3. The Society versus the Self: Holden’s and Esperanza’s Coming of Age 12
3.1 Attitudes to Gender Roles and Stereotypes 12
3.2 Socio-economic Status 16 x x
3.3 Relationships with Parents and Siblings 20
3.4 Friends, Peers, Role Models 24 x
3.5 Perception of Love and Sex 29
3.6 Motives of Quest and Escape 33 33
4. Conclusion 37
Works Cited 39
This thesis examines and compares The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by Jerome David Salinger and The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros. On the first sight, these two pieces of literature seem utterly different: The Catcher in the Rye, set in the late forties, is a story told by Holden Caulfield, a depressed, alienated 16-year-old boy of upper-middle-class origin who strongly disapproves of the world around him and desperately tries to escape the falsity and arrogance that surrounds him.
The House on Mango Street, which is often considered a feminist novel (Saldívar-Hull 87; Wissman 159; Daniels 127), is a collection of poetic short stories about a Mexican American girl, Esperanza Cordero, who is growing up in the suburbs of Chicago during the early sixties. Yet, this analysis suggests that these two novels share a number of common features and that the experience of the main characters is not as different as it appears. Both Holden and Esperanza challenge their gender roles; they unsuccessfully seek guidance within their peer group or family; both plan to run away or at least long to be alone. Another view that they share is the opinion on class division and human relationships, especially their perception of love, sex and death. Even though there are significant differences between the main characters, such as gender and social and ethnic background, the thesis argues that both Holden and Esperanza have quite similar experience of “growing up” and that factors such as their gender or society in which they live do not make a considerable difference between their perception of adolescence.
In the first part of this thesis, I try to find out whether these two novels can be somehow linked with each other through the features of Bildungsroman that they both contain. Especially the position of The Catcher in the Rye within the genre of Bildungsroman is often challenged. The first section deals with the question whether Holden and Esperanza should be approached as Bildungsroman characters and to what extent their development embraces the traditional conception of Bildungsroman.
The work then goes on to compare Holden’s perception of his life and Esperanza’s view of her life and analyse the similarities and differences in their behaviour and attitudes. The first theme that is examined is gender roles, stereotypes connected to them and the characters’ opposition to them. Then, the thesis focuses on the socio-economic status of Holden and Esperanza and shows that even though the characters come from strikingly different surroundings, neither of them is comfortable with their position within the class structure. Next discussed theme is the relationships between the characters and their parents and siblings, for the family members are important for both Holden and Esperanza, even though the reasons and manifestations of their importance are different. Then, the focus moves to the presence of friends and potential role models and their usefulness to the main characters. Following theme is Holden’s and Esperanza’s perceptions of love, sex and death. The work interprets
the ways in which the two young people experience their first romantic encounters, their view on the matters of sex and also how Holden and Esperanza cope with death. This subsection also shows that these three themes are interconnected for both Holden and Esperanza. The final part of the chapter is focused on the motives of quest and escape, which resonate quite strongly through both novels.
The aim of the analysis is to demonstrate that the perception of
the adolescent life of Holden and Esperanza and the strategies they use in order to cope with their problems do not considerably differ despite the substantial differences between the lives of the two characters.
2. Bildungsroman and Its Traces in the Works of Salinger and Cisneros
Both The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street are often classified as “Bildungsromans” or “coming-of-age novels”. This chapter examines
the meaning of these terms and tries to find out whether these novels fulfil
the conditions of this genre.
Bildungsroman, a German word meaning a “formation novel”, is usually defined as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character” (“Bildungsroman,” def. 1) or as “a novel describing the passage of an adolescent into adulthood” (Iversen 22). However, literary scholars still struggle to agree on “[h]ow
the term should be defined, whether such a genre in fact exists, and where, and whether or not it is still being written” (Iversen 9). Tobias Boes describes the controversy as “genre wars”:
“The term is sometimes – especially within English departments – used so broadly that seemingly any novel ... might be subsumed by it. Specialists of German literature, on the other hand, have shown an almost masochistic glee in decimating their own canon, on occasion disqualifying even such seemingly incontestable examples [of Bildungsroman] as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship from its ranks” (230).
