The first chapter in a series of short and interconnected chapters that make up the novel, "The House on Mango Street" introduces the key theme of the novel: the young narrator's experience constantly moving from one poor district of Chicago to the next. In the first paragraph, the narrator's recollection of the street names on which her family has lived emphasizes how important the concept of "home" is throughout the story. So too, the reader is introduced to the narrator's family of six, including Mama, Papa, brothers Carlos and Kiki, sister Nenny. (The narrator's name, Esperanza Codero, is not revealed in the first chapter.)
This new house on Mango street is the first the family has owned. The narrator observes the benefits of having a home of one's own, namely the absence of rent, sharing with neighbors, or minding the landlord. However, she is quick to point out that "it's not the house we thought we'd get." The house on Mango street is far away from her old neighborhood; it was bought with haste and necessity when the family's old landlord refused to repair the water pipes. Thus, the narrator expresses her dissatisfaction that her parents promise to one day move into a real house was not fulfilled in on Mango Street.
The narrator ironically contrasts she and her parents' dream with harsh reality. The dream house would be theirs permanently, and would boast running water, working pipes, real stairs "like the houses on T.V.", a basement and enough washrooms to accommodate the large family. The yard was also worthy of Papa's lottery ticket and Mama's bedtime stories: the traditional white exterior and a big, unfenced yard with trees. What the narrator sees is contrary to everything her parents said; her house is tiny, crumbling, and without a yard.
The description of this ramshackle dwelling compels the narrator to reflect upon the shame of her life of poverty. She recounts a tale of being asked to identify her house when a nun from her school passed by and interrupted her play. The mortification she felt from having to point to the apartment over a "laundromat" with peeling paint and barred windows and admit she lived there marks a turning point for the narrator. She knows that one day, she must have a real house. This introduces an important textual theme: the narrator's desire to find a physical and emotional space of her own.
The chapter ends with the narrator's denial that the house on Mango Street was the dream house, and her doubts in her parents' promises of a better home in the future. Her concluding sentence, "But I know how these things go," lets the reader know that, to the narrator, a house of her own must be forged independently. Thus, this novel is as much about finding a place as it is about finding ones self.
Chapter One addresses themes of home, family, poverty, and self-identity. The narrator's need for a home is very much related to her economic situation, her dreams for and frustrations towards her family, and her need to have a place of her own free from the constraints she finds both inside and outside her present domicile. These themes are often bluntly revealed in the narrative itself and also through more subtle channels of language, symbolism, and metaphor. These techniques are explored more in depth below.
Language and Style
Cisneros' use of language differentiates her writing from traditional narrative structures; the style of Chapter One is best described as poetic prose. The chapter is an extended monologue by the narrator interspersed with flashback and sensory imagery. The narrative style is quite relaxed, both in terms of language and chronology. In simple, everyday language, the narrator describes her house and relates connections in her mind in a stream of consciousness fashion. The lack of transitions, for example when the narrative jumps from describing her family's living arrangements in the new house to a bad childhood memory, may appear awkward, but that is their intention. This style reflects the disturbed thoughts and turbulent emotions the narrator is experiencing.
However, not all the language in Chapter One is awkward or simple. The writing style is also very lyrical, boasting powerful descriptions and vivid dialogue. For example, the following description of the new house helps the reader understand the narrator's shame and understand the severity of her disappointment:
"It's small and red with tight steps in front and the 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."
Who else but a young person would characterize windows as "holding their breath" or a front door as "swollen"? Indeed, this personification of the house reveals how crucial the issue of a home is to the narrator. It as if the house has an agency of its own and is blocking Esperanza's path to happiness in a place of her own.
The poignancy of the dialogue is the result of the simple and straightforward language, making the recorded encounters as realistic as possible. Note the effective use of spare language and sentence structure in the following dialogue:
"Where do you live? she asked. There, I said pointing up to the third floor. You live there? There. I lived there. I nodded."
The short exchange of question and answer adds a tone of tension to the dialogue. Also, the repetition of the words "live" and the italicized "there" allude to the overarching theme of home and liken the dialogue to a verbal beating suffered by the narrator.
Indeed, the careful choice of simple language and poetic narrative style allows the reader to discern the agency of the narrator's feelings; through Cisneros' writing style, we perceive the world of Mango Street with Esperanza's sharp perception.
