Essay #1: The House on Mango Street
Guidelines and Topics
Your goal on this and all response papers for our class is to write a well-developed, unified, coherent response in support of a clearly stated argumentative thesis (an overarching claim or assertion). Your paper should be three (3) full pages in length, typed double-spaced, and in a 12-point font with one-inch margins on all sides. You must support all your observations with specific evidence from the text (quoted and cited correctly, according to MLA guidelines) and compelling analysis and interpretation. All papers should also include a Works Cited page. Refer to Gibaldi’s MLA Handbook for properly citing both in-text quotations along with documenting all texts in the Works Cited page.
Semiotics emphasizes the role of sign systems in the construction of reality. We can only see as far as our sign systems allow us to see. What sign systems (social, textual, aesthetic, ideological) construct–or perhaps challenge–a perception of reality in Mango Street (for the reader or for the characters)? You might analyze the extent to which these discursive systems appear to be “natural,” givens, permanent and incontrovertible (rather than material, linguistic, and cultural productions of meaning by which a group or community has come to live and agree to adhere to)?
Valentin Voloshinov once declared: “Whenever a sign is present, ideology is present too.” In other words, sign systems are not neutral; they “help to naturalize and reinforce particular framings of ‘the way things are,’ although the operation of ideology in signifying practices is typically masked” (Daniel Chandler). Select one or two signs in the text that strike you as salient and prominent. What “operations of ideology” are both embedded in and “masked” by these signs? Whose ideology or value system do the signs represent – to what effect?
Daniel Chandler has said, “Many semioticians see their primary task as being to denaturalize signs, texts and codes. Semiotics can thus show ideology at work and demonstrate that ‘reality’ can be challenged.” What sign systems (cultural, historical, ideological, textual) does Cisneros denaturalize, expose as being socio-linguistic productions? To what effect?
Semiotics emphasizes the polysemic nature of the sign: the indefinite horizon of interpretation to which signs are open and endlessly signify. Voloshinov referred to this as the multi-accentuality of the sign. Select any visible sign (something perceptible in the text) and explore its multiple “hidden” significations in the text. Devote ample time to exploring how this sign (whether a word, an image, a phrase, or a formal element of language or genre) functions within a larger field of meaning in the novel. To answer this question fully, develop meaningful rhetoric-stage conclusions about how it stands in relationship to one of the larger (macro) themes presented in the novel. How, in other words, does your sign generate specific meanings in the text?
One of the tenets of semiotics is that individuals are not unconstrained by the system of meanings that envelope them. Stuart Hall says our “systems of signs... speak us as much as we speak in and through them.” “We are … the subjects of our sign systems rather than being simply instrumental ‘users’ who are fully in control of them” (Daniel Chandler) Use Hall’s and Chandler’s assertions as a frame by which to construct your own argument in The House on Mango Street. To what extent (and effect) are characters’ identities formed by “pre-existing repertoires of signs and codes” within the Chicano culture as well as the broader American context?
In both prompts, learning to ask yourself the kinds of how, why, and so what questions we’ve posed in class and then to answer them fully is the process by which you will most successfully accomplish this assignment.