The House on Mango Street: How a Childlike Perspective Impacts Esperanza’s Understanding of Others
Because Sandra Cisneros writes from a child’s point of view in her novel, The House on Mango Street, her audience gets a glimpse of what life is like for a child struggling with her identity as a Latina girl; Esperanza is a child who hopes that, one day, she will escape poverty and be able to live in the home she has always dreamed of, not just a house that serves as a constant reminder of her family’s struggles and her embarrassment to live somewhere with such an unflattering appearance- inside and out. While the young-minded narrator certainly provides insight of what Esperanza’s truths are while growing up, it also provides an opportunity for a psychoanalytic approach to Esperanza’s perspectives on those around her. More so, it allows the way she views others to be related to the reader-response theory, in that she does not always read other characters accurately. In one way, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ideas can be connected to Esperanza because of how she, like readers of a text, sometimes tries to find meaning in what a person says or does before the entire meaning can actually be found (Gadamer 722). On the other hand, her inability to understand some of the children around her can be explained through Sigmund Freud’s theory of how human beings do not always understand childhood actions until they are older (Freud 510). Undoubtedly, Esperanza’s perception of other people is affected by the fact that her thoughts are formed from a child’s perspective; sometimes, her perception allows her to develop as a forgiving individual, while other times her psychological restrictions – as a child whose brain is not yet as developed as an adult’s – prevent her from fully grasping how she understands others during her exchanges with them.
In certain ways, Esperanza’s perception gives her positive information because, in some cases, her childlike outlook on others prevents her from easily growing angry with them. For instance, she does not blame her parents for not giving her the better house they promised her as a child. Esperanza says, “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” (Cisneros 5). Even though her parents’ empty promises are tough on her, she is disappointed in the simple fact that she does not have the type of house she wants, more so than in her parents. Overall, she realizes that they are trying their best and does not hold it against them as much as an adult might; perhaps, this is because of how children tend to see the good in people and are not as likely to hold grudges, especially with their parents, whom they desire a relationship with. Unfortunately, a childlike perception does not always work for the benefit of an individual.
For instance, one issue with Esperanza’s childlike perception is that it creates psychological restrictions that negatively affect her reading of those around her; as a child, she cannot always fully understand why others do what they do, which is apparent in her confusion as to why Nenny does not try to fit in with their older friends. One example of these restrictions is how the young Esperanza does not quite understand her little sister. “You [Nenny] gotta use your own song. Make it up, you know? But she doesn’t get it or won’t. It’s hard to say which. I can tell Lucy and Rachel are disgusted. Nenny, I say, but she doesn’t hear me. She is too many light-years away. She is in a world we don’t belong to anymore. Nenny. Going. Going” (Cisneros 52). Though the narrator, in hindsight, would have a bit more insight as to why Nenny is in her own world, she does not understand Nenny’s behavior when they are both young. According to the still maturing Esperanza, Nenny’s lack of attempts to fit in with their older friends is not logical. In her mind, why would Nenny not participate with the others in a way that would make them accept her as a fellow friend, instead of being annoyed by her strangeness (and thus possibly leading them to be annoyed with Esperanza)? What Esperanza does not comprehend at that time in her life is that, at Nenny’s age, she is not concerned about being judged by others as much; instead, she just wants to play in a way that is entertaining for her. Thus, it is apparent that the psychological restrictions that children possess, due to still being in the process of learning about the world, affect how Esperanza understands – or, does not understand- her little sister.
More so, Esperanza’s inability to understand her sister’s desire to play, at the cost of not fitting in with others, emphasizes her psychological restrictions as a young person and can be explained through the following of Sigmund Freud’s theories about growing up: “When the child has grown up and has ceased to play, and after he has been laboring for decades to envisage the realities of life with proper seriousness, he may one day find himself in a mental situation which once more undoes the contrast between play and reality. As an adult he can look back on the intense seriousness with which he once carried on his games in childhood, and, by equating his ostensibly serious occupations of today with his childhood games, he can throw off the too heavy burden imposed on him by life and win the high yield of pleasure afforded by humor. (Freud 510) To put Freud’s idea into my own terms, a person has three different perspectives on childhood play as he or she grows up (Freud 510). As a child, he or she finds it important and enjoyable to play. Then, the adolescent goes through a stage in which not only is playing no longer enjoyable, but he or she does not quite understand why it was enjoyable in the first place. Later, an adult is eventually able to look back on how he or she used to play and can understand why he or she was able to think of playtime as such a serious, believable, and exciting time” (Freud 510). Basically, Esperanza’s psychological restriction is apparent in that she is in the middle stage; she is old enough to feel that playing around is silly and immature, but not old enough to understand that playtime is still an instrumental part of Nenny’s life as a child. Thus, the fact that Esperanza’s brain has not yet developed into an adult limits her ability to understand others, even her little sister.
