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Like Water for Chocolate | Study Guide

Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for Chocolate | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Born in a Kitchen

Like Water for Chocolate begins with a recipe, one of those left in a cookbook compiled by Tita De la Garza, the novel's main protagonist. The story itself is told by Tita's great-niece. She begins with preparations for a recipe, and then quickly begins to tell Tita's story, which takes place on a ranch in Northern Mexico, sometime during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20.

Tita De la Garza comes into the world on a tide of her own tears, crying even in her mother's womb from the smell of onions being chopped. The narrator speculates she may also have been crying "because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage." Tita's father, Juan De la Garza, dies two days after her birth, and her mother, Elena, takes over the running of the ranch. Tita is left in the care of the ranch's cook, the kind and nurturing Nacha. The situation is ideal for the little girl because "thanks to her unusual birth, Tita felt a deep love for the kitchen" and, for her, "the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food." She thinks of the kitchen as her "realm" and her "domain," and she develops a mystical relationship with food.

Unfortunately, the kitchen is perhaps the only place where Tita does have any amount of control. Her future has already been determined thanks to a long-standing family tradition requiring the youngest daughter in a family to care for her mother until death. Mama Elena never fails to remind Tita of this, forbidding her to have opinions and constantly criticizing and demeaning the girl in an effort to create for herself the perfect caretaker.

A Forbidden Love

Tita's two sisters are quite different from her. Rosaura, the oldest, is the most traditional of the three, ready to move unquestioningly into the role society has set out for her. But she is unimaginative and somewhat timid and does not have any of Tita's domestic skills. Gertrudis, the second daughter, has an adventurous, independent spirit and a soul that responds to music and rhythm. She is untroubled by tradition. For a time the three grow up together with little conflict. But then Tita falls in love with Pedro, the son of a neighboring landowner, and everything falls apart.

Mama Elena is determined that her youngest daughter respect the family tradition, and she refuses to let Pedro ask for Tita's hand in marriage. Instead she offers him Rosaura, and the boy agrees to the match in order to remain close to the true love of his life, Tita. But Tita is devastated and feels a chill that will remain with her for most of her life. To provide herself with warmth and comfort, she continues to work on the wedding bedspread she had begun when Pedro first told her of his love. But even when she throws it over herself, the chill remains.

At the wedding of Pedro and Rosaura, Tita's mystical connection with food first reveals itself. When she prepares the cake for the wedding, her tears fall into the batter and the icing. During the reception everyone who eats the cake is overcome with longing and thoughts of lost love. The longing becomes so intense that the guests all become violently ill. Rosaura slips in the resulting mess and is swept away on a flood of vomit. Even Nacha succumbs to the magic and dies that night, clutching a picture of her late fiancé, whom she, too, had been forbidden to marry. Mama Elena is certain Tita poisoned the cake and beats her so badly the girl is bedridden for weeks.

Joy, Sorrow, and Rebellion

A year passes. Mama Elena makes Tita cook in Nacha's place but otherwise continues to do everything she can to keep the girl submissive and away from Pedro. The only interaction the two lovers have is through the medium of food: Tita cooks marvelous dishes, and Pedro is able to compliment her. At one point Pedro brings Tita roses to congratulate her on her promotion, but Elena is furious and sends him off to be with his wife. Tita cannot bear to throw the roses away, though, and cooks them into a dish called Quail in Rose Petal sauce. During dinner that night Tita's passion for Pedro somehow reaches him through the medium of her sister Gertrudis, who becomes so overwhelmed with sexual urgency after eating the quail she must run to the outdoor shower to cool herself off. The heat from her body ignites the wooden shower stall, and she runs naked into the field where she is caught up by a rebel leader, Juan Alejandrez, who felt her heat from miles away. They make love for the first time on the back of the galloping horse and disappear from the ranch.

Months pass, and Rosaura goes into labor with her first child. Mama Elena and Chencha, the ranch maid, are in town, and Pedro leaves to get Dr. John Brown. None of them are able to return, caught in the chaos caused by federal troops that have overrun the nearby town. Only Tita is at the ranch to deliver her nephew, Roberto. She does an expert job thanks to the spirit of Nacha whispering directions in her ear. Tita is immediately filled with an overwhelming love for the baby, and Dr. John Brown is just as smitten by the beautiful and capable Tita.

