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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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Changing Cultures of Solitude: Reclusiveness in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (Jochen Achilles)

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Jochen Achilles

Changing Cultures of Solitude: Reclusiveness in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

Abstract: In The House on Mango Street, hermitism can be both a form of repression and the precondition for the battle against it. Esperanza fights female incarceration mentally by a retreat into the imagination and performatively by seclusion in the monkey garden. This may in turn support and strengthen her search for both an identity and a home of her own.

1. The Liminal Quality of Solitude in The House on Mango Street

Like Denise Chavez’s The Last of the Menu Girls (1986), Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984) can be considered a collection of initiation stories, a short story cycle, a Bildungsroman, “‘a portrait of the artist as a young woman,’ that is, a Künstlerroman” (Eysturoy 90), or “a modified autobiographical structure” (Madsen 107).1 In a series of episodes without closure, vignettes rather than stories, it describes the emancipation of Esperanza Cordero, its protagonist, narrator, and initiate.2 Reminiscent of George Willard’s intermediate position in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Cisneros develops a narrative structure which positions Esperanza as both protagonist and observer of Hispanic society in the Mexican American barrio of Chicago where Mango Street is situated.3 First and foremost, The House on Mango Street is a contemporary version of what Ina Bergmann has analyzed as forms of negative initiation in And Then the Child Becomes a Woman: Weibliche Initiation in der amerikanischen Kurzgeschichte 1865–1970 (2003). Esperanza is what Bergmann characterizes as “a personality actively rebelling against the restrictions of the traditional woman’s role, culminating in her emancipation” (“Stories” 310).

On the one hand, the houses on Mango Street, where Esperanza and her peers grow up, appear as so many prisons. On the other hand, a new and different home of her own is both Esperanza’s and Cisneros’s manifestation of ultimate independence. Cisneros’s introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street is titled “A House of My Own,” like the penultimate vignette in which Esperanza claims “a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (108), suggesting a connection between the acquisition of a house and the production of poetry. In 2008, the real-life equivalent of the house on Mango Street has long been a thing of the past for Cisneros. On the strength of the success of her stories and poems she is meanwhile living independently in ← 217 | 218 → a home of her own in San Antonio, Texas, which she describes with satisfaction (Cisneros xi-xxvii). But in her memories and the writing fed by them, Mango Street will probably always be present. Cisneros shares such dialogic liminalities not only with her protagonist Esperanza, but also with her readers, who have to negotiate past and present, too: the Mango Streets they come from and the San Antonios they want to live in, the memories of the lives they have lived and the hopes they aspire to.

As writing is a process of renewed identification and simultaneous distancing, leaving home and changing one’s life converge with preserving the past. In “The House on Mango Street” and “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” the opening and closing vignettes of The House on Mango Street, these dialectics of home and a house of one’s own, familiarity and otherness, repression and emancipation, stasis and movement, retention and protention, Spanish and English, living and imagining, lead to oxymoronic statements such as “the house I belong but do not belong to” (110) and “I have gone away to come back” (110). The dialectics of familiarity and otherness as well as the motif of the search for a house of one’s own pervade The House on Mango Street (Bolaki 106–07, 121–22, 128–29; Eysturoy 90–98, 106–109; Madsen 127; Nagel 124; Veauthier 74–78, 162–72, 187–89.) The house is both humiliating presence and liberating agent (Bolaki 119; Jacobs 116; Madsen 127–28; Saldívar-Hull 93). In such processes of transition third spaces of isolated existence turn into sites of reflection and the articulation of alternative subject positions. These liminal spaces transform Cisneros’s captivity tales into peripheral border texts, opening up perspectives of transgression and lasting change (Bolaki 94–102; Madsen 105; Saldívar-Hull 91, 87).

Like the identities of both Cisneros and Esperanza, the functions of solitude and the tendencies of reclusiveness in The House on Mango Street oscillate in liminal fashion. In The House on Mango Street solitude is, on the one hand, a result of either isolation on account of otherness or repression on account of paternalism. On the other hand, solitude can also become a catalyst for change. Forms of enforced hermitism can lead to a retreat into the imagination or temporarily open up heterotopic settings which enable the anticipation of further change and improvement. It is not least the treatment of reclusiveness and solitude that turns The House on Mango Street into an arena for questioning existential, cultural, national, and aesthetic certainties.

