Sandra Cisnero’s "The House on Mango Street" and Toni Morrison’s "Jazz" compared
Differences and similarities
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 14 Pages
2. Analyzing The House on Mango Street
3. Analyzing Jazz:
4. Making the Connection: Differences and Similarities
5. Closing Thoughts:
In this paper I am going to show the differences and similarities between two major works of American ethnic literature, namely Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
In order to compare the two books I will first analyze them separately before taking a look at them side by side.
To begin with, I would like to express some general thoughts on the two books. The House on Mango Street and Jazz are first and foremost works of fictional literature in the sense that their characters and the story itself are a product of the authors’ imagination.
Yet, on another level, they are works that bear the power to familiarize readers with their particular ethnic backgrounds, namely the Mexican- and Afro-American. In other words, the two stories can be seen as some sort of guideline for readers who are interested in the cultural and economic lives of minority groups in the USA of today and the past.
Even though the novels are very different in their form as well as their content I think one can find some similarities beside all the differences.
In the following chapters of this paper I will first concentrate on The House on Mango Street and afterwards on Jazz. At the end I will try to make a connection between the two novels and show some of the main differences and similarities.
2. Analyzing The House on Mango Street
In The House on Mango Street we are presented with forty-four so-called vignettes which make the book appear like a mixture of a novel and a series of short stories as the vignettes can be read independently from each other. The story, however, is told by a narrator who assumes the voice of a young girl called Esperanza, who is the protagonist of the book. Esperanza lives with her family in a house on Mango Street which is situated in a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Mexican-American people, most probably in Chicago. The girl tells us about her growing-up in a society marked by discrimination, alienation and male domination. Not only is life for a Chicana hard because of her origins and the prejudices of white Americans, but also because of “the ethnic group’s internal subjugation of women” (Fellner 2002: 62). Furthermore the book allows the reader to glimpse at the lives of Mexican-Americans in their neighborhood and thus become more familiar with their cultural characteristics.
I will now focus on the category of novels the book belongs to according to most scholars and critics. Along the characteristics of this particular category I will try to shed some light on the themes the reader is presented with.
According to Julian Olivares “The House on Mango Street is a book about growing up, what critics call a Bildungsroman” (Olivares 1996: 209). The House on Mango Street, however, constitutes a different form of a Bildungsroman, as it defies the traditional female Bildungsroman. In this category the female protagonists usually fail to achieve maturity, but rather become imprisoned and lose their individual freedom in order to become a good wife for their men. Sandra Cisneros manages to transform the traditional female Bildungsroman into one without the resulting confinement and submission of the female protagonist by letting the protagonist become the narrator of her own text. Thus, as the narrator of her own story, Esperanza gains authority over her own story and therefore breaks the patriarchal confinement that characterizes the traditional Bildungsroman. In addition, “she refuses to sacrifice her gender to a patriarchic society” (Olivares 1996: 213) and consequently becomes the Bildungsheld.
As Olivares puts it the book has three major themes that develop through the whole story. These three are Esperanza’s desire to find a suitable house, to find her identity, and to become a writer/artist.
As Esperanza is assured that the only way to attain her own identity and the house she is dreaming of is writing, the book merges into a subcategory of Bildungsromane, the so-called Künstlerroman. Only through writing – being an artist – is she able to “achieve her social and gender liberation” (Olivares 1996: 214). The genre of the Bildungsroman (Künstlerroman) thus serves as a framework for the resolution of the main themes Cisneros concentrates on: the house, the identity and writing.
Another important point in which Cisneros’ novel differs from the traditional Bildungsroman is that in The House on Mango Street Esperanza does not create her development “through self-absorbed introspection, but by noting, recording, and responding to the lives around her” (Gutierrez-Jones 1993: 300). Unlike other heroes of Bildungsromane she does not choose her role as an outcast, but it is imposed on her as she is already outside mainstream American society by being a barrio migrant girl. She does not stand alone against all others, but as a member of a community which is Mango Street. In conclusion of this, Esperanza “expresses herself as an artist by expressing the struggles of others, establishing her own identity as she conveys the identity of her neighborhood” (Gutierrez-Jones 1993: 307). Therefore, by writing she tries to avoid what she sees to happen to her. The role of the submissive woman is what she does not want to accept. Yet, this is not only depicted by what she and her fellow female friends experience, but also by means of symbolism Cisneros applies to the book. For example the houses in The House on Mango Street are depicted as places of confinement as “windows and doorways provide the only contacts for women with the outside world” (Fellner 2002: 61). In order to show Esperanza’s attitude towards confinement within her ethnic group Cisneros presents us another symbol. In the vignette, Our Good Day, Esperanza and her friends purchase a bicycle and ride up and down Mango Street. The bike as well as the street is symbols of movement and freedom, or in other words a symbol for women’s freedom to move. This and other symbols for freedom and the like such as the games they play stand for something else as well: they symbolize the male dominance that characterizes the barrio life. The games are only allowed to be played as long as girls play them; as grown-up women they are expected to inhabit another role: the role of submissive wives sitting at the window. Thus, as soon as the girls develop into women “and no longer belong to the world of childhood, […] their liberty constitutes a problem for men” (Fellner 2002: 62). Again, Esperanza’s determination to avoid the fate of the typical barrio woman signifies Cisneros’ intention to challenge her ethnic group’s treatment of women; it is a critique expressed through the experiences of the young protagonist and her environment.