In Chapter One, the theme of belonging and displacement is directly correlated to that of a home. Indeed, these physical and worldly issues are metaphors for many of the coming-of-age experiences the narrator will relate in subsequent chapters. For example, the imagery describing the house could easily refer to the woman waiting to blossom inside the narrator. At present, she is "so small", "holding (her) breath", "crumbling in places"- an allusion to her misshapen demeanor, and "so swollen you have to push hard to get in"- an allusion to her virginity and awakening sexual curiosity. Having a house of her own, thus, is a metaphor for coming into her own place as an independent woman. When the narrator stresses that she must have "one I could point to", she is referring to a character and identity of which she can be proud, as of her home, to call her own.
The narrator continues the readers introduction to her family; instead of bluntly describing their distinct personalities, the narrator differentiates among their hair types. The reader is expected to consider what hair textures and styles say about their wearer. For example, what might the narrator be thinking of herself when she states that her "lazy" hair "never obeys"? Papa's hair sticks straight up, sister Nenny's is silky, Carlos' is thick, straight, and doesn't need a comb, and the youngest, Kiki, "has hair like fur."
The narrator lastly describes her mother's hair in great detail. Her mother's curls are like roses and candy. The narrator loves to smell her mother's hair: its scent of baking bread is a source of comfort to the narrator and reflects the nurturing role Mama plays in the family.
Different kinds of hair works as a metaphor for the distinct members of the narrator's family. For instance, Nenny's slippery hair seems to match her wistful and dreamy disposition, which the reader will see develop throughout the course of the novel. The single most important hairs for the narrator to describe and the reader to understand, however, are those of Mama. By reading the description of "little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty," we conjure an image of the mother's appearance and personality. The repetition of the adjective "little" alludes to her dainty physique, as well as the daughter's fascination with the exquisiteness of such hair, so different from her own unruly locks. So too, the shapes- flowers and sweets- that the narrator sees in her mother's curls helps us understand the narrator's regard for her mother's beauty and goodness; indeed, her hair fulfills both a the feminine ideal and the ideas childhood nursery rhyme idea of what little girls are made of- sugar and spice and all things nice..
The narrator then moves beyond the physical beauty of her mothers hair, delving deeper into Mama's character by exploring her smell. Indeed, Mama is not only an ideal woman but an ideal mother, for her hair is "sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you." The image of seeking comfort by burying oneself in a woman's hair is common to literature, and reveals the refuge the narrator finds in physical contact with her mother. However, the narrator then delves into a "stream of consciousness" reflection on the smell of her mother's hair, leading to a revelation of the comfort enjoyed in the physical and spiritual closeness to both the structure and the members of her home. The similes "the warm smell of bread before you bake it" and "the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin" liken the scent of Mama's hair to warmth, nourishment, craving, and the natural solace provided by the body.
Poetic Prose: Cisneros' Lyrical Style and Reminiscent Tone
Beyond her subtle wielding of simile and metaphor, the most important aspect of Cisnernos' description of her mother's hair is the way language and syntax transforms the passage into a lyrical memory, as if the narrator already knows how the image of her mother's hair will conjure deep longing for the place and people she longs to leave.
A study of the syntax of these passages shows how the narrator's description is a kind of ode to her mother. The repetition of "my mother's hair" begins the series of eight interconnected memories and reflections. They are separated by commas but by no means are they a common sentence; rather, both the form and function of this "sentence" is that of a poem. The reader sees a pattern of two reflective "lines" on one idea, leading into another stream of thought, emerge. Thus, the poetic prose continues with the repetition of "like" introducing the similes "candy circles" and "rosettes." Then, the "sweet" qualities of the hair lead the narrator to reflect upon their smell, and on the intimate act of smelling her mother's hair. The repetition of "holding you" in the next two lines evidence the safety the narrator claims to find in mother-child intimacy. The haven of a mother's arms leads to a related phenomena, a mother's nourishment. The metaphor likening Mama's hair to "the warm smell of bread before you bake it" introduces another smell- that of her mother's body, and Mama's nourishing of her daughter through the gifts of life and love.
