The House on Mango Street – Book Review (Full)

I just want to tell a story, and if people listen, and if it stays with you, it’s a story. For me, a story’s a story if people want to hear it…there are different times of your life that a story may come to you…We may say, “Oh, that story didn’t do anything for me,” instead of saying, “I’m not ready for that story.” We blame the author or the story itself; but I really think that you have to hear a good story at the right time in your life.

-Sandra Cisneros

 

The House on Mango Street isn’t a very good story. It’s a novel, of sorts, (though it’s somewhat autobiographical) that’s broken-up into “vignettes” all of which are told from the perspective of Esperanza, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago. There is a single narrative thread that runs through the entirety of the work, that of Esperanza’s desire to escape the poverty-laden Mango Street, but the focus is mainly on certain moments or memories that reflect Esperanza’s increasing awareness of the world and of herself. This premise in and of itself isn’t bad, but what is being critiqued here is the execution. Sandra Cisneros could have written a good novel; unfortunately, The House on Mango Street is what I would call a “nothing-book”: a work that deals with ideas but in the most rudimentary and superficial ways. As a result, once the book ends it slips out of the reader’s mind. A story survives via its ability to latch onto the reader, but The House on Mango Street contains nothing that can help procure its memory: no poetic lines, no memorable characters, no imagery, no great ideas or insight. It is the literary equivalent of potato chips: a comfort food that might displace a certain gap, temporarily, but does so without providing any substantial benefit.

So let’s get into why this particular story isn’t very good. To do this let’s first look at how Cisneros decides to open her book:

“We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is the moving a lot. Each time it seemed there’d be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me.

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don’t have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it’s not the house we’d thought we’d get.”

Not exactly riveting, is it? Originally I was going to provide a brief summary of the events of the book, but do I really need to? An astute reader, just from the above paragraphs, should be able to predict the overall trajectory of the book. Perhaps the specifics will be missed, by you should already be able to guess the overall course of things. Here is another paragraph from the same chapter:

“But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house had only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.”

Okay, now you should be able to see what the novel’s going to look like: Esperanza is going to experience loneliness, she is going to interact with the other oddball characters in the neighborhood, she is going to feel shame for her poverty, she is going to find things about herself, etc. From reading the above it’s already pretty obvious what the author is trying to do and how she will touch upon these things in the succeeding chapters. Basically, if a computer were to write a novel about a young girl living in a poor neighborhood this is how it would choose to open. It’s that rote of a book. These paragraphs, at some point, should have been subverted in some way; alone, they are not only too shallow and hackneyed, but the reader already knows what to expect from the rest of the novel. There is nothing that really grabs or hooks the reader. Cisneros could have chosen a more poetic means to introduce the reader to Esperanza’s world, but she decided, instead, to do it in the most straightforward and obvious way.

One might argue that Cisneros is trying, with this opening, to reflect the diary of a young girl, but this is just excuse-making. It’s okay to use kid-speak, but the above demonstrates a bad author’s idea of how a child speaks and conceives things. Compare these paragraphs with the writing in Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy and Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both works center on young characters growing-up poor, but they also capture a child’s perspective without sacrificing artistry, but look at the language Cisneros uses. There is no sense of poesy. The only real attempt at metaphor is of the windows being “so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” But what does that even mean? I don’t know about you, but when I hold my breath I tend to expand rather than shrink. There is only one real attempt at poetry in these three paragraphs and it completely fails. I imagine Cisneros thought it was how a child might describe the windows; however, does Esperanza’s age somehow justify this failure? Of course not. Bad writing is bad writing. But going beyond the sentence-level the entirety of the novel is simplistic to an extreme fault. Even children are capable of moments of depth and insight. Great authors are not only aware this but are able to cull such moments in both meaningful and novel ways.

