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Critical Essay by Leslie S. Gutiérrez-Jones
SOURCE: "Different Voices: The Re-Bildung of the Barrio in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street," in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 295-312.
In the essay below, Gutiérrez-Jones discusses Cisneros's transformation of conventional elements of the Bildungsroman genre in The House on Mango Street, focusing on the link between communal and individual narrative strategies.
The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.
—de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Dreaming of a day when she might attain the "American dream" of home ownership, the young protagonist of Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street promises herself that if that day comes, she will joyfully accommodate "passing bums" in her attic, because she "know[s] how it is to be without a house." Esperanza's lack of a "real house" to call her own repeatedly troubles this child of the barrio; when a nun from her school incredulously identifies the family's tenement lodgings, the little girl's sense of identity is devastated: "you live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded. I knew then I had to have a house. A real house." The house of the title, which succeeds this apartment, still falls far short of Esperanza's dreams; it still "isn't it," not "a real house"—one with a yard and a fence and "real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V." Excluded from the suburban standard presented through her father's job and through television, Esperanza has available to her only external models—models she can "rent" but never own. Raised amid annual relocations, shared washrooms, and landlord-tenant battles, Esperanza also experiences her root-lessness on the most literal level; the house she searches for, she anxiously insists, must be one she "can point to." Acutely aware of the disempowerment that results from lacking "a home of one's own," she yearns to stake out an architectural space—one which she implicitly assumes will provide her with the "space" to develop a sense of identity and an artistic voice. But when architecture will not cooperate, she must look instead to her imagination in order to create a sense of place—one which can, in turn, provide a place for her writing.
Esperanza must learn to create for herself, and from herself, a "home" which will be truly hers. She finds—or creates—such a space for herself through her art, through the writing which her Aunt Lupe insists will keep her free. Shifting from a literal to a metaphoric register, her "house" becomes not a structure she can point to, but a spiritual sanctuary she carries within: "only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem." During her year on Mango Street, Esperanza does develop a sense of place and identity: by the work's end, she has found peace and purpose in her writing; she has created for herself the "home in the heart" predicted by the local fortuneteller.
Just as Esperanza must leave behind her dependence on rented spaces and on standards external to her own experience, so Cisneros, a Chicana writer, is faced with the challenge of creating a home in the midst of a predominantly white, predominantly male, literary tradition: that of the Bildungsroman. Writer and character both face the conflict between desire for self-expression and fear of being co-opted by the very forms of self-expression available. The individual focus of writing, and particularly of the genre of the Bildungsroman, threatens to betray that aspect of identity which most calls out for expression: membership in a community. Only a fierce loyalty to this connection provides an adequate response, for Esperanza as for Cisneros, to the ambivalences generated by individual artistic achievement. Like her protagonist, who insists that the house of her own cannot be "a man's house"—especially "not a daddy's"—Cisneros must insistently remake the conventions and formulas of a patriarchal individualistic tradition, using them in order to transform them, tactically appropriating them in order to make them her own … and, by extension, her community's.
One model for understanding what is at stake in such an appropriation may be found in Michel de Certeau's analysis of the creative art forms of the disempowered, the "subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups, which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and relationships." For the marginalized writer, the "already established forces and relationships" are represented by the literary tradition of the dominant culture: the genre definitions, the intertextual "lineage," the theoretical frameworks, and the like. Such products of hegemonic culture are ubiquitous, and contact with them virtually inescapable; any writer, then, becomes a "consumer" of sorts. But consumption for de Certeau may become a form of production: creativity may thus be expressed in the Chicana writer's "ways of using," in her "innumerable and infinite small transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to [her] own interests and [her] own rules." Cisneros, in de Certeau's terms, "poaches" upon the supposedly private reserve of the white male Anglo-European literary tradition, moving like a nomad "across fields she did not write." Like Esperanza, she can neither purchase nor inherit a "ready-made" structure to call home, but instead creates from within a new space, a home in the heart where her fellow transients are welcome.
