Like Water for Chocolate
Latin America, Native America and Magical Realism
Magical realism is the art of infusing the supernatural in the mundane. Many Latin American authors exploit the power of magical realism in their novels, in which characters have regular encounters with the spiritual world. This capacity equips them with a ‘sixth sense’ so that they have superhuman insight, discern apparitions unseen to natural eyes or communicate with spirits or spirits of the departed. Laura Esquivel are Latin American authors who employed “lo real maravilloso” or magical realism into literature, pervasive in her best-seller Como Agua Para Chocolate. This method serves to weave in legend, religion and spiritism into reality (Jameson 1986). The reader realizes that magical realism is not simply magic, but it forms an inextricable part of life and human experience. Also in the Native American tradition, as seen in Monkey Beach authors depict their deep religious heritage in literature, inserting religious beliefs, rites and supernatural occurrences.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is a text peopled by characters with magical capabilities. Characters, such as Clara, are endowed with uncanny, spiritual ability such as clairvoyance, interpretation of dreams, and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). In the novel, writing is not a mere activity. It becomes a spiritual affair in which the writer undergoes a catharsis or inner purging, wielding the power of the pen. Clara records her dreams and spiritual encounters to be passed down to future generations. In this world, “conventional resources were not everything” (Conniff 1990). Spirits aid man in a mutually beneficial relationship. She relates well with the good spirits and they abide in her home, giving her a contentment that nothing material could bring. Characters can see the apparition of ghosts and experience comforting spirits participating in daily life so much so that the residents of the home accept them as normal. The paranormal constantly takes place in the novel. For example, Clara miraculously finds the lost head of her mother who accidentally gets decapitated. The spirits reveal to her the head’s exact location when no one could retrieve it. The punctuation of the novel with magic and surreal occurrences impresses on the mind the intersection of the spiritual world (embodied as Clara) and the material (embodied as Esteban).
In Monkey Beach, Lisa, the protagonist equally has phenomenal spiritual ability to foresee events through dreams before they come to pass. In the Haisla culture in Canada, the Native Indians cherish the culture of supernatural consciousness and communication with dead ancestors. Ma-Ma-Oo, Lisa’s grandmother, appreciates Lisa’s unusual gift and teaches her how to sharpen and control it. In magical realism novels, the presence of older generations is indispensable because the work “is the simultaneous impetus of atavism and modernism” (Gish 1990). Lisa learns about her sixth sense and later ‘sees’ a vision of her dead brother relaying an urgent message to her. Lisa also receives a vision that her best friend has died. Magical realism is woven into Monkey Beach not only through Lisa, but also through the old witch, Screwy Ruby, Sasquatch (an fabled animal from another world) and a strange little man who appears to Lisa whenever something imminent is about to take place. These personas are gifted with premonitions and foretelling. Some of Lisa’s family members also have strains of her spiritual gift but choose to deny it.
Setting is key in structuring a text with magical realism. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the setting is a fantastic, timeless village called Macondo, whose inhabitants are immortal. Setting not only signifies space, but also time. Time laws in magical realism works operate outside of the normal sphere. “Time is curved and coincidental in a whole moment that is outside of clock time” (Rabassa 1973). Marquez’ title emphasizes a timelessness which also points to an otherworldliness. Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the Macondo village as a place untainted and uncorrupted by modern civilization and technology. Comparable to the Eden paradise of Genesis, the town never saw disease. Although not a pristine picture of perfection, the interaction of gypsies gives the storyline a surreal appearance. Science and invention are unknown in this idyllic world and the magic of pastoral life seeps into the story. The novel, House of the Spirits, is set in a nameless country. In literature, anonymity lends the idea of mystery and otherworldliness. Due to the title, one knows that the major scenes take place within the confines of a haunted house whose dwellers have regular communication with spirits or ghosts. Within the house, eerie events unfold as the mistress of the home, Clara, takes pleasure in spirit worship.
In Monkey Beach, Monkey Beach assumes a new meaning as it becomes the setting/site of her brother’s death. Monkey Beach is a gloomy environment where crows and hawks haunt and where drownings occur. At Monkey Beach, Lisa observes a Sasquatch (B’gwus) when others cannot see it and hears voices that others cannot hear. These spirit beings offer help to Lisa if she performs a ceremony and gives them an offering. Because of these supernatural events, Monkey Beach evolves into another world full of supernatural power. Religion lies at the core of magical realism in literature. Religion promotes belief in otherworldliness and the reality of a spiritual world. In Latin America where over 90% of the population profess Catholicism, the novels House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude are pervaded with religious references, persons or myth. In House of the Spirits, Clara is denounced as demon-possessed by the village priest. After their deaths, Clara and Ferula become ghosts that haunt the big house on the corner, thereby making the house, ‘The House of the Spirits,’ thus forwarding the popular spiritual concept of life after death and spiritism (the belief in spirits and communication with the spirits of the dead through mediums). References to priests, nuns, churches, convents and mass reinforce the overarching presence of religion and its role in inculcating the masses with spiritual teachings.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel pervades with magical realism in the home setting. Tita’s visions of her dead mother, Mama Elena in the bedroom. The culinary miracles that unfolded in the kitchen as she prepared her meals and the wonderful effects on the partakers give credence to the power of magical realism in the homes and heart of the Mexican and Native American cultures. The sexual powers unleashed in this novel through food impact on the bodies, minds and spirits of all the characters. For the wedding scene, the wedding guests are magically ignited by passion as they consume Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce. As an aphrodisiac represented in Tita’s own suppressed sexual desire for Pedro, a supernatural transfer of passions occurs. Mama Elena, her tyrannical mother is also portrayed a witch whose dictatorial enchantment, controls her entire life. The magical blanket that Tita knits also comforts her in her time of bereavement and solitude, suddenly catching fire at the conclusion of the novel.