Mama herself then becomes a metaphor for home, a unifying theme throughout the novel. The scent of Mama's skin upon the bed as she welcomes her daughter to share the warmth of her place leads the narrator to reveal the aspects of home life she appreciates greatly, factors unalterable by the outside appearance of the house. Sleeping near her mother means shelter from "the rain outside falling." Her "Papa snoring" symbolizes constancy. This unwavering love and safety are related to the narrator's view of home, as indicated by her separation of "the rain outside" and the accepting affection she receives inside the walls of her home, and indeed are the first positive domestic description she offers. The last line repeats reflections the narrator expressed earlier, thus emphasizing how greatly the narrator values the unwavering haven provided by family and her awe for her mother, whose love is their true shelter.
Boys and Girls
This chapter introduces the gender separation dominating the narrator's social and cultural experience. We learn that outside of the home, brothers Carlos and Kiki are comrades, while the narrator and sister Nenny are playmates. The narrator then expresses dissatisfaction at being paired with her sister, who is "too young to be my friend." It is the narrator's responsibility to not only play with her sister, but to watch over her so that she isn't influenced by the wrong crowd, such as "those Vargas kids." The narrator ends the chapter with a wish for her own best friend who will sympathize with her secrets and laugh at her jokes.
The "separate worlds" inhabited by boys and girls is a metaphor for the sexism and stereotypes that the narrator confronts and longs to escape. The narrator speaks with great irony when describing her brothers' hypocritical treatment of she and Nenny: "They've got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the house. But outside they can't be seen talking to girls."
The syntax of the following sentence emphasizes how keenly the narrator feels, and perhaps resents, this gender separation even amongst family. "Carlos and Kiki are each other's best friendnot ours." The distinct place given to the blunt declaration "not ours" reveals the hurt the narrator feels. So too, the syntax emphasizes her hunger for true comradeship.
Lastly, this chapter concludes with a vivid metaphor; the author describes her status of waiting for a best friend as being "a red balloon tied to an anchor." This description reveals that the narrator singles herself out for her differences, of which she seems keenly aware. She also considers her distinctions as a source of isolation, as she is alone, visibly different, and raised high for all to see. The narrator longs to escape; her way of being, like that of a helium balloon, demands it.
The second component of this metaphor is the anchor hindering the red balloon's flight. On the most obvious level of meaning, this anchor is Nenny. The narrator's responsibilities to act as both friend and guardian to her little sister are a chore which limit her possibilities for finding other friendships. As Nenny is a family member, and the narrator's responsibility for her sister's wellbeing is mandated by the family structure and separation of duties along gender lines, the anchor is also a metaphor for her family. The narrator is resentful of the ties which keep her in a place where feels misunderstood. Her age, place in the family structure, and duties to others keep her from fulfilling her dream of metaphorical flight- escape.
In the fourth chapter we finally learn the narrator's name, Esperanza, which in English means "hope." Despite its literal meaning, the name connotes many negative ideas of melancholy and unfulfilled expectations. Esperanza explains that she was named after her great-grandmother, and that they share the Chinese birth year of the horse. She expresses a desire to have known her great-grandmother, who, according to family stories, was a wild woman until she was literally carried away to marry her great-grandfather. Esperanza expresses her conviction to avoid her predecessors fate- a life wasted in sadness and waiting by the window.
Esperanza then compares the beauty of her name's proper pronunciation with the way she addressed at school. In Spanish Nenny's proper name, Magdalena, is uglier; nevertheless, Esperanza resents the fact that her sister at least has a nickname at home. Esperanza expresses a desire to give herself a name that reflects her true self; the choice she settles upon is "Zeze the X."
The meaning of Esperanza's name is a series of metaphors and similes. In Spanish, Esperanza means "too many letters"; on the literal level, this means that Esperanza feels her name is too long. So too, this is also a metaphor for hope and expectation, as "letters" could also indicated correspondences full of promises. Esperanza also portrays her name as mundane with the metaphor "the number nine"- a symbol of the ordinary that indicates just how many letters comprise "too many." So too, the metaphor "a muddy color" indicates that Esperanza sees no beauty or distinctiveness in her name; once again, we learn that the narrator resents her perceived commonality.
