Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapters 15–17 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15 (Quince)

Antonio is recovering from pneumonia. He learns Narciso's death has been ruled accidental or self-inflicted because of Narciso's reputation as a drunk. Andrew apologizes to Antonio for not taking Narciso's warning seriously; for doing nothing to warn Ultima of Tenorio's threats. Antonio does not tell Andrew he saw him at Rosie's brothel. Andrew leaves, and Ultima assures Antonio he did not divulge Andrew's involvement at Rosie's when he was dreaming. As Antonio gets better Ultima tells him stories about Narciso's youth in Las Pasturas.

Antonio also spends time with his mother learning his catechism. He will soon go to the church to prepare for his first communion. Maria asks Antonio to read prayers in English, which she does not understand very well. But she's proud of how well Antonio, "a true man of learning," speaks English.

During the winter León and Eugene return home. They're brought to the house in a police car because they'd wrecked their car in an accident. They'd lost control of the car on an ice-slicked road. After the car crashed they burned parts of it to warm themselves. The young men waited hours before Vigil, the sheriff, found them and brought them to the house.

Maria and Gabriel are thrilled to see them. Antonio notices they look different and older. León is quite angry about the car because it was Eugene's idea to drive home. Antonio's three brothers go into Andrew's room, where they talk about their future plans. Gabriel starts drinking because he knows they're planning to leave, again destroying his dreams of working with them in California. That night the three oldest sons go into town to have some fun.

After breakfast the next day Gabriel says he must go out to fix a wire on the windmill. Then his three oldest sons come into the kitchen for breakfast. Gabriel reminisces about how he used to work with his sons on the house and the land. But his nostalgia is tinged with bitterness for he knows his family's unity is about to be broken forever. Gabriel leaves to fix the windmill, a treacherous job in the icy, windy weather.

The three eldest boys have said nothing about their plans to leave. But by the next morning all three of them are gone. Andrew has quit his job and abandoned his plans to finish school. Maria is there to embrace her sons before they leave. But Gabriel is not at home and does not say good-bye.

Chapter 16 (Dieciséis)

After the Christmas vacation Antonio returns to school. He feels changed, older and more mature. Antonio spends most of his time alone thinking about Narciso's death and trying to interpret his confusing dreams. He thinks a lot about God and fairness. After school Antonio frequently goes to the church to pray. He asks God to answer his questions but gets no response. He finds himself praying more often to the Virgin of Guadalupe because he feels she listens to his prayers. Antonio wonders if he will understand God's ways after he's taken communion.

One day returning home from school Antonio meets Tenorio, who is standing under the juniper tree where he'd killed Narciso. Tenorio "laugh[s] and howl[s]" at Antonio but makes no move to harm him. He calls him "Maldito desgraciato" (damn wretch). Antonio makes a cross with his fingers but Tenorio laughs, saying he's not a witch. Tenorio says his second daughter is dying and again blames Ultima, whom he viciously vows to murder. "I will find a way to get to her and destroy her," he tells Antonio.

Antonio is shocked by the deep hatred he sees in Tenorio's face. But Antonio is determined to confront it. "No! I will not let you," he cries. Tenorio does not attack Antonio but tells him "I killed the entremetido [busybody] Narciso right here ... I will find a way to kill the witch." Antonio calls him a murderer and says, "the owl will scratch out your other eye." Tenorio just smiles "as if a thought had crossed his mind"; then he turns and leaves.

Back home Antonio tells Ultima about the encounter with Tenorio. After making sure Tenorio had not touched Antonio, Ultima seems satisfied he's safe. She dismisses Tenorio as a coward who killed in an ambush. She is not afraid of Tenorio. Yet Antonio still has nightmares about Tenorio shooting Ultima. Sometimes Antonio gets out of bed to make sure Ultima is all right. He says he has never felt closer to or more appreciative of Ultima than during this period.

Chapter 17 (Diecisiete)

It's early spring, and Antonio is often in church at catechism lessons. He is excited he's learning to commune with God. Rumors of the atomic bomb, which was developed and tested in New Mexico, are on everyone's lips. Many people think the bomb makes God angry and is causing strange weather, but Gabriel tells Antonio that's nonsense. Gabriel explains overgrazing by greedy men causes the terrible dust storms they're experiencing.

Antonio is talking with his friends. Florence, the atheist, asks Antonio to define sin, and Antonio answers, "It is not doing the will of God." The problematic relationship between sin, confession, and absolution confuses the boys. Florence wonders if when he's old he can just confess and get absolution for being a culo (ass) and then go to heaven despite his lifelong sinful acts. Antonio is nonplussed and cannot answer.

Horse tackles Antonio and they tussle. The boys talk about the bullies and the bullied. One victim took his revenge on the boy bullying him and beat him up. The boys then discuss if Protestants, who don't take catechism, will go to hell when they die. Antonio asks Florence if he thinks he'll go to hell. Florence doesn't think so but if there is a hell, so be it. Antonio asks Florence why he's an atheist, and Florence shares terrible events of his childhood that scarred him and made him turn away from God. Echoing the priest, Antonio suggests maybe suffering is a test from God. Florence says very young children can't be tested in this way, as he was when he was three years old. So God must either not exist or not care about people. The two boys discuss sin, punishment, and life's unfairness. Antonio has a hard time taking God's side in this debate because these are the questions he wonders about too.

