Sandra Cisneross The House on Mango Street is, at heart, a story of a young girls coming-of-age in an extremely harsh environment. Esperanza faces a slew of obstacles and disadvantages that are unique to growing up in a place like Mango Street, but there are other issues she deals with that are far more universal, especially her blooming sexual interests.
This essay provides an analysis of how the protagonists of the books The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street perceive Gender and Sexuality and also examines the impact of these differences on the characters behavior and opinions.
Attitudes to Gender Roles and Stereotypes in The Catcher In The Rye
Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old, white, upper-middle-class boy from New York. Therefore, as a white, wealthy, male American, he is a member of the most privileged group in the world at that time. Even though the book was written and published long before the rise of second-wave feminism, the theme of gender is quite an important part of the narrative. Holden is clearly aware of gender roles, which is manifested when he asks his date, Sally, to go away with him and live in a cabin in the woods (Salinger 132): when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere ... and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our wood in the wintertime and all (Salinger 132). This suggests that Holden at times conforms to traditional roles of femininity and masculinity, such as the man as the only breadwinner 13 in the family. He also sometimes makes comments that seem sexist or at least objectifying for example, while waiting for Sally, he watches the girls ... waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs ... It was really nice sightseeing if you know what I mean (Salinger 123). However, Holdens attitude to traditional gender roles is much more complex than these passages may suggest. His vision of life with Sally in the woods can also be seen as an expression of Holdens need of human contact and love (the subject of love and loneliness will be analyzed in the next chapter).
Even though Holden apparently perceives the waiting girls as sexual objects, he also thinks about them as about human beings; he feels sorry for them, because most of them would probably marry dopey guys, which is depressing (Salinger 123). As far as aggressive behavior is concerned, Holden, that got into a fight only twice in his life and lost both those fights, considers himself a pacifist (Salinger 46) is beaten up twice in the course of the book; every time, he refuses to attack in any other way than verbally; and every time, the violence breaks out because of sex. The first fight takes place in Pencey, where Holden, thinking that his roommate 14 Stradlater had sex with Holdens platonic love, provokes him until Stradlater knocks him out. The second fight happens after Holden refuses to sleep with a prostitute in New York and does not pay her. She calls her pimp, Maurice, and he attacks Holden and steals his money. The aggressive connotations of sex are repulsive for Holden aggression is a notably negative quality to Holden (Rosen 555). Even though he has several possibilities to have sex, he remains a virgin, possibly because of his non aggressiveness: The thing is, most of the time when youre coming pretty close to doing it with a girl ... she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys dont. I cant help it (Salinger 92). That is another example of Holdens identification with women instead of doing what he wants and losing his virginity; he is considerate of the feelings of the girl, and he stops when she asks him to, which is not common for the boys in his age. Therefore, by not standing up to the stereotypes of masculinity and identifying himself rather with femininity, Holden actively undermines the views of gender roles that were common in his times.
Attitudes to Gender Roles and Stereotypes in The House On Mango Street
The heroine and the narrator of The House on Mango Street is a 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero, who is attending a primary school at the outskirts of Chicago. As she gets older and more experienced in the course of the novel, she gradually becomes aware of the possibilities and limitations that come with being a Chicana woman and both her life and the way she sees the world around her is thoroughly affected by her gender and the way she approaches her womanhood. In one of the first vignettes, Esperanza claims that boys and girls live in separate worlds (Cisneros 8). This is very true, especially for the Chicano community, where the ideal of man is a macho breadwinner while an ideal woman should either devote herself to the family (like Esperanzas mother) or her husband (like Esperanzas friend Sally). 15
Esperanza is very well aware of what it means to be a woman in her culture; she claims that the Mexicans dont like their women strong (Cisneros, Mango Street 11 12). She understands that being female within her community very often means being a victim. Even her grandmother, a wild horse of a woman (Cisneros, Mango Street 12), was eventually tamed by Esperanzas grandfather. Her mother, her friends, her neighbours they are all forced to abandon their dreams and ambitions to become wives, mothers and daughters. This feature of Mango Street women is pointed out by Jacqueline Doyle: Most of the women yearn for different endings (9). Doyle also stresses the fact that almost all women in the novel are being isolated from the rest of the people living on Mango Street, so when they are not taking care of their children and husbands, they look from the window or sit on the porch all day, without a possibility to go somewhere else (8). However, Esperanza also learns that becoming an isolated victim of the patriarchal society is not the only possible future for her. As Helena Grice argues, if female sexuality is often figured as a burden in the text, then it sometimes also offers a possible means of manipulating and controlling patriarchal conditions (234). Esperanza becomes aware of this possibility of using sexuality in her favor in the vignette called Hips, when she says: You gotta be able to know with hips when you get them (50).
Even though she is theoretically aware of the power of womanhood, Esperanza, at the same time, describes herself as an ugly daughter and the one nobody comes for (88). She would like to be beautiful and cruel as a movie heroine: She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away (89). Because she sees herself as ugly, she finds her own 16 way of attaining power that differs from the movies her quiet war: I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate (89).
To sum up, while it may seem that Holden passively acquires and endorses the gender roles that are typical for his culture, time and society and Esperanza actively stands up to the roles she should perform as a Mexican American woman, the evidence above suggests that as far as gender roles are concerned, both Holden and Esperanza do not behave according to the rules of their communities and actively challenge the gender stereotypes of their periods. Holden remains non-aggressive and sexually inactive while Esperanza tries to become an active and articulate person.
Baldwin, Clive. Digressing from the Point: Holden Caulfields Women. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: A Routledge Study Guide. Ed. Sarah Graham. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. 109-119. Print.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Random House, 1991. Print.
Doyle, Jacqueline. More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. MELUS 19. 4 (1994): 5-28. ProQuest. Web.
J.D. Salinger The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
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