One can go further to say that Esperanza’s misconception of whether the nun is judging her hinders her because she thinks the nun is judging her social status. For instance, Esperanza retells her exchange with the nun, saying, “That one? she said, pointing to a row of ugly three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into. Yes, I nodded even though I knew that wasn’t my house and started to cry. I always cry when nuns yell at me, even if they’re not yelling” (Cisneros 45). Not only does Esperanza believe that she is in trouble with the nun, but she also believes that the nun is judging her for the house that she lives in. While the nun could be judgmental, the narrator’s reflection of what happened does not give any evidence that shows that the nun is criticizing Esperanza for her social status, economic status, ethnic background, or the location or appearance of her house.
To further investigate how Esperanza reads the nun, one must go back to the beginning; earlier in the novel, the narrator explains that the way the nun spoke to her about the house made her “feel like nothing” (Cisneros 5). Regardless of whether the nun thought ill of any of Esperanza’s statuses previously listed, the nun does not actually say anything hurtful to Esperanza, and (being a nun that is supposedly supposed to be loving and accepting) one can argue that she did not mean to make Esperanza feel poorly of herself because of her situation. If anything, perhaps she felt sympathy for her. Whether the nun truly did judge Esperanza for her house or not, a child’s psychological restrictions are seen through the fact that she does not even consider that the nun may not have felt about Esperanza’s house the way she first assumes that she did. Often, children jump to the wrong conclusions and are quick to get their feelings hurt because they can be fragile in their innocence.
Meanwhile, Hans-Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, explains, “A person who is trying to understand a text is always performing an act of projecting. He projects before himself a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges from the text,” (Gadamer 722). More so, he goes on to explain that the reader only finds a theme so quickly because he or she is actively searching for one from the start. As the reader continues to sift through the given information, he or she has to continuously adjust his or her interpretation of the author’s meaning (Gadamer 722), since the additional information that comes when one reads further into a text allows for a clearer interpretation of it. Here, Gadamer is referring to how a reader interprets a certain text; however, his idea can also be connected with how a character in a novel is quick to try to find the meaning of another character’s words or action. In this specific case, his idea can be related to Esperanza’s haste in making assumptions about her sister, Nenny, and the nun, according to the incidences earlier mentioned. Similarly to Gadamer’s idea of how a reader tries to discover the entire meaning of a text as soon as a theme is hinted, the child version of Esperanza seems to remain faithful to her initial conclusion of why those in her life say or do certain things. Like readers of a text, Esperanza might be able to better understand the meaning of different events and exchanges in her life if she took the time to reevaluate whether her original perception of those meanings were correct. As she grows older, she is more likely to be able to better identify the meanings behind others’ actions, just as Gadamer’s readers can better interpret the text the more they take the time to gather information.
Certainly, Esperanza’s narration from the view of a child impacts her discernment of how she understands her conversations with others in Sandra Cisneros’ novel, The House on Mango Street; while her perception sometimes leads her to be more of a forgiving person, it also enforces psychological restrictions that keep her from accurately understanding others. In some ways, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea that readers can initially come to the wrong conclusion when they are searching for the theme of a work can be related to how Esperanza often comes to the wrong conclusion when she follows her first assumption of why a person says or does something (Gadamer 722). On a similar note, Sigmund Freud’s idea that human beings cannot always understand their childhood hobbies until they are older can be connected with how Esperanza has a difficult time understanding why the children around her take part in certain games (Freud 510). One might wonder if Cisneros’ choice in narrating from a child’s perspective leads her to have a more credible narrator, or a less credible one. While one might argue that a child narrator is painfully honest about topics that adults might try to sugarcoat with euphemisms, another might say that Esperanza’s psychological restrictions lead her to present her opinions as truths. Perhaps, Sandra Cisneros’ entrusted her readers with logically deciding when Esperanza’s age affects her credibility; after all, it is a reader’s responsibility to make judgments based not only on his or her analysis of what the character says, but also – and possibly more importantly- based on who the character is – both consciously and subconsciously.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York, Vintage Contemporaries, 1984. Freud, Sigmund. “[Creative Writers and Daydreaming].” Sigmund Freud, Scipione, Stephen, Blankseteen, Jennifer, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007, 1238.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “The Elevation of the Historicality of Understanding to the Status of Hermeneutical Principle.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, Scipione, Stephen, Blankesteen, Jenifer, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007, 1238.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition; Classic Texts and Contemporary trends.3. ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
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