Their discussion is interrupted by the church bells calling them to catechism class. Because he is late, Florence must stand with his arms outstretched for the duration of the class. Then Father Byrne leads the boys in prayer. The priest tests the boys on the catechism, though some of the rowdier boys, like Horse, make whispered jokes of the answers. Then the priest teaches the difference between venial (slight) sins and mortal sins. He frightens the children with visions of eternal damnation. Father Byrne tells a story to illustrate what "eternity" means and the children "shudder at the thought of spending eternity in hell." Only Florence, standing with his arms outstretched, was "unafraid of eternity."

Analysis

Antonio is looking forward to his first communion because he hopes it will give him knowledge of God. His mother assures him this will make him a good priest when he grows up. She seems never to stop trying to impose her expectations on her youngest son. Antonio may be the last best hope of the fracturing family. The three eldest sons have left for Vegas. Maria and Gabriel feel their family traditions crumbling. Expecting grown children to remain nearby is old-fashioned and unrealistic. Gabriel is bitter, but he realizes his eldest sons are in some ways just following the tradition of "the wandering Márez brothers."

Gabriel expounds on his traditional culture when he tells Antonio to "listen to the voice of the earth." People should not destroy the earth, which will then turn on and destroy them. In Gabriel's culture sin is the "misuse [of] the earth" which must be paid for in human suffering.

Antonio reflects on the unjust ruling that Narciso died in an accident or through suicide. Perhaps if Antonio had not been bedridden with pneumonia he could have testified to the murder, and Tenorio might have been justly punished. When Antonio runs into Tenorio later on, Tenorio brags justice doesn't apply to him. He says, "I killed [Narciso] right here ... And the sheriff did not touch me." Tenorio feels he's beyond the reach of society's justice. But is he immune to supernatural justice? Later Ultima says Tenorio might find forgiveness for his sin but only if he first acknowledges his guilt and then does penance for the murder—something Tenorio will never do.

Antonio's encounter with Tenorio deals with the supernatural and revenge. In this encounter the reader finally learns Tenorio is not a witch and has no supernatural powers. The sign of the cross does not terrify or harm him. Therefore it must be his daughters who are witches who dabble in black magic. Still, Tenorio is beside himself with murderous fury and wants to kill Ultima in revenge for his second daughter's illness. He vows to "find a way to get to her and destroy her." The reader should note Antonio unwittingly gives Tenorio the method by which he will destroy Ultima. This occurs when Antonio says, "the owl will scratch out your other eye." This makes Tenorio think and then smile, telling Antonio, "your curse is that you know too much."

Antonio is more mature and thoughtful in these chapters. He is preoccupied with unraveling divine justice and fairness in the world. Again, he wonders why a good man like Narciso is murdered while his murderer, the evil Tenorio, gets away without being punished. It's as if Narciso was punished by God for his goodness and Tenorio was rewarded by God for his evil. That's just not fair. Antonio wonders if "God [was] too busy" to bother about what happens to people here on earth.

Antonio turns his prayers toward the Virgin of Guadalupe, the symbol of compassion and forgiveness. He addresses his prayers to Her because "when I talked to Her I felt as if she listened," which is more than he feels when he prays to the seemingly indifferent God. Yet when Antonio imagines Her asking God to give Antonio knowledge, he sees God shaking his head and saying, "the boy is not yet ready to understand." Even the Virgin cannot plead his case further.

The townspeople equate the atomic bomb to the sinfulness of having too much knowledge. They think the creation of the atomic bomb is tantamount to pretending you "know more than God Himself." They believe this hubris will incur God's wrath. Despite the common distrust of knowledge, Antonio is determined to "take God into [his] body and have Him answer my questions" about divine justice (good and evil) and fairness; about suffering and punishment.

Antonio and Florence, the atheist, explore the existence of God in relation to the concept of divine justice, fairness, and suffering. To each of Antonio's arguments for why God acts (or not) as He does, Florence has a reason supporting the absence of the Christian God. Florence has suffered terribly since he was three years old, and he even thinks of his birth as a divine punishment (but for what?). Antonio cannot justify why a toddler without sin would be made to suffer so much, and why children die of dread diseases or horrific accidents. Florence says if God is all-powerful He should prevent these things from happening. He should be just and compassionate. He should have made a world where evil does not prevail. Florence shoots down the Church's notions of sin and absolution—of confession's ability to wipe away a lifetime of sin and evil—as well as its punishment for seeking knowledge. Antonio seeks knowledge of God but cannot explain why in the Garden of Eden, Eve's eating the fruit of knowledge was punished and brought sin into the world. Antonio tries but cannot find justification for God's actions.

Antonio is appalled at his blasphemy when he suggests, "Maybe God comes in cycles ... times when God is with us and times when He is not." Antonio says perhaps the Virgin takes over when God is on sabbatical. Or, he says, maybe "the Golden Carp ruled instead of—!" Antonio trembles because he has invoked the pagan god, the golden carp, as a deity in many ways equivalent to the Christian God. Perhaps he fears God will punish him for his blasphemy.

Blasphemy meets punishment in Father Byrne's treatment of Florence. Antonio comes to catechism class with Florence, so both are equally late. Yet it is only Florence who is punished, not Antonio. Perhaps as Antonio suspects Florence is being punished unfairly for simply thinking differently than the priest. If the priest represents divine justice then he, like God, is being unfair. Instead of understanding Florence's nonbelief arises from his suffering and then offering him compassion, the priest resorts to painful punishment. Unorthodox thought, like sought-after knowledge, is punished by the Church. However, only Florence stands "unafraid of eternity" at the end of catechism class. The other children are terrified by the picture the priest paints of an eternity in hell for those who transgress Church law and deny Church doctrine. In a sense their terror is the Church's punishment—in advance—for any of their future heretical thoughts or sinful actions.

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