Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Like Water for Chocolate is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. Each chapter is preceded by a recipe that corresponds to the action that follows. The structure of the novel suggests the tradition of women’s magazines that came into vogue during the mid-nineteenth century. These periodicals included, like Esquivel’s novel, recipes, home remedies, and, often, sentimental novels in monthly installments.
The novel takes place on a ranch in northern Mexico at the time of the Revolution. Just as the country is in a state of flux, the family must also adapt to changing times. Tita is in love with Pedro, but because she cannot be married, Pedro marries her sister, Rosaura. When Rosaura is unable to care for her newborn son, Roberto, Tita assumes all the caretaking responsibilities for the child. As the attraction between Tita and Pedro becomes increasingly evident, however, Mamá Elena orders Pedro and Rosaura to move to San Antonio. Separated from his aunt, the child dies, and Tita suffers an emotional crisis. The family doctor, John Brown, is summoned to take the girl to an asylum. Because he is in love with Tita, however, rather than complying with her mother’s request, he brings her to live with him, and she eventually recovers.
Meanwhile, the ranch has been caught in revolutionary crossfire, leaving Mamá Elena paralyzed. Tita returns home to care for her mother, but Elena remains as dictatorial as ever...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Despite the book’s popularity with the reading public, initial critical reaction to Like Water for Chocolate has tended to dismiss the work as, at best, a poor imitation of the male canon. Limited by conventional reading expectations, such criticism seemingly fails to admit the possibility that Esquivel’s appropriation of past texts, both from the male canon and from popular literature, indicates anything more than a lack of originality. A careful examination of the text reveals that Esquivel has replicated neither the male canon nor popular literature. In fact, underlying the appearance of conventionalism and traditional gender roles is a subtle form of parodic inversion that serves not only to undermine the canon but also to redirect its focus to an aesthetic project in which binary oppositions of “high art” and popular literature are overturned.
The use of traditional resources becomes revolutionary when it is reorganized from the vantage point of women or any other marginalized group. The fact that Esquivel has chosen discourses not merely outside the canon but specifically associated with women’s values and experiences allows her to set forth an alternative to the hegemonic standard, based upon real women’s lives. Like Water for Chocolate portrays women and men as individuals, not as allegorical others. Real women, the novel demonstrates, may have “masculine” attributes such as strength and courage, just as real men...
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The Mexican Revolution
Although Mexico had been independent from Spain since the early nineteenth century, their governments were continually beset by internal and external conflicts. In the early part of the twentieth century, revolution tore the country apart. In November 1910, liberal leader Francisco Madero led a successful revolt against Mexican President Porfirio Diaz after having lost a rigged election. Diaz soon resigned and Madero replaced him as president in November 1911. Considered ineffectual by both conservatives and liberals, Madero was soon overthrown and executed by his general, Victoriano Huerta. Soon after the tyrannical Huerta became president, his oppressive regime came under attack. Venustiano Carranza, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and Emiliano Zapata led revolts against the government. In 1914 Carranza became president as civil war erupted. By the end of 1915, the war ended, but Villa and Zapata continued to oppose the new government and maintained rebel groups for several years.
A Woman's Place
Richard Corliss, in his Time review of Like Water for Chocolate, writes that "Laura Esquivel brought Gabriel Garcia Marquez's brand of magic realism into the kitchen and the bedroom, the Latin woman's traditional castle and dungeon." Traditionally, a Latin woman's place is in the home. In the patriarchal society of the early part of the twentieth century, Mexican women were expected to serve their fathers and...
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Point of View
In fiction, the point of view is the perspective from which the story is presented The unique point of view in Like Water for Chocolate helps convey the significance of the narrative. Esperanza, Tita De la Garza's niece, finds her aunt's cookbook in the ruins of the De la Garza ranch. As she recreates the recipes in her own home, she passes down the family stories to her daughter. Her daughter becomes the novel's narrator as she incorporates her great-aunt's recipes, remedies, and experiences into one book. She justifies her unique narrative when she explains that Tita "will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes."
The turbulent age of rebellion in Mexico provides an appropriate setting for the novel's focus on tyranny and resistance. Soldiers, bandits, and rebels are regularly mentioned in the novel, and often make appearances important to the narrative. It is a bandit's attack, for instance, that compels Tita's return home after her mother has disowned her. As Pancho Villa's revolutionary forces clash with the oppressive Mexican regime, Tita wages her own battle against her mother's dictates.
The narrative structure, or form, of the novel intersperses Tita's story with the recipes and remedies that figure so prominently in her life. By placing an actual recipe at the beginning of each chapter, the author is reinforcing the importance of food...
