In honor of hispanic heritage month, we would like to review the classic novel, Like Water For Chocolate.
Like Water For Chocolate is a beautiful Mexican novel about a young woman’s struggle within her family. Written by Laura Esquivel, it tells a story about a girl named Tita who is imprisoned by her Mother and by an accursed family tradition that the youngest daughter must take care of her mother until the day she dies. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution, the author utilizes mystical elements and Mexican cooking recipes to tell the story. The heroine Tita is bogged down by her oppressive mother, along with her two sisters Gertrudis and Rosaura. Isolated by her mother, Nacha teaches Tita the ways of the kitchen. Tita also falls in love with Pedro, who wants to marry her. Blocked by Mama Elena, Pedro agrees to marry Rosaura so he can be close to Tita. It is here that Tita learns of Pedro’s true intentions of marriage, and then uses her food as a way of communicating with him. When she cooks Quail in Rose petal sauce, her sister Gertrudis is overcome by the passion in the food, so much that the heat from her body sets the shower on fire, and she runs away with a revolutionary captain. Pedro and Rosaura go on to have a baby boy named Roberto, whom Tita nurses when Rosaura cannot. However, after Mama Elena sends Pedro, Rosaura, and the baby to Texas, the baby soon dies, and Tita temporarily loses her mind. She is nursed back to health by John, a gringo doctor. Tita only returns to the ranch to care for Mama Elena after she is beaten by bandits, who soon dies after Tita’s return. When Pedro and Rosaura return, they soon have a new child named Esperanza. Because she is a girl, meaning she will be forced to bear the tradition enforced on Tita. Gertrudis returns also, with her new husband, as a general in the revolutionary army. She finds that Tita is engaged to John, but might be pregnant with Pedro’s baby. Tita is not, but the event forces her to decide between the John or Pedro. In the end, she chooses to live with Pedro, and after Rosaura’s death, and Esperanza’s wedding, she reunites with Pedro physically and spiritually, with a love that is stronger than any other. One must understand the setting of the book. In early twentieth century Mexico, women were an inferior species, delegated only to tending for others. They were repressed by society’s norms, which is an explanation of the fantastical elements in the story. In the world Tita is growing up in, a happy life of love with Pedro is just a fantasy, much like a quilt that is a kilometer long, or a river of tears. Thus, the women in the story wrestle with this world, each in their own way, looking to their fantasy world, which is almost a total opposite of the world they are currently in, defying even the laws of reality. There is the world of love and proper respect for women, which comes out in fantasy, and the world of order, which Mama Elena dominates. The author repeatedly uses the magical realism in the book to symbolize acquisition of feminist rights and liberties, and of transcendence from one world to another.
To understand the symbolism in the book, one must first understand the culture that the characters are in. The author notes many times in the book about the role women played in Mexican society. The balance of life in a woman’s world consisted between the kitchen and the bedroom, or in other words, food and sex. This shows that marriage was essentially a state of virtual slavery, beginning at birth to the parents, and then passed on to the husband. The book opens up with a Mexican proverb, “To the table or to bed / You must come when you are bid.” (Esquivel, 1). Immediately, the author opens with something that sets the atmosphere that Tita and the other women in Mexican Society are forced into. Women must obey orders like an obedient dog. A woman of the time, “must be in control of life in her house, which means essentially the kitchen and bedroom or food and sex.” (Valdes, 80). This fact is accompanied by the setting, in that the story takes place during the Mexican revolution. At the same time, the female characters are struggling through their own revolution, the symbolic revolution of feminism. This is one of the reasons that Gertrudis joins the revolution, because she is part of a much larger revolution. It is this world that Gertrudis is rebelling against that is devoid of magical realism.
The best sign of transcendence between the two worlds is the part Gertrudis plays in the story. This is the best example of how critic Maria Elena de Valdes says the story works, “at its highest level of representation,” (Valdes, 79). Gertrudis is the illegitimate daughter of Mama Elena and her true love, the Mulatto, whom her society rejected. She is also characterized as having flaming red hair, the color of passion. This characteristic is very unnatural and rare in a Mexican woman. Also, of the two sisters, only Gertrudis experiences any magical realism. It is her passion that sets the shower on fire and gives off a massive cloudy scent of roses from the quail in rose petal sauce. The book says, “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame.” (Esquivel, 54). She follows her passion, and runs off with a captain of the revolution. She winds up working in a brothel, which was socially unacceptable, but a necessity for Gertrudis because her passion needed to be quenched. There is a specific link between these two events, because the magical realism is a sign that Gertrudis has passed through the boundary, into the world that she only thought was a fantasy. As a result, she takes on a new role with her new feminine liberties, and appears more masculine. In an interview, Laura Esquivel comments, “Gertrudis represents the first stage of feminism, breaking away, total sexual liberation, in fact a masculinization. She goes out and becomes part of the revolution. She becomes a general, she participates in the public phase of the revolution,” (Lowenstein, 595). Because of all this, Gertrudis is a pillar of feminism, symbolized by her magical realism.