Religion also plays a great role in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Garcia Marquez uses many Biblical texts and stories from Genesis and uses it as the chassis on which to base the story. The Adam and Eve personas who began the Macondo civilization-Colonel Aureliano and his wife, the queer gypsy people and the alien Whites penetrate the perfect kingdom and debase it from a spiritual settlement to a material world. The church’s influence in magical realism is evidenced by the levitation of a Roman Catholic priest, Remedios’ mysterious ascension to heaven (an imitation of the levitating priest) and village-wide insomnia plagues. The Native American religion is based on ancestral worship of the dead. It is known among Native American tribesmen that tribute and offerings must be paid to the dead whose life continues even after death and blesses or curses the nation. Medicine men and witch doctors are the priests of this ancient religion that endorses spirit worship. In Monkey Beach, Ma-Ma-Oo is educated in the religion of her people and provides much needed guidance for Lisa who struggles with her superhuman ability. In the novel, the spirits’ request for offerings in exchange for a favor blends in with the traditions of spirit worship within Native American religion and magical realism.
Extraterrestrial or immaterial beings fill the pages of The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude making the novel a habitation of magical realism. After Clara’s and Ferula’s deaths, they reappear to give encouragement to their friends and loved ones. In a moment of oppressing grief and bitterness, Esteban’s eyes are open to see the ghost of his dead wife. Also the dead Clara appears before Alba while the latter suffers torture in prison. Also, in Esteban’s last moments, Clara’s ghost stands at his side giving him morale support. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, apparent humans work miracles such as the White people that alter the weather cycle, agriculture times and the courses of the rivers. Melquiades, the gypsy, is said to be a lonely man resurrected from the dead. He stops the sleepless plague that afflicts the township. In another scene, the murdered Prudencio Aguilar reappears to torment the wife of his killer, Jose Arcadio Buendia. In sum, the awe of magical realism is universal in that it attraction both child and adult. Fairies, mermaids, gypsies, angels, demons, good spirits and evil spirits all occupy a world separate from the natural sphere. Magical realism presents a “vision of everyday reality” (Slemon) and gives the reader a backstage illustration of the forces influencing weather, the physical, people and destiny. In The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Monkey Beach, magical realism forces one to question the credibility of events, where the ordinary and extraordinary, real and unreal are confused. Latin American and Native American writers and many other acclaimed authors’ publications carry allusions to magical realism in their narratives, demonstrating their embrace of the imaginary, the religious, the spiritual and the seeming impossible.
Allende, I. (1993). The House of the Spirits. Bantam Books, New York, 1993.
Conniff, B (1990). “The Dark Side of Magical Realism: Science, Oppression, and Apocalypse in One Hundred Years of Solitude.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 1990, 167-179.
Gish, R.F (1990). “Word Medicine: Storytelling and Magic Realism in James Welch’s ‘Fools Crow’” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), 349-354.
Jameson, F (1986). “On Magic Realism in Film, Critical Inquiry”. University of Chicago Press. Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), 301-325
Marquez, G. G. (1998). One Hundred Years of Solitude, Harper Perennial Classics Publishers, New York, 1998.
Rabassa, G. (1973). “Beyond Magic Realism: Thoughts on the Art of Gabriel García Márquez” Books Abroad, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), 444-450
Robinson, E. (2002). Monkey Beach. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, USA, 2002.
Slemon, S. “Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse”
A Venture into Womanhood: The Unveiling of Tita through Rosaura
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate shows contrasts in many of the characters throughout the lifetime of Tita. Tita’s role as the protagonist reveals her struggle within the family, but also her development as a care-taker and nurturer throughout the novel. Rosaura’s spite for Pedro’s love of Tita causes a rift between the sisters, but also gives the reader a close look at the type of woman she is as compared to Rosaura. Through the pairing of Tita and Rosaura in sisterhood, Tita is revealed to be a more complete woman in physical and nurturing characteristics while Rosaura’s bitterness and spite eat away at her until she passes.