After the birth Rosaura is unable to nurse or care for the child. A wet nurse is found but then is killed in town by a stray rebel bullet. Holding Roberto to her breast to comfort him, Tita suddenly finds herself able to lactate. She secretly nurses Roberto, and no one but Pedro is aware of why Roberto is thriving. In this way the three become a small, secret family. Their happiness does not last long. Sensing the growing closeness between Tita and Pedro, Mama Elena sends Rosaura, Pedro, and the baby to live in San Antonio, just across the border.

Weeks later the family receives heartbreaking news. Little Roberto has died from lack of nourishment. Mama Elena receives the news with little emotion, but Tita goes wild, accusing Elena of causing the child's death. Elena strikes Tita, breaking her nose, and Tita suffers a complete mental collapse. She climbs into the ranch's dovecote and tries to feed a dead baby pigeon. Mama Elena calls for Dr. Brown to take Tita to an asylum, but instead he brings her home, where he lives with his son Alex and a housekeeper. He is determined to make her well again.

A Box of Matches

For weeks Tita does not speak. She spends her time in her room, crocheting her bedspread. She is finally drawn out by an unusual aroma, and in a small room she discovers an old woman who reminds her of Nacha. The woman is working with herbs, and Tita keeps returning to visit her. Eventually the image of the old woman fades, and Tita realizes she has actually been visiting John Brown in his lab. He tells her that the room once belonged to his grandmother, a Native American woman named Morning Light, who used natural remedies to cure illnesses and became known as a great healer. John is trying to combine her knowledge with modern methods in order to create medicines that will be stronger than both.

He also tells Tita of Morning Light's belief that everyone has something like a box of matches inside them. Lighting the matches requires each person to discover the things in life they are passionate about and combine it with the breath of someone they love. He cautions her, however, that if the flame burns too hot, it opens a tunnel to the "other side" from which all people come, and to which they want to return. Eventually Tita responds to his tender care and begins to heal. She also realizes that John is in love with her, and he tells her he plans to ask her to marry him one day.

A few months later a disaster hits the De la Garza family. A group of bandits attack the ranch, rape Chencha, and beat Elena into unconsciousness. Elena is left paralyzed. Chencha is sent to live in town to recover from her own trauma, and Tita returns home to care for Elena. Even in this situation Elena is humiliated by the need to depend on her daughter and is unable to accept what Tita is offering. Everything Tita serves tastes bitter to Elena, who becomes convinced her daughter is trying to poison her. She begins taking ipecac syrup to induce vomiting and dies weeks later after having denied herself Tita's nourishment. As Tita prepares for the funeral, she comes across a box of letters that her mother had hidden. They are from a man named José Treviño. Tita realizes this was her mother's childhood sweetheart, a mulatto of mixed black and white ancestry whom her parents refused to let her marry. To Tita's shock she finds out he was also Gertrudis's father. For the first time Tita feels sorrow, realizing that the tragedy of lost love was something she and her mother had shared.

The Rekindling of Passion

Rosaura and Pedro return for the funeral, and Rosaura claims the ranch, which Elena has left to her. Rosaura is pregnant again and gives birth to a daughter, Esperanza. The birth is difficult, and once again Rosaura becomes an invalid and is unable to nurse. This time, though, Tita does not feed the child, determined not to love it as she had loved Roberto. But she can't help adoring her niece and becomes determined to save her from a life as Rosaura's caretaker. Chencha, too, returns to the ranch, along with her new husband, Jesús, who was also her childhood sweetheart. Dr. Brown, in the meantime, has finally proposed to Tita. She accepts, knowing he is a good man and she loves him. She thinks someday she may even love him as much as she still loves Pedro.

John leaves the ranch to bring back his only living relative, Aunt Mary, for the wedding. Pedro takes advantage of the situation to corner Tita and have sex with her, an act of passionate aggression to which she willingly submits. Their lovemaking in the "dark room" that was once Mama Elena's bathhouse sends off fireworks in the sky. Chencha and Rosaura see the glow and decide it is the ghost of Mama Elena, come back to haunt all of them. But Tita soon is confronted by something worse: she realizes she is pregnant. The ghost of Mama Elena appears to curse her and her unborn child.

