This essay defines the problem of bildungsroman hermeneutics for literary criticism and social policy in the post–civil rights era. Examining critical responses to Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, it argues that the traditional bildungsroman exerts a powerful hold on interpretations of minority mobility. Bildungsroman hermeneutics understands social relations as organized around individual development. This model undermines the collective politics many critics sense in Cisneros’s text and obscures her revisions of the genre. Furthermore, bildungsroman hermeneutics intersects with neoconservative arguments that helped to roll back civil rights reforms and stymie government interventions. To address the inequalities enduring after civil rights we must circumvent an individual-centered template that has shaped plots of narrative and social change. Part of a broader effort to decenter the bildungsroman (including the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and Gloria Naylor), Cisneros’s text can help us do so, if we can learn to read it otherwise.

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