One of the most illustrative comparisons between Tita and Rosaura involves descriptions of physicality, especially towards the end of the novel. Tita is described as the more beautiful of the two sisters, while Rosaura is viewed as more plain and undesirable (Esquivel 67). Tita’s beauty advances as she ages, growing and developing into a very attractive woman. She is the more vivacious and active child from youth, and as she grows she is consistently seen as more attractive than Rosaura physically and emotionally – which is the cause of Pedro’s love for the sweet, caring Tita as opposed to the bitter, less attractive Rosaura. Tita and Pedro’s love begins as an ineffable feeling of desire and emotion that they can barely control in their youth. Pedro’s marriage to Rosaura is the only vector through which he can be with Tita, so he marries her without love or attraction (Esquivel 15). As they age, Rosaura becomes gradually more undesirable as notes of Tita’s beauty are woven into the novel. Dr. Brown is surprised by Tita’s beauty, but Rosaura is seen as becoming more and more overweight and prone to flatulence (Esquivel 74). Rosaura’s condition seems to grow out of envy for Tita’s beauty and Pedro’s love for Tita, and she dies a bloated, overweight cynic.
From the beginning of their lives, Tita and Rosaura have different relationships with their mother. Mama Elena demands the utmost respect from her children, and Rosaura is a poster child in her eyes. Even in the beginning, her suggestion of Rosaura’s hand in marriage in place of Tita’s showed an air of favoritism. Tita was to serve Mama Elena for life, but her rebellions caused Mama Elena to put a tighter chokehold on Tita’s life. Her rebellions began as Mama Elena demanded her children to refer to her as “Mami” (Esquivel 13). Tita, being the only daughter to resist this command, began her rebellion from a young age. Rosaura’s submissiveness is shown through the novel as she treats Mama Elena with the utmost respect. In Mexican culture, the mother is supposed to serve as the cook and caretaker for the family, and the father is the unquestionable head of household reserving the right to be in charge of all family decisions without question (Meleen). Without Tita’s father there, Mama Elena assumes the role of the effective father of the family. Tita’s protest of her inability to marry and indifference toward her mother are signs of disrespect in Mexican culture, but Rosaura’s inherent submissiveness causes Mama Elena to favor her over Tita.
As Rosaura has children, there are clear symbols that show the difference between the maternal instincts and nurturing abilities of Tita and Rosaura. After the birth of Roberto, Rosaura is unable to produce breastmilk. The common practice of the time was to search for a wet nurse, but with no one able, Tita finds herself able to produce milk (Esquivel 76). The only way that breastmilk is produced is through giving birth, yet her ability to produce milk shows us that Tita was supposed to be the mother of Roberto – not Rosaura (Lowen). During Roberto’s time in Mexico, Tita is the de facto mother of the child and serves in the traditional mother role by cooking and caring for the child (Meleen). Rosaura’s mothering abilities begin with her ineptitude to produce milk and culminate with the death of Roberto. When Rosaura and Pedro move to San Antonio, they are unable to care for Roberto and he dies. Tita comes into her own as a mother during this time, serving the same role that Nacha did for her. Rosaura’s second child Esperanza is kept in Mexico and Tita serves once again as the effective caretaker. She attempts to prevent Esperanza’s marriage, proving her shortcomings as a mother align with Mama Elena. However, Esperanza’s marriage is the ultimate success of Tita essentially mothering the Esperanza and escaping the cycle of the De La Garza tradition.
The cycle of the youngest daughter taking care of the mother without marrying is a large part of the De La Garza history. Tita attempts to escape this cycle herself as she initially attempts to marry Pedro, but Rosaura is seen to uphold tradition up until her death. Rosaura goes her whole life without questioning Mama Elena’s orders or anything dictated about the customs of the family. She carries these traditions on to her children, and seemingly she carries on the bitterness of Mama Elena as well. Tita’s growth through the book is shown through her eventual decision to not marry, but she does not continue to uphold the traditions. Throughout her life, she despised the De La Garza’s imposition upon the youngest daughter as she worried she would never be able to love. Tita never marries but instead takes joy in the marriage of Esperanza, who effectively becomes her daughter through the death of Rosaura. Tita’s nurturing and mothering wins over the tradition of the De La Garza family, as Esperanza grows to be “feminine and womanly, in the fullest sense of the word” (Esquivel 240).
Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate develops Rosaura and Tita into two polar opposite characters. Tita, who was raised in the kitchen, serves as a nurturer and becomes a great mother-figure without ever having a child, while Rosaura fails to ever truly become a mother. She never cares for her children in the same manner that Tita does and fails to see the shortcomings of Mama Elena’s parenting. The magical realism of the book serves to exaggerate and empower certain emotions through the book. Through this literary mode, emotions drive a lot of actions through this book, but often the emotions can contain physical implications as well, such as Rosaura’s case. Rosaura’s resentment and near hatred of Tita seems to foster and worsen her gastrointestinal condition. Pedro never loves Rosaura, and she just becomes more and more bitter and resentful of Tita as Pedro is still evidently in love with Tita. These characters serve as great foils to each other as Tita grows out of her bitterness for her fate as a single woman and finds joy in other things, but Rosaura dies pitifully due to her digestive issues, still envying Tita for the love she never could have from Pedro.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.
