Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As might be expected in a novel based on the creation of deliberate fictional artifice, the themes and meanings of A Change of Skin are elaborately stylized and, like the novel’s characters, its themes frequently split into a number of complementary doubles. Yet the most consistently developed theme equates the novel’s action with a stylized re-creation of the Quetzalcoatl myth that was at the heart of pre-Columbian Mexican religion and philosophy. In pre-Columbian thought Quetzalcoatl represented the reconciliation of opposites, the union born of opposed dualities. This union was graphically represented in his chief emblem, the Plumed Serpent. In Aztec lore the serpent was associated with matter and the earthly realm while the bird denoted the opposite realm of heaven and the spirit. As God-King of the fabulous city of Tollan, Quetzalcoatl incarnated and reconciled these warring opposites. Quetzalcoatl taught his subjects the secrets of growing maize and the arts of weaving, and of working precious gold and feathers. He taught man the sacred calendar and the rites associated with its observance. He was the giver of all art and culture, and his kingdom in Tollan became idealized in later Aztec thought as a sort of indigenous Eden. Yet Quetzalcoatl was ultimately defeated by his dark double Tezcatlipoca, who caused him to succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Overcome by remorse, the God-King burned himself in sacrificial flames and was reborn as the Morning Star, the unified, pure spirit triumphant.

Many elements in the initial pages of A Change of Skin allude directly and indirectly to the myth of Quetzalcoatl and establish this myth as the work’s central motif. The very fact that the novel’s opening scene is in Cholula implicitly provides a background of Quetzalcoatl’s lore, because pre-Columbian Cholula was primarily a ceremonial center dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, and the pyramid complex there terminated in a single great platform erected in his honor. The conquest of Cholula undermined the Mexicans’ belief in Quetzalcoatl’s power to deliver them from the conquistadores and contributed to the climate of terror and paralysis that later enabled the Spaniards to...

(The entire section is 902 words.)