This Goethe’s novel that was published in 1796 is usually considered to be one of
the first Bildungsroman ever written and an undisputed classic of the genre. However, the genre does not end with the nineteenth century which is generally considered
the golden age of Bildungsroman, with canonical texts such as The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce or The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Boes 231). After World War II, and especially after “the rise of feminist, post-colonial and minority studies” in the sixties (Boes 231), the Bildungsroman was considerably transformed and its definition was quite broadened. According to Boes, this shift in the perception of Bildungsroman can be seen in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, in which they show how a female perspective in the works by Kate Chopin, George Eliot and other female authors have been excluded from the Bildugsroman genre by literary scholars, even though they most definitely belong to the tradition of coming-of-age novels (Boes 234). As Boes points out, “this anthology is perhaps the first major scholarly work on
the Bildungsroman to privilege the twentieth over the nineteenth century, devoting two thirds of its pages to case studies of modernist and contemporary texts, including works by Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys, and Clarice Lispector” (234). The Voyage In also ushered in the shift of the themes of the Bildungsroman; the formation is still
the most important topic of coming-of-age novels, but, at the same time, most Bildungsromans written after 1980 belong to feminist, minority or post-colonial writing, which is quite contrary to the Bildungsroman as it was perceived until the first half of the twentieth century. Esther Labovitz explains this change of the Bildungsroman genre with the shift within the society:
When cultural and social structures appeared to support women’s struggle for independence, to go out into the world, engage in careers, in self-discovery and fulfilment, the heroine in fiction began to reflect these changes. Further, new areas of study about the “concerns and experience of women” were first required to remedy the gap in knowledge about the female youth, about concepts of womanhood and adulthood. (7)
It is highly plausible that, just as the widespread independence of women helped to establish the female Bildungsroman, the liberation of colonies and the struggle for human rights were among the causes of the widespread use of the ethnic variety of Bildungsroman. The focus on minority themes brings another variation in the traditional features of coming-of-age novels. As Maria Helena Lima argues in her analysis of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, “while the traditional Bildungsroman requires a constructed harmony between external and internal factor, to provide, according to Franco Moretti, ‘a homeland to the individual’, Kincaid’s novel of development exposes
the impossibility of such a fictional harmony” (860). This change in determining what the Bildungsroman is and what it is not, which happened in the course of the last century, is very important for the analysis of both The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street, for at the end of these two novels, the main characters come to an understanding that the harmony they believed in and looked for in their world is indeed impossible. The traditional Bildungsroman hero or heroine comes to terms with the world around him or her at the end of his or her story; nevertheless, as has been stated above, both The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street are usually considered as coming-of-age novels. In the following sections, I will discuss
the features of the Bildungsroman that can be identified in these two books.
2.1 The Catcher in the Rye
In their influential study “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff”, Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr. claim that “The Catcher in the Rye belongs to
an ancient and honourable narrative tradition, perhaps the most profound in western fiction [...] This, of course, is the tradition of the Quest” (129). While the authors distinguish between two types of quest, they also suggest that “Holden seems to be engaged in both sorts of quests at once: he needs to go home and he needs to leave it [...] his tragedy is that he has nowhere to go” (130). Holden wants to leave the corrupt and “phony” world he lives in, but at the same time he longs for a non-existent world full of love, which is, sadly, nowhere to be found. It is therefore a question whether The Catcher in the Rye can be categorized as a Bildungsroman or not. While the motif of
the quest is undoubtedly an important feature of almost any coming-of-age novel,
the absence of the final destination of Holden’s quest certainly does not belong to
the traditional Bildungsroman features. A study conducted by Anniken Iversen shows that there is very little of the traditional coming-of-age novel in the Catcher in the Rye.
Iversen has constructed the so-called Bildungsroman Index (BRI), which she uses to assess the extent to which various works of literature share their features with an ideal coming-of-age novel. The analysed books were given a certain number of points for each of the 96 features of the Bildungsroman Index (Iversen 54). BRI features are divided into nine sections: first, Iversen analyses the narrative perspective and mode; then, she focuses on the characterization of the protagonist; the third feature of the BRI is the characterization and function of secondary characters; the fourth feature consists of story elements affecting protagonist; the fifth one encompasses story elements affecting secondary characters; the sixth feature of the BRI is the setting of
the novel, while the seventh feature deals with its plot and structure; the eighth feature evaluates the so-called generic signals, and, finally, the last section of the BRI examines the themes and motifs (Iversen 55-63). Theoretically, a novel can gain 0-146 points.