Linda, Lowen. “Would You Let Another Women Nurse Your Children? A History of Wet Nurses.” About.com News & Issues. About News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.
Meleen, Michelle. “Mexican Family Culture.” LoveToKnow. Lifestyle, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2016.
Analysis of Chapter 5 of Like Water for Chocolate, the Scene in Which Tita and Pedro Meet in the Dead of Night
Throughout the novel, Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita, the struggling protagonist wages an emotional battle with herself. Given that the tale takes place in early 20th century Mexico, the concepts of uncontested familial obligations and matriarchal rule were socially accepted values. For a daughter especially, to dissent from her mother’s word was considered outrageous. Consequently, on the one hand, Tita feels bound to the traditionally accepted role of the youngest daughter to remain unwed so as to care for her mother, whereas on the other she holds a reciprocated passion for her older sister’s husband, Pedro. This prominent theme of filial duty versus sexual desire is accentuated throughout the night meeting scene in Chapter 5, making this passage a pivotal moment in the novel. Additionally, the passage is representative of the animalistic tendencies in Tita, Pedro, and Mama Elena alike.First, the setting and mood created by Esquivel lays the foundation for the passage, creating an ambiance of moral tension and forbidden desire. As the night shrouds everything in darkness, Tita finds her vision impaired both literally and figuratively, which creates confusion and tension. Adding to this is the close proximity of Pedro and Mama Elena. While the former’s nearness heightens Tita’s sexual awareness, the latter’s presence functions to shut such feelings down. The soundscape Esquivel creates serves to complement the tension, as the “violent beating” (line 17) of Pedro’s heart mixes in with the soft sound of Tita’s footsteps. An aura of suspense ensues, in which neither character knows whether to risk embracing the other in the dead of night, while both Rosaura and Mama Elena are asleep only a few steps away. The mood remains static for the better part of the passage, reaching the pinnacle of tension at Tita and Pedro’s most intimate moment when Mama Elena wakes and inquires about who is up and about. In this anti-climatic moment, the mood rapidly and rather comically—given Tita’s dual physical and emotional urges of a pressuring need to urinate and her longing for Pedro—changes to one of suppressed desire and feigned normality, as neither Tita nor Pedro is willing to risk being found out by Mama Elena.The structure and stylistic conventions Esquivel employs also function to reflect the significance of this passage as a turning point. The dual narrative, whereby the third person point of view constantly switches between Pedro and Tita gives an anxious feel to the passage. This alternation, combined with the continuous use of indefinite articles and vivid, sensuous diction emphasizes the importance of Tita to Pedro. Moreover, it furthers the running motifs of the novel, such as food and its sexual symbolism, through the “jasmine and cooking odor” (line 15), given off by Tita, which enraptures Pedro. This theme is further alluded to as Pedro is “eating a slice of watermelon and thinking of Tita” (line 10) in that, when the instances of food and love are combined, the conceit of food as an erotic symbol is made evident. Furthermore, the antithetical theme of filial obligations against raw love is conveyed through the use of adjectives such as “timidly” (line 24) and “fearful” (line 26), indicating the emotional confusion Tita feels, as she is caught between loving Pedro, and remaining obedient to her mother. When Tita and Pedro finally meet in the dark, the aural and the olfactory, which are already animal senses, give way to the tactile as Tita is surprised to “feel someone pull her” (line 20) towards them. Esquivel writes that the night is so dark that not even a “glimmer of light” (line 7) remained, signifying a lack of vision, which subsequently serves to heighten their alternative senses, giving a more attentive and animalistic aura to both characters. Powerful and evocative sexual imagery is then applied as Pedro and Tita explore each other, Tita “timidly touch(ing)” (line 24) Pedro, while he “invit(es) her to explore his body” (line 24). This moment when erotic tactile images are used is their most heightened instance of connection.The scene’s literary devices help to portray Tita and Pedro’s paradoxical attraction and affliction. Pedro’s line of thought exemplifies the characters’ conflicted feelings: as he “couldn’t sleep thinking of her there, a few steps from him…and from Mama Elena, too, of course” (line 12). The use of ellipses here suggests better than words the ever-lingering presence of Mama Elena, be it actual or subconscious. Whenever Pedro lets his thoughts wander, he somehow manages to encounter Mama Elena. Later, when he realizes that this is an opportune, yet inconvenient, moment to meet Tita, he approaches her “quiet as a cat” (line 16). The simile furthers Pedro’s animal persona, as he makes his way towards Tita, his desired mate, which parallels their finding their way to one another using hearing and smell. Elena then utters a “cry” (line 26) out of the night, in this case a howl of warning, another instance of animal tendencies in the passage. This is also true of the obstacles they encounter. No matter how close they get to each other, the alpha female of the familial troop, Mama Elena, always manages to divide the two, and enforce her pecking order in the household, thus reiterating the conflicting themes of nature versus society, and typifying the two lovers’ relationship throughout the novel.The passage also acts as a pivotal moment in character and plot development because it is the first time that Tita and Pedro physically embrace each other, despite the close proximity of both Rosaura and Mama Elena. It is at this point that, though Mama