[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Valdes provides an overview of critical responses to The House on Mango Street, based on reviews published in three different sets of sources: mainstream newspapers, academic journals, and the ethnic-oriented periodicals. Valdes examines the intersection of the "symbolic reader" and the "implied reader" in Cisneros's text.]
In 1984 a young Chicana writer from Chicago published The House on Mango Street, a post-modern novel which weaves a tapestry of apparently isolated vignettes into a poetic unity. The public response from readers has been predictably of three kinds: 1) reviews in the daily press, especially in the Southwest, where Cisneros's publishers are located (Arte Público of Houston, Texas), 2) some academic commentators, especially those concerned with women's writing, and 3) the ethnic press. All three have clear ideological commitments which are the focal means of commentary. What was not predictable when the book appeared was that the public response was largely irrelevant to the success of the text. The success of this novel is based on a unique formal configuration that inserts the symbolic addressee--las mujeres--into the reading experience. Sandra Cisneros has written a novel with a symbolic reader who is her sister in oppression, but in order to address her she has had to develop an implied reading strategy for reader participation.
In this paper I plan to study the reader reception of The House on Mango Street in four parts: 1) a review of public response, 2) an analysis of Cisneros's symbolic reader, i.e. las mujeres, 3) the strategy of implied reading and reader participation, and 4) the intersection of symbolic reader and implied reading.
The published response to The House on Mango Street has followed traditional patterns. In the years 1984 and 1985 newspaper reviews appeared, for the most part brief impressions of the book, often hampered by the lack of literary context in which the writers were reporting. In 1986 and 1987 academic response began, stressing the significance of the generic innovation and, in general, introducing this new author through careful and measured description. In 1988 and 1989 there were interpretive essays probing into the feminist and cultural depth of the poetic discourse, and by 1990 the novel has been treated within the context of scholarly books on culture and literature. In the documentation to this essay I list all of the materials I am aware of, but for purposes of this presentation I shall only comment briefly on the trajectories of critical response. In total, I shall review thirty publications including nine by Sandra Cisneros herself.
In June 1984 Bonnie Britt writing in the Houston Chronicle comments that these are stories expressing the reality of voiceless women, that the narrator is the embodiment of female possibility, a metaphor for a woman who takes charge of her own life. Jewelle Gomez writes in Hurricane Alice in the summer of 1984 that Cisneros has produced a series of prose poems which explore the bifurcated world of Hispanic women today. Bryce Milligan writing in the San Antonio Express-News in October 1984 remarks that Mango Street must be read as a real place where real people grow up and not some ethereal place of the imagination. José David Saldívar reviews the book in MELUS and comments that above all the prose evokes an extraordinarily beautiful and moving sense of identity of Esperanza Cordero, the narrator, and at the same time expresses feminist concerns through a powerful socially symbolic imagination. By far the worst review written to date is Cecilia Cota-Robles Suarez's brief commentary in Lector which characterizes the novel as "a valuable, if not extraordinary, addition to Hispanic children's literature." This novel reminds the reviewer of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; one cannot but ask whether the reviewer read the book.
The year 1985 added more reviews and of special significance two autobiographical essays by Cisneros in response to some of the questions about her novel and its purported autobiographical content. Roy Gomez writes in VíAztlán (San Antonio) that this novel brings home the emerging consciousness of the modern Chicana and sees as the core of the novel a struggle to redefine her existence. In general, this reviewer is sensitive to the richness of Cisneros's text, but there are some unfortunate statements that will become focal points of controversy. Roy Gomez writes: "Esperanza's dream of a spacious home is a metaphor for independence" (21). The emphasis on size brings in questions of affluence, the inner city/outer city, etc., all of which are not the material of the novel. Esperanza never stresses the size of her house, but rather her identity with it. Quite openly this is a metaphorical extension of Virginia Woolf's room of one's own. The other, even more unfortunate statement opens the next paragraph: "Men, for Esperanza, represent the freedom denied women" (21). The unequivocal feminist political statement of the novel is wholly lost in the inaccurate use of the word "represent." Men have freedom, women do not, that is the point. If there is any representation of freedom in the novel, it is that of the three sisters, "las comadres," who reveal to her that she can find freedom through her writing. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo write a brief comparison of Cisneros's novel and Tomás Rivera's ... y no se lo tragó la tierra. Noteworthy is their emphasis on what they consider Cisneros's use of myth in the development of her coming-of-age novel.