We advanced none to the rank of Masters but such as clearly felt and recognized the purpose they were born for, and had got enough of practice to proceed along their way with a certain cheerfulness and ease.
—Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
As a ready-made structure for a Chicana writer to inhabit, the Bildungsroman poses some serious problems, and so we should examine the literary territory Cisneros would occupy. On the most basic level, the controversy that surrounds any attempt to define this genre leaves the location of its "walls" quite uncertain. Among scholars of English literature, Jerome Buckley's Season of Youth remains the most popular touchstone for revision and debate; but perhaps Randolf Shaffner's study of the apprenticeship novel, which follows Buckley's analysis, illuminates most clearly the strain that would be involved in simply "inserting" a Chicana protagonist into Buckley's master plot. Shaffner begins his study with an explicit statement equating his use of the terms "Bildungsroman" and "apprenticeship novel"—an equation reinforced by his title. The concept of apprenticeship, however, by suggesting its senior counterpart, makes explicit the goals of normative—white, male—"development";two items on Shaffner's "checklist" of the genre's distinguishing traits make glaringly apparent his model's essential incompatibility with Cisneros' project. According to Shaffner, the Bildungsroman presupposes "the belief that a young person can become adept in the art of life and become a master," as well as "the prerequisite of potential for development into a master" (emphasis mine). In Goethe's terms, he must be able to recognize the purpose he was born for. Esperanza may achieve a certain level of control over her life and art, even a certain (heavily circumscribed) sense of power and potential—but the society which constructs and sanctions the identity of "master" will nevertheless deny her this title based on her status as a Chicana. The issue of potentiality (and its corollary, another of Shaffner's presuppositions: "the key notion of choice") sets up the major tension for a female Bildungsroman: if bildung is the tradition whereby the "young male hero discovers himself and his social role," and if the sanctioned social role of women still precludes a true search for, or discovery of, an individual "self," how can this young female hero hope to experience a counterpart to bildung?
When Esther Labovitz tackles the problematic issue of de-fining a female Bildungsroman, she astutely identifies a number of the changes such a hybrid would entail, especially concerning distinctions between male and female parameters of rebellion; yet she assumes that the female Bildungsroman evolved naturally during the twentieth century in response to women's improved social conditions developing belatedly as "cultural and social structures appeared to support women's struggle for independence." The degree to which the "cultural and social structures" cited by Labovitz as supporting women's independence are, in fact, in place for women of color (or more generally for women marginalized and oppressed on account of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class) seems questionable; but, more critically, her analysis of the female Bildungsroman suggests a trajectory which would (and supposedly should) parallel the male version, presumably "catching up" at the projected point at which women's independence gains full social support: the point at which a young woman's rebelliousness, like a young man's, could be relegated to a simple and temporary "stage" preceding "mature" acceptance of the established social order. But while the Bildungsroman of a white western bourgeois male—or even, theoretically, of a "liberated" white western bourgeois female—might appropriately provide a denouement stressing the achievement of "a proper balance between internal individual development and external submissions to group regulations," such a resolution would likely undercut the social critique of a politically self-conscious writer, or protagonist, of color.
Cisneros' narrator does finally achieve a sense of calm resolution, but it is not the resolution of surrender or acceptance; rather, Esperanza insists with quiet determination that she has "gone away to come back." She has left behind her selfish desire to escape, alone, from the barrio of Mango Street, not to return "until somebody makes it better." Realizing "Who's going to do it? The mayor?," Esperanza commits herself to changing, not accepting, the established order—to becoming that somebody who is emphatically not the mayor and who will indeed try to make it better. Esperanza's final determination to return to Mango Street "for the ones [she] left behind. For the ones who cannot [get] out" reflects a crucial point of difference from the sacred ground of the literary genre upon which Cisneros is poaching.
This shift from an individual to a communal perspective marks a significant turn upon the highly individualistic tradition Cisneros would "homestead." The Bildungsroman's emphasis on the individual reverberates with ethnocentric assumptions and political implications, as Susan Stanford Friedman notes, along with other feminist and cultural critics:
Isolate individualism is an illusion. It is also the privilege of power. A white man has the luxury of forgetting his skin color and sex. He can think of himself as an "individual." Women and minorities, reminded at every turn in the great cultural hall of mirrors of their sex or color, have no such luxury.
