Black, white, and orange illustration of Esperanza standing in front of a building or structure

The House on Mango Street

by Sandra Cisneros

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What might trees symbolize in "Four Skinny Trees" from The House on Mango Street?

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When analyzing tree imagery in literature, especially in a coming of age story like The House on Mango Street, it’s instructive to note how humans and trees have been connected in the history of storytelling.

Myths, folk tales, and works of literature from around the world refer to magical trees that provide food, grant wishes, or act as center points that keep the world in place.

According to Buddhist legend, Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment while meditating under the bodhi tree in India. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is the world tree that forms the basis of the nine worlds that make up the Norse cosmology. British author J. R. R. Tolkien drew on tree symbolism for his concept of the Two Trees of Valinor and his characterization of the Ents.

In the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella fairy tale, the beneficial agent is not a fairy godmother but a hazel tree that grows above her mother’s grave and the white bird that lives in the tree, symbols of her deceased mother’s spirit. Cinderella turns to the tree to give her strength and an identity away from her unhappy home life. The white bird then grants Cinderella’s wishes.

This tree symbolism is presented in the modern city neighborhood setting of Mango Street in Chicago. As the chapter “Four Skinny Trees” begins, Esperanza tells the readers about the four trees:

They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them.

Much like Cinderella then, Esperanza turns to the trees for strength and identity, a reminder of who she is and what she can accomplish beyond her difficult situation. She associates the trees with her daily life and by doing so, anthropomorphizes them. Note how human the trees seem in this passage:

They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth with their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.

By endowing the four trees with her thoughts and emotions, they become sources of wisdom, useful symbols for Esperanza to reflect on her feelings, examine her thoughts, and therefore reaffirm her need to “keep keeping.”

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In the vignette “Four Skinny Trees," as the title would imply, trees are deeply symbolic and meaningful throughout. One of the first mentions of the trees is how Esperanza looks to them around her as the only things which understand her. Like her, they are far too skinny but powering through, and their solidarity seems to encourage Esperanza to continue on in spite of her circumstances.

Trees also represent the lengths to which the characters will go to hold on to their foundations: as the trees reach their roots into the ground, so do the characters try different techniques to remind themselves of what grounds them and holds them steady. The four skinny trees, holding tight and also fighting to survive, are very representative of Esperanza and her family.

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Esperanza identifies with the trees....

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The trees have “skinny necks and pointy elbows” like her; also like her, they are out of place (they “do not belong here but are here”). The trees inspire her; she hopes to be strong like the trees (their “secret strength” that comes from “never quit[ting] their anger”), to endure despite all hardships. The trees provide emotional support for each other; if one should “forget his reason for being,” the trees “would droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other”—an example of the support Esperanza would like to receive (and give). In this context, it’s interesting that her “understanding” of the tree is itself a kind of secret; she and her sister can both hear them from their room, but only Esperanza can hear their insistent message: “Keep keep keep.” The trees teach that, no matter what, Esperanza must continue “to be and be.”

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As narrator, Esperanza describes the trees that she often looks as the only things around that understand her:

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees.... Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.

Further, she notes how the trees send down roots to grab the earth and hold themselves stable. Thus, they set an example to Esperanza to establish a foundation for herself in which she will have roots, and to continue to aspire for her vision of the future in spite of her meager living conditions and environment. She does not remain in her house like Mamacita, who refuses to try to learn English, or like Rafaela, whose husband locks her in their apartment all day while he works. Esperanza, whose name means "hope," understands that the young, vibrant trees do not belong in this decaying barrio, either.

Like the trees, Esperanza understands that she must grow and reach beyond her meager and stultifying environment.

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Here's an excerpt from the enotes analysis on the vignette, go to the link below if you need more information: The four skinny trees are a source of inspiration for Esperanza. More than any person or thing so far in the novel, the four trees give Esperanza strength and encouragement. This is because Esperanza sees herself in them, and them in her. The likeness is more than physical. Though they also have “skinny necks and pointy elbows,” the other similarities are more significant.

Like Esperanza, the trees do not belong on Mango Street. They belong somewhere else, somewhere better, somewhere with more room to grow; but, like Esperanza, they have been put on Mango Street against their will. Though they are skinny, they are strong—strong enough to grow even though they are surrounded by concrete instead of grass. Likewise, Esperanza is strong enough to grow in an environment in which she is restricted by her race, class, and gender.

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