Of special significance for the public dialogue about this novel were two autobiographical essays presented and published by Sandra Cisneros. The first was published in 1985 by Wolfgang Binder in the book Partial Autobiographies. Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, from which I quote the following passage where Sandra Cisneros states:
I have been rather reflective of late. I have been wondering how I fit into the schemata of things. I, and writers like Gary Soto and Lorna Dee Cervantes and Alberto Ríos, are all new products, new voices, technicians from that new school of Chicano poetry. And I wonder what we are inheriting and what we are losing. It frightens me at times. I know I do not want to become so anonymous that I am American. I want to retain my distinctiveness and yet we are inheritors of our new speech, products of our educations. I would hope that our experiments would not take us too far from that which makes us what we are.
The other essay is "My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle with Good and Evil or las hijas de la mala vida" and was delivered at the MLA Convention in Chicago in 1985.
1986 brought a new array of reviews. Some poor, some mediocre and at least two quite revealing of the social pressures of the Chicanos in the United States. David Medina quotes Kanellos, the publisher of the book, that The House on Mango Street is not a feminist protest, "it is a celebration of femininity and the maternal" (14). Juan Rodríguez reports in the Austin Chronicle that Cisneros's novel expresses the traditional ideology of the American Dream, a large house in the suburbs and being away from the dirt and dirty of the barrio is happiness. He hammers away that Esperanza seeks "to become more Anglicized," to lose her ethnic identity. This review is a good example of a reviewer reading into the text, purportedly under review, the fears and anxieties that plague the reviewer at the expense of the text. The social conditions depicted in the novel are deplorable to all who live there but especially to the women; Esperanza would deny herself and Chicana women if she did not break out of the prison that patriarchy imposes. Kimberley Snow comments in the Santa Barbara News-Press that this is an extraordinary little work that reveals profound wisdom of the emerging consciousness of a young girl coming of age in the barrio. Finally, also in 1986, the only review published in Mexico was the commentary written by Elena Urrutia in the feminist journal fem.; it is an incisive descriptive review.
In 1987 Cisneros published five articles which added considerably to the discussion of the ideological context of a Chicana feminist poet and novelist. An interview given to Beatriz Badikian added some insight into Cisneros's attention to the development of her craft as a writer, her concern with the rhythms of speech transferred to the written text. This year the dean of Chicano critics, Luis Leal, wrote a review article which underscored the text's portrayal of Chicano life. Julián Olivares's interpretive essay of 1987 was published in the book Chicano Creativity and Criticism. This commentary draws extensively on Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space in examining Cisneros's text. Fundamentally, he sees the house as a metaphor for the house of fiction. This careful and insightful study, however, overlooks the essential factor that this is a woman's point of view written by a woman and dedicated to other women. This oversight is partially overcome by Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano's powerful if all too short study in what is a review of current trends in Chicana literature. The co-editor of the volume, María Herrera-Sobek adds a brief but deeply perceptive commentary on Esperanza's loss of innocence in "The Red Clowns." Esperanza's pained and disillusioned protest is aimed "not only at Sally the silent interlocutor but at the community of women" (178); this is the narrative addressee or symbolic reader that hovers over the entire text.
Heiner Bus's essay of 1988 on Chicano literature of memory marks a turning point in Cisneros's criticism, moving as it does into the richer context of North American literature and out of the limited area of ethnic writing.
1989 and 1990 criticism on The House on Mango Street no longer has to explain the barrio or the author's relation to it or what it means to be a Chicana writer. The time of these preliminary concerns has passed and critics have now come to terms with the creative power of the text. Ellen McCracken's study, "The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence," forcefully engages the ideological domination over the literary canon, gives a fine reading of the text and concludes with a careful point by point rebuttal of the macho-Chicano attitude of Gutiérrez-Revuelta (1986). Her feminist critical analysis of the scenes of sexual reification that Esperanza rejects, bring out the strength and power of Cisneros's Esperanza as a person who attains her identity and individuality because of and through her community. Also from 1989 is Renato Rosaldo's book, Culture and Truth. Chapter seven, "Changing Chicano Narratives," dedicates five pages to The House. Here there is a clear recognition of the changes in Chicano narratives that novels like this one have produced: "In trying new narrative forms, Cisneros has developed a fresh vision of self and society; she has opened an alternative cultural space, a heterogeneous world, within which her protagonists no longer act as 'unified subjects,' yet remain confident of their identities" (165-66).