A strong focus on the autonomous subject (exemplified by Bildungsromane such as Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) would betray Cisneros' political ideology in writing the life of a sexually, ethnically, and economically marginalized protagonist like Esperanza. As Esperanza's culture and experience little resembles Stephen Dedalus', so Cisneros' rendering of her narrative must distance itself from Joyce's; the Bildungsroman's privileging of the individual must not negate Esperanza's, and Cisneros', commitment to the community.
As narrator, Esperanza creates and chronicles her developing identity not through self-absorbed introspection, but by noting, recording, and responding to the lives around her—those lives for whom almost half of the collection's forty-four "prose poems" are named, and whose significance is underscored by Cisneros' title, which situates Esperanza not as a solitary loner but as she comes to perceive herself: a product and member of a particular community. Immune to the "privilege of power" associated with glorifying the individual, Esperanza comes to understand that the three strange sisters, and her friend Alicia, are right: Mango may say "goodbye sometimes," but even when set free from the physical locale, Esperanza "will always be Mango Street" (my emphases). Protagonists like Cisneros' might be outsiders vis à vis the dominant culture, yet they are emphatically not loners. Unlike the traditional "American" hero, who underscores his independence by isolating himself on the high seas (Captain Ahab), in the wilderness (Thoreau), in the "territories" (Huck Finn), or on the road (Jack Kerouac), Cisneros' hero has no such choice. Esperanza has already been symbolically cast out of mainstream "American" suburbia; her status as outsider is not chosen, but imposed. Yet she does not react to her exteriority by perceiving herself as "alone against the world." Rather, Esperanza defines herself as a member of a community—the community that is Mango Street.
Let one forget his reason for being, they'd all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other, Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.
—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
The reconceptualization of identity and individual development found in Cisneros' work radically transforms both the Bildungsroman and the standard wisdom of developmental psychology. Carol Gilligan takes issue with the traditional "developmental litany" which "intones the celebration of separation, autonomy, individuation, and natural rights." Gilligan cites Nancy Chodorow's claim for differences between female and male identity formation based on the child's recognition of similarity to (female) or difference from (male) the primary caretaker—most often maternal in our society—in order to examine both its empirical effects and its theoretical implications. Criticizing conventional notions that reduce development to a simple linear ordering based on separation, Gilligan instead envisions separation and attachment as a "reiterative counterpoint in human experience," recognizing both the "role of separation as it defines and empowers the self" and "the ongoing process of attachment that creates and sustains the human community." She sees a mature stage of development as one in which the individual recognizes her interconnectedness with the world, achieving a balance between responsibility to herself and responsibility to others.
Cisneros' Esperanza explores the difficulties—and the possibilities—inherent in the struggle for such a balance, as she learns that neither self nor community can sustain itself independently; each requires the other. For example, when she senses the difficulty of reconciling "femininity" with conventional notions of adulthood, she determines "not to grow up tame like the others" and instead practices her "own quiet war," "leav[ing] the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate" (emphasis mine). But this strategy of male emulation only shirts the burden to her mother (whose sacrifices are described in the segment which immediately follows), and casts herself into the role of the "bad" woman, the villainess in the movies "with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel." Esperanza admires the selfishness of this woman whose "power is her own. She will not give it away," yet when she tries to envision such an identity for herself, the callousness of such power brings her to an abrupt—and disturbing—realization. When "the three sisters"—her friends' comadres, whose eerie clairvoyance suggests both the Fates and Macbeth's witches—order her to make a wish, she complies, thinking "Well, why not?" But when she is immediately reprimanded, "When you leave you must remember to come back for the others," she feels chastised and guilty: "Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish."
