The House on Mango Street: Essay Q&A

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1. Literary scholar C. Hugh Holman defines a Bildungsroman as "a novel that deals with the development of a young person as he grows up" (Holman, 63). In what ways is The House on Mango Street a Bildungsroman? Cite specific instances in the text to support your argument.

The novel traces Esperanza's development from a girl who has no firm sense of identity to a young woman with a clear sense of purpose; from a naive child to a developing woman who has been prematurely and violently initiated into adult sexuality; from a person who cannot articulate her identity to a vocal storyteller who can, through powerful narrative, articulate not only her own self but the "self" of her Mango Street community. Students' essays should be able to cite any number of specific instances where readers witness Esperanza coming of age. A few possible examples would include: her sense of guilt at Aunt Lupe's death; her dance with Uncle Nacho at the baptismal celebration; or Sally's rejection of her in the Monkey Garden.
2. Which characters serve as mentor figures to Esperanza as she struggles to establish her own identity?
Possible responses students could discuss in their essays include Marin, Alicia, Aunt Lupe, and Elenita as "positive" mentors; and Mamacita, Rafaela, and even Esperanza's great-grandmother as "negative" mentors. In other words, characters in the first category represent the same hopes to which Esperanza aspires-Alicia, for example, is unafraid of the adult world of sexuality; Aunt Lupe encourages Esperanza to keep writing. Characters in the second category-Rafaela, trapped in her own "home" (note the irony, given the symbolic freight that word and concept carry in this book)-represent the fate Esperanza is determined to avoid, and show her the mistakes they made so that she can not make them herself. Some characters may even serve as both positive and negative mentors; for instance, Ruthie, who is trapped in an abusive relationship but who also speaks to Esperanza of narrative's freeing potential.
3. What do the male characters of Cisneros' novel represent?
Students' essays should, by focusing on a handful of male characters, be able to clearly articulate the dominant "gender politics" of The House on Mango Street. While Meme Ortiz is a positive male character-indeed, he is virtually Esperanza's male counterpart for his accomplishment of renaming himself-and while Papa emerges as a sensitive (if somewhat weak and to be pitied, even given his grief) character, most of the men of Mango Street-Earl, Minerva's husband, Sally's father, the boy who (presumably) rapes Esperanza in "Red Clowns"-are motivated by lust and the need to dominate the women in their lives. Men in this novel seem to represent a harsh patriarchy, from which Esperanza is able to escape by learning the power of storytelling, a power traditionally associated in many cultures with women.
4. What purposes do the many instances of intertextuality in the novel play?
Recall a standard definition of intertextuality: "Relating to or deriving meaning from the interdependent ways in which texts stand in relation to each other" (American Heritage Dictionary). Students' essays should focus on the appearance of The Waterbabies in "Born Bad" and of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in "Edna's Ruthie." The possible intertextual purposes that these texts play are discussed at some length in the Analysis sections for these vignettes. Alternatively, students might explore in a more general way the intertextual inversions of fairy tale motifs in "The Family of Little Feet" (the Cinderella motif) and "Rafaela." (the Rapunzel motif). In traditional fairy tales, these motifs present princesses who find true love and live happily ever after as if by magic. On Mango Street, however, slippers that perfectly fit young girls' feet attract unwanted, lecherous attention, and princesses become prisoners in the houses (not homes!) of their absent and abusive husbands. These inversions offer further proof the power, for good and ill, of narrative-of the stories we (and, in Cisneros' novel, especially women) tell ourselves.
5. While The House on Mango Street is primarily a novel about one individual, Esperanza, it is also a novel about society. Identify a way in which Cisneros' book addresses a specific societal problem. What lessons does the book have to offer?
Students' essays could profitably focus on one vignette as a way of entering into discussion with the text about a specific social issue. For example, the vignette "Those Who Don't" emerges as a powerful indictment of ignorance and racism, both between the majority and minority members of a society, and within the minority culture itself. Readers' evaluations of the novel's lessons will vary with their interpretations and their own life experiences.
Sources cited:
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright 2004, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved
C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. Third edition. Indianapolis and New York: Odyssey Press, 1972.

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