Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Themes


Christianity and the Supernatural

Antonio spends the entire book seeking answers to ultimate questions. The rigid beliefs of Catholicism are in almost constant opposition to the more gentle and fabulous belief systems found in myths and magic. Antonio is tutored in the established doctrines of Christianity via his mother's piety and the town priest's teachings. Christianity is presented as unyielding in its resistance to any belief system or possible reality not sanctioned by the Church. The Christian God is also presented as lacking compassion, quick to punishment, and unfair in the incomprehensible suffering He allows people to endure. The Church's teachings come up against and are seen in sharp contrast to the ever-present realities of myth, magic, and the supernatural. Yet Christianity and its vengeful God form the framework for Antonio's grappling with issues of innocence and sin, good and evil.

Ultima is the embodiment of the benevolent aspects of the supernatural. She is a healer but also a seer who can foretell fate and the future. Ultima embodies the good aspects of magic (white magic) and the supernatural. Tenorio Trementina's daughters are witches (engaged in black magic) who are determined to do evil. Ultima and the Trementina witches represent the eternal conflict between good and evil in the supernatural realm that spills over into the lives of ordinary people.

Myth and magic also are important in the novel. Benevolent mythic creatures such as the golden carp really exist in the novel's world. The golden carp is a god whose goodness and compassion contrast strikingly with Christianity's grim punishments for sinning and threats of hellfire. Antonio grapples with both Christianity and the supernatural in his quest to find meaning, knowledge, and spirituality in his life.

Tradition, Culture, and Identity

Antonio's parents come from two very different cultural traditions. The novel shows how Antonio is caught between the two cultures represented by his family. His mother's family members are farmers and religious Christians. She herself is a highly devout Catholic. Antonio's mother wants her young son to grow up to be a priest—the highest calling she can imagine for a son whom she hopes will grow up to follow her family's tradition and culture. Maria's devotion to God shapes Antonio's identity in terms of his struggle with his own (and others') sinfulness and the Church's attitude toward sin and redemption.

Antonio's father, Gabriel, comes from a different place (the llano) where boys grow up to be cowboys or to do valuable manual work that makes them into strong, hard men. Antonio's father is a Christian, but his religion seems to have little influence on his life. He wants his son to be a real macho man—a hard-muscled worker who enjoys the freedom of wild, wide-open places and drinking with his fellow vaqueros. Gabriel hopes Antonio will decide to work with his father and adopt the traditional male freedom valued by his father's culture. Some of the tension in the book arises from the conflicting aspirations each parent has for Antonio. Antonio himself balances the pros and cons of each tradition, but which identity and lifestyle he ultimately chooses is not stated in the book.

Knowledge and Spirituality

Throughout the novel Antonio searches for spiritual knowledge to help him make sense of the world. He constantly questions why things happen the way they do, and he looks to the divine for ultimate answers. His spiritual quest reveals Antonio to be spiritually as well as intellectually mature for his age. Mere mortals are not able to provide the knowledge he seeks—such as why bad things happen to good people. Antonio delves deeply into Christianity and other spiritual teachings—such as magical and supernatural mythic figures and deities—to find answers to the questions haunting him.

Christianity is revealed to be totally unsatisfactory in helping Antonio understand the world. It is too rigid in its punishment of sin, and its God is too remote and vengeful to offer Antonio the insight he seeks. Antonio seems more drawn to the compassionate supernatural divinities, such as the golden carp, whose benevolence and kindness seem more merciful to the suffering of sinful humans. The forgiveness of the magical divine is more fair and understandable to Antonio. Yet Antonio is grappling with some of mysterious—and unanswerable—issues all people struggle with. These are the age-old questions asked by philosophers and supposedly answered by the teachings of religion, such as suffering and the existence and nature of evil. Antonio's life choices and identity will be shaped by the knowledge he receives from both sources of spiritual teaching.

Divine Justice: Punishment and Forgiveness

The novel explores Antonio's quest to find fairness and justice in the world. Antonio looks to divine justice for the fairness he thinks should be the signature of a loving god. Instead Antonio is confounded by what seems to him God's injustice. In Antonio's view the God of the Christians is just not fair. Antonio prays to this God. He asks this God why good people suffer and why sinners thrive; why good seems to be punished while evil seems to be rewarded. The Christian God is mute, offering no answer and no insight into how the divine interacts with the world. Ultimately, Antonio finds the Christian God to be unjust and capricious in His treatment of suffering humanity. This God is also totally noncommunicative in providing reasons for His seeming injustice. Antonio finds no knowledge, understanding, or solace in the Church.

However, Antonio does find compassion and forgiveness in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Antonio often asks her to intercede with the Christian God, imploring him to be merciful to sinners and forgive them their sins. Most often when Antonio prays it's to the Virgin, not to God. For him, she is the only forgiving figure in the Catholic faith.

The god of the realm of the supernatural and magic—the golden carp—is not vengeful and does not punish sin with seemingly meaningless suffering. For this reason Antonio views the golden carp as a more forgiving, fair, and just divinity—one he can comfortably believe in and accept. Yet Antonio questions the compassion of the golden carp when he's told he golden carp one day will kill all people in a flood. Antonio is dismayed. Is there any deity who is wholly forgiving and just?

Ultima is the other embodiment of supernatural magic. Her entire being is directed toward selflessly healing and helping people. Ultima opposes evil but treats all other people fairly, justly, and compassionately. The supernatural divine embodies compassion and justice, elements the Church seems to lack. Where the magical divine is fair and just in its mercy, the Christian divine is harsh and incomprehensible in its punishments and vengeance.

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