Table of Contents
Invisibility and Objectification
The title of the book The House on Mango Street raises expectations and creates questions of its content and intent. Will it be the story of a family in the south, where Mangos grow? Will we meet different characters who inhabit the same house one after another? Or will the house be one-of-its-kind on this special street? In actuality, Sandra Cisneros tells the story of a girl, Esperanza, who lives in a house, set on Mango Street, in a fictional part of Chicago. The 44 vignettes have their roots in stories Cisneros heard, saw, or experienced in real life. The singular in the title should therefore be a plural, because a great number of houses feature in the book. Esperanza visits family and friends while searching for her own future. The House on Mango Street is a growing-up story, yet buildings do not grow into anything. They are falling into disrepair more often than not. So why does a house feature so prominently in the title of a book on growing up? I will argue, that the house in this book can be read as the female body in a patriarchal society. Its immobile state an accusation in the face of a need for change.
In 1984 Sandra Cisneros published The House on Mango Street and became one of the first widely read writers of the Chicana movement. A movement that filled the void left for women of Mexican heritage by the U.S. feminist movement on the one hand, and the Chicano movement on the other hand. White middle class women fought for political equality, women’s suffrage, and reproduction rights; Latino males fought for equal opportunity with and recognition from the dominant white U.S. American culture. The Chicana had very little interest in political rights, since she was usually concerned with questions of laundry and cooking. She didn’t want to fight for recognition from dominant culture, because she was still dominated by males of her own culture.
While the Chicana movement achieved recognition and won many battles since then, the current climate in U.S. politics, the fear of immigrants, the disregard for women’s rights to their bodies, shows that there is much to be done. The House on Mango Street remains a book of utmost consequence to feminism, immigration and integration.
What Sandra Cisneros captured, and I will try to show, is how the way we think about women influences the way we act toward them and how the same thoughts act on our self-perception.
Fiction is not to be taken at face value. Yet, fiction can offer great insights into real life. In fiction, problems can be addressed in different terms, highlighting aspects that are hidden in social or political debate. These terms are not merely other words, they are different concepts, expressed as novel metaphors.
Metaphors are more than a figure of speech. As Kövecses points out “Lakoff and Johnson showed convincingly that metaphor is pervasive both in thought and everyday language” (viii). Imagine a person says: “She has a bun in the oven.” There is a concept underlying this utterance along the lines of mothers are kitchen appliances. Saying, by contrast, “She is preparing a new canvas in her belly” conceptualizes mothers as artists. Both portray very different ideas about mothers and children and what life is. The first rests on the often used, and therefore conventional, metaphor people are machines (Lakoff et al., “Master Metaphor List” 191). The second is an unusual metaphor, novel to most readers. They change the way the mother is understood. Political speeches often consciously employ metaphors to influence their audience and ensure the acceptance of certain policies. Because as soon as the audience buys into a metaphor, it structures their thoughts about more than the immediate idea presented.
The House on Mango Street rests a lot of its weight on the conventional metaphor people are buildings (Lakoff et al. 192). Because men are rarely heard in the text, the lives presented are those of women. This leads to the conceptual metaphor women are buildings. Seymour Fisher (1986) quotes his own earlier work, noting that “The man’s role and status are typically defined in terms of his accomplishments and attainments rather than in terms of his body attributes, but for the woman her role is still largely defined in relation to the attractiveness of her body to the male and her ability to bear children. … A woman probably more nearly equates herself with body.” (337) Therefore, in many instances, women are buildings means women’s bodies are buildings. Cisneros is mapping physical features onto the women and vice versa.
In general, houses stand for a lot of things, not just in literature, but in everyday language. In an essay, Shyla Bryant asks “What makes a place a home”? She concludes, that any “place can become a home with the people you surround yourself with.” Cisneros doesn’t agree, as is shown by Esperanza talking to a friend: “You have a home, Alicia, and one day you’ll go there, to a town you remember, but me I never had a house, not even a photograph…only one I dream of” (106-107).
Houses provide security against the hostile environment. Cisneros throws this back in the reader’s face, telling of domestic violence: “A girl that big, a girl who comes in with her pretty face all beaten and black can’t be falling off the stairs.” (92)
And there is the idea of family that a house commonly represents. Houses, Ann Morris tells us on the back cover of her book, are all there “for families to live in”, yet Cisneros shows no family unit in her narrative: “Look at my comadres.” Esperanza’s mother says, and the girl explains to the reader, “She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead.” (91) The houses in Mango Street don’t follow those standards, because they are the representation of people, each as unique as a human body, rather than containers that people inhabit.