Elena has no concrete proof of their infidelity, bases her assessment of the situation wholly on instinct, another animalistic trait. Significantly, she realizes that as long as Tita and Pedro are near each other, it will be futile to try to keep them apart. Thus, she speeds up Rosaura and Pedro’s departure for Texas, seeing it as the only way to maintain traditional and socially acceptable behavior in her home. This is also the only scene in which Tita and Pedro are able to embrace each other, guilt free, and with no concern other than each other, apart from at the conclusion and resolution of the novel. It is a time when their love is pure and whole, albeit tense, and they can, briefly, fully express themselves. This provides a contrast to Pedro’s returning later on to find Tita feeling bitter about his departure and in the arms of Dr. Brown. The meeting acts as a confirmation of mutual love, through which Tita and Pedro authenticate their feelings for one another. This is more significant than it may first appear as, earlier on, Tita was unsure about Pedro’s motives for marrying her sister, and his indecisiveness about how to act around her. Moreover, the conflict between filial commitment and erotic/romantic love is epitomized in this scene. Tita and Pedro find themselves attracted to each other yet concomitantly driven apart. Even when they do overcome their fears regarding social conformity and maternal oppression, they find Mama Elena, as always, the domineering force ensuring their love cannot be openly expressed or consummated. In keeping with the general course of the story, Tita is once again forced to “endure her desire” (line 31) throughout a “tortured night” (line 31). Bent on enforcing her code of ethics in the house, Mama Elena ensures that the two keep to their commitments, Tita to her and Pedro to Rosaura. This is the dominant theme for the first half of the novel, up until Mama Elena’s paralysis. Therefore, we can see that this scene, in which Tita and Pedro finally confront each other in the dead of night, almost within arms reach of Mama Elena and Rosaura, only to be interrupted by Mama Elena, typifies the central dramatic conflict of the novel. The passage should be seen as a pivotal moment in the novel as it is the only moment, save for the novel’s last scene, in which Tita and Pedro are able to momentarily express their passion for one another. It is also the moment when Mama Elena realizes that her past, present and future attempts at keeping the two apart will be in vain so long as they are near each other. Thus she ensures Pedro leaves for Texas the morning after, while Tita has no other option other than to return to her normal routines as laid out for her by her oppressive mother. Tita and Pedro’s encounter is also emblematic of the general course of the novel as, even though they finally manage to embrace each other, they must do so with meticulous caution and are almost immediately frustrated by Mama Elena. This mix of innocent love and raw passion seen in this passage will not be repeated until the very end of the novel. Every other time Tita and Pedro meet after this point, a certain jealousy or resentment or confusion is always sown into their other feelings of passion, thus emphasizing the intensity and importance of this night meeting. Appendix – PassageFrom her hammock Tita heard someone get up for a chunk of watermelon. This awakened in her the urge to go to the bathroom. She had been drinking beer all day long, not to cool off, but to make more milk to nurse her nephew. He was sleeping peaceful next to her sister. Getting up in the dark, she couldn’t see a thing – there wasn’t a glimmer of light. She was walking towards the bathroom, trying to remember where the hammocks were; she didn’t want to stumble into anybody. Pedro, sitting in his hammock, was eating a slice of watermelon and thinking of Tita. Having her so near made him feel a tremendous excitement. He couldn’t sleep thinking of her there, a few steps from him… and from Mama Elena, too, of course. He heard the sound of footsteps in the shadows and stopped breathing for a few moments. It had to be Tita, her distinctive fragrance wafted towards him on the breeze, a mixture of jasmine and cooking odours that was hers alone. For a moment he thought that Tita has got up to look for him. The sound of her approaching footsteps blended with the violent beating of his heart. But no, the steps were moving away from him, to the bathroom. Pedro got up, quiet as a cat, and followed her. Tita was surprised to feel someone pull her towards him and cover her mouth, but she realized who it was immediately and didn’t offer any resistance as the hand first slid down her neck to her breasts and then explored her entire body. While she was receiving a kiss on the lips, Pedro took her hand in his and invited her to explore his body. Tita timidly touched the hard muscles on Pedro’s arms and chest; lower down, she felt a red-hot coal that throbbed through his clothes. She removed her hand, frightened not by her discovery but by a cry from Mama Elena. ‘Tita, where are you?’ ‘Right here, Mami, I’m going to the bathroom.’ Fearful that her mother would suspect something, Tita hurried back to the bed where she passed a tortured night, enduring her desire to urinate along with another urge. Her sacrifice didn’t do a bit of good: the following day, Mama Elena – who for a while seemed to have changed her mind about sending Pedro and Rosaura to Texas – speeded up her plans for their departure; three days later they had left the ranch. Like Water For Chocolate,Laura Esquivel,Translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas ChristensenBlack Swan Books1993
Cultural Constraints: The Uses of Archetypes in Like Water for Chocolate, Roofops of Tehran, and Purple Hibiscus