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The form of Like Water for Chocolate, spelled out in its subtitle, "A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies," creates a hybrid of typically female texts—the cookbook, the personal diary, the romance, the how-to manual—that allows for maximum flexibility on the part of the narrator. The book reads like the sort of conversation between friends or family that might take place around the kitchen table, filled with free associations, abrupt shifts in time or place, and changes in mode from narrative to exposition. The recipes are personal in tone, the sort that might be spoken aloud while working. For example, the book opens with, "Take care to chop the onion fine. To keep from crying when you chop it (which is so annoying), I suggest you place a little bit on your head . . . ." The voice goes on to say that "once the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know, you just can't stop." But the tears in this book come from more than onions, and the recipe provides the perfect segue into the tears Tita shed when she was born and on to the many tears she shed in her life, both of joy and sorrow. The frame of the cookbook with the story in installments also provides the perfect authenticating device for the narrator, Tita's grandniece, who is reconstructing her story for us some fifty years later on the basis of the surviving cookbook/diary, which we're told Tita began the day Gertrudis ran away. This text is supplemented by...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
With Like Water for Chocolate so heavily steeped in the literature and experience of women, men will be at something of a disadvantage in discussions of this book. Much of the subtext is encoded with messages that will be obvious to women but sometimes elusive to men.
1. In what ways is Like Water for Chocolate typical of popular love stories you have read? In what ways does it go beyond these expectations?
2. Like Water for Chocolate has been summed up by one critic as "Love is Food." Explore the accuracy and relevance of this statement in understanding the book. Do you agree, from your own experience, that love is food? Is the inverse also true—that food is love?
3. Like Water for Chocolate is, among other things, a recipe book. Esquivel maintains that all recipes included are real recipes, drawn from all regions of Mexico. What is the role of the recipes in the overall scheme of the book? What qualities of recipes make them the perfect medium around which to shape her story? On the simplest level recipes denote directions for cooking, but the implications of the word reach into many other areas of life. Consider as many possible applications as you can in evaluating the role played by recipes.
4. One message of the book is to follow one's desires, whatever the cost. The cost in this instance is great, and the prize, Pedro, seems so unworthy an object of desire. Explore Esquivel's...
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Tita, Laura Esquivel's main character in Like Water for Chocolate, is a gifted cook, a generous caregiver, and a passionate lover, but the tyranny of tradition and obligation placed upon her by her autocratic mother, Mama Elena, virtually destroys her hopes for happiness. Her dilemma is not unique to the northern Mexican ranch where she spends all her days, however, but evokes the struggles of women everywhere to balance obligations of family and tradition with their own need to make satisfying choices. Sexual stereotypes, family obligations, and the need for personal space are all explored in this novel set in turn-of-the-century Mexico. The Mexican Revolution of 1910, with its atmosphere of turmoil, serves as the perfect backdrop for the questioning of society's rules on both personal and political levels.
Mama Elena's sentence upon Tita as youngest daughter—that she may not marry and must take care of her mother until the day she dies—works beautifully to intensify the boundaries normally placed on women by obligation and tradition. In a 1993 interview, Esquivel admits to having invented this tradition for her book, thus enhancing for dramatic effect Tita's powerlessness to change her life, but Tita's dilemma occurs within the confines of a society in which sex is considered only for procreation; where men are encouraged to be machismo while women are to be marianismo, or emulating the Virgin Mary, as long-suffering, pure,...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the rebellion against the Mexican government led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Explain how this rebellion provides an effective backdrop for the tensions in the De la Garza family.
Explore Freud's psychological theory on the process of sublimation. Write an essay determining whether or not it can be applied to any situations in the novel. Use examples from the text.
Investigate the term "magic realism." Read another work that employs this technique and compare it to Like Water for Chocolate.
Research the position of women in Mexican society in the early part of the twentieth century. How can your findings help define the novel's female characters?
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Like Water for Chocolate suggests a variety of precedents, some seriously and some ironically. One form Esquivel borrows is the nineteenth-century Mexican women's magazine, called a "calendar for young ladies." In these publications, fiction appeared in monthly installments, interspersed with recipes, home remedies, dressmaking patterns, short poems, moral advice, home decorating hints, and upcoming events. These stories were sentimental, the characters stereotypical, the plots melodramatic. This fiction was looked down upon by the literary establishment, but was very important to its women readers, who enjoyed this writing for women by women which answered the need for creativity and love in their lives. The model is perfect for Esquivel, who can use the form to question its assumptions of how a proper middleclass woman should behave. This tradition of the woman's narrative, centering around domestic activities, is not, of course, limited to Mexico. A recent book that draws on such women's discourse is Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt (1991), with which Like Water for Chocolate has been compared.
Esquivel follows a long and rich line of Latin American women writers. Myriam Jehensen traces this heritage in her 1995 book, calling attention to "a feminine tradition in Latin America that focuses on the formation of the woman's voice as a collective as well as an individual subject." She notes that Latin American women are, in...
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Esquivel's second novel, The Law of Love (1996; see separate entry), revisits and revises the theme which permeates Like Water for Chocolate. Love is the prime mover of the universe in both books, though the later book transcends human love in favor of Divine Love. In that book, an urban technological future replaces a rural turn-of-the-century past, and science fiction stands in for magical realism. The past is the key to one's essential self in both, though characters in Esquivel's twenty-third century must sort back through up to 14,000 reincarnations in reconstructing their past selves. Memory is prompted by sensual stimuli in both novels, with smell as the primary sense in Like Water for Chocolate and sound (especially music) in The Law of Love, but what is an involuntary and magical process in the earlier narrative becomes a deliberate quest in the later book. Everyone's destiny has been pre-set, and the concept of choice, so important in Like Water for Chocolate, becomes irrelevant. In all, the natural charm and humanity of Esquivel's widely acclaimed first novel gives way in her second to a strained and somewhat pedantic manifesto of the power of Love with a capital L.