Tita realizes she will have to break off her engagement to John Brown. As she struggles with her overwhelming guilt over what she has done and the hurt she will cause people, her sister Gertrudis returns to the ranch during the celebration of the Three Kings. She is now the general of a troop of revolutionaries. Gertrudis comforts Tita, telling her there are many truths in the world. One of those truths, she says, is Pedro and Tita's love is real. She urges Tita to tell Pedro the truth. Pedro wants to run away with Tita, but they both realize the impossibility of this solution. Still Pedro is overcome with love and drunkenly serenades Tita from beneath her window. The ghost of Mama Elena appears again, and Tita screams at her mother to leave her in peace. Tita's pregnant stomach suddenly deflates: it was a phantom pregnancy or delayed menstruation, a manifestation of her guilt. When Tita finally stands up to her mother, both the guilt and the pregnancy vanish. Mama Elena, though, is not quite through. Her ghost compresses into a fireball and flies out the window, burning Pedro. Rosaura rushes to him, but Pedro calls out for Tita, who takes his hand. Rosaura, embarrassed that her neighbors have seen the relationship between her husband and sister, locks herself in her bedroom for a week.

Tita nurses Pedro back to health. When Rosaura finally comes out, she has lost 65 pounds. She tells Tita she will never give up being Pedro's wife because she wants the social prestige of marriage and wants Esperanza raised in that holy context. But she no longer has any interest in Pedro physically and says he can satisfy his desires with Tita or any other "loose woman" of his choosing. But Esperanza is no longer Tita's to raise, and if any evidence of impropriety reaches their neighbors Rosaura will take her vengeance on them both. John Brown returns, and Tita tells him why she can no longer marry him. He listens but says he still loves her and wants to marry her.

A Joyous Wedding

The story now jumps ahead nearly 20 years. A wedding is being celebrated: the wedding of Esperanza and John Brown's son Alex. Despite John's offer of marriage, Tita has remained on the ranch. She, Pedro, and Rosaura eventually worked out an arrangement that allowed them all to coexist in peace. Pedro and Rosaura would remain married, but he and Tita could secretly meet, and all three would share in the upbringing of Esperanza. Due to her mother's disinterest, Esperanza spent much of her time in the kitchen, where Tita could provide the child "with a different sort of knowledge than her mother was teaching her." Tita and Pedro also made sure the girl was sent to school, and Esperanza has grown up to be an intelligent, capable, and confident young woman.

This, of course, is what caused Alex Brown to fall in love with her. When the two announced their intention to marry, however, Rosaura screamed that the domestic agreement had been broken and insists Esperanza remain single in order to care for her. This results in a violent, ongoing argument among Tita, Pedro, and Rosaura. It ends when Rosaura dies a few weeks later, sick from acute indigestion.

A year later, after a period of mourning, Alex and Esperanza marry. John attends, happy his son has married a girl so like Tita, and Gertrudis returns with her general, who is now her husband. At the wedding the guests eat Tita's special chiles in walnut sauce and become overwhelmed with the need for sex. They all run off to take care of their urges, and for the first time Tita and Pedro are left entirely alone on the ranch. Without the oppressive presence of Rosaura or the ghost of Mama Elena, they are free to make love as they never have before.

They go to their usual meeting place, now lit with hundreds of candles ignited by the loving ghost of Nacha. Their passion is so intense it opens the tunnel to the "other side" John had once warned Tita about. Pedro enters it in his moment of ecstasy, but Tita pulls back, still wanting to live in the real world with her lover. When she realizes Pedro is gone, though, she is determined to follow him. She eats the candles John had given her, thinking of every joyous moment she has shared with Pedro. The tunnel reopens, and Pedro is waiting for her. Their passion sets the ranch on fire, and it burns for a week. When Esperanza and Alex return from their honeymoon, all that is left is a book of recipes Esperanza realizes is actually the story of a great love. Esperanza keeps the book and eventually leaves it to her daughter, the narrator of the story, whose words conclude the book.

Like Water for Chocolate Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Tita and Pedro are forbidden to marry by Mama Elena.

Rising Action

2 Pedro marries Tita's sister Rosaura to remain near her.

3 Pedro's son Roberto is born. Tita becomes his wet nurse.

4 Elena sends the family away. Roberto dies of malnutrition.

5 Tita blames her mother and has a breakdown.

6 Tita is nursed back to health by Dr. John Brown.

7 Elena dies; Pedro and Rosaura return to the ranch.

8 Pedro and Rosaura's daughter Esperanza is born.


9 Tita and Pedro become lovers. Tita casts off her guilt.

Falling Action

10 Tita, Pedro, and Rosaura agree to raise Esperanza together.

11 Rosaura dies, and Esperanza marries Alex Brown.


12 Tita and Pedro's passion carries them into the afterlife.

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