2. Solitude as a Result of Repression: The Fear of Men

In the universe of The House on Mango Street, the fear of otherness is frequently not only an interethnic but also a highly gendered element in the narrow confines ← 218 | 219 → of the Hispanic family circle. A sequence of vignettes highlights the cyclical pattern of male violence and coercion breeding more male violence and coercion. Husbands represent domination and repression like fathers before them. The enforced hermitism of girls in their parental homes invariably continues once they are married. Concerning Esperanza’s friend Sally, the vignettes “What Sally Said,” “Sally,” and “Linoleum Roses” depict stages of this vicious circle. Traditional machismo turns wives and daughters involuntarily into reclusive characters, imprisoned in the domestic sphere. Patriarchal Latino communities dominated by the ideology of machismo can be understood as what Gilles Deleuze has called “societies of control.” Transforming the enforced hermitism of women into a sphere of independent reflection can be considered one of the few defense mechanisms against the pervasiveness of control that is being internalized in such communities.4

“What Sally Said” gives an impression of paternal mistrust, rage, and vigilance in Hispanic families. The vignette delineates the cycle of violence machismo brings about. It also indicates the submissiveness of girls and women who seem to consider habitual repression by fathers or husbands normal because it is so ubiquitous and universal. “He never hits me hard” (Cisneros 92), Sally’s opening statement, which is repeated a few lines later, encapsulates both male violence and female acquiescence in a nutshell. Sally admits that she is routinely beaten by her father but also tones down her accusation by the suggestion that the beatings are not severe, although “her skin is always scarred” (92). Sally’s mother assists in alleviating the consequences of the beatings by rubbing “lard on all the places where it hurts” (92). The father is afraid that, like his own sisters, Sally will bring disgrace on the family. Therefore, he hits her “like a dog,” “like if I was an animal” (92).

When Sally visits Esperanza to stay for a couple of days with the Cordero family, her father appears and begs her to come back home with tears in his eyes, promising “this is the last time” (93). Sally follows her father home, thereby performing the same gesture of acquiescence which she verbally expresses in the statement that she is occasionally hit, but never hard. After a while Sally does not appear in school for several days, as her father saw her talking to a boy and again “forgot he was her father between the buckle and the belt” (93). The cycle of alleged female misconduct outside the home, the return home and imprisonment there, male violence, female acquiescence and, finally, regret on all sides goes into another round. The brutal male rage, evoked by any gesture within the family circle construable as female transgression, is a measure of the men’s own desire for such transgression outside the family circle – maybe also inside the family circle as well. The father’s merciless beatings can be considered a deferred realization of his own sexual interest in his daughter, a rationalization of “his own incestuous ← 219 | 220 → desire” as Elizabeth Jacobs explains: “This psycho-social complex is fundamental to machismo and is used as a justification for sexism within the Chicano community” (115; see also Bolaki 109; Eysturoy 103; Nagel 121; Saldívar-Hull 98–100; Veauthier 90–92, 119–24, 180). The result is the hermitism of women in the domestic sphere, which is protected by physical force.

“Linoleum Roses” continues Sally’s story. To flee from domestic torture and paternal incarceration, Sally marries a marshmallow salesman while still in eighth grade. “She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape” (Cisneros 101), Esperanza comments. Sally claims to be happy as she can go shopping “when her husband gives her money” (101). Not only is she financially dependent on her husband, he also has bouts of sudden rage and “once he broke the door where his foot went through, though most days he is okay” (101). He does not regularly beat her like her father but sentences her to solitary confinement. She can neither use the telephone, nor look out the window, nor receive visitors (102).

As other vignettes such as “The Monkey Garden” and “Red Clowns” show, Sally clandestinely explores sexuality early. She then tries to flee from paternal repression and violence by marriage but finds herself in the same cycle of repression she has known from childhood, condemned to even more complete domestic inertia: “She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake” (102). Reduced to appreciating the rose pattern in the linoleum, Sally ends up in a situation reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). What turns Sally into an involuntarily contemplative hermit figure is not only her father and her husband but obviously the whole male-dominated, familial moral system that pervades her culture (Bolaki 117; Eysturoy 103–04; Madsen 113; Nagel 122–23; Veauthier 181–83).