Along these experiences Esperanza comes to realize that by writing she will be able to know who she really is and get the house she is dreaming of. Yet, this house of her own may not be a real house, but a “spiritual reality within her heart” (Olivares 1996: 223), a sort of sanctuary which allows her to help those who are still trapped within the confinement of both, male dominance and racial/economic discrimination. As Julian Olivares puts it, the three major themes are resolved by her realizing the power of being a storyteller/writer. “By the empowering act of writing” (Olivares 1996: 227) Esperanza will be able to do both, escape the dominance imposed on women by men, and help her community especially the women to try to overcome the burden of living in a patriarchic system which denies them being free and independent. Or as Yarbro-Bejarano puts it, “[…] in writing, they refuse the objectification imposed by gender roles and racial and economic exploitation” (Yarbro-Bejarano 1988: 141). In addition Tomoko Kuribayashi states that the establishing of identity through the means of writing “becomes the foundation for Chicanas’ gaining control over all aspects of their lives” (Kuribayashi 1998: 173).
As a Bildungsroman, or rather Künstlerroman, The House on Mango Street presents the reader with the coming-of-age story of a young girl who is a member of a minority group in the USA. Beside the hardship of belonging to such a group she has to face another serious struggle: being a woman in a male dominated ethnic group. Thus, she has to find her own identity in order to master her situation and to help her group overcome certain problems such as the confinement Mexican-American women traditionally suffer from. In order to convey this coming-of-age story Sandra Cisneros changes the traditional patterns of the Bildungsroman so that her Bildungsheld, Esperanza, is able to fulfill her longings. In conclusion, Esperanza becomes fully aware that she is a part of the Mexican-American community in that her place is to be an artist on Mango Street who “liberates herself from her physical and cultural confinement through her fiction, (but) never leaves Mango Street because […] she writes of her reality” (Olivares 1996: 226). Therefore “the Bildungsroman’s privileging of the individual must not negate Esperanza’s […] commitment to the community” (Gutierrez-Jones 1993: 300) because, as I mentioned before, Cisneros’ protagonist does not stand against all others in order to attain her identity. She perceives herself as “a product and member of a particular community” (Gutierrez-Jones 1993: 300) and finds her identity within this community through writing.
Beside her development as an artist and member of the community aware of her heritage as a Mexican-American she does also develop sexually. After becoming more sexually aware Esperanza would like to be “beautiful and cruel” (Cisneros 1984: 89) so men will like her but not hurt her, and she pursues that goal by becoming friends with Sally. After she is assaulted, in the vignette Red Clowns, she doesn’t want to define herself as “beautiful and cruel” anymore, and she is, once again, unsure of who she is. Eventually, Esperanza decides she does not need to set herself apart from the others in her neighborhood or her family heritage by changing her name, and she stops forcing herself to develop sexually, which she isn’t fully ready for. This again shows the importance of the real way for her to define herself: through writing. And it is through this writing that she will be able to get over whatever happened to her and others as, for instance Sally and Minerva who both have been abused by either their fathers or their husbands. As a conclusion to my thoughts on The House on Mango Street, I would like to state that the novel, or collection of prose poems, is a story of the development of a young girl and her struggle to find herself an identity and a place she can call home in a racist on the one and a (sometimes) brutally male dominated environment. In her quest to attain her desires she draws conclusions from what she and others in her community experience. Finally Esperanza comes to realize that her destiny is to become a writer because as a writer she can set herself apart from non-writers and inhabit an identity which she has been searching for. Writing becomes a way for her to leave Mango Street emotionally and dwell in a home of the heart; but maybe it will help her leave Mango Street physically as well and come back “for the ones who cannot out” (Cisneros 1984: 110).
3. Analyzing Jazz:
In this section of my paper I am going to shed some light on the novel Jazz written by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and published in 1992.
Set in Harlem in the 1920s, this novel chronicles a bittersweet triangle involving a middle-aged door-to-door salesman (Joe Trace), his mentally unstable wife (Viole[n]t), and his eighteen-year-old girlfriend (Dorcas). However, the narrative performs switches in time as it depicts events that took place in the mid 19th century in order to explore the pasts of several of the characters. Jazz covers the period from the Reconstruction in Vesper County, Virginia, through the times of the Great Migration (from the South to the big cities) to the New York of the Jazz Age in the 1920s (Lehmann 2000: 197). The reader gets an idea of the newcomers’ experiences of the City (NYC). Joe and Violet Trace move as many African-Americans from the South to New York City.
The novel is the second book of Morrison’s trilogy which includes Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998). In this trilogy the reader is presented with “a people’s history” (Lehmann 2000: 197) as the novels depict the experiences of Afro-Americans in the USA dominated by the White majority.