The sisters recognize that Esperanza is "special," that "she'll go very far," and that she does therefore have a responsibility to herself and her talent, a responsibility which will necessitate her packing her "bags of books and paper." Esperanza likewise realizes the implications of her talents, acknowledging in her final vignette that she will indeed go far: "one day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever." And yet her power and freedom are both circumscribed and expanded through being shared. She will never be like the "tame" women "who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain"; but neither will she be like Stephen Dedalus, who sees his art as a function of his own autonomy, necessitating his abandonment of home, fatherland, and church. Esperanza senses her ongoing responsibility: not toward the centers of (relative) power, the fathers and husbands who contribute to the oppression of Mango Street's women by demanding obedience and docility, but toward those to whom Cisneros has dedicated the work: "A las Mujeres." Her loyalty is toward the less powerful, the less strong, the less articulate in the dominant language: toward those, the sisters remind her, "who cannot leave as easily as you." Although she recognizes in her closing statement that her achievements might be misunderstood by friends and neighbors, she reassures herself that all will be rectified: "They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out." By the end of her narrative, then, Esperanza attains the balanced maturity described by Gilligan.
In order to reach this resolution, Esperanza must juggle her conflicting feelings toward suburban havens ("Sally" versus "Those Who Don't"); toward the onset of sexuality ("Sire" versus "Red Clowns"); toward marriage ("Marin" versus "Linoleum Roses"); and toward fathers ("Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark" versus "What Sally Said"). Throughout these struggles Esperanza continues to value connectedness; for example, although she first describes her younger sister Nenny as a burden ("Since she comes after me, she is my responsibility"), Nenny provokes more loyalty than resentment. When Nenny reveals her childish ignorance about the mystery of women's hips, Esperanza stubbornly stands by her:
If you don't get them you may turn into a man. Nenny says this and she believes it. She is this way because of her age.
That's right, I add before Lucy or Rachel can make fun of her. She is stupid alright, but she is my sister.
Putting her critical judgments aside, Esperanza asserts her familial loyalty above all. Similarly, her thoughts of her parents are filled not with the hostility and resentment of a sullen adolescent, but with tenderness and gratitude for the emotional security they provide:
my mother's hair … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes a little room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and mama's hair that smells like bread.
Likewise, she does her best to return such comfort, as she later sympathizes with her grieving father:
my brave Papa cries. I have never seen my Papa cry and don't know what to do….
And I think if my own Papa died what would I do. I hold my Papa in my arms. I hold and hold and hold him.
The continuity between generations will remain unbroken; as her father weeps for the loss of his parent, Esperanza recognizes that some day she will in turn grieve his death—and will herself need to be held and held and held.
Esperanza's compassion extends beyond these ties to her immediate family, to the many abused or abandoned wives of Mango Street: to Rosa Vargas, "who is tired all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying and who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come," to Rafaela and Sally, whose husbands jealously lock them away, to Minerva, with whom Esperanza shares her poems. Her intuitive understanding of other, younger women—women closer to her own age—is especially striking, as she attains a sort of omniscience born of empathy:
Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. Anybody….
Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home?… You could close your eyes and you wouldn't have to worry about what people said because you never belonged here anyway and nobody could make you sad and nobody would think you're strange because you like to dream and dream … when all you wanted, all you wanted, Sally, was to love and to love and to love and to love and no one could call that crazy.
In such passages Esperanza's usually simple prose style reaches a lyrical intensity, as she gives voice to the longing for love and striving after dreams which breeds loneliness—and the seeds of dependency ("someone to change her life")—in these young women. In particular, Esperanza grasps Sally's unhappiness, and shares with her the anguish of a home that can never fulfill that term's promise—a home which is not her own, a home where she "never belonged … anyway."
