Critical Essays Form and Language as Characterization in Cisneros' Fiction


Critics praise Sandra Cisneros' fiction for, among other things, her use of non-linear form and her colorful, image-rich language. Both are seen as evidence of her departure from traditional (patriarchal, white European-American) conventions of fiction in English in favor of a feminist, specifically Latina mode of discourse. I would argue that Cisneros uses both, as well, to accomplish her many-layered and exceptionally economical characterizations.

Cisneros' characters "come to life" often in remarkably few words, allowing the reader to feel both a sympathy with and a sense of individuality in almost every character that give even short sketches unusual depth and clarity. One way she achieves this dimensionality is by having her characters (often first-person narrators) think or speak (or, occasionally, write) in a way that reveals the shapes of their thought processes. The result is a sort of stream-of-consciousness discourse that can range from barely-conscious, extremely private "thoughts" or feelings through relatively public statements, as in the notes to the Virgin in "Little Miracles, Kept Promises." And one of the characteristics of such discourse is that even when it sets out to tell a linear narrative, other thoughts and feelings intervene to reshape the straight line into loops and disjunctive digressions. Because this is how most people seem to think unless they are deliberately using linear logic, we are invited to find the character's thought processes familiar and to identify with them.

Further, the shape of a character's thought processes helps to define her or him as an individual. Inés, in "Eyes of Zapata," sees herself as a witch in the form of an owl, circling all night around her life, outside any linear perception of time; Clemencia, in "Never Marry a Mexican," seems to be almost literally living in the past as well as the present as she too "circles" in time, addressing sometimes her ex-lover and sometimes his son; the speaker in "Los Boxers" tells us less about his loneliness in what he says than in the indirect way he says it. The rejection of linear form in favor of a more relaxed discourse is especially important in characterizing Esperanza of The House on Mango Street, for it creates an ironic tension between the narrator's idiosyncratic ordering and emphases and the reader's reception of her narrative, which in turn allows the reader to learn who the character is "as a person" in much the same way we learn to "know" actual people with whose thought processes we become familiar.

If the shape and direction of discourse is one way of discovering character, another is diction, including the images and figures of speech that distinguish a person's language. It is clear that Sandra Cisneros has a gift for colorful, imaginative language, but if we look closely at her fiction, we find that she uses different kinds of image and figure (or sometimes their absence) to portray different characters. The speaker of "One Holy Night," for example, uses similes and other figures sparely, and not at all in connection with everyday matters, but those she does use are rich in images that are both arcane and mystic, suggestive of the ancient mythos into which she says Boy Baby initiated her: She wanted her virginity to "come undone like gold thread, like a tent full of birds"; her lover's words are "like broken clay, . . . hollow sticks, . . . the swish of old feathers crumbling into dust." In contrast, the tough-talking speaker of "My Tocaya" uses two figurative expressions in her story: the thought that Max Lucas Luna might suddenly appear "makes [her] blood laugh," and the "ass" of said young man is "wrapped up neat and sweet like a Hershey bar." Nothing could make plainer the difference between these two girls, the first simple but otherworldly, the second conventional and mundane.

Speakers like the middle-aged woman in "Anguiano Religious Articles" and the elderly man in "Los Boxers" use no real figures of speech at all, as if their tiredness, or perhaps their long practice of conventionality, had depleted them of the gift of metaphor. On the other hand, "Rogelio Velasco" (a.k.a. Flavio Munguía) in "Tin Tan Tan" uses one tired, trite, and generally badly mixed metaphor after another, so awkwardly that they are unintentionally funny ("now that you have yanked my golden dreams from me, I shiver from this chalice of pain like a tender white flower tossed in rain"); when he ventures to coin his own figure, this poet with a tin ear unfortunately decides to allude to the circumstances under which he and his Lupe met: "Perhaps I can exterminate the pests of doubt . . . ."

Finally, Cisneros characters who are really imaginative artists use a language that is original, unique to each as an individual, and pleasingly concrete. For example, Chayo, of "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," uses metaphor to color a catalog of specific images: "Silk roses, plastic roses . . . Caramel-skinned woman in a white graduation cap and gown . . . Teenager with a little bit of herself sitting on her lap . . . ." She says her cut-off braid is "the color of coffee in a glass" and compares it to "the donkey tail in a birthday game"; her figures are complex, concrete, and unforced. Clemencia, in "Never Marry a Mexican," uses perhaps fewer figures (and fewer original ones) than the other artist-characters, and this may be because she is bitter and unhappy; her emotions may deplete her creative imagination. Still when she does speak figuratively, her language can be intensely original, as when she describes her relationship to her mother after her father's death by comparing it wrenchingly to a pet bird's injured leg, which eventually dried up and fell off. The bird "was fine, really," she concludes, her brisk assessment in painful contrast to her description of the injury. And, in contrast to Clemencia, Lupe of "Bien Pretty" uses a wide range of figurative imagery, from her mock-horrific description of the cockroaches' "cannibal rites" to her metaphors for the Spanish language ("That sweep of palm leaves and fringed shawls. That startled fluttering, like the heart of a goldfinch . . . ") that recall "Ixchel's" myth-like utterances.

Like Chayo's figures, but more playful and less grown-up, are those we find on practically every page of The House on Mango Street. Esperanza talks of cats "asleep like donuts," a big, clumsy dog "like a man dressed in a dog suit," hips on a maturing girl "ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition," two little black dogs "that leap and somersault like an apostrophe and comma." Her figures are more frequent and colorful when she is happy, fewer and farther between when she is not. And, appropriately, Esperanza's figures of speech, even when they are so wildly far-fetched as to be almost conceits (a Cadillac's smashed "nose" is "pleated like an alligator's"), are almost always similes, the simplest, least "mature," form of metaphor.

Thus form, in Cisneros' fiction, seems to exist primarily not for its own sake, nor to further any theoretical or political program, but for the very respectable purpose of advancing the sketches and portraits of that fiction's characters. Both in the non-linear shapes of the pieces and in the language of the characters themselves, form is here a means to the end of making these human sketches and portraits come to life.

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