In this scheme, The Catcher in the Rye scores 57 points, the smallest number of points from all the analysed novels (Iversen 80, Table 17). Iversen claims that it therefore should be “better viewed as a reaction to the Bildungsroman than as part of the tradition” (231). Iversen acknowledges that there are characters and situations in the story that can resonate with the Bildungsroman’s traditional features, nevertheless, they “fail to do so” (235). Probably the most important feature that differs The Catcher in the Rye from coming-of-age novels as Iversen understands them is the lack
of positive personal impact of the quest on the hero: “although Holden moves about in the world and has various experiences, these are negative, if not ironic, versions of what we find in [the traditional Bildungsroman]” (236). These experiences logically result in Holden not finding his place in the society, what would be a traditional ending of
the Bildungsroman. In addition, Iversen points out that
[f]or readers siding with Holden against society, accommodation – finding one’s place in society – would be a disappointment, or even a betrayal of
the values of the novel. ... If Holden was to find his place in or adapt to such
a society, it would be the equivalent of moral suicide. (238)
According to the BRI, The Catcher in the Rye cannot therefore be seen as a case of the traditional Bildungsroman. Nevertheless, the novel has some themes in common with the Bildungsroman and is often claimed to be the prominent exemplar of the American coming-of-age novel by such authors as Karen Tolchin, who claims that the novel has
a “preeminent stature among American Bildungsromane” and that “critics and instructors routinely take the novel as the example par excellence of the American coming-of-age novel” (40). Another literary scholar who argues that The Catcher in the Rye is undoubtedly a Bildungsroman is Kenneth Millard, who uses the novel as
an example of Bildungsroman in his book Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction (5). Perhaps the most conclusive argument for including The Catcher in the Rye among formation novels is the definition of Bildungsroman used in Jerome HamiltonamH Buckley’s influential work Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Buckley states that Bildungsroman is a novel that contains themes such as “childhood, the conflict of generations, provinciality, the larger society, self-education, alienation, ordeal by love, the search for a vocation and a working philosophy” (18).It is clear that all these themes can be found in The Catcher in the Rye and the novel can therefore be seen as a part of Bildungsroman genre, even though it may not satisfy all the criteria of a stricter definition of Bildungsroman, such as the one informing the BRI.
2.2 The House on Mango Street
The House on Mango Street is in quite a similar position as The Catcher in the Rye. Cisneros’s book is often classified as Bildungsroman; for example, Julián Olivares claims that “The House on Mango Street is a book about growing up, what critics call a Bildungsroman” (209). Yet, Olivares defines Bildungsroman quite differently from Iversen cited above; while Iversen’s definition is based on European traditionalist view of the genre, Olivares defines the contemporary, post-1960’s American Bildungsroman, in the following way:
[the] genre is cultivated commonly in the United States by emerging writers, often first- or second-generation immigrants, and especially within literatures emerging around the periphery of a dominant society. It offers
the advantage of a first-person narration that becomes the basis for the expression of subjectivity; the protagonist relates his or her experiences in the growth from childhood to maturity, the latter determined by the dialectic with culture and society. The often simplistic or naive narration proper to
a child's perspective is conducive to an innocent but critical view of society and, in the case of Mango Street, to the formation of a counterdiscourse. (209)
Olivares therefore takes into account very few features that are traditionally used to distinguish the Bildungsroman from other genres. Unlike Iversen, Olivares does not mention any secondary characters important for the Bildungsroman. Maria Karafilis also argues that The House on Mango Streetis a novel of formation, yet she distinguishes between the traditional Bildungsroman (as defined, for example, by Iversen) and the modified Bildungsroman, which is written mainly by female and/or minority writers: “Many women writers of colour, both ethnic American and postcolonial, use the Bildungsroman precisely to ‘affirm and assert’ the complex subjectivities of their characters and, by extension, themselves. Such writers have adopted and radically revised the classical Bildungsroman to suit their purposes of narrating the development of a personal identity and sense of self” (63-64). Moreover, Karafilis claims that “while appropriating and revising many elements of the classical Bildungsroman, The House on Mango Street ultimately traces the satisfying development of a young woman who not only matures but also attains harmony and
a greater appreciation and understanding of her surrounding society” (65). Karafilis argues that in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros modifies three important features of Bildungsroman: she shifts the focus from an individual to community, the story is not traditionally linear but fragmented and she criticizes the values and goals of majority American society that tolerates and empowers the exclusion of those less privileged – non-white and poor people (66).
Indeed, the individualism of traditional Bildungsromans is replaced by
a more communal sense of the main character’s coming of age in Cisneros’ novel. Even though the readers can see that Esperanza is growing up and changing in the course of the novel, the majority of the stories of which is the book is composed is not about Esperanza, but about her friends, family, and other people from the Mango Street and its surroundings. Karafilis points out that even the vignettes whose names signify that they will be primarily about Esperanza, such as “My Name”, tell the story of someone else – in the case of “My Name”, it is Esperanza’s grandmother. Yet Esperanza learns from this story and the experience forms her in some way (Karafilis 66).