Every culture has unique social tradition placed upon their ancestors for many generations. These social constraints force their people to adhere to the same set of boundaries because it is deemed as proper and acceptable. These constraints often make it hard for evolving as a society and create unfair limitations for the young and especially the females in their society. Writers, often forced into the brunt of these constraints, developed a new genre with an end goal to try and encourage political and social change. These writers highlight the huge issues that are deemed unjust or abusive in each society to promote social awareness. Often a predictable formula is used to show every unique aspect of how people can be oppressed by their society. It starts with a perpetrator, the person or people who are doing the harm, then it shows how an individual is victimized by these overbearing authority figures and their failure to rebel, next a character who incites rebellion is introduced to show how change can happen, and lastly a preserver, often the main character, who goes through victimization and rebellion, yet ends up making the greatest difference while preserving the distinctive qualities of their culture. Three writers: Laura Esquivel from Mexico, Mahbod Seraji from Iran, and Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria in their respective novels prove that this formula is nonspecific to a culture. Like Water for Chocolate, Rooftops of Tehran, and Purple Hibiscus harness these archetypes to highlight and promote social change in their societies and inspire readers across all cultures to do the same.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel has a main perpetrator in Mamma Elena. She holds her daughters to the cultural constraints that her family set many generations ago. For Gertrudis and Rosaura, while they are constrained to marry people her mother approves of and sets up for them, they do not bear the brunt of the oppression. For Tita, however, being the youngest means she is destined to take care of her mother until the day she dies and never marry or find love. This is portrayed when Mamma Elena threatens, “For generations, not a single person in my family has ever questioned this tradition, and no daughter of mine is going to be the one to start” (Esquivel 11). This is particularly constraining for Tita because she fell in love with a local man named Pablo and can’t marry him or express her love for him. Mamma Elena shows no sympathy for Tita and seeing Pablo as a viable suitor she sets Rosaura to marry him. Mamma Elena has no regard for Tita’s feelings or wants in life and demands her to forever feed, bathe, and take care of her. Mamma Elena refuses to take Tita’s opinions and wants into consideration and is the enforcer of the cultural constraints.
The highly oppressive and censored government in Rooftops of Tehran is the main perpetrator. The Savak is the government agency that goes around enforcing these cultural constraints. In Rooftops, the Savak oppresses both by raiding for censored books and by searching and imprisoning rebels. One example of their detestable acts is when they came for doctor, “The agents detest crowds witnessing the inhumane treatment of their captives. They quickly push Doctor into the car and take off” (Seraji 83). Doctor was just one of the people the Savak targeted. Pasha felt their presence during a childhood raid of his house and Zara felt their presence when she was banished and forced into hiding. This religious tradition the Savak enforces is much like the family tradition Mamma Elena constrains Tita with in Like Water for Chocolate. Unlike in Tita’s world, however, rebellion has severe consequences in this book, often the people who speak out about the wrongdoings of their government pay with their life. Without the Savak enforcing these tyrannical views, Pasha would not have felt the tragedy in losing his mentor and letting go of the woman he loved.
The main character Kambili gets hurt by a number of people and governing bodies, but the perpetrator in Purple Hibiscus is Eugene or Papa. Like Mamma Elena, Papa grew up with an harsh and strict background. His childhood was during the era when coups and government instability plagued Nigeria. Rooftops of Tehran also had a tyrannical government where people were captured or imprisoned for speaking against their ways. Eugene left to England to do much of his schooling and came back with western religion and ideals. These ideals are the way he constraints his family. Papa forces his children to perfection in every way and is so reliant on tradition that if broken he punishes them severely. His children and wife are not sheltered from beatings and verbal abuse. Papa even goes so far as to hospitalize Mamma, “We stood at the landing and watched Papa descend. Mama was slung over his shoulder like the jute sacks of rice his factory workers bought in bulk at the Seme Border” (Adichie 33). Jaja broke this routine of expected perfection when he refused to take offering at mass. Papa puts God above everything else so to him this was a personal attack. Papa refuses to accept the Nigerian culture and even purposefully changes his action to reflect a more British upbringing when talking to people of lighter skin or authority figures. He holds his children to this standard and is unbending in his rule.
Mamma Elena victimizes all of her children in Like Water for Chocolate, but the one who is constrained the most is Rosaura. Rosaura is victimized when Mamma Elena forces her to betray her sister and marry Pablo. Instead of staying true to her sister and trying to get out of marrying him, she accepts her mother’s ruling. Rosaura becomes jealous of Tita and Pablo’s true love and is mean and deceitful to her. She doesn’t think Tita should still be in love with Pablo because he is married to her. Rosaura refuses to see Tita’s side in the story and how she truly was the victim. This leads to Rosaura’s awful end. Her death is described by John when he says, “…he found Rosaura, her lips purple, body deflated, eyes wild, with a distant look, sighing out her last flatulent breath. John’s diagnosis was an acute congestion of the stomach” (Esquivel 233). She allowed bitterness and hatred to define her and in the end she was left lonely and empty save from gas.