3. Solitude as a Catalyst for Change

3.1 The Return of the Repressed as a Writing Cure

Esperanza’s vignettes negotiate between a Mango Street neighborhood “filled with women imprisoned in the domestic space by patriarchal and economic constraints” (Saldívar-Hull 94) and Gilman’s and Virginia Woolf’s demand for a room of one’s own (Jacobs 116; Saldívar-Hull 93). In this context, the solitude generated by forms of imprisonment can become a catalyst for change. Understanding Esperanza as a Latina hermit explains such unlikely liberation in adversity. In an insightful essay ← 220 | 221 → about the American hermit and the British castaway, Coby Dowdell claims that the hermit’s situation consists in a temporary or permanent distancing from the cultural, political, or moral demands of the world (122; 127–28). As a liminal stage of independent deliberation, hermitism allows for a rethinking and reinterpreting of positions. It can therefore be considered a deliberate suspension of taking sides (139, 148). The essay brilliantly analyzes the paradigmatic relevance of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) with regard to the comprehension of both the function of text production in hermits’ tales and the transformation of enforced isolation into voluntary reclusion. In Dowdell’s view, the hermit’s tale is “a highly formulaic genre” (130), in which the writing process itself is constitutive as well as often thematic. Thereby it links the reclusion of the hermit with his or her social relevance, with the “claim to exemplarity” (136). Robinson and many of his American successors consider themselves exemplary for others, a status that is tied to the fact that they lay their liminal reflections down in writing (138). Esperanza also sees herself as a model for her equally oppressed friends, who prove largely incapable, however, of emulating her method of publicizing dissent, namely, of writing themselves out of patriarchy and into a house of their own.

In The House on Mango Street Esperanza is marginalized but also temporarily marginalizes herself in order to adopt a distanced position of fundamental criticism with regard to the basic coordinates of the barrio community she lives in. If one somewhat inappropriately considers Esperanza’s friends from the neighborhood Fridays, she can pass as what Elizabeth Cady Stanton in “The Solitude of Self” (1892) suggests all women are, “an imaginary Robinson Crusoe, with her woman Friday on a solitary island” (2). Like the creative writing of Cisneros herself, Esperanza’s cure is a writing cure in the sense that her writing about her situation may render her independent in a house of her own. Like many hermits before her, Esperanza also manages to reinterpret enforced hermitism as intentional self-distancing, “the transformation of his or her forced exile into voluntary retirement” (Dowdell 135). Fulfilling this pattern, Esperanza turns outer-directed patriarchal imprisonment into a precondition for self-propelled emancipatory reflection, as some of the vignettes in The House on Mango Street demonstrate.

3.2 The Retreat into the Imagination

Some vignettes anticipate the house of her own that Esperanza dreams of and imagines Sally to dream of, too. These vignettes provide images which point in the direction of independent self-definition but do not share the concreteness of the house metaphor. The very haziness of these images indicates a desire which is unformed as yet. Friendless and isolated, Esperanza feels homeless at home in ← 221 | 222 → “Boys & Girls” and sees herself as “a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor” (9). The balloon tied to an anchor may represent her desire for a different home but also the fear of drifting away without direction once one lets loose. This image adequately signals the ambivalence of being confined to the unsatisfactory status quo of Mango Street and the grounding this provides for an all-too formless and hazy desire for change. Reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s story “The Balloon” (1968), Esperanza’s identification with a red balloon is a bid for reorientation. Like wishes, the balloon is both flexible and fragile. It may soar but also sag. In any case it is a counter-image to the fixity and stagnation represented by the linoleum roses Esperanza’s friend Sally stares at, locked as she is in her premature marriage.

As in the independent home Esperanza imagines in “Sally” “all the sky” (83) would come in through the open windows, in “Darius & the Clouds” the sky also represents the ultimate counter-world to the restrictive and sad realities of Mango Street (33). There may be a childlike arbitrariness and playfulness about the desire to overstep the boundaries of what is real. Nevertheless, both the red balloon and Darius’s fascination with the clouds are powerful signals of a dynamics of change which may liberate the involuntary recluses of Mango Street and cut to pieces the linoleum and its rose pattern.

The vignette “Four Skinny Trees” provides yet another counter-image to “Linoleum Roses.” While Sally watches a simulacral nature in the floor pattern of her marital abode, Esperanza regards the real trees outside her window as doubles. When she, too, feels as a “tiny thing against so many bricks” (75), Esperanza turns to the trees, whose striving for a more beneficial environment she shares (Nagel 118–19; Veauthier 96–97). While Esperanza’s loneliness and isolation are a passing mood in her room at night, Sally and her sadly sterile environment of linoleum roses demonstrate that it can become a permanent state, if one does not continue the fight. If linoleum is largely made from dead trees, the skinny but vital trees outside remind Esperanza of this fighting spirit: “Four who reach and do not forget to reach” (Cisneros 75). The four skinny trees provide Esperanza with a mirror image, an ecological objective correlative of her own position between restriction and transgression. As the trees are hemmed in and rendered skinny by urban traffic, Esperanza falls short of her potential on account of moral and social strictures. Like the skinny trees, Esperanza is resilient and determined to reach out for change and transformation. The balloon in “Boys & Girls,” the clouds and sky in “Darius & the Clouds,” and the four skinny trees are indistinct images of, and projection screens for, alternative visions of freedom and independence. Juggling these images in the enclave of her own imagination, Esperanza begins an initiation process as opaque as the significance of balloon, sky, clouds, and trees. ← 222 | 223 →