Esperanza’s story is not told in a linear fashion, as it is usual for traditional coming-of-age novels. Instead, it is arranged as a set of short stories or “vignettes”, as Cisneros herself calls them (“The Softly Insistent” 14-15). The vignettes are not linked together; they can be read individually or all at once. Cisneros explains the structure of her book with these words: “I wanted to write a series of stories that you could open up at any point. You didn’t have to know anything before or after and you would understand each story like a little pearl, or you could look at the whole thing like
a necklace” (qtd. in Jusawalla and Dasenbrock 305).
The reasons why The House on Mango Street consists of these vignettes can be multiple: they help achieve the simplicity of language that gives the impression that the book is indeed narrated by a child. However, as Stella Bolaki points out, this is not the only purpose the vignettes serve: “the function of such technique is not merely to imitate the voice of a child but also to turn the text into a matrix of constant crossings” (104). These “constant crossings” illustrate the growing up of a Chicana girl in patriarchal white society and many influences from various (mostly female) role models.
Another important aspect in which The House on Mango Street differs from traditional Bildungsromans is the ending. A traditional hero or heroine of a coming-of-age novel usually ends up leaving his or her original surroundings and finding a place in the new environment. According to Franco Moretti, the traditional Bildungsroman ends when “as ‘a free individual,’ not as a fearful subject but as a convinced citizen, one perceives the social norms as one’s own” (16). These statements about
the Bildungsroman ending are only partly true for the heroine of the book, Esperanza. She realises that even if she leaves her community, she always has to “come back” (Cisneros, Mango Street 105), for the Mango Street lives within her. Esperanza therefore cannot find herself by fleeing from her Chicano neighbourhood, and she is therefore in a similar position to Holden’s in The Catcher in the Rye, who cannot ease his pain by escaping New York and his family. It is of course questionable whether this is a voluntary decision or if Esperanza is forced to abandon the possibility of her escape by circumstances and whether she starts to perceive the social norms as her own, as
a heroine of the traditional Bildungsroman should. It is unlikely that by staying in the Mango Street Esperanza abandons everything she has learned in the course of the novel. By her final understanding that she always has to come back, Esperanza shows that
the tradition of the “American dream” which encompasses the freedom of movement is not only impossible for her, but also dangerous for her community.
3. The Society versus the Self: Holden’s and Esperanza’s Coming of Age
As has been stated above, The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street differ in many aspects. Among the most visible differences are the structure of the books and language that is used in them; the characters do not share their gender,
the area they live in, their socio-economic status, or their ethnicity. Moreover, considerable differences can be found in the relationships the main protagonists have with their parents and siblings, in their attitude towards their friends and peers and also in the role models they choose and/or reject in the course of the book. However, even though the differences listed above are undisputable, the influence they have on
the protagonists’ behaviour is not so unambiguous. This chapter focuses on
the differences between the protagonists of The Catcher in the Rye and The House on Mango Street and examine the impact of these differences on the characters’ behaviour and opinions.
3.1 Attitudes to Gender Roles and Stereotypes
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 the 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 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, Holden’s 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 Holden’s need of human contact and love (the subject of love and loneliness will be analysed 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 “sort of depressing” (Salinger 123). Moreover, Clive Baldwin points out that “while [Holden] watches and judges the young women, he is in fact identified with them: he too is sitting and waiting for his date, just as they are“ (110). Therefore, even though some of his claims seem to be sexist, he shows that he can not only identify with women, but he perhaps inclines towards femininity rather than masculinity: “while Holden may appear to hold conventional attitudes to women, his identification with the feminine expresses an ambivalent attitude to the dominant model of masculinity” (Baldwin 110). This Baldwin’s argument is supported by Holden’s opinions and actions considering traditional manifestations of masculinity – aggressiveness and sexual activity.
As far as aggressive behaviour is concerned, Holden, that got into a fight only twice in his life and lost both those fights, considers himself “a pacifist” (Salinger 46) He 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 Stradlater had sex with Holden’s 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 an extremely 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 you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl ... she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it” (Salinger 92). That is another example of Holden’s 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.
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 Esperanza’s mother) or to her husband (like Esperanza’s friend Sally).
Esperanza is very well aware of what it means to be a woman in her culture; she herself claims that “the Mexicans don’t 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 Esperanza’s grandfather. Her mother, her friends, her neighbours – they are all forced to abandon their own dreams and ambitions in order 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 favour 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). Esperanza also wants to be powerful; she has decided “not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain” (88). Because she sees herself as ugly, she finds her own 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). As Maria Szadziuk puts it, “the awareness that [Esperanza] does not fit the culture's feminine standards is related to her conscious appropriation of the ‘masculine’ models of behaviour” (116).
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.