In a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street explores how patriarchy, gender roles, and sexual violence impact the lives of women. Sandra Cisneros, through her semiautobiographical protagonist Esperanza, demonstrates that patriarchal society cannot accommodate women seeking to develop independent identities. Esperanza's inner conflict, born out of living in a patriarchal world, is mirrored in the conflicts of women in the vignettes. She does not want to be a “woman in the window,” like women who conform. Instead, she craves independence, concluding that she must escape to achieve it.

The people in Esperanza’s Mango Street neighborhood are trapped in gender-defined roles. Esperanza, early in life, notices differences in these roles, observing how boys and girls interrelate. Her brothers talk to her and her sister at home, but they do not engage in public. Her culture, she realizes, has one set of expectations for boys and another, restricted set for girls. To illustrate this contrast, she tells the story of her great-grandmother Esperanza, which, in the structure of interlocking vignettes, serves as the inciting incident. The elder Esperanza, a strong and creative woman, had been forced into marriage. She then spent her days staring out a window, a symbolic gesture emphasizing her cultural confinement. Esperanza shares her name but longs to avoid her fate, a life without agency. 

The plot’s rising action develops through a series of vignettes describing women in the neighborhood. Their stories reveal limits to life in the domestic sphere; they are relegated to keeping house, raising children, and looking after men. Each story provides an insight into the effects of imposed gender roles. One such story is that of Rosa Vargas, a woman with many children whose father has abandoned them. Initially, neighbors pity and help Rosa, but the care they offer becomes tedious and tapers away. Even when one of Rosa’s children dies, no one comes to her aid. Rosa, like Esperanza’s grandmother, is trapped in a domestic role, without agency over her existence. Even the number of children she has hints at a denial of contraception and control. In the patriarchal world, Rosa’s identity is circumscribed: she is simply a woman with children whose husband has abandoned her.

While Rosa is trapped in this imposed maternal identity, Alicia, another woman in Esperanza’s neighborhood, is oppressed by her role as caregiver. Esperanza relates to Alicia; both are strong women who want independence. Alicia tries to achieve this freedom by attending college. However, her father tries to return her to the patriarchal fold, explaining that a woman should tend the house and prepare food. Esperanza witnesses Alicia’s struggles and becomes aware that when the mother of a family passes away, all caregiving falls to the eldest daughter. Alicia’s condition, Esperanza recognizes, may one day become her own.

These, and similar incidents drive the vignettes forward, revealing that men continually assert control over women and girls, propelling Esperanza’s character development. Husbands lock wives in their homes; fathers abuse daughters and force them to lie about it; and men use women for pleasure and little more. Esperanza’s intentions to escape to a life of dignity and agency are spurred by what she witnesses.

From the rising action to the climax, Esperanza grows to understand violence at the hands of men. Sally’s father abuses her, contrasting with Esperanza’s experience, and Esperanza’s two sexual encounters, the first in the garden, where boys force Sally to kiss them, and later at the carnival, where Esperanza is assaulted, traumatize her. At the novella’s climax, the assault, Esperanza misdirects her anger toward Sally and other women: she blames Sally for leaving her with the boys, and she blames other women for failing to tell her the truth about sex. Cisneros uses Esperanza’s misdirected anger symbolically, demonstrating that women in a patriarchal world bear the blame for assaults against them. Men, she suggests, are free to behave as they wish, while women are left with little authority, save to show each other how to remain safe in male-dominated society. Their proscribed sense of identity includes a responsibility to warn each other and to avoid circumstances in which they might be victimized.

After the assault, in the novella’s falling action, Sally marries a much older man and runs away; like the other women on Mango Street, she becomes identified only by her association with a man. Esperanza returns to her younger friends, Lucy and Rachel, whose innocence and lack of sexual knowledge comfort her. As the novella reaches its resolution, Esperanza realizes that to make her life her own, she must leave Mango Street. She will return to help and support the women in her neighborhood, but she understands that she must forge her own identity, knowing that her Mango Street experiences will always remain a part of who she is.