Esperanza bonds with Marin and Sally over the sort of fantasies in which many residents of this barrio indulge; yet even more pervasive on Mango Street, when such escapism fails, is the sense of exclusion; Esperanza feels strongly for all her neighbors who "don't belong": the unhappy Mamacita who speaks no English, the eccentric Ruthie who "laughs all by herself," Esperanza's own Aunt Lupe "sick from the disease that would not go," and others. Through her sympathy for these individuals' plights, Esperanza comes to understand the nature of xenophobia, sexism, and bigotry—the fear of difference which excludes, and even ridicules, Mamacita, Ruthie, and Lupe, not for who they are but for how they look and how they speak, Esperanza has herself participated in such injustice, as when she joins her friends in mocking Lupe's infirmity. This cruelty, generated spontaneously from the obliviousness of a childhood game, is unintentional; Esperanza's simple defense is "We didn't know. She had been dying such a long time we forgot." But when her aunt does finally die, the girls take on responsibility for her death, and Esperanza unsparingly shoulders her share of the burden for their communal guilt:
Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there. My mother says I was born on an evil day and prays for me. Lucy and Rachel pray too. For ourselves and for each other … because of what we did to Aunt Lupe.
Such painful experiences with "difference" elucidate Esperanza's encounters with racial prejudice: with misunderstanding and fear born of ignorance, and with the phenomenon of not belonging.
Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we're dangerous…. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.
But we aren't afraid….
All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.
Esperanza does not learn such lessons as an isolate individual, but rather shares them (as do the weird sisters), as part of a group: as one of three girlhood friends, in the case of mocking Lupe, or as part of a general "we" of Mango Street, in the case of "Those Who Don't." Her budding feminism, like this sensitivity to the dynamics of exclusion, is also gained through interaction and involvement with others. She recognizes the dangers of her gender and refuses the threatened "ball and chain" partly in response to the experiences and warnings of others (for example, her mother in "A Smart Cookie") and partly in response to her own experiences with harassment and abuse, the majority of which either occur in the company of her friends ("The Family of Little Feet"), or result from a betrayal by more "sophisticated" classmates like Sally ("The Monkey Garden" and "Red Clowns"). Bearing out Gilligan's assertions, Esperanza does not experience—or narrate—the harsh lessons of growing up as an autonomous, self-absorbed individual, but as a sensitive and involved member of a community.
This more interactive model for development—what Gilligan refers to as a privileging of "identity as relationship"—may yet precipitate its own anxieties and ambivalences, especially in earlier stages of development, when, according to Gilligan, the sense of responsibility to others may overwhelm a sense of responsibility to oneself. At this stage Gilligan notes the emergence of a pattern of fears based on the "danger" of individual success. While an individual who privileges separation will experience relations with others in terms of a hierarchy, characters like Esperanza, who privilege attachment, may perceive her interaction with others in terms of a "web." These two metaphors imply contrasting goals (respectively, moving up versus staying centered) and contrasting dangers (entrapment born of intimacy versus isolation born of achievement). Rather than the more typically "male" anxiety—"the wish to be alone at the top and the consequent fear that others will get too close"—Esperanza must come to terms with "the wish to be at the center of connection and the consequent fear of being too far out on the edge." By determinedly marching away, yet with equal determination promising a return and reconciliation, Esperanza achieves a sense of balance between her own needs and the needs of her community—to the benefit of both.
"Something" different speaks again and presents itself to the masters in the various forms of non-labor—the savage, the madman, the child, even woman.
—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Esperanza's narrative itself attains a similar balance between her needs and the community's. Just as she can understand and express the "voices" of silenced women like Marin and Sally, so too she "knows" and conveys experiences such as those of the anonymous hit-and-run victim, "Geraldo No Last Name." Geraldo died without having met Esperanza (she hears only the barest outlines of the episode, through her friend), and lived a life quite removed from her own, as a non-English-speaking (probably undocumented) immigrant. Yet she intuitively grasps—and communicates—aspects of his life otherwise closed off to acquaintances, doctors, police, and even his own family:
They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?
His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away. They will wonder. Shrug. Remember. Geraldo. He went north … we never heard from him again.
Esperanza speaks for the excluded, in de Certeau's terms "the various forms of non-labor": the sickly, the deranged, the abused, the anonymous dead and the disempowered; the simple poetry of her prose gives voice to the "cries of the People excluded from the written." She expresses herself as an artist by expressing the struggles of others, establishing her own identity as she conveys the identity of her neighborhood.
