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Like Water for Chocolate | Study Guide

Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for Chocolate | Themes


Tradition versus Change

Throughout Like Water for Chocolate tradition is at war with change. Both can be sources of hope and strength, comfort and security. Each, however, can also be destructive.

One of the first traditions the reader is presented with is a family tradition. In the De la Garza family the youngest (or only) daughter must care for her mother until the parent dies, meaning that the unfortunate girl cannot hope for any kind of life of her own. Worse, the tradition makes no sense. As Tita herself wonders, what if the older daughter is the more capable caregiver? What if there is no daughter at all? Tita tentatively tries to present her opinion about the tradition, but she is shut down by Mama Elena, who says Tita has no opinion and no daughter of hers is going to question a tradition that has been in the family for generations. This family rule represents the worst kind of convention: one that must not be challenged, even though it is being kept for no reason other than it has "always" existed and because it is beneficial to the one imposing it. In this instance both Mama Elena and Rosaura benefit from the tradition, so both try to ensure it doesn't change. Elena manipulates Pedro into marrying Rosaura instead of Tita, effectively eliminating Tita's reason to defy the tradition, and Rosaura later tries to do the same with Esperanza. But as the story progresses, Tita does indeed rebel against the tradition, leaving her mother's home, having an illicit affair with Pedro that lasts for the rest of their lives, and teaching Esperanza how to be a strong, independent woman.

On the other hand traditions can be precious and meaningful and a source of great joy. They are how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next, as is the case with Morning Light's home medicinal remedies and the guidance the ghost of Nacha whispers in Tita's ear when it is time to deliver Roberto. Tradition can also be a means of sharing and communicating culture, as they are with the food Nacha, Chencha, and Tita lovingly prepare. Traditions guide people through critical life events, providing both a means of celebrating happy occasions and of comforting those who are dealing with tragedy.

And finally, traditions help people recall happy memories and times with family and friends. Good traditions like these are so critically important that Tita's sister, Gertrudis, thinks about how terrible it will someday be when Tita dies because the "family's past would die with her." The final pages of the novel are therefore hopeful because readers learn that the great-niece who is telling Tita's story has the cookbook and is already passing on family stories and traditions.

Tradition and the question of change go far beyond the personal in the novel, however. The backdrop of the Mexican Revolution reveals bits of the social and economic traditions that kept most of the Mexican population marginalized and impoverished for so long. These laws and traditions were put in place to take advantage of the country's working class while benefiting the wealthy landowners, the industrialists, and the governing entities. As a result those in power had no desire to eliminate those traditions. It would take strong leaders and outlaw bands of revolutionaries under people like Pancho Villa to force change and bring Mexico ahead into the modern age. However, the changes brought on by the war nearly destroyed the countryside for years and brought chaos to the government, causing many to label the revolutionaries as dangerous outlaws.

The disruptive nature of the war encouraged everyday citizens to begin questioning existing values and social structures as well. This was particularly true for women, whose traditional roles had been in the kitchen, the nursery, or the Church. Gertrudis becomes a symbol of women who began to rally against the tradition, claiming the right to be fully qualified individuals who could even go to war alongside their men. As with women who were joining movements around the world, change was not only desirable, for most it was inevitable.

Importance of Self-Knowledge

The phrase self-knowledge refers to understanding who one truly is: the capabilities, essential traits, feelings, goals, and motivations that make up an individual. In this novel some characters are certain of who they are. Others must discover their true selves, and still others remain relatively unenlightened individuals, content—or at least willing—to live according to the expectations of others and the rules of society. Finally there are individuals who, for one reason or another, bury their essential selves and take on another personality they feel better serves them.

John Brown is an example of someone who is entirely self-aware, a good man who knows where he came from, what he wants from life, and whom he wants to share it with. His self-knowledge and self-confidence probably come from Morning Light, his grandmother, who was a Kikapu Indian. Pedro, on the other hand, shows little self-awareness. He knows he wants Tita, the love of his life, but beyond that he seems clueless as to who he is or who he could aspire to be. Even Tita describes him as something of a coward and a monster of jealousy and selfishness. Pedro enters a loveless marriage without giving a thought to the wife he will be hurting by doing so. He tortures Tita with his presence, and eventually he in effect rapes her to express his passion for her.