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After publishing Like Water for Chocolate in Mexico in 1989, Esquivel wrote a screenplay based on the novel, which was subsequently produced and directed by her husband, Alfonso Alau, distributed in Mexico by Arau Films International, and then, with subtitles, by Miramax in the United States. Esquivel had been a screenwriter first, before ever writing a novel, and so the usual sequence of book first, film second, was somewhat altered in this instance. Esquivel herself admits that to a certain extent, from the start the book was written through a camera's eye. "I see an image and then I explain it," she says. Her method of composition is very visual. So in a sense, the text and the visual representation were created simultaneously.
Even so, the translation to another medium did not come without a price. The multilayers of the book are flattened into a single unrelenting story line in the film. Mama Elena becomes one-dimensional. Subtlety is lost. Camera angles are unable to capture the essence of what is happening so well as written metaphors and imagination can. The film adds voiceover—in the form of Tita's grand niece speaking directly into the camera some of the key words and images from the text—in an attempt to regain what has been lost, but it is not the same. Still, Esquivel's tale of frustrated passion was wildly successful both in film and print. The film, in fact, grossed more than any other Latin American film released in the United...
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Based on Esquivel's own screenplay, Like Water for Chocolate was adapted as a film in Spanish by Alfonso Arau, starring Lumi Cavazos, Regina Torne, and Marco Leonardi, Arau Films, 1992; with English subtitles, New Republic, 1993.
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What Do I Read Next?
Esquivel's second novel, 1996's The Law of Love, opens with the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, the future site of Mexico City. Many centuries later the reincarnated actors of this earlier drama confront each other as an astroanalyst, her missing soulmate, and a planetary presidential candidate.
The House of the Spirits (1982) by Chilean Isabel Allende is a magical story about a Latin American family that survives internal and external pressures.
Whitney Otto's 1991 novel, How to Make an American Quilt, focuses on women sharing the stories of their lives as they sit together and sew a quilt.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, written by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1967, is considered the classic example of magic realism. This novel explores several generations of a Latin American family set against the age of revolution.
The recipes in Ntozake Shange's 1982 novel, Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, become part of the plot which focuses on the lives of three sisters.
Shirlene Ann Soto's 1990 study, Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman: Her Participation in Revolution and Struggle for Equality, 1910-1940, provides a good look at the varied roles of Mexican women during the time period of the novel.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Marialisa Calta, "The Art of the Novel as Cookbook," in the New York Times Book Review, February 17, 1993.
Richard Corliss, review of Like Water for Chocolate, in Time, Vol. 141, No. 14, April 5,1993, p. 61.
Maria Elena de Valdes, "Verbal and Visual Representation of Women 'Like Water for Chocolate,'" in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 78-82.
Barbara Hoffert, review of The Law of Love, in Library Journal, July, 1996, p 156.
Mansa Januzzi, review of Like Water for Chocolate, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp 245-46.
Molly O'Neill, "At Dinner with Laura Esquivel: Sensing the Spirit in All Things, Seen and Unseen," in the New York Times, March 31, 1993, pp. Cl, C8.
Lilian Pizzichim, review of The Law of Love, in Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 1996, p 23.
James Polk, review of Like Water for Chocolate, in Tribune Books (Chicago), October 8, 1992, p. 8.
Karen Stabiner, review of Like Water for Chocolate, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 1,1992, p. 6.
Han Stavans, review of Like Water for Chocolate, in Nation, Vol. 256, No. 23, June 14, 1993, p. 846.
Victor Zamudio-Taylor and Inma Gulu, "Criss-Crossing Texts Reading Images in...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Curtin, Deane W., and Lisa M. Heldke, eds. Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. In the introduction to this collection of essays, Curtin maintains that cooking is an activity in which practice is more important than theory, and this practice hinges on physical experience and contextual knowledge. Heidke terms this approach “bodily knowledge” because it is a kind of perception that transcends the subject/object dichotomy and admits an interrelationship between human subjects and food.
Dobrian, Susan Lucas. “Romancing the Cook: Parodic Consumption of Popular Romance Myths in Como agua para chocolate.” Latin American Review 24 (July-December, 1996): 56-66. Dobrian argues that Esquivel parodies many genres in her novel, including the romance novel and its popular myths. Instead of the female character finding herself through submission to the male, she gains her sense of identity by rebelling against her mother. Dobrian cites one of the primary characters who becomes a female warrior in the Mexican Revolution as an example of the “new woman” in Latino literature.
Esquivel, Laura. “Revolucion Interior al Exterior: An Interview with Laura Esquivel.” Interview by Claudia Loewenstein. Southwest Review 79 (Autumn, 1994): 592-607. In this interview...
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