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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This is the tree we chose for the First Annual Tarzan Jumping Contest. Meme won. And broke both arms. (“Meme Ortiz”)

These three sentences form the final paragraph of the chapter titled “Meme Ortiz” and provide a characteristic example of the author’s simple, pared-down style. Three sentences contain nineteen words, and the only words of more than one syllable occur in the portentous title of the contest, which adds a touch of humor to the sparse description. In the last two sentences, six short words contain a sudden reversal of fortune, a laconic description of what must have been a dramatic event. Triumph turns to tragedy, and the narrative ends abruptly, leaving the reader without any idea of what happened next but hinting at a community in which such sudden mishaps were common enough to pass with little comment.

You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad. Here there is too much sadness and not enough sky. Butterflies are too few and so are flowers and most things that are beautiful. Still, we take what we can get and make the best of it. (“Darius & the Clouds”)

Cisneros quotes the first sentence of this story in the introduction, using it as an example of a line which occurred to her before she knew anything else about the story. The line would work equally well in a poem, and the author is also a poet, who was writing poetry at the same time as the vignettes that form The House on Mango Street. This meditation on the ways in which sky can affect the mind, and its connection to sadness and beauty, stands apart from the rest of the story like a brief prose poem. In this, it represents the occasional thoughts of the narrator and the writer which are not directly connected to events in Mango Street, but which stand out like glimpses of sky between two rooftops, throwing into sharp relief what is happening on the ground.

Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep. (“Four Skinny Trees”)

Esperanza begins by saying that she is the only one who understands the trees, and they are the only ones who understand her. This personification continues throughout the story, and here in the second paragraph, the trees have human toes and teeth. They are also animated by a furiously human anger. In the first paragraph they appear merely disconsolate: skinny, “raggedy excuses.” Esperanza thinks that she often appears the same, and this is why she understands their anger, the anger of the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the neglected. In this way, the trees symbolize the resentment and fierce determination of many people who live on Mango Street, particularly the women and girls, who bear the harshest burdens of poverty and social exclusion.

Why did you leave me all alone? I waited my whole life. You’re a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again. The moon that watched. The tilt-a-whirl. The red clowns laughing their thick-tongue laugh. (“Red Clowns”)

In “Sally” and in “Red Clowns,” Esperanza addresses her friend Sally directly, giving these stories added pathos and immediacy. In “Sally,” she is primarily concerned for the well-being of her friend, but here, in “Red Clowns,” she is angry with Sally and reproaches her bitterly, both for abandoning her and for lying to her about what sexual encounters are like. It is not clear exactly what is happening to Esperanza in this passage. A boy has approached her, grabbed her arm, forced her to kiss him, and now seems to be sexually assaulting or even raping her. The description is nightmarish, and the short, staccato sentences emphasize Esperanza’s distress and disgust. The boy is physically repulsive to her, dirty and sour-smelling. The moon and the clowns are witnesses to her shame, and not only Sally but the whole world seems to have been lying to her.

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