3.3 The Retreat into a Heterotopia

This spirit of change finds its most concrete manifestation in “The Monkey Garden.” This garden turns into a playground when it ceases to be a monkey garden. The adolescents from Mango Street take the garden over from an aggressive monkey, after the monkey moved to Kentucky and “took his people with him” (94). Even before Esperanza and her friends dare appropriate it, the garden is not just part of the neighborhood. It is an exterritorial realm, an uncivilized jungle, dominated by the monkey’s “wild screaming at night, and the twangy yakkety-yak of the people who owned him” (94). For Esperanza, the monkey garden allows for a reclusive detachment from the moral values that dominate her life, which enables novel ways of both reorientation and self-organization. In “Of Other Spaces” (1986), Michel Foucault singles out the garden as “the smallest parcel of the world and then … the totality of the world … a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity” (26). Esperanza’s visits to the monkey garden feature elements of both the separation from one’s group and the ambiguous experimentalism of the liminal period Victor Turner recognizes in very different contexts (Turner 94; Achilles and Bergmann).

In complex ways the monkey garden turns into a crisis heterotopia that mediates between tradition and rebellion, nature and civilization. It is a mixture of lush jungle and sewage disposal site:

This was a garden, a wonderful thing to look at in the spring. But bit by bit, after the monkey left, the garden began to take over itself. Flowers stopped obeying the little bricks that kept them from growing beyond their paths. Weeds mixed in. Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms. First one and then another and then a pale blue pickup with the front windshield missing. Before you knew it, the monkey garden became filled with sleepy cars. (Cisneros 95)

The pubescent children of Mango Street do not distinguish between, on the one hand, natural phenomena such as mushrooms or the aggressive monkey that disappeared and, on the other, civilizational phenomena such as the dilapidated cars. They do not see the monkey garden as a car cemetery or dumping ground, for example. For them, the natural and the civilizational sphere inextricably melt into each other. Their imagination is stimulated by, and feeds on, this wondrous terrain which seems to invalidate accepted norms. The adolescent acceptance of heterogeneity as natural converges with advanced ecological concepts such as Emma Marris’s rambunctious garden: “The rambunctious garden is everywhere. Conservation can happen in parks, on farms, in the strips of land attached to rest stops and fast-food joints, in your backyard, on your roof, even in city traffic circles” (2). Much earlier, the naturalist Leonard Dubkin explored the rambunctious ← 223 | 224 → gardens of Chicago, especially in his last book, My Secret Places: One Man’s Love Affair with Nature in the City (1972).5

The children turn the garden into a heterotopic zone which remains untouched and uninfluenced by their repressive parents. As Rip Van Winkle flees from his family to the Catskill Mountains, the children flee to their magic monkey garden. One of the children, Eddie Vargas, is almost forgotten by the other children when he falls asleep underneath a hibiscus tree, “like a Rip Van Winkle” (Cisneros 95). Like Eddie Vargas, all the children want to be forgotten by their parents and appropriate the garden like the monkey before them. In the monkey garden Esperanza and her friends feel immune to the pressures of their domestic environment. They enter a hermitage as it were:

This, I suppose, was the reason why we went there. Far away from where our mothers would find us. We and a few old dogs who lived inside the empty cars. We made a clubhouse once on the back of that old blue pickup. And besides, we liked to jump from the roof of one car to another and pretend they were giant mushrooms. (95–96)

