Shame in Sandra Cisneros' the House on Mango Street

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Sarah Clanton
Professor Nixon
ENGL 1102 MW
March 7, 2013

“Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down”:
The Power of Shame in Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

In Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s main goal is to one day have a house of her own that she can be proud of. Of course this is many people’s dream, but for Esperanza it means everything. It’s such a big deal to her because she’s ashamed of where she lives now, so she wants something better for herself in the future. While shame plays such a major role in the novel, this theme has received little attention from critics. Many critics focus mainly on how literacy and writing help Esperanza to find herself and to help her with her problems. In fact, in her article “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street," Jacqueline Doyle writes that The House on Mango Street is about “the maturing of a young Chicana and the development of a writer” (6). While this is true, by focusing wholly on Esperanza’s writing, people seem to overlook the critical role shame plays in the novel. Shame is so important because it’s what motivates Esperanza throughout the story to try and be independent and to make a better life for herself. By taking a closer look at the novel, we see the major effects shame can have on people and the power it has to change people’s lives. Shame is an emotion that we all possess, but we don’t realize it until someone comes along and makes us feel it; it’s a learned emotion. Early on in the novel, a nun from Esperanza’s school is passing by and asks her where she lives. After Esperanza points out her apartment, the nun replies, “You live there?” (5). The nun’s reaction of disbelief and disgust stirs up emotions Esperanza didn’t know she had until now. In her article “Adolescent Journeys: Finding Authority in The Rain Catchers and The House on Mango Street,” Christina Dubb, suggests that “it is the disapproving eyes of authority that force Esperanza to reevaluate her situation and learn to be ashamed of her home” (225). Basically, until the nun points it out, Esperanza doesn’t see anything wrong with her house because it’s all she’s ever known, but the nun’s criticism opens her eyes to the reality of her battered apartment: “There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing” (5). These are some of the most important lines of the novel because this is when Esperanza first realizes that she isn’t satisfied with her living conditions and it’s what drives her throughout the novel to strive for a better house of her own one day. As Dubb puts it, “This is her turning point to ‘step in’ to her envisionment and begin working toward finding her own authority” (225). In other words, this is when Esperanza comes to the realization that she’s not satisfied with her current living conditions and that she wants to take control of her life. This shows how shame is already lurking deep down inside, but it doesn’t surface until someone “teaches” us about it, like the nun teaches Esperanza to be ashamed of her house. Shame, for all the negative feelings it brings, can also have positive effects on a person. After the nun makes her feel ashamed, Esperanza becomes determined that she’ll have a nice house one day: “I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to” (5). It’s as if she’s seeing her apartment for the first time. Being ashamed of her house is what makes Esperanza realize that she wants something more for herself than what she has now; if she never saw anything wrong with where she lived then she would’ve been satisfied living like that for the rest of her life. Mango Street gives her the opportunity to see how she doesn’t want to live, so she knows how she does want to live. By observing her neighbors and their lives, she learns that...
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