Yet even with such a noble project, valorizing the lives of those not generally considered worthy of literary attention, Esperanza is still faced with the potentially alienating effects of artistic achievement: the more her identity becomes that of "the writer," the less she will be an ordinary member of her own community. As an intellectual and artistic enterprise, writing confers upon the writer a certain power: a certain autonomy, control, and authority which is likely to distance the writer from her own disempowered community. De Certeau conveys just such a problematic when he associates the origins of written culture with the privileging of the autonomous individual, with the "mastery" of a hegemonic culture based on rationality, industry, and economic production. Powerless and placeless, the nonelite consumers of this master culture function as the oral disruption, the voices upon whose existence and exclusion the production of writing depends.
Esperanza (and, by extension, Cisneros) undercuts this alienating authority, evading its threatened division from the community by expressing herself and her subjects in prose which eschews the conventions of formal literary language. The simple, childlike poetry of Mango Street does not stifle "the cries of the People excluded from the written" to provide a monologic narrative or an omnipotent narrator; rather, Esperanza gives expression to "a kind of speech" which emerges as "what 'escapes' from the domination of a sociocultural economy," from the tyranny of the written word. With the informal eloquence of a storyteller, she captures rhythms of speech and dynamics of conversation, conveying the oral element(s) of the barrio's voice(s). Quotation and explication are interwoven smoothly, with no quotation marks to isolate and contain other voices; for example, her own and her mother's voices are allowed to flow and alternate without interruption:
Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head.
Similarly, free indirect discourse conveys the distressed and disjointed rhythms of Marin's narrative, even when Esperanza's retelling of it shifts pronouns into the third person.
And how was she to know she'd be the last one to see him alive. An accident, don't you know…. And he was just someone she danced with. Somebody she met that night. That's right.
That's the story. That's what she said again and again. Once to the hospital people and twice to the police.
At times Esperanza's narrative voice drops out altogether and she is heard faintly (even lost) among a chaotic chorus of children's voices, as in the segment made up entirely of dialogue (or multiple monologue) entitled "And Some More":
There's that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on.
Reynaldo, Angelo, Albert, Armando, Mario …
Not my face. Looks like your fat face.
Rita, Margie, Emie …
Whose fat face?
Esperanza's fat face, that's who. Looks like Esperanza's ugly face when she comes to school in the morning.
Such a blending of competing voices would elicit anxiety and resentment from a narrator like Stephen Dedalus, but for Esperanza this cacophony produces only light-hearted (and self-critical) humor, as Nenny's catalogue of cloud names finally intersects—and comments on—the bickering of the group:
Your ugly mama's toes.
Bebe, Blanca, Benny …
Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza, and Nenny.
The competing voices eventually blend to produce a sort of harmony—even a simple wry wisdom—in a way that a monologic narrative would not allow. Such rhetorical instances mark yet another aspect of Esperanza's unique development toward an artistic voice and a sense of self which would achieve an ongoing balance between connection and separation. Esperanza does not need either to indulge in self-imposed exile nor to inhabit externally-imposed, rented spaces that can never be her own; instead she creates a true home—a home in the heart—by absorbing and embracing the voices of her community.
The House on Mango Street, then, despite its apparently "single" narrator, expresses the multiplicity of focus found in many recent works of fiction by women: Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Nicholasa Mohr's Rituals of Survival, Alison Lurie's Only Children, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Telling a communal story diffuses the problematic ideology of individualism, and allows female writers the opportunity to explore (and potentially to resolve) tensions between group involvement and individual autonomy—tensions that cannot be addressed within a literary tradition glorifying a single protagonist. The genre of the Bildungsroman, then, provides a particularly treacherous, yet particularly rewarding, ground for Cisneros' "poaching." As the young Esperanza must create an identity for herself in a fictional world which denies selfhood to members of her sex, her class, and her ethnic group, Cisneros must create her own space, and assert her own voice, within a culture not historically open to her; her tactic of poaching upon the Bildungsroman provides an opportunity, as it were, to renovate and remodel the rented cultural space of this patriarchal genre, in order to make it her own.
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