It is the De la Garza family women, though, who represent almost the entire spectrum of the search for self-knowledge. Rosaura is at one extreme. She never questions who she is, or even seems to think about it. As the eldest daughter in the De la Garza family, she listens to her mother, follows the rules of the family, marries whom she is told, and dutifully bears children. As a reward she will someday inherit the ranch. Ironically, though, she doesn't realize she is almost completely unsuited for the role she accepts unquestioningly. Sisters Tita and Gertrudis have very different journeys. They are the characters who grow and change the most. Their growth, however, is triggered in two very different ways. They also represent both relatively easy transformation (Gertrudis) and lifelong inner struggle (Tita).

Gertrudis's evolution is more superficially dramatic than Tita's but far less difficult emotionally and mentally. Like her sisters Gertrudis was raised under Mama Elena's dictatorial rule. But she always seemed to have a fire in her the others lacked, perhaps because she had a different father. Also by being the middle daughter, she seems to have escaped some of the destructive impact of Mama Elena's dictatorship. She did not have to deal with the assumptions or expectations parents often have for their firstborn children and also was not predestined to have to care for her mother as Tita was. Gertrudis, therefore, may have never assumed she would have to do anything she didn't want to do. So when she eats Tita's quail in rose petal sauce, the effect on her is immediate: her inner self is unleashed without a long internal struggle or life-changing epiphany. She simply becomes who she is—a hot-blooded, independent woman who rides off naked with a soldier, literally stripped to her essential self.

But Gertrudis does eventually discover another side of herself, which would never have happened if she had remained at the ranch. She is a warrior and a natural leader, and she gains a commission in the Mexican army. She finds none of this unusual, saying proudly that she had "fought like mad on the field of battle" and earned the title of general. She is as confident as any man and has the respect of her troops. She wears pants and smokes yet loses none of her beauty or sexual force. She knows exactly who she is.

Tita's journey is much more challenging than her sister's. Nothing magical transforms her; her growth occurs almost entirely through the painful life experience with her mother. Luckily Tita had another "mother," the cook Nacha, who raised Tita while Elena was busy running the ranch. Almost by accident Tita was formed in an environment—the kitchen—that could allow her to express her real self in the most meaningful way possible.

Unfortunately, the other key elements needed to make Tita whole were to be a wife to Pedro and, more importantly, a mother. Yet she can have neither in her earthly life. Tita is forced to find substitutes by raising her sister's children and by expressing her emotions and sexuality through her cooking. One of her two key transformative moments comes from the death of little Roberto, a tragedy Tita blames on her mother.

Ironically Tita's breakdown after her nephew's early death allows her to rebuild herself under the gentle tutelage of John Brown. After months of his care she begins to resemble the woman she was meant to be, "vibrant and beautiful." John also teaches her she must combine the breath of the person she loves with her own passions in order to light the fire within her. Thanks to him Tita realizes what (and with whom) her future needs to be. In the end she does not take John to be her husband, but even that speaks to a new strength within her and a willingness to make her own decisions. John is the "right" choice but not whom she wants. She wants Pedro, and she wants to raise Esperanza, and she ultimately defies convention to get both of her heart's desires however she can.

Ultimately it is Mama Elena herself who represents both self-awareness and total self-denial. Elena was originally a woman of great passion, deeply in love with José Treviño, her mulatto lover. Although she did not stand up to her parents when they refused to allow her to marry him, she did not stop seeing him, even after she was married. At times she seems to forget her younger self, at one point saying "I've never needed a man for anything" and "men aren't that important in this life." But what is clear is after her husband died Elena immediately became aware of the part of herself that was a strong, capable woman in her day-to-day existence.

Importance of Love

Like Water for Chocolate is, at its heart, a tale of the enduring love between Pedro and Tita. But as their 22-year affair unfolds, other forms of love take center stage. Sometimes this love is given freely and unselfishly, and sometimes it is withheld or denied, with devastating results. In all cases though, the expression of love shows how powerful and essential an emotion love is.

The most innocent and selfless type of love shown in the novel is that of the nurturer. It is represented in its purest form through the character of Nacha and later by Morning Light. These two women show almost no concern for themselves, putting all of their energies into feeding, comforting, and caring for others—even after they themselves have died. John Brown, too, is a nurturer, whose "large, loving hands" rescue Tita from horror and who nurses her back to health. Like the love shown by Nacha, his love is selfless. Despite his love for Tita he is able to let her go so she can experience the passion she requires to "light the matches within her." Tita, herself, also represents this form of love. As head cook she feeds the entire ranch. More importantly, though, she is able to magically produce milk to feed little Roberto when her own sister cannot, keeping the little boy alive. When Roberto is taken from her, he dies. Even Mama Elena suffers when she is unable to accept Tita's nurturing care after her accident. The self-willed lack of Tita's nurturing leads to her death.