Esperanza's name is also related to nostalgia. Her name "is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing"; this metaphor links her name to her family's county of origin and to the despondency of homesickness. Her name is related to family tradition; Esperanza sees her link in a legacy- she hears her own sadness and that of her family in her father's weekly tradition and she recognizes the uncanny parallels of name, fortune, and character she shares with her great-grandmother.
The second to last paragraph enlightens the reader as to why a name that means "hope" could transmit such a sense of loss. The contrast between the harsh English mispronunciation to the melodic sounds of Spanish is another music metaphor celebrating the poignant emotion invoked by the sounds of Spanish. The repetition of metaphors indicates that the name Esperanza symbolizes the hope for the future that took Papa out of Mexico, and the disillusionment he, and consequently his family, experienced when the dream was translated- it's strength and beauty destroyed- into English.
Esperanza's desire to baptize herself under a new name indicates her desire to escape the history of hope unfulfilled into which she was born. This desire is linked to that of defeating poverty with a house of her own. Just as she feels she does not belong in the house on Mango Street, Esperanza feels her name does not do justice to the strong convictions and wistful aspirations of "the real me, the one nobody sees," repressed by poverty and machismo.
The Theme of the Female as a Second Class Citizen
This chapter gives the reader a good idea of the macho stereotypes that predominate Esperanza's childhood. The strong tone emphasizes Esperanza's rejection of sexist folklore, such as the year of the horse being unlucky for females. Indeed, the irony with which she scoffs at the Mexican ideal of the docile woman reveals that Esperanza, while understanding her culture, personally rejects a second class status. "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." The strength of Esperanza's tone reveals her confidence in her own convictions, as well as her admiration of her "horse woman" ancestor's free spirit, much like her own.
The metaphor of the horse-woman manifests how such independent female spirits were traditionally meant to be curbed by men. Like a horse indeed, the first Esperanza is locked in a cage of domesticity when "my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off." Esperanza's amazement at the legitimacy of male domination is evident in this simile: "Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier." This reveals Esperanza's comprehension of the cultural relegation of women to the status of objects, their worth determined by their pleasing appearance and function.
Contemplation of the fate of the first Esperanza introduces a recurring metaphor in The House on Mango Street- the woman waiting at the window. The simile "the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow" shows how great-grandmother's whole physical and spiritual being was defeated by an unwanted marriage. Instead a head full of thoughts and a mind devising new aspirations, all has been replaced by a despair so heavy it must rest upon her hand.
Cathy Queen of Cats
In this chapter, Esperanza first meets another child resident of Mango Street, who she calls Cathy Queen of Cats. Cathy's monologue is the first knowledge Esperanza has of her neighborhood, which is indeed composed of a colorful cast. From Cathy herself, the self-proclaimed great great grand cousin of the queen of France, to Joe the Baby Grabber, Cathy's descriptions are full of promise that Esperanza will have much to observe and explore. The diction of Cathy's speech is that of teenage gossip and indeed reflects the favorite pastime of the occupants of Mango Street.
This chapter is full of spare and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to see the world of Mango Street with Esperanza's eyes. The excitement the young girl experiences while relating the tale of the "queen of cats" is evident in the repetition "Cathy who is queen of cats has cats and cats and cats. Baby cats, big cats, skinny cats" Yet while Esperanza's excitement might be that of any normal adolescent, her keen perception and poetic vision of the world is distinctly hers. This is not only evident by the many kinds of creatures she picks out from the pack, but from diction such as "Cats taking a walk on the dinner table." Indeed, Esperanza notes the humor of her world. The simile, "cats asleep like little donuts" emphasizes the joy Esperanza creates for herself by appreciating the little details of everyday life.
As in so many other chapters, again we see the theme of the shame of poverty. Esperanza is acutely aware of being part of a racial and economic group that dooms a neighborhood to "getting bad." It is important to note Esperanza's acute awareness of Cathy's family "inherit(ing) the family house" in France. Regardless of the truth of this statement, the fact that socioeconomic borders limit friendships is real: Cathy will only be Esperanza's friend until "next Tuesday. That's when we move away." The root of Esperanza's humiliation and resentment of her situation is real, as Cathy's family will "move a little farther north from Mango Street, a little farther away every time people like us keep moving in." In this, perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching declarations of the story, we see that Esperanza understands that she is an unwanted element in society.
