The House on Mango Street is made up of vignettes that are not quite poems and not quite full stories. Esperanza narrates these vignettes in first-person present tense, focusing on her day-to-day activities but sometimes narrating sections that are a series of observations. The vignettes can be as short as two or three paragraphs long and sometimes contain internal rhymes. In The Family of Little Feet for example, Esperanza says:
"Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small Each vignette can stand as an independent story. These vignettes don't follow a complete or chronological narrative, although they often mention characters introduced in earlier sections. The conflicts and problems in these short stories are never fully resolved, just as the futures of people in the neighborhood are often uncertain. The overall tone of the novel is earnest and intimate, with very little distance between the reader and the narrator. The tone varies from pessimistic to hopeful, as Esperanza herself sometimes expresses her jaded views on life:
"I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go."
The set of vignettes charts her life as Esperanza Cordero grows during the year: both physically and emotionally. Though Esperanza's age is never revealed to the reader, it is implied that she is about thirteen. She begins to write as a way of expressing herself and as a way to escape the suffocating effect of the neighborhood. The novel also includes the stories of many of Esperanza’s neighbors, giving a picture of the neighborhood and showing the many influences surrounding her. Esperanza quickly befriends Lucy and Rachel Guerrero, two Texan girls who live across the street. Lucy, Rachel, Esperanza, and Esperanza’s little sister, Nenny, have many adventures in the small space of their neighborhood.
Esperanza later slips into puberty and likes it when a boy watches her dance at a baptism party. Esperanza's newfound views lead her to become friends with Sally, a girl her age who wears clothes like black nylon stockings, makeup, high heels, and short skirts, and uses boys as an escape from her abusive father. Sally, a beautiful girl according to her father, can get into trouble with being as beautiful as she is. Esperanza is not completely comfortable with Sally’s sexuality. Their friendship is compromised when Sally ditches Esperanza for a boy at a carnival. As a result, Esperanza is sexually assaulted by a man at the carnival. Earlier at her first job, an elderly man tricked her into kissing him on the lips. Esperanza’s traumatic experiences and observations of the women in her neighborhood cement her desire to escape Mango Street. She later realizes that she will never fully be able to leave Mango Street behind. She vows that after she leaves she will return to help the people she has left behind. Esperanza exclaims that Mango Street does not hold her in both arms; instead, it sets her free.