Container metaphors help us structure the world around us. It is a way to create borders around events or natural structures to help us navigate the world. Each house in the text contains a life that Esperanza explores, searching for a way of life that suits her. The girl visits the women in her family and neighborhood during this search, realizing over time, that none of their lives are happy enough to deserve emulating. Her eyes see the world in terms of geography—albeit the small-scale geography of a fictional part of Chicago. Her path takes her no further than a few blocks from the place she lives in, the landscape dominated by buildings and concrete.
Invisibility and Objectification
When the reader is introduced to Esperanza and her family it is through the places of living, up to the story’s present. Her family grew with each move, suggesting a home for the young family that is reminiscent of a young female body, growing with each child, until the girl disappears and the idealized mother appears from her ashes. The mother and her idealized image as the earth is epitomized by many cultures. Her body giving life, nurturing, protecting. Frieda Kahlo painted mother earth in her 1949 “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl.” Here, mother earth encompasses all, but her body ends at the breasts, missing the lower half. She is separated from her body and her sexuality, to allow motherhood the spotlight. Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez notes that “Diese durch den Entstehungsmythos über die Geburt des Mexikaners bis in die Gegenwart transportierte ‘Schande’, die im nationalen Diskurs latent immer präsent ist, äußert sich ein Frauenbild, das den Frauenkörper entweder stigmatisiert und objektifiziert oder aber ihn völlig ausblendet” (56-57). The book oscillates in its description of the female body between objectification and invisibility. In the first part of the book, from Cathy (12) to Rafaela (79) different women are introduced to the reader. Before we get to see what the women look like, what they do, who they are, we are told where they live. Usually this is the place in a narrative where a person’s appearance is described, as even Cisneros herself does, for example in “Salvador”, a short story of the collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). It opens with: “Salvador with eyes the color of caterpillar, Salvador of the crooked hair and crooked teeth, Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember, is a boy who is no one’s friend” (10). In The House on Mango Street the place of residence takes up all of this introductory space: “She lives upstairs, over there, next door to Joe the baby-grabber.” (12) and “She is Edna’s daughter, the lady who owns the big building next door, three apartments front and back” (67).
Introducing women through their homes effectively removes their body from view, while at the same time bringing their state as objects to the reader’s focus. Esperanza has a child’s body that is just beginning to turn into a woman. She welcomes this change, and tries to imagine the body she will get. During her game in “Hips” she realizes, that the biological manifestations of her transition matter very little: “I don’t care what kind I get. Just as long as I get hips.” (51). Talking about the hips they hope to grow, Esperanza helps her sister out with an argument, citing ‘scientific facts’ with authority “hips are scientific, I say” (50). Her authority is borrowed from a newly awakened interest within the (male) scientific community to study the body of women and the perception thereof. Women used to know things about themselves, but now that science has done studies, women’s instinctual knowledge is invalidated. Sylvia K. Blood in her 2005 publication Body Work points out, that “[a] woman's body is viewed as a biological object separate from the individual who perceives her body. It is assumed that a woman should be able to perceive her own body objectively and (more or less) accurately in the same way that she might perceive the dimensions of an inanimate object, such as a vase” (2). Comparing weight, height and other measurements became the only way to make any ‘real’ statement about health and wellbeing.
According to Blood (2005), the psychological study of the body image of women produced findings proving that women viewed the dimensions of their bodies in a distorted way. This view spread until it became normal to obsess about one’s body and be dissatisfied with it (18). Women surrendered to this new level of objectification. This objectified view, combined with the U.S. American ideal of individual responsibility, produces the fear-invoking language Nenny, Esperanza’s younger sister, believes: “If you don’t get them [hips] you may turn into a man.” (49). Taking on the objectified, scientific view, many women don’t perceive their lives and bodies as their own responsibility and right. They wait for men to tell them they are beautiful, for male doctors they are healthy and for fathers they are ready to marry. The feminist view “challenges the objectivity of the ‘empirical gaze’ and rejects the distinction between knowing subject and known object” (MacKinnon 1991, 34). Esperanza is the voice of feminism, slowly developing an alternative way of existing.
 The Corpus of Contemporary American English only finds one occurrence of this metaphor “Every person is a new canvas” (Davies 2008-)