At the other end of the spectrum is passionate, lustful, sexually charged love. Gertrudis radiates this kind of love, at first indiscriminately but then focused exclusively on her general, Juan, who was her first man. This is also the love Pedro and Tita feel for each other, almost from the moment they meet. It is the kind of love John Brown describes, the lighting of the metaphorical matches within an individual. It is also a love that exists without reason, as evidenced by the fact that Tita loves Pedro despite his main character traits that often seem to be cowardice, selfishness, and jealousy. Their passion overwhelms common sense, but they are ecstatically happy when it does.

This may be why another kind of love, the quiet kind John and Tita feel for each other, may be the hardest type to make succeed. It is based on both deep affection for the other person and admiration for that person's qualities. John sees Tita as beautiful, skilled, and intelligent. She sees him as everything that is good: kind, nurturing, and gentle. As John says, he could make her happy, and they may indeed have had a loving, successful marriage. But when Tita is faced with a choice between this quiet love and the passion she feels for Pedro, she chooses passion. On the other hand Chencha seems to have this calmer love for her childhood sweetheart, Jesús, and they are perfectly content. When they return to the ranch together, it is with the plan of "starting a new life and having lots of children." They also plan to be very happy "for ever and ever." Having suffered physically but not having experienced the insane passion Tita and Gertrudis have felt, Chencha does not feel its lack.

The power of love is also proven by what happens when it is denied. Nacha, Mama Elena, and Tita all experience the agony of a love cut off from them. Nacha dies clutching a picture of her fiancé. Elena sobs uncontrollably after eating the rose petal sauce as she remembers her Juan, who had died before they could run off together. And Tita, of course, suffers from the moment Pedro marries Rosaura. But the denial of other types of love can be equally devastating. Tita seeks the love and approval of her mother, Elena, for most of her life, but it is never given to her and for some reason is clearly never felt by Elena. The lack of maternal love comes close to destroying her. And the lack of Tita's nurturing literally does kill Rosaura's baby, Roberto.

Nature of Truth

Much of the conflict in the novel centers on Tita trying to decide what is right and wrong and how to resolve the emotional and mental quandaries she finds herself in. Gertrudis sheds some light on this problem when she tells Tita "the simple truth is that the truth does not exist." By this she means truth depends on one's point of view and there can be many correct solutions to a problem.

Gertrudis uses Tita's own situation to illustrate this concept. There is indeed the truth that Tita and Pedro have betrayed Rosaura by continuing to love each other and by sleeping together. But Gertrudis points out another truth is that Rosaura knew she was marrying the love of Tita's life and did so anyway. She also says the love between Pedro and Tita is "one of the truest loves" she's ever seen. This truth, she implies, trumps the alternative one that John Brown would make an excellent husband and Tita and he would be happy together.

Other multiple truths are evidenced throughout the novel as well. Mama Elena, for example, cannot simply be dismissed as a cold, overbearing woman. That is one truth, but she is also a woman who has known great loss and sorrow and who dealt with it in the only way she felt she could, though her decisions may have warped her along the way. She also shatters the image of the dutiful wife and helpless, submissive woman. Her strength in running the ranch, her courage in standing up to the troops that appear at her doorway, and her fearless approach to life in general show there is much to admire about her. She even is able to change her prejudices, deciding after her encounter with the revolutionaries that they might not all be the "heartless ruffians" she had imagined them to be. If life had treated her a little differently and she had been allowed to follow her heart, she might have become a very different woman.

The novel also shows there are many truths when it comes to society and family. The traditional paternalistic social structure of Mexico had remained unchallenged for years. But Mama Elena and Gertrudis, and even Tita as a young woman, reveal another truth—the women are as capable of being in charge as men. Within the family there is the truth that carrying on certain traditions can be a valuable way of preserving memories and passing on knowledge. But another truth is that an unexamined tradition, such as the youngest daughter as caretaker rule, can be destructive.

Finally, there are the many truths of the Mexican Revolution also echoed in the novel. From the viewpoint of rebels like Gertrudis and Juan the revolution was necessary as a means to right great wrongs and provide a more just social structure. From the point of view of landowners like Mama Elena, the war was bringing chaos to a system that, from their perspective, had worked for generations. And from the point of view of the common people, who were unaware of the politics, the war was just something that prevented them from getting the necessities they needed, diverted their own meager resources to the fighting troops, and resulted in chaos and stray bullets destroying the peace of the town and sometimes resulting in rape and murder. All of these truths were correct depending on the point of view, which means in both politics and in life finding a solution to a complex problem in human terms can be almost overwhelming.

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