Unfortunately, Cisneros is not a great author. Here is the ending of one of the book’s earliest vignettes entitled “Boys and Girls” which is supposed to emphasize Esperanza’s loneliness:

“Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

Again, even if this is something that a child, in those exact words, might think or write that doesn’t mean that those words should have been included, at least in this sequence and context. Underneath the child’s voice there still has to be the mature mind of the author using the child’s voice to get at deeper things. Mere replication isn’t enough; in fact, the above might demonstrate how it can be a hindrance. I mean, the symbolism of the red balloon? My God. Just because a child might think that doesn’t mean that it’s still not horrid or trite. To paraphrase critic Dan Schneider, writing about boredom is no excuse for boring writing. If one were to capture boredom in its full nature, the author cannot simply imitate boredom, for while the author would be recreating the surface-level, he would be failing to capture the actual substance of boredom; the author would be addressing simply the what instead of the how or why. It’s like attempting to capture someone’s life by pointing a camera at him while he’s sitting in a room reading. Yes, surface details are addressed, but that doesn’t mean that you are capturing anything more, let alone anything of actual depth about the man’s life. And, not only that, it would be fucking boring to watch. Everyone is aware of what boredom is in the same sense that everyone is aware of how a child sees and thinks about things. It’s kind of pointless and dull to just emulate; it’s about how such things are utilized. Basically, instead of mimicking a childlike voice the key is to use a childlike voice in a compelling way. Just like boredom, an artist can still get at a child’s world without letting the child’s world completely dominate. Art doesn’t just imitate reality, but it also uses reality in order to get at its core.

But there are times where Cisneros attempts to get at deeper things. One of the themes of the novel is feminism. Esperanza becomes increasingly aware of how women are treated and how gender roles are incubated and perpetuated. Here is from a chapter where she despairs at her Spanish name and how it sounds (another tired trope of Chicano Literature,) which leads to this (emphasis mine):

“It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female–but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.

Look at this shit. You can write about your culture, you can write about misogyny and gender roles, but you have to do so well. You shouldn’t just state the message of your book so bluntly or else the reader will feel like he’s being talked down to. As mentioned before, this isn’t a book of depth, but comfort food masquerading as an important work. Cisneros treats all her ideas similarly throughout the book, with the broadest of strokes. Here is also a moment in which Esperanza demonstrates her own brand of feminist rebellion:

“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

Yeah, take that patriarchy! Here are two excerpts from the chapter “Smart Cookie.” The first:

“I could’ve been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She knows how to fix a T.V. But she doesn’t know which subway train to take to get downtown. I hold her hand very tight while we wait for the right train to arrive.”

Which is soon followed-by:

“Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could’ve been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head.

Then out of nowhere:

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.

Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

And that’s how the chapter ends, like the other chapters. One could justify this by suggesting how she is undermining any potential melodrama by cutting things short. However, I would argue that her approach might be too extreme: she castrates each vignette before something of depth can be reached in the name of capturing some sort of “poetic” or “significant” moment. However, as I pointed out, many of the moments that she hones in are banal yet the fact that she just focuses on them, giving them a weight, suggests that she wants us to believe that these moments, by themselves, represent something more. What they’re supposed to represent is obvious, but they fail to fulfill anything of substance. Here, we get a moment with Esperanza’s mother, but it’s rote and pallid. I could have seen the mother’s “reveal” miles away. The way this scene is structured makes whatever Cisneros is trying to do completely apparent. It ends up just coming across as a lesson from a storybook rather than a real scene between two fleshed-out characters. We get how the mother, in the simplest terms, could have been “something” but was too ashamed to go to school because she didn’t have nice clothes. Could you get more obvious? Actually, you can. There is one chapter where Cisneros shows Esperanza discovering the feminine power of high-heels and then rejecting that power when men start ogling at her. I’m not kidding you.

Okay, here’s another chunk on a different topic. This one is from “Those Who Don’t”:

“Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s Brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood or another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.”

And it goes and goes…From “Geraldo”:

“They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders are sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?

His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember. Geraldo—he went north…we never heard from him again.”

The problem with this particular excerpt, like the previous one, is that it goes about taking a rather superficial and predictable approach. Look at the limp way she attempts to show the dehumanization of the character of Geraldo as he is shown to be perceived as just some Mexican who was killed in a drive-by: “They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats…” Anyone could have written this. If someone is thinking about how to write dehumanization this is exactly the first tactic he would think of employing. “How could they?” is a narrative cliché if there ever was one.