Rosaura is the opposite of Gertrudis, and devoid of magical realism. Rosaura follows in her mother’s foot steps, continuing the traditions that Mama Elena enforced on Tita. She even adopts Mama Elena’s hypocrisy and concern for outward appearances. After she learns that the love between Tita and Pedro is still strong, she makes a pact with them to keep Tita in the house if Pedro will not leave her. In return, she will be in charge of Esperanza’s education, and the tradition will remain. After Mama Elena’s death, Rosaura becomes a second Mama Elena. It is also an interesting irony that between the two sisters, Gertrudis is the one who spends time in a brothel, when realistically Rosaura is the biggest whore of them all. She marries Pedro with no concern for Tita’s feelings, because she is a pawn in Mama Elena’s world, and like any woman in that society, has no mind for herself. “Rosaura never questions her mother’s authority and follows her dictates submissively; after she is married she becomes an insignificant imitation of her mother. She lacks the strength, skill, and determination of Mama Elena and tries to compensate by appealing to the mother’s model as absolute.” (Valdes, 80). As a result of all this, Rosaura is caught in Mama Elena’s world of order, which is a vicious, angry cycle. She cannot experience the new world that Tita and Gertrudis know, because she is not enlightened. She does not experience any of the magical realism, only flatulence.
Later in the book, Tita is torn between John and Pedro, and one can see that the two men in her life are representations of Tita’s two worlds. John and Pedro are used as conflicting motivations for Tita, whether she should follow her heart or her head. John is a well-educated doctor, and represents the world that Tita was brought up in, the intelligent well-established man that society says Tita should marry. However, her marriage to John is just not right. She respects him because he brought her back from insanity, and she does love him, but she is in not in love with him. Pedro represents the raw passion and fantasy world of feminism, and what Laura Esquivel refers to as the ideal man. In an interview, Esquivel says that as a young feminist, she thought that, “a new Man, with a capitol M was going to emerge from the world. But, of course, now we’re living in disillusionment because we’re realizing that this didn’t happen. … We wanted a new man who would value things differently, who would value life, who would value every act in the home.” (Lowenstein, 602). Tita wants a man who loves her for what she is, and will treat her with respect. Pedro is this fantasy man. One can see he is a fantasy man, because of what Laura Esquivel says about her own past, thus adding to Pedro’s own magical realism. Pedro follows only his passion, as is shown when he agrees to marry Rosaura merely so he can be close to Tita. This is because he follows only his passion and does not think things through. One item that shows the passion that engulfs Pedro and Tita is when the author writes, “In a few moments’ time, Pedro had transformed Tita’s breasts from chaste to experienced flesh, without even touching them.” (Esquivel, 67). It is with Pedro that Tita experiences the bright tunnel, and it is only he who ignites her box of matches. It is also with Pedro that she becomes a mother. When Rosaura cannot nurse Roberto, “Tita finds milk flowing from her own breasts to feed the child. Pedro enters the room and stands over the woman who should have been his wife and the child that should have been his child.” (Dobrian, 61). Tita has never had a child, yet she produces breast milk, which is an occurrence nothing short of a miracle. Even, the names of the characters are used to illustrate a point. Pedro is a common Mexican name, whereas John is an American name. Giving John an English name like this instead of the Mexican equivalent, Juan, adds to his character the idea that he is out of place. He does not belong in Tita’s life, but still offers a parallel to Pedro’s romanticism, as one can see through parodic representation. “The parodic representations expose the model’s conventions and lay bare its devices through the coexistence of the two codes in the same message.” (Valdes, 79).
Throughout the book one can find that the author uses duality and magical realism to illustrate that the story is torn between two worlds. There is the world of love, symbolized by the love Pedro and Tita have for each other (which comes out in fantasy) and the world of order, which Mama Elena dominates. We see how the two worlds tear Tita apart, with her two sisters, and her two lovers. We see it in the way the food at Rosaura’s wedding makes all cry and vomit, while that at Esperanza’s wedding makes everyone want to make love. There is the parallel between Tita and Nacha, and how Nacha acts as a fairy-godmother to support Tita. It illustrates how the woman’s world of Mama Elena, is consumed by the simple tenures of food and sex, and how it holds a second hidden hypocrisy.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water For Chocolate. Trans. Carol Christensen, Thomas Christensen. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Dobrian, Susan Lucas. “Romancing the Cook: Parodic Consumption of Popular Romance Myths in Como agua para chocolate,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 24, No. 48, July, 1996, pp. 56-66.
Lowenstein, Claudia and Esquivel, Laura. “Revolucion interior al exterior: An Interview with Laura Esquivel,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 592-607.
Valdes, Maria Elena de, “Verbal and Visual Representation of Women.” in World Literature Today, Vol. 69. January 1995. 78-82.
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