‘What Sally Said’ is a short story or vignette from Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 novel The House on Mango Street. Cisneros, born in 1954, is a Mexican-American author whose fiction and poetry often reflect the lives of Latin-American communities, especially children, in the United States. The narrator of the novel is Esperanza Cordero, a 12-year-old Chicana (Mexican-American) girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago.
In ‘What Sally Said’, Esperanza tells us about her schoolfriend, Sally, who is repeatedly beaten by her father.
‘What Sally Said’: summary
The story opens with a sentence spoken by Sally, although Cisneros does not place it in quotation marks. Sally claims that her father never hits her hard when he beats her, and her mother rubs lard on the parts of her body that hurt from the beating she has received. At school, Sally will tell everyone she fell and that’s how she sustained her bruises and why her skin is always scarred.
The narrator, Esperanza (who is the narrator of The House on Mango Street and who, here, we can deduce is a schoolfriend of Sally’s), says that nobody believes Sally when she claims she fell. Sally is a big girl for her age and the idea that she injured her face falling down the stairs is unbelievable.
Esperanza then tells us that Sally never reveals to her friends at school that her father also hit her with his bare hands one time, as if she were a dog. Sally claims that her father is worried she will run away from the family, as his sisters (Sally’s aunts) did, bringing shame upon the family, so he beats her out of fear that she will do so unless he keeps her in line.
The narrator then tells us that Sally wanted to come and stay with her and her family for a short time. Eventually she turned up one Thursday with a bag full of clothes and some food, but later that evening her father came and begged her come back. It was clear he had been crying.
It seemed as though things had been resolved, but some time after this, Sally’s father saw her talking to a boy, and after that Sally didn’t show up at school for several days. Later, Sally told Esperanza that her father was mad with anger, and seemed to forget she was his daughter when he was in the white heat of his rage and was beating her with his belt. Sally tells her friend that her father kept repeating that she wasn’t his daughter, until he cut his hands with the belt, so hard was he gripping it.
‘What Sally Said’: analysis
Much of the fiction of Sandra Cisneros is as close to poetry as it is to conventional fiction. Indeed, Cisneros has also published several volumes of poetry as well as works of fiction like The House on Mango Street. We might analyse ‘What Sally Said’ as a prose poem rather than a traditional ‘short story’, because the text has little in the way of plot, instead presenting us with a character, whose life is described in a spare but lyrical style.
In ‘What Sally Said’, Esperanza, the story’s narrator, tells Sally’s story on her behalf. This enables Cisneros to reveal the gulf between ‘what Sally said’ and the truth of the matter, which is quite different. This is because Sally has been telling herself comforting untruths about her father’s behaviour because she is unwilling and reluctant to accept the uncomfortable truth.
So Sally tells herself – and Esperanza – that although her father hits her, he never hits her hard. But the bruises and scars on her face tell a different story. There is also a gulf between Sally’s bruised appearance and what she tells the wider circle of pupils and teachers at school: namely, that she simply fell down some stairs and that is how she sustained such injuries. Even though the version she tells her friend Esperanza is closer to the truth (at least she acknowledges that he does hit her), she is still trying to downplay the extent of the beatings she suffers at his hands.
That repeated phrase, ‘He never hits me hard’, begins the first paragraph of the story and concludes the second, acting like a mantra. But who says the second iteration of this phrase? Is Esperanza still reporting her friend’s line, or is she repeating it – and ironically or sarcastically rejecting it – in her own voice? The lack of quotation marks renders the second appearance of this sentence ambiguous. (Note also how the last word of the first paragraph, ‘scarred’, rhymes with ‘hard’, reinforcing the idea that ‘What Sally Said’, like much of Cisneros’ fiction, is as close to poetry as to conventional fiction.)
The irony of the situation is easier for a detached observer like Sally’s friend, and us as readers, to identify. Sally’s father claims he beats his daughter because he is worried she’ll run away and bring shame upon the family, as his sisters had done. Ironically, his violent behaviour towards his daughter is what is likely to drive her away from the family home, when staying under the same roof becomes unsustainable. Note how she had already gone to stay with Esperanza, and only returned home when her father showed some contrition.
We can also deduce that Sally’s aunts ran away with men (to whom they were not married), and that was the cause of the family’s shame. This is presumably why Sally’s father grows angry and violent when he sees his daughter with a boy. But again, his violent response and inability to contain his emotions are likely to be the factors which drive Sally away from home.
At the same time, the use of repetition – that opening sentence, but also the ‘you’re not my daughter’ line in the story’s final paragraph – reinforce the fact that these beatings are a regular, repeated occurrence. So how likely is it that Sally will ever leave? The vignette ends with us wondering, and the question unanswered.