By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Eleven’ is a short story by the American writer Sandra Cisneros (born 1954). In the story, a girl’s eleventh birthday is ruined when her teacher forces her to take responsibility for somebody else’s sweater. The narrator bursts into tears in front of her classmates and laments the fact that she isn’t older. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Eleven’: plot summary
The narrator of the story is Rachel, a girl celebrating her eleventh birthday. She says that when you turn eleven, you are still all your previous ages underneath, like an onion or a collection of Russian dolls: so when an eleven-year-old gets scared and goes to sit on her mother’s lap, she is reverting to her five-year-old self – who is still there, below her eleven-year-old surface.
Rachel recounts how on the day of her eleventh birthday, her schoolteacher, Mrs Price, came into class with an ugly red sweater which had been in the coatroom for some time. She asks whose it is, but nobody claims it. A girl name Sylvia, who Rachel suspects doesn’t like her, lies and tells Mrs Price that the sweater belongs to Rachel, and so the teacher gives the sweater to Rachel, who denies it, but Mrs Price doesn’t believe her.
The sweater sits on Rachel’s desk, and she tries to distance herself from the ugly sweater. But when the lesson comes to an end and Mrs Price sees Rachel trying to leave the sweater behind, she forces her to put it on, and Rachel does so, bursting into tears in front of the whole class.
Another girl, Phyllis, remembers the sweater is hers, and Rachel takes it off and hands it to her. But her birthday has already been ruined by the incident with the sweater, and she wants to forget it as quickly as possible.
Cisneros’ short story is about growing up, with her young narrator offering a precociously wise perspective on the arbitrary nature of birthdays. As Rachel observes, when we turn eleven, we don’t become a new person overnight.
And to an extent, we continue to carry around a memory of our younger selves at all times: at one point, Rachel tells us that she points out to her mother, whenever ‘Mama’ feels like crying, that she is becoming her three-year-old self again.
The incident with the ugly red sweater, which is the most important symbol in ‘Eleven’, proves Rachel’s observation correct. The unhappy encroachment of this foreign body into her happy day is all it takes to reduce her to her three-year-old self, with her ‘little animal noises’ and ‘spit’ coming out of her mouth recalling infancy and toddler tantrums rather than the more mature behaviour of the average eleven-year-old.
But the symbolism of the red sweater is more interesting than this suggests. It is at once a catalyst for sending Rachel back into her former three-year-old state and a symbol of coming-of-age, a kind of scarlet reminder of sin and corruption which quickly intrudes on the innocent paradise of childhood and leads us, to borrow William Blake’s terms, to exchange innocence for experience.
Nothing is quite the same after that. Rachel’s eleventh birthday will prove to be an important and memorable day in her development, but not for the reasons she was expecting.
And this is why the colour of the sweater matters so much. Red suggests corruption and sin, and perhaps even (given the bodily connotations of the garment) flesh, blood, and the onset of adolescence which will mark Rachel’s ensuing birthdays.
It is telling that she focuses on the ‘itchy’ nature of the sweater and the ‘germs’ within it as she is forced to put it on: against her will, her body is invaded by foreign elements which make her feel dirty and even violated. (In this connection, even the word for the garment, sweater, takes on a more disgusting significance.)
It is also significant that Rachel likens the sweater, with its stretched-out arms (outstretched as if for an unwanted hug? it will, after all, offer a grim parody of an embrace when she is forced to don it), to a ‘jump-rope’. Here the childhood connotations of play and games (skipping in a carefree manner) collides with the darker associations of ‘rope’, as a tool for restraint and control.
And this, of course, is also relevant given the portrayal of the teacher-pupil relationship in ‘Eleven’. Mrs Price, whose very name suggests punishment as well as cold materialism (paying the price for one’s actions, but also knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing?), asserts her power over Rachel by forcing her to claim the sweater, even after Rachel has stated that it isn’t hers.
She is merely keen to get rid of a sweaty old garment that has been in her coatroom for too long, and is willing to pass it on to Rachel, even though she knows it doesn’t belong to her. Rachel is growing up but she is still under the control of the adults in her life.
In this connection, even the subject of the class in which this incident takes place takes on significance: it is in the maths class, dominated not by creativity or artistic expression but cold, hard equations and graphs. The regimented nature of the school day (that school bell) is reinforced by the joyless and constrained nature of the class in which Rachel is made to share her desk with the red abomination that is the sweater.