Setting, Identity and Theme in Hemingway and Cisneros

It is surely not an accident that Ernest Hemingway chose to title his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and that Sandra Cisneros chose to title her novel The House on Mango Street.   Judging by the spare, terse prose that marks both these literary works, it is safe to assume that both writers chose their titles at least as carefully if not more carefully than they chose any other words.   A comparison of titles leads one to another assumption: a central theme of both the short story and the novel will be the importance of place, and the descriptions of those places serve to locate that importance as it relates to the identity of the characters.

Both Hemingway and Cisneros employ a deceptively simple writing style to tell a deeper story of the search for identity through a connection to a place.  Hemingway apply exercises an approach that relies mostly on dialogue to move the story forward.  In this way the enclosed atmosphere of the café and the closed futures of the characters are expressed in a literary method that almost feels like listening to a play staged on a bare stage with very few characters.  Cisneros also utilizes feelings of constriction to isolate her characters despite the obvious difference in length between the two works.  By writing in the form of small vignettes that are almost short stories in themselves, Cisneros places her much larger cast of characters firmly within the geographical boundaries of a barrio, and the utter lack of space felt by these characters as they struggle within these confines is expressed by the constricted structure of the writing itself.

Hemingway and Cisneros both ground the importance of their setting in outlining their themes directly in their choice of title.  What is important in Hemingway’s story isn’t so much the events that take place in the café as the fact that the café is both clean and well-lighted.  That the description is integral to the theme is expressed often and sometimes overtly over the course of the story, especially in the last paragraph.   Cisneros gives added emphasis to the association between Esperanza’s identity and the setting of the novel through her decision of the title.   While Hemingway’s character doesn’t want to leave the clean, well-lighted café because it means going back home to the darkness of the identity he has wasted a lifetime creating, Esperanza associates the house on Mango street with her struggle to escape and forge a new identity for herself as a writer.

Interestingly, both writers chose titles which can be read as ironic reflections of the main characters.  Hemingway’s story, though significantly shorter and peopled by characters with far less artistic ability, is titled more descriptively and creatively.  A sense of what the setting of the story actually looks like can be felt more acutely from Hemingway’s title than from Cisneros’.   In the novel, Esperanza possesses keen powers of observation of even the most minute detail, yet the mundane, non-descriptive title given her story in no way reflects this ability.   Both titles, therefore, can be seen as directly ironic observations by the authors on the how the settings of their stories can impact the intellectual development of the characters.  A café, after all, has traditionally been seen as a place where people go for good conversation, while a simple house in a ghetto rarely gets granted the same benefit of a doubt.

Both Ernest Hemingway and Sandra Cisnero telegraph a major theme of their literary works through the choice of title.   Using different methods, both authors craft stories using unadorned prose in order to construct thematic examinations of the effect of setting on a identity.   The structures of both “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and The House on Mango Street serve to reinforce the thematic claustrophobia of the locales of both stories.

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