Our Good Day
Esperanza meets two more young neighbors, Lucy and Rachel. Against Cathy's warnings about these girls who "smell like a broom," Esperanza chips in five dollars, two of which are Nenny's, so that they can buy and share a bicycle. Although she loses Cathy's short term friendship, Esperanza gains "two new friends and a bike too." Although the girls agree to alternate use by day, they cannot agree upon who shall ride first, so they crowd on the bike together. Their peddling takes them on a tour of the neighborhood. The girls share laughter and we sense Esperanza's happiness from sharing not only a bicycle, but also laughter and camaraderie, with her new friends.
This chapter is laden with recurring The House on Mango Street themes: friendship, poverty, and neighborhood life. It is also important to note the ironic social commentary implied through many occurrences. The different views people have of poverty, according to their own prejudices and lots in life, is symbolized by Cathy and Esperanza's contrasting receptions of Lucy and Rachel's ragged appearance. While Cathy treats them with disdain, Esperanza appreciates the joy which shines through their tatters: "They are wearing shiny Sunday shoes without any socks. It makes their bald ankles all red, but I like them. Especially the big one who laughs with all her teeth. I like her even though she lets the little one do all the talking." Indeed, Esperanza celebrates the girls' unconventional persona and behavior because they express what she cannot- their true selves. For example, Esperanza does not express shock at Rachel's rude treatment of adults; on the contrary, her lighthearted tone celebrates Rachel's "very sassy" remarks.
Another important theme is the dual beauty and harshness of the Mango Street neighborhood. On their ride, the girls navigate "the avenue which is dangerous" and the mundane landmarks- laundromat, drugstore, and cars- of the typical depressed community. The place which Esperanza views most critically is her own house, poignantly personified as "sad and red and crumbly in places." So too, however, the girls encounter friendly faces as "people on the bus wave" and Rachel exchanges banter with the "fat lady crossing the street": "You sure got quite a load there. Rachel shouts, You got quite a load there too." The duality of the love-hate relationship between Esperanza and her neighborhood is evident. Its appearances and places might be ugly, but the young girl detects the beauty and power of life in its inhabitants will to be happy.
In this chapter, Esperanza explains that even though she and her sister Nenny do not look as similar as sisters Lucy and Rachel, they have may subtle similarities. They share the same distinct laughter as well as peculiar thoughts that others might not understand. They both sense that a house they pass is like homes in Mexico, not so much for its appearance but for its surrounding aura.
In her straightforward and detail- conscious manner, Esperanza exemplifies the ways sisters can resemble each other using simile and metaphor. Lucy and Rachel are described by the metaphors "fat popsicle lips" and "shy ice cream bells' giggle." The contrast of the Cordero sisters' laughter is emphasized by the personification "all of a sudden and surprised" and the simile "like a pile of dishes breaking."
We also see a new twist on the theme of home, when the sisters both identify a house as looking "like Mexico." The sentiment the sister's share indicates that Esperanza does not solely associate homes with either her shame or independence, but also with the bonds of family and heritage. Indeed, the Cordero girls roots are still fresh and strong, and they can see reflections and hear calls of their homeland even as far north as Chicago.
Gil's Furniture Bought and Sold
This chapter is about Esperanza and Nenny's explorations of Gil's junk store.
Esperanza marvels at the vast rows of furniture and T.V.'s piled upon each other to create the perfect place for she and her sister to "get lost easily." Esperanza then relates her sister's boldness in asking questions, and the surprise both girls receive when the usually sullen Gil demonstrates the powerful sounds of his music box.
Spare prose makes it seem like Esperanza is speaking directly to us a friend: "There is a junk store. An old man owns it. We bought a used refrigerator from him once." The technique of building one detail upon another connotes an excited child's retelling of an event.
The elusiveness and unobtrusiveness of the old man is symbolized by the personification of his "pair of gold glasses floating in the dark." Similes "like all of a sudden he let go a million moths," "like water," and "like marimbas only with a funny little plucked sound to it like if you were running your fingers across the teeth of a metal comb" reveal Esperanza's unique and colorful imagination. The metaphors "swan-neck shadows" and "in our bones," for example, let the reader see and feel how deeply the sound of the music penetrates.