If a writer wishes to communicate ideas, or bring awareness to the reader, the writer must not write in a way that deadens the narrative; this means avoiding predictability and cliché. Many a Cisneros apologist have argued that The House on Mango Street is telling the story of people who are neglected, invisible to society (even though we have numerous stories about similar people who are downtrodden, but whatever,) but here’s the ending to the chapter entitled “Marin,” where the titular character is an older, lonely girl that Esperanza knows:

“Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

This is, again, another ending that shows how Cisneros has no clue as to what constitutes as a lasting poetic image or idea that could help us define, or at least intuit, a particular character. We get narrative clichés (a character dancing underneath a streetlight) and clichés at the sentence-level (“a star to fall, someone to change her life.”) If she had just cut out that last paragraph the vignette would have ended as thus:

“…Marin is older than us in many ways, the boys who do pass by say stupid things like I am in love with those two green apples you call eyes, give them to me why don’t you. And Marin just looks at them without even blinking and is not afraid.”

Would this have been a good chapter ending? No, but at least it would have been more fitting and effective as we are left with something that actually encapsulates Marin rather than present empty maudlin. However, another reason I chose to emphasize this part is to refute the claims of her defenders: even as Cisneros attempts to “tell the story” of these people, she ends up stereotyping them and indulging in cliché. As I mentioned before, clichés deaden writing, making it difficult for the reader to give a shit about what’s happening.

If Cisneros wanted to do people like Marin and Geraldo justice she should have put more effort into the art itself. Instead, she decided to not even write characters at all, but stereotypes. The people within the book pop in and out, most for the purpose of demonstrating or representing whatever it is Cisneros wishes to comment on. In one chapter there’s a character whose only purpose is to feel homesick for Mexico as she scolds her son for speaking English. There are numerous female characters throughout that contain no inner-lives and are just there to be possessed and treated poorly by males, showcasing the wretched cycle of abuse as perpetuated by societal expectations when it comes to gender. In other chapters there are male characters whose sole function is to treat Esperanza like an object as they attempt to kiss and touch her. Some critics have declaimed The House on Mango Street as “man-hating,” but that accusation ignores something larger: the fact that all of the characters are barely and poorly written. This is the bigger crime.

This leads me to “The Monkey Garden”. This is one of the longest chapters in the book and easily the best one. This is because the symbolism isn’t that bad and we get interactions between characters that are somewhat realistic, unlike the other chapters where the characters behave in such a way to only showcase whatever point Cisneros is attempting to convey. And the symbolism contained is allowed to stand alone without Cisneros explicitly stating what is supposed to be represented. Here is how this particular chapter begins:

“The monkey doesn’t live there anymore. The monkey moved—to Kentucky—and took his people with him. And I was glad because I couldn’t listen anymore to his wild screaming at night, the twangy yakkety-yak of the people who owned him. The green metal cage, the porcelain table top, the family that spoke like guitars. Monkey, gamily, table. All gone.”

Not a brilliant opening, but compare it to the others I’ve quoted: the reader isn’t exactly cued into what is to be expected, at least not with as much blunt. As a result, the reader is more inclined to continue-on. Also, note how more natural sounding the narration is here; it’s much more organic in portraying how a child might speak and prioritize certain things. In other words, this vignette doesn’t seem like it’s going to become a simple-minded lecture, at least not yet.

What follows is some description which could have been parsed, but some of it isn’t bad, although not very good. However, we suddenly get some insight into what attracts Esperanza to the yard the “monkey and his people” left behind:

“We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal.”

The above might actually be the best part of the book. Note both the image and musicality of that final phrase. Not amazing stuff, but just compare it to “a balloon tied to an anchor,” or the preciousness of “windows so small they’re holding their breath.” The garden then is revealed to be a place for Esperanza to hide from the rest of the world and to maintain her little bubble of innocence. In contrast, she describes another neighborhood girl, Sally, as being too distracted by a group of boys to play and run around in the forsaken yard. We find out about a game “[o]ne of the boys invented” where they toss each other Sally’s keys, and she, pretending to be annoyed, attempts to get them back though she is participating in her given role within the game. Yes, it’s obvious what Cisneros is trying to do: it’s another “insight” on how children are indoctrinated into gender roles and become willing participants, hence perpetuating the cycle, but at least there is some realism involved between the characters. The characters, at least in this instance, don’t become mere marionettes for Cisneros, but seemingly real people.