In 1990 Marcienne Rocard's "The House Theme in Chicana Literature: A New Sense of Place" includes Cisneros's novel in what this critic sees as the Chicana movement of liberation through self expression. Finally, the last critical work on The House that I have received is Ramón Saldívar's six-page commentary in his book Chicano Narrative. In this perceptive commentary Saldívar recognizes Esperanza's "A House of My Own" as a feminist plea for a site of poetic self-creation. He concludes: "Cisneros helps create an alternate space for the Chicana subject, one that is not subjected by the geometrical homogeneity of contemporary patriarchal culture" (186).
In all of this commentary some academic critics have begun to examine the discursive textual relation between symbolic reader and the implied reading. The articles by McCracken and Yarbro-Bejarano are notable in that they recognize the powerful use of social paradigm and symbolism.
Cisneros's novel is dedicated to las mujeres, its focalizer is a preadolescent girl who is intrigued by the life that awaits her as a Mexican-American woman in Chicago, a situation not unlike that of the author herself a short fifteen years before. The symbolic reader we shall construct is based on sociocultural factors which reflect the position of a reader who is outside the text, but is addressed by the text. Let us call this symbolic reader a vertical axis for the making of the text. This social entity brings together both the social structures and dialogical constructs of everyday life which come into the text as the sociohistorical conditions for the writing itself.
But Cisneros's novel is also an explicit composition. The author has designed, redesigned, written and rewritten the discursive system of the text. Names, places and situations have been organized into a specific structure. Emplotment has worked at every level of configuration as the writer has striven to give the right balance of determinate and indeterminate features. The pre-established paths of the symbolic reader resist the unique realization of the writer. Therefore the resistance to individuality has its own peculiar struggle on this horizontal axis of the implied reading plan. The writer seeks to convey a personal sense of truth to her readers; the more intimate, personal and singular the writing becomes, the more difficult it will be to achieve the desired level of communication. The implied reading plan is therefore a concept, primarily a strategy, to bring about a degree of communication of the author's personal vision. It is at the intersection between sociohistoric factors and the emplotment of the text that we find a transformation of observable reality into a metaphorical truth that each reader must make for herself. The complexity of the elements in play--sociohistoric, ideological codes, internal textual codes and the power of figurative realization in the reader--produce of necessity a polysemy of the fictional text.
Let us take up each of these axes of figuration in turn and then conclude with an assessment of the interaction which is the reading experience. The concept of Cisneros's symbolic reader is quite specifically Chicano women, their identity and their status in society. I want to emphasize that I am not dealing with the personal intentions of the woman Sandra Cisneros, but rather with her avowed symbolic reader and its sociohistorical context. This is a concept I have adopted from the semanalysis of Julia Kristeva. In this first category of the sociohistoric subject chosen by the author, I am dealing with ungrammaticalized enunciation, the saying, thought, word and gesture not yet formulated into a coherent structure, not yet a discourse, but that which is about to become a structure through the deliberate elaboration of discourse. When this happens we will be dealing with composition or the implied reading plan. But let me return to the symbolic reader. This is the signifying process that actualizes experience in an apparently incoherent and fragmented way. Both the author and all of her readers share in this chaotic jumble of thoughts, fears, joys and the memory of pain. The subject itself, Chicano women, plunges us into this storm of conflicting responses.
There are four semic categories which will help us establish the scope of the symbolic reader: space, time, others, and self (see table 1). Each of these has a number of specific words and phrases that are used to bring the specific context into play. All of these signs have both determinate and indeterminate meanings which lead the reader into generalized areas of thought.
The implied reading plan is another axis: altogether this is a strategy for reader response that is part craft and part inspiration. It is the age-old plan of every writer to reach her readers. This plan of action brings to bear devices, techniques, as well as ideas and symbols; it is the reign of intertextuality as writers use the discursive achievements of other writers.