Another book where characters are victimized is in Rooftops of Tehran, especially through the story of Doctor. Doctor was multifaceted in his need to commit rebellion but also his love for his friends and family. The SAVAK punished him severely before he was able to fully make a difference, in the end making him the victim in the story. Unlike Rosaura in Like Water for Chocolate, Doctor mentored Pasha through the most essential developing years of his life and taught him through books and friendship the art of being open minded. Rosaura had the potential to be a similar character for Tita, but let jealousy and competition overrun their sibling bond. While Doctor truly cared about Pasha and being his friend, his desire to instigate social change often took precedence. The last summer Pasha saw Doctor, he told Pasha he was leaving to go educate farmers in rural regions. The SAVAK supposedly caught him planning with a terrorist group to blow up a dam, however. The policing organization tracked him down, dragged him away, and they never saw Doctor again. The SAVAK showed up weeks later to talk to Zari’s family. The situation is explained by Faheemah, “They want them to pay for the bullet… Doctor’s bullet” (Seraji 128). Doctor was stopped before he could achieve the social change he so desperately sought for the nation. The SAVAK made him the ultimate victim, but Doctor’s death spurred both Zari and Pasha to push even harder against their tyrannical government.
Just like in the other two novels, the perpetrator hurts many people in Purple Hibiscus, but the character most constrained by Papa’s oppression is Mamma. She doesn’t mean to anger her husband, but Eugene sees little actions as personal attacks against himself or God. He refuses to accept anything less than perfect Western ideals and religion. For example, when Mamma was sick due to her pregnancy and didn’t want to see the Pastor after mass. She didn’t mean to be sick or disappoint Eugene, but he refused to sympathize. For most of the book, Mamma didn’t understand the unhealthy relationship she was in, and often pretended like nothing was wrong. For example, when upset or hurt Mamma would go and polish her figurines or the case they were in, avoiding the problems. “Mamma stood hugging herself in the center of the living room… Mamma started at the lowest layer, polishing both the shelf and the figurines” (Adichie 35). This demonstrates her lack of hope, she couldn’t even deal with the abuse that she avoided the subject of it. Eventually, we see a change in Mamma. The years of abuse finally add up for her and all hope for her future is lost. Realizing this Mamma works up the courage to poison Eugene and joins the rebellion in her household. This dual archetype is similar to Doctor in Rooftops of Tehran. Showing that characters can rebel and still be broken down to a simple victim.
In Like Water for Chocolate, rebellion is the only way for Gertrudis to escape the suffocating presence of Mamma Elena. For years Gertrudis was oppressed emotionally and sexually by her mother through her traditions. She never had the chance to grow and develop at a healthy pace because her mother was controlling her. This oppression finally became too much and Gertrudis committed the ultimate act of rebellion. The scent of her fiery energy attracted a rebel general and he picked her up, “Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away” (Esquivel 55-56). Gertrudis was less dynamic than Tita in her rebellion, however. She rebelled to save herself from the constraints of her mother, while rebelled for the sake of future generations. Gertrudis achieved freedom and expressed her sexual desires without worry of disaproval from Mamma Elena, making her the true symbol of rebellion.
Through her unfaltering defiance of the government, even at the sake of her own freedom, Zari is the true rebel in Rooftops of Tehran. When Doctor is killed by the SAVAK, Zari goes through a developing period. She realizes all the problems the government has and can’t stay quiet about them any longer. She tries to save Pasha from the pain by telling him to not get attached to her, but he is already too in love with her to care. Zari’s passions and hatred for the tyrannical leader the Shah come to a climax at the public event for his birthday. Zari decides to make a public statement and brings gasoline and a match with her. When the Shah’s vehicle comes close to them, “Zari runs out into the street, lights a match, and sets herself on fire” (Seraji 215). This last moment of rebellion was for the 40th day anniversary of Doctor’s death. The SAVAK made the situation worse by not allowing Doctor’s friends and family to mourn his death but destroying evidence of his birth because they saw him as a traitor. Zari’s rebellion sets a precedence of change for Pasha and their friends. No longer can they sit by and allow the SAVAK to control them, they must fight. Zari loses her freedom and is banished to secrecy in another area for her crimes, but she felt she rectified the maltreatment of Doctor by the SAVAK. Zari commits the act of rebellion that is the catalyst for the social change sought for by Pasha.
