Eleven by Sandra Cisneros: Summary, Theme & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Summary
  • 2:45 Major Themes
  • 5:16 Author's Craft
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Andrews
Learn what the narrator (Rachel) of Sandra Cisneros' short story 'Eleven' thinks about growing up and authority, then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Summary

All children feel at one time or another that life is unfair, and often, it's because of adults. The award-winning Mexican-American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist Sandra Cisneros captures this in her celebrated short story 'Eleven,' which deals with universal childhood frustration with adults. Originally published in 1991, 'Eleven' is a popular staple on literature syllabi across America for its charm, universality, and rich language.

Cisneros introduces readers to our young narrator through the girl's thoughtful contemplation of aging and birthdays. On her eleventh birthday, Rachel observes that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday, you expect to feel eleven, but you don't.

Following her observations, our narrator laments being eleven. If she were older, she believes, she would have been better able to avoid the event that single-handedly ruined her eleventh birthday: her teacher wrongfully accusing her of owning an ugly red sweater.

Rachel describes how Mrs. Price, her teacher, questioned the class about who left the red sweater in the cloakroom for months. According to our narrator, the sweater is ugly, which is probably why nobody would claim it.

Sylvia Saldivar, the quintessentially annoying classmate, suggested that the sweater belonged to Rachel. Mrs. Price immediately agreed. Flustered, Rachel tried to explain that the sweater wasn't hers, but couldn't manage a proper response. 'That's not, I don't, you're not...Not mine, I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.'

Mrs. Price dismissed Rachel's denial, placing the sweater on Rachel's desk, and even more maddeningly, claimed that she remembered Rachel wearing it. Rachel, powerless against her teacher's claim, attempted to physically distance herself from the sweater, scooting it over to the very corner of her desk. This small act of defiance irritated Mrs. Price, who insisted that Rachel wear the sweater. Rachel obeyed, but burst into tears, weeping into her own arms as she released the built up frustration.

Before lunch, Phyllis Lopez remembered the sweater was actually hers. Rachel returned it, noticing that Mrs. Price 'pretends like everything is okay.' Rachel muses that though she will celebrate with a cake, and her family will wish her a 'happy birthday,' it's already too late for her to have a happy birthday. She ultimately wishes she were older, because in her mind, being older would mean escape.

Major Themes

Let's take a look at some major themes of 'Eleven.' One major theme of this story is coming of age.

Cisneros opens the short story with our narrator's astute observations on aging. Rachel has already noticed that birthdays are symbolic, but do not literally represent emotional evolution. Rachel has noticed that her mother cries and gently reminds readers that it's okay for adults to cry. She is aware that human beings can feel different levels of vulnerability at all ages.

However, even though Rachel seems to know that people can 'feel three' even as adults, she also seems to hope that as she becomes older, she will become more powerful and better able to avoid negative emotions, either by defending herself more articulately or by physically distancing herself. For children especially, birthdays are often characterized by happiness, gifts, and surprises. Rachel's eleventh birthday does not meet these expectations, causing disappointment, which often marks adulthood. Cisneros captures the raw emotion and angst that adolescents feel in the face of injustice, the sting of disappointment, and the uncertainty of navigating the adolescent years.

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