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The House on Mango Street

by Sandra Cisneros

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What is a vignette in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros?

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The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, is structured using a series of vignettes, which are grouped under chapters that address a common theme. A vignette is to a story as a sketch is to a portrait — it gives the feeling, the sense, and the "slice of life" moment without a clear beginning, middle and end.

The book is heavy on imagery, simile, symbolism and metaphor. It often paints a scene without drawing explicit conclusions, leaving it up to the reader to ask why Cisneros chose to tell that tale, to sketch that particular vignette.

Two well known examples of vignettes in the memoir House on Mango Street include:

  1. When Esperanza and her friend encounter "the shoes"
  2. When Esperanza describes her new house, on Mango Street

The shoes are a result of a neighbor throwing away pairs of used, high-heeled shoes but deciding to give them to the girls instead. Esperanza and her good friends Lucy, Rachel, and Nenny make a game out of trying on the shoes, noticing how their legs somehow look longer, more like a woman's legs, and prompting the quote, "They are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops, but we just run."

This dialogue is typical of a vignette, because it is less structured and doesn't say much about who "the man" is, quickly shifting from his words to their instinctual reactions. It doesn't say where they run, because what matters is they sense the shoes really ARE dangerous.

The shoes symbolize Esperanza making the change from child to woman, revealing her burgeoning sexuality, and the quote shows there is a world out there that wants to make her ashamed of it, and that wants to keep her from growing up. All this takes place in Chapter 17, well into the story and near the beginning of her transitioning from childhood and into adolescence.

The shoes incident is important because growing up and abandoning the innocence of childhood is a strong theme throughout the book.

The description of her childhood home, too, presents a sketch and contrasts the new house with the prior ones, which were never permanent and always uncomfortable. It marks stability in her life, a new phase, and she describes it as, "...a real house that would be ours ... with running water and pipes that worked."

"This was the house Papa talked about when he held the lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up...." is another excerpt about the house on Mango street.

At the very end of the book, Esperanza titles a chapter "A House of My Own" and delineates all the things that make it different from her childhood home. She is now an adult, with adult things and a knowledge of the house on Mango street as wonderful in memory but not a place she can live now.

Both the description of the shoes and both houses are vignettes.

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is a brief written piece that describes, or sketches, someone or an incident. Most of the chapters inThe House on Mango Street are vignettes. An example is the chapter "Hair," in which the narrator, Esperanza, describes the hair styles of each member of her family. She concludes with a description of her mother's hair, which she likens to "candy circles." She ends the chapter with a brief but telling description of the way her mother's hair smells when Esperanza snuggles next to her and falls asleep while rain is falling outside. This chapter describes Esperanza's mother's hair and also describes, with an economy of words, Esperanza's relationship with her mother and the love and safety she feels in her mother's arms. The vignettes in this book, though very brief, describe larger realities and emotions.

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A vignette is a short story.  Vignettes often are combined related groups of stories in book format.  It differs from an anthology of short stories because of the connecting thread, and sometimes they are written lyrically being similar to a poem. 

Sandra Cisneros, the author of The House on Mango Street, has written a series of vignettes detailing life of the Chicano experience.  The tone of the vignettes is intimate, as if the narrator is telling the reader a personal story from a first person point of view.  The themes often deal with the feminine experience, notably that of the Latina experience.  It is a coming of age tale riddled with problems involving sexuality, gender roles, and fitting into a society that is multicultural yet stifling.  

The vignettes are like little portraits in the narrator's life, as she struggles to come to terms with her need to escape her surroundings.  She wants only to escape the confines of her poor neighborhood and the traditional gender roles that go with it.  The narrator ultimately learns through her personal journey that while she yearns to leave the house on Mango Street behind, it also represents enfolding arms, like those of a family.  

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In The House on Mango Street, what is the vignette entitled "The House on Mango Street" about?

It is interesting how this opening vignette actually introduces some of the main themes of the novel as a whole. Let us consider how it does this. Key to the novel is the experiences of an immigrant Latino family living in the United States, coping with the variety of challenges that this presents. Note how Esperanza, the narrator, tells us about the previous accommodation and how they had to move:

We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn't fix them because the house was too old. We had to leave fast. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons.

Clearly the conditions for an immigrant family with a number of children are not great. However, note too how this vignette presents the idea of the American Dream and then the crushing reality. Esperanza has a very fixed idea of what their house that they would own would be like. Their vision is definitely influenced by images on the TV and pictures of nice white houses with trees around it. And yet, the house they finally own is nothing like "the way they told it." In spite of dreams of several bathrooms and bedrooms, there is only one bathroom and everyone shares one bedroom. The house is in such a dilapidated state that when a nun asks if it is the house where Esperanza lives, she can only nod:

There. I had to look to where she pointed--the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.

Note how the italics convey the surprise and shock at the living conditions in which Esperanza lives, and also indicates the way that a person is judged so much by the amount of money that they have and their accommodation. The way Esperanza is made to feel like "nothing" indicates her desire to find a "real" house and escape the community of Mango Street that will form such an important part of her childhood.

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