Jaja’s rebellion in Purple Hibiscus was more understated than Zari’s, but still essential for defying the oppressor’s power. Jaja was less radical in his rebellion, taking years for him to muster up more than just disobeying his father. Jaja’s journey to rebellion matched the fighting going on in Nigeria after the military coup. When Ade Coker, a newspaper editor who printed articles questioning the new government, died in a fiery explosion in his home. This explosion was the turning point for both the country’s rebellion and Jaja’s. Jaja developed and aided by visits with forward thinking Aunty Ifeoma started noticing the tyranny not just beginning in the country, but in his own home. He noticed that Aunty treated her children well, and instead of oppression and strict rule, they advocated for communication and love. Jaja’s first moment of defiance that instigated the war in their home was when he openly refused to take Eucharist at mass with Papa Eugene watching. Papa saw this as the greatest form of disrespect and was so angry that after mass, “Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figures on the étagère” (Adichie 3). This small act of rebellion was the first time Papa ever felt resistance by his family. Jaja’s rebellion mixed with the want to be like Aunty Ifeoma’s family was the catalyst for the breakdown of their family parallel to the breakdown of the country.
The person who works through the constraints to preserve her culture in Like Water for Chocolate is Tita. Out of the three sisters, she is the most constrained by Mamma Elena. She does not let this stop her from fighting her mother’s antifeminist traditional ways, however. Mamma Elena wants to force Tita to stay at home, never marry or be educated, and take care of her until the day she dies. This keeps Tita away from the man she fell in love with, Pablo. Through forging her own path even at the expense of her relationship with her mother, Tita was truly able to make a difference not just for her own life, but for the next generation. Esperanza, Rosaura and Pablo’s daughter, was set to follow in the same footsteps as Tita, both being the youngest daughters. Rosaura planned to force Esperanza to stay home, Tita never stopped fighting against this and even got Esperanza an education and artistic training. Finally, Tita achieved her final goal in allowing Esperanza to become who she wants, “How proud she felt to see Esperanza so self-confident, so intelligent, so perfectly prepared, so happy, so capable, and at the same time, so feminine and womanly, in the fullest sense of the world” (Esquivel 240). Tita proves herself to be the greatest catalyst to implementing social change in her outdated family traditions. In the end, by being true to herself and allowing her femininity to flourish, Tita achieves happiness for herself, and breaks the cycle for generations to come.
Pasha’s character in Rooftops of Tehran takes a similar journey to Tita’s in Like Water for Chocolate. Both go through life being victimized but rebel not just for themselves, but for the good of others and their culture, making them the preservers in their respective novels. Pasha goes through many hardships in life due to the tyrannical government agency the SAVAK, but is made stronger in his resolve to change things. Both Doctor and Zari mentor this feeling of rebellion in Pasha, but it isn’t until he sees what the government has done to Zari, that he is resolved in his actions. When talking to a broken Zari after he finds out she’s alive but banished by the Savak, Pasha finally comes to terms with leaving for awhile. Ahmad pushes him for it as well saying, “You’ll go away for a while, study at the finest university in the States, and come back an educated man” (Seraji 309). He needs to go to the U.S. and become a filmmaker to show Iran to the rest of the world. Zari’s family is to be exiled, but he will come back for her and come back to Iran an educated many. He even tells his family he may write a book about what happened, perhaps a social commentary pushing for change from the people in their society. Pasha has worked through the constraints placed on his family and friends and grown from them to help save the culture he loves, making him the ultimate preserver.
Similar to all three of the preservers in these novels, Kambili in Purple Hibiscus was developing as a teenager. Kambili did not learn the joys and value of her own culture because she grew up in such a western household. Papa Eugene taught her that Nigerian culture was barbaric and below them. Papa’s refusal to accept Nigerian culture led her to be estranged for much of her family including her tribal grandfather. Kambili began spending more time with Aunty Ifeoma, however, and her ideals of what culture truly meant began to change. Kambili saw the best of both worlds when she was with Aunty. They are educated and by no means lower class, but still appreciate and remember the indigenous culture of their ancestors. Kambili realized that she did not have to choose a culture, and that both belonged to her. This realization is evident in the main symbol in the book, the Purple Hibiscus. When Jaja first noticed it, he exclaimed, “I didn’t know there were purple hibiscuses” (Adichie 128).This flower is a cross breed that would not exist without two separate breeds working together to make a more beautiful and revered flower. The purple hibiscus is essential in the development of both Jaja and Kambili into their realization that Papa Eugene was not always right. Kambili realizes that her culture should not be rejected, and Aunty Ifeoma’s family is proof that western education and Nigerian cultural practices complement each other.
These three books demonstrate the archetypes that emerge in social commentaries with a coming of age spin. Each character in the novel goes through terrible injustices, depending on how they respond and change to these labels them as the perpetrator, Victims, rebels, and preservers. This is prominent in real life as well. Every person especially young adults, as seen in most of these novels, goes through hardships. What a person chooses to get out of it is a direct choice for their archetype. We are all products of our upbringing, but even some characters who were abused or put under the same social constraints as their parents chose to not apply them to the next generation. This is truly the real world application. Each person must not choose to lay their personal battles on their children or young people, but break the cycle and become stronger and emotionally sure. Social commentaries allow the reader to see the psychological journey of all 4 archetypes. We can see that preserving culture while still rebelling to solve the problems within it, is the most rewarding.
Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York: Random House, 1992. Print.
Seraji, Mahbod. Rooftops of Tehran. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.