For the children of Mango Street the monkey garden both distances and defamiliarizes pedestrian realities. It is an actual playground but, like the family closets in Chavez’s The Last of the Menu Girls (17–35), also assumes importance as a magical container of past history both real and imaginary, a storehouse of half-remembered lore: “Somebody started the lie that the monkey garden had been there before anything. We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal” (Cisneros 96). In the adolescent imagination of Esperanza and her friends, the hermit’s den of the monkey garden fuses early stages of history and myth with the debris of contemporary society. Reality and its temporal dimensions seem miraculously suspended and magically transformed. In a fantasy version of Marris’s notion of the rambunctious garden, which allows us “to see the sublime in our own backyards, if we try” (3), cars may become giant mushrooms, pirates’ corpses may leave their graves, eyes of unicorns may stare from the underbrush. For the adolescent girls around Esperanza, such fairy-tale suspension of reality and its rules holds the equally magical promise of future transformations of Cinderellas into princesses, frogs into princes. The irresistible charm of the monkey garden derives from its Edenic suggestiveness. However, Esperanza and her friend Sally have different dreams, different ideas about the transformability of frogs into princes and, consequently, about what paradise looks like. While Esperanza wants to remain in the magical fairy tale-world of childhood, although she “may be getting too old to play the games” (96), Sally does not play “with the kids” (96) anymore, as she is afraid of soiling her ← 224 | 225 → stockings in the monkey garden. She plays and jokes with the boys in eroticized ways Esperanza disapproves of (96). At a fair in “Red Clowns,” the conflict between Esperanza and Sally in “Monkey Garden” repeats itself: while Sally is interested in erotic adventures with boys, Esperanza feels assaulted and is violated. In “Sally,” Esperanza in vain suggests to Sally to go down her own road of setting up an independent household first (Bolaki 124–25; Eysturoy 99–101; Madsen 114–15, 116–17; Nagel 121–22; Saldívar-Hull 101; Veauthier 92–93, 146–50).

Alienated, not only from the grown-up world but also from her peers and her best friend, Esperanza flees to the other end of the garden: “And then I don’t know why but I had to run away. I had to hide myself at the other end of the garden, in the jungle part, under a tree that wouldn’t mind if I lay down and cried a long time” (97). There, in total isolation and reclusion, she believes she can maintain a quasi-Emersonian spiritual exchange with nature that will give her strength in her battle against male molestation and the world at large. Like Sylvia in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” (1886), Esperanza rejects the advances of young hunters and chooses the regressive path, clinging to childhood and to nature. She even wants to die and thereby to melt into nature, to become a part of it: “I wanted to be dead, to turn into the rain, my eyes melt into the ground like two black snails. I wished and wished. I closed my eyes and willed it, but when I got up my dress was green and I had a headache” (97–98; see also Bergmann, “Stories”).

As the white heron may not return Sylvia’s sympathies in Jewett’s late nineteenth-century story, the monkey garden declines Esperanza’s attempt to become part of it. Esperanza has to learn that there is no immediate leap into a less oppressive otherness, that identification with the garden cannot literally be a solution: “And the garden that had been such a good place to play didn’t seem mine either” (98), she observes. The jungle part of the garden as natural habitat is perhaps rather the domain of the monkey that, nevertheless, left for Kentucky. For Esperanza it is a transitional and liminal space, not the solution of her problems. But Esperanza’s utter isolation from adolescents and adults alike, the total reclusion which the garden affords her for a moment of crisis severe enough to lead to her wish of self-extinction, may have been the trigger for the search of more viable forms of identity.

The utter solitude resulting from the insight that “not even the monkey garden would have me” (96) may have shocked Esperanza into the less immature and more realistic search for a new home of her own. The experience that she cannot give herself up to nature in isolation may be the beginning of Esperanza’s resolution to fight machismo and male oppression openly and relentlessly. In “Beautiful & Cruel” she decides to rebel against what she perceives as universal oppression by men: “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks ← 225 | 226 → on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain … I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (88–89).

4. The Dialectics of Solitude in The House on Mango Street

In the world of The House on Mango Street, reclusiveness and hermitism can be both the result of machismo or, transformed into a willed stance, the precondition for the battle against it. The transitional images of balloon, clouds, sky, and skinny trees may mentally pave the way for Esperanza’s performative interaction with the monkey garden. This may in turn either trigger or support and strengthen her search for a home of her own.

Notes

1. See also Eysturoy 85–88; Madsen 39; Nagel 107, 112, 115, 126; and Veauthier 88–94. For an extensive research report on The House on Mango Street, see Veauthier 17–58.

2. Cisneros xvi–xvii. On the historical and cultural background of Cisneros’s fiction, see Jacobs 111; Madsen 6–13, 25–29, 34; and Saldívar-Hull 89.

3. On Cisneros’s own intercultural biography, see Madsen 105–06, and Nagel 104–05.

4. See Deleuze. On Chicana feminism as a reaction to repressive family structures, see Madsen 10, 25–29.

5. I am grateful to Scott Slovic for informing me on this forgotten explorer of ecotopia. See also Bryson. For a history of the relationship between gardens and hermitism, see Campbell.

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