Esperanza gets mad at Sally and it’s implied that she is frustrated by the ease in which Sally has abandoned her innocence in favor of boys. Esperanza fears that she will easily fall to the same fate after one parent declines to intervene. We still get some triteness and, as mentioned before, the whole thing is still heavy-handed, but there is at least some artistic effort involved. This might be because Cisneros, with this vignette, decided to expand rather than let a tiny, banal moment stand in importance

Unfortunately, look at how she decides to follow this chapter:

“Sally, you lied. It wasn’t what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn’t want it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it’s supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you lie to me?”

Completely unnecessary. Basically this chapter attempts to do what the previous did, making it sort of redundant.

“Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn’t you hear me when I called? Why didn’t you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn’t let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine.”

Okay, maybe the accusations of “man-hating” aren’t completely unfounded; 90 percent of the males in this book are sickos emptied of nuance and humanity, but whatever. As I just said, “Monkey Garden” covers Sally and Esperanza’s relation with her much better than this utterly cliché of a chapter does. Can you count all of the clichés? Do I even need to mention the title of the vignette—“Red Clowns”—and the conflation, though not explicitly stated, of the boys and the red (or devilish) clowns? Oh wait, I just did. Moving-on.

Alright, here is how the whole thing ends (spoilers!):

“One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

Yes, this book truly is a piece of shit. Cisneros eventually did “go back” to Mango Street via this book for the ones who couldn’t escape like she did, but, as I’ve previously stated, she did not do them justice. She took the people that populated her memory and melted them down to a pool of nothingess. Characters pop in and out, barred from growing and taking shape; they are simply tools for dull-minded lessons. The only character that comes close to becoming “real” is Sally, but that’s because a few chapters are dedicated to her; however, she still ends up becoming a stereotype. There are tired symbols like “the four skinny trees” which Esperanza tells the reader represent strength. There is, of course, the house itself which Esperanza is, of course, ashamed of. And I didn’t even touch on the chapters where Cisneros denigrates the rich for disregarding the presence of the poor (how brave!) Despite claims to the contrary, Cisneros does not capture a world neglected by mainstream thought for she provides the reader no access to that world. She only gives us words: empty, accessible, comforting words.

But The House on Mango Street does have its place. It’s good for teachers who want to introduce children to the (very) basics of racism and misogyny. It’s good for grandma’s book club which thrives on limp and safe discussions on “deeper matters.” As literary comfort food it’s a substantial meal for someone who knows nothing but fast food and potato chips. But to say it’s a great work of art would be wrong and demonstrably so, regardless of whether you like the book or not. You might, for whatever reason, have a fondness for a one-legged chair, but that doesn’t mean that that chair fulfills its function well. In the same sense, a work of art is measured in how well it communicates, and to say The House on Mango Street communicates anything well is to expose one’s lack of artistic knowledge and instinct. “But, I really felt something when I was reading this book! I was engaged! That has to mean it’s doing something right!” Well, it means something; it either means you haven’t read a lot of books, or that you happen to be on the same wavelength as this particular novel. The worth of a piece of art is measured by its potential to affect without relying on individual biases. I personally hate The Doors, but I cannot objectively say they are a terrible band just because I’m not crazy about organ music or Jim Morrison’s singing style. Their music is effective; I may not be able to be receptive to this effectiveness, but I can still argue how someone who isn’t possessed by my biases could still be. However, if you are affected by something that is a piece of crap, chances are you are the one that is putting in the effort, not the work itself, whether you are aware of it or not. You are the one bringing your feelings to the work and rendering it something it’s not. People are affected by the rantings of a Donald Trump or an Anne Coulter—does that mean they are good communicators, or rather that their followers are allowing themselves to be effected by their stolid words? So, with this I say if you still are not convinced by my assessment put aside your feelings and wants (the things you bring to the words,) and just look at the words I’ve quoted above by themselves, and then ask yourself: do they stay?

Originally published on Cosmoetica

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