of life. Since the women’s world is often isolating and grants women so little power, Esperanza feels women have a responsibility to protect and make life easier for each other. However, on Mango Street, this responsibility goes unfulfilled. The boys and men in The House on Mango Street are consistently violent, exploitative, or absent, but their world is so foreign to the women that no woman rebels against the men or calls for them to change. Esperanza may call out for women to help each other in the face of the unchanging male world, but no one answers.
Esperanza accepts more responsibility for women as she matures, and as she does, she confronts other women’s indifference more directly. At first Esperanza is responsible only for her younger sister, Nenny, but her responsibilities grow when she befriends Sally. Esperanza tries to save Sally from having to kiss a group of boys in “The Monkey Garden.” However, when Esperanza tries to enlist one of the boys’ mothers to help her, the mother refuses. Later, Sally abandons Esperanza and leaves her vulnerable to male attackers in “Red Clowns.” Esperanza expects female friends to protect each other, and Sally does not fulfill this responsibility. Ultimately, Esperanza understands that even if and when she leaves Mango Street, she will continue to take responsibility for the women in her neighborhood. She feels the responsibility deeply and will not forget it.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Esperanza is one of the only characters in The House on Mango Street with just one name—most characters have two. Some have a real name and a nickname, such as Nenny, whose real name is Magdalena, and Aunt Lupe, whose real name is Guadeloupe. Others have an English name and a Spanish name, such as Meme Ortiz, whose Spanish name is Juan, and Meme’s dog, which has unspecified names in both languages. These dual or multiple names emphasize the mix of cultures and languages that make up Esperanza’s neighborhood and the difficulties her neighbors have in figuring out who they are, in their families, their neighborhood, even their country.
The power of names to transform and empower fascinates Esperanza, who struggles with how to define herself. She mentions the transforming power of names in “My Name,” where she picks Zeze the X as a new name for herself. She also gives her current name, Esperanza, several definitions in order to make it more powerful. In “And Some More,” Esperanza discusses the fact that the Eskimos have thirty names for snow. She speculates that the Eskimos have so many names for snow because snow is so important to them, which suggests that the more names a person has, the more important he or she is. Rachel rejoins by saying that her cousin has three last names and two first names, indicating that she, too, shares the theory that the more names one has, the better. Eventually, Esperanza places more importance on language and description than on naming alone, but her obsession with naming shows an early understanding of the importance of language.
Throughout The House on Mango Street, people fear falling and sometimes actually fall, which suggests the constant threat of failure or injury. Images of falling appear frequently. Angel Vargas and Meme both fall from significant heights, both with disastrous results. Marin waits for a star to fall to change her life. Esperanza even describes herself as floating in an early vignette, as a red balloon on a tether. When she finally abandons her tether, she hopes she’ll fly away and not fall to the ground as Angel and Meme did. Esperanza faces the same fear of falling her neighbors do, and she hopes for a different fate.
Women by Windows
Mango Street is full of women who are trapped by their husbands, fathers, children, or their own feelings of inadequacy. Esperanza’s long-dead great-grandmother married unwillingly and spent her whole life sitting sadly by her window. Four women in Esperanza’s neighborhood are trapped in their apartments—Mamacita, Rafaela, Minerva, and Sally. They sit by their windows all day and look down onto the street. The group makes up a kind of community, but these women cannot communicate, and each keeps to her place without much complaint. Esperanza is determined not to become a woman sitting by a window, and she understands there is something amiss among the women in her world. Eventually, she tries to help by supporting women when she can. For now, however, the women represent a disturbing failure: that of the more liberated women to help their confined and unhappy neighbors.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Shoes in The House on Mango Street frequently evoke images of sex and adult femininity, and for Esperanza they illustrate the conflict she feels between her emerging sexual attractiveness and her desire for independence. Esperanza makes the connection between shoes and sex for the first time when she, Lucy, and Rachel try on high-heeled shoes a neighbor gives them. The shoes transform their scarred, childish feet and legs into long, slim women’s legs, and what began as a childhood game of dress-up becomes something more dangerous, as male neighbors ogle them hungrily. That afternoon, they are happy to abandon the shoes, claiming they are bored with them. For the moment, Esperanza can smoothly shed her new sexual attractiveness and become a child again.
When shoes appear again, Esperanza can’t discard them so easily. When Esperanza attends a dance and wears brown saddle shoes with her pretty new dress, she is almost paralyzed with embarrassment and self-consciousness. Men ask her to dance, and she wants to dance, but she wants more to hide her worn-out little-girl shoes. Though she eventually dances with her uncle and relishes the stares of a boy, she is aware of her clunky shoes the entire time. When Esperanza wants to befriend Sally, who is sexually mature, she describes Sally’s black suede shoes and wonders if she can convince her mother to buy her a similar pair. When Sally abandons Esperanza in the monkey garden in order to fool around with boys, Esperanza thinks her own feet look foreign. Finally, in Esperanza’s vision of her dream house, her shoes are beside the bed, suggesting that she does have or will have some measure of control over her own sexuality, if only in her imagination.
Esperanza expresses respect and admiration for trees throughout The House on Mango Street, and her affection stems from her identification with their appearance, resilience, and independence. In “Four Skinny Trees,” Esperanza personifies the trees in her front yard, saying she and they understand each other, even that they teach her things. She relates to the trees because they don’t seem to belong in the neighborhood and because they persevere despite the concrete that tries to keep them in the ground. Esperanza herself does not seem to belong, and she plans to persevere despite the obstacles posed by her poor neighborhood. Esperanza views the trees almost as a reflection of herself, comparing her own skinny neck and pointy elbows to the tree’s spindly branches.
The tree in Meme Ortiz’s backyard has particular resonance for Esperanza. Even though the tree eventually turns out to be dangerous, since Meme jumps out of it and breaks both of his arms, Esperanza claims it is the most memorable part of Meme’s backyard. She points out that the tree is full of squirrels and that it dwarfs her neighborhood in age and size. This tree has flourished even more than the trees in her front yard have, again without anybody doing much to help it. Meme’s hardy tree was probably once like the elms in Esperanza’s yard, which suggests that Esperanza will perhaps be able to grow into a strong and independent woman despite the setbacks in her first year on Mango Street.
The House on Mango Street contains many small poems and references to poems, which emphasize the importance of language to Esperanza and her neighbors. These references and poems include a poem Esperanza writes, jump-roping chants, and simple, internal rhymes within paragraphs of the text. We never hear some of the poems, such as those Esperanza recites to Ruthie, or those Minerva writes. The abundance of poetry suggests that the women and girls on Mango Street try to make their lives better by describing the world with beautiful language. The novel itself, with its many internal rhymes, is in some ways Esperanza’s long poem, her attempt to make some of the unpoetic aspects of her life less hard and more ordered through poetry.