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Sandra Cisneros attempts to reconstruct the traditionally patriarchal realm that is the house and negotiate a space for women. Her bilingual dedication “A las Mujeres/To the Women” recognizes her ethnicity as well as her gender, which immediately shapes the scope of her work. The title of Cisneros’ novel inevitably calls into mind Virginia Woolf’s similarly titled book, A Room of One’s Own. Whilst both novels aim to educate women and empower them, the bilingual dedication of Cisneros’ novel addresses an additional group of women that Woolf may have left out—women of colour. The House on Mango Street draws upon Cisneros’ cultural background and focuses on the patriarchal house as a motif for her reconstruction.
The novel opens with a yearning that is reminiscent of the American dream, to acquire “a real house that would be ours for always…. White with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence” (4), yet the Corderos can only settle in a house on Mango Street that is “small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small” (4). The exterior of the house is a reflection of the constraint that is present inside it. Esperanza notes that “the boys and girls live in separate worlds… [her brothers have] got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the home. But outside they can’t be seen talking to girls” (8). Elsewhere, she recognizes the restrictive quality of the house. Her great grandmother, whom she was named after, was described as “a wild horse of a woman” who was relegated to looking “out the window her whole life, the way many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (11) after being forced into a marriage. Rafaela, too, is an example of a woman confined within the house by her husband “because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at” (79). Her situation is similar to Sally who “sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission” (102). The text is thus punctuated by women who are trapped in their houses constructed by patriarchy.
However, the same patriarchal structure that is supported by an oppressive presence is also marked by absence. Esperanza observes that her house had “no front yard,” and their garage is for “the car we don’t own yet” (4). Likewise, other houses are marked by absence. Meme’s house, built by Cathay’s father, has “no closets” (21) while Aunt Lupe’s apartment is located in a building “where sunlight never came” (60). This suggests that there is something incomplete about the male sphere, and opens up possibilities for other more inclusive constructions of the house.
The house is a powerful metaphor for identity (re)construction because houses can be demolished, altered and substituted. This is echoed through Esperanza’s wish to reinvent herself by changing her name to “Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X” (11). The empty signifier “X” represents the arbitrary nature of gender construction that can be assumed like a pair of shoes. In the vignette, “The Family of Little Feet,” the girls become Cinderella and are aware of their sexuality as the men leer at them when they put on high heels. From this episode, Cisneros highlights the fallacy of male oppression that is based on monolithic gender constructions. If gender can be constructed, is it not therefore susceptible to deconstruction and reconstruction?
The vignette “Alicia & I Talking on Edna’s Steps” is probably the most significant because it portrays the dilemma of reconstructing one’s identity. Though Esperanza’s initial intention was to leave Mango Street and only come back when “somebody makes it better” (107), Alicia soon reminds her that that is not going to happen, and this simultaneously leads Esperanza to realize that she will have to make that change. The novel ends by reiterating the opening paragraph. However, the difference is that Esperanza does not highlight the absences of the house but draws strength from it and resolute in voicing the stories of “the ones who cannot out” (110).
The bildungsroman structure of the novel comes full circle with a little girl from an innocent girl who yearns to leave her house to a girl who gains an awareness of the restrictions that confine her and attempts to make a change. By situating the story in a setting that is typically marked by patriarchy, Cisneros is able to shatter absolute gender constructions and show how women can overcome their circumstances if only they can recognize their entrapment and be willing to effect a change. However, this change is not brought about by disavowing one’s past, but rather by embracing it and drawing strength from it because it is only through recognition and examination of the past can one progress.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Florida: First Harvest, 1989.
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