These two states of enunciation, one social and not clearly articulated, the other literary and highly articulated, come together in the reading experience by which the signifying system is generated. The implied reading plan of this novel is a strategy of weaving rather than of telling a tale. The axis of the modeling system is a picture that must be woven, thread by thread, a tapestry of one year in the life of a young Chicana. The development is not that of the traditional plot which unfolds the action of the protagonist in her world. The symbolic codes that operate do so within each of the forty-four narrative reflections to create self-contained images of alienation, poverty, wife-beating and rejection. Most of the images are closed, only those of the narrator's introspection remain open. Each of the closed images adds another figure to the tapestry of the paradox of not belonging where you belong. They present the lives and impoverished existence of the narrator's mother, her sister Nenny, and Cathy, Blanca, Alicia, Lucy, Rachael, Marin, Edna, Rosa Vargas, Elenita, Ruthie, Lois, Mamacita, Rafaela, Sally and Minerva. The open-ended reflections are the narrator's search for an answer to the enigma: how can she be free of Mango Street and the house that is not hers and yet belong as she must to that house and that street. The open-ended entries come together only slowly as the tapestry takes shape, for each of the closed figures are also threads of the larger background figure which is the narrator herself. The final entry culminates the picture with the last colors "... but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to" (101).
The temporal shifts in the last paragraphs, are the essential last threads to the woven picture. We move from past remembrance in the present: "What I remember most of Mango Street" (101) to the present of writing: "I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much" (101), to the future projection: "One day I will say goodbye to Mango" (101) and, finally, from that future time when neighbors will ask: "Why did she march so far away?" (102) we will move from the historical present that has characterized the entire novel to the narrative present which is the end that in fact is the beginning: "I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out" (102).
The implied reading plan weaves a portrait of Esperanza from the forty-four figures. The two streams of enunciation, one sociohistoric and the other a discursive strategy, come together in the reader's experience of making the text. The symbolic reader and the implied reading plan merge in our reading.
Another writer writing in near exhaustion in 1928 tried to sum up the intersection of the sociohistoric detail and the narrative unfolding of discourse: "[L]iterature alone expresses to others and discloses to us our own life, that life which cannot be observed and the visible manifestations need to be translated and often read backwards and deciphered with much effort" (Proust 226).
In this paper I have taken up the public response to Cisneros's novel as well as the dual intentionality of the text: first, the sociohistorical context which I have called the symbolic reader since these directions and ideologies are all quite deliberate choices of the author. And second, the implied reading plan, a term borrowed from Wolfgang Iser but enriched with Kristeva's theory to include not only the explicit design of the text but also the intertextual deployment of symbolic codes.
The reviews, with few exceptions, are an ideological response to the challenge of the creative power of the text. The critical studies of Cisneros's text that offer an interpretation of the reading experience without imposing closure on the text are few and far between, but they are growing in number and are most welcome as the dialogue on Esperanza Cordero grows. The most limited and useless responses are those that use the text in order to express the ideological posture of the commentator.
To conclude, the reader response that is most valuable is neither the public review process nor the private solitary reading, but the intersubjective, communal readings wherein individuals read, create and share this creation. The reading experience of Cisneros's novel is a disclosure of feminist clarity. The power of the feminist writer is not to be measured in negative terms of subversion, opposition or rejection of patriarchy, although it does all of these. The power of writing is the creation of women's space independent of the feminine categories of life women have been indoctrinated into accepting as duty for a millennium. The highest duty of any person and, especially of every woman, is self-realization.
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------. "From a Writer's Notebook. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession." Americas Review 15.1 (Spring 1987): 69-73.
------. The House on Mango Street. 1984. 2nd. rev. ed. Houston: Arte Público, 1988.
------. "Living as a Writer: Choice and Circumstance." Feminist Writers Guild 10.1 (February 1987): 8-9.
------. "My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle With Good and Evil or las hijas de la mala vida." Paper delivered at MLA Convention, Chicago 1985 and at Yale University, Spring 1986.
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------. "Only Daughter." Paper read at "Writing Lives: Women as Writers." Third Latin American Book Fair. City College of New York 5 May 1989.
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