Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 and dies soon after from a prolonged attack of vomiting. After Elena’s death, Pedro and Rosaura return to the ranch with a second child, Esperanza. Although Rosaura insists upon preparing her only daughter to be her caretaker, Tita teaches Esperanza the secrets of the kitchen. It is during this period that Pedro and Tita consummate their love and Tita suspects she may be pregnant. No sooner does this prove to be a false alarm than Pedro, attacked by the ghost of Mamá Elena, is seriously burned by a kerosene lamp. In the final chapter, the action of the novel shifts to several years later. Rosaura has died and her daughter, Esperanza, is marrying Alex, the son of John Brown. After the wedding guests have left, Pedro and Tita give full rein to their pleasure for the first time. Pedro dies at the moment of climax, and to join him, Tita must rekindle the flame of passion. To do so, she swallows matches, and their bodies are so inflamed at the moment of her death that the entire ranch burns. When Esperanza returns from her honeymoon, she recovers Tita’s recipe book, which her daughter, the narrator of the novel, inherits upon her death.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 may show “feminine” sides. In the canon, male voice and vision are often privileged as the source of power. Humorously deconstructing this gaze and proclaiming women as a source of energy in their own right causes such patriarchal binary schemes to be undermined and an alternate order to be posited. While reaffirming the traditional roles of women, Esquivel asserts their value with a project based on—but not replicating—such roles. When the borders between canonized and popular literatures, between oral and written discourses, are dissolved, the hierarchy governing such distinctions is subverted as well.

Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

The Mexican Revolution
Although Mexico had been independent from Spain since the early nineteenth century, their governments...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Point of View
In fiction, the point of view is the perspective from which the story is presented The unique point of view in...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The form of Like Water for Chocolate, spelled out in its subtitle, "A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home...

(The entire section is 1105 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

With Like Water for Chocolate so heavily steeped in the literature and experience of women, men will be at something of a disadvantage...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tita, Laura Esquivel's main character in Like Water for Chocolate, is a gifted cook, a generous caregiver, and a passionate lover, but...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Research the rebellion against the Mexican government led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Explain how this rebellion...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like Water for Chocolate suggests a variety of precedents, some seriously and some ironically. One form Esquivel borrows is the...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Esquivel's second novel, The Law of Love (1996; see separate entry), revisits and revises the theme which permeates Like Water for...

(The entire section is 195 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

After publishing Like Water for Chocolate in Mexico in 1989, Esquivel wrote a screenplay based on the novel, which was subsequently...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Based on Esquivel's own screenplay, Like Water for Chocolate was adapted as a film in Spanish by Alfonso Arau, starring Lumi Cavazos,...

(The entire section is 34 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Esquivel's second novel, 1996's The Law of Love, opens with the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, the future site of...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Marialisa Calta, "The Art of the Novel as Cookbook," in the New York Times Book Review, February 17, 1993.


(The entire section is 288 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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 Esquivel discusses the use of her novel by psychotherapists to explore mother and daughter relationships. She shows how masculine norms have been transmitted by women, and how the three daughters in the novel respond: one seeks liberation publicly which leads to masculinization, one seeks change within the family, and one seeks balance. Cooking represents an inversion of sexuality in which the male is passive and is penetrated by the woman’s nurturing.

Franco, Jean. “The Incorporation of Women: A Comparison of North American and Mexican Popular Narrative.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, edited by Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A study on popular narrative that relates to the novel in that, as Franco points out, one of the common themes of the romance and the telenovela is that of a woman faced by “rules she has not made and over which she has no control.”

Franco, Jean. Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Although this text does not discuss Esquivel’s novel, it provides a seminal analysis of gender issues in Mexico. Essential reading for the scholar unfamiliar with Mexican literature.

Ibsen, Kristine. “On Recipes, Reading, and Revolution: Postboom Parody in Como agua para chocolate.Hispanic Review 63 (Spring, 1995): 133-146. Ibsen claims that the magical realism in Esquivel’s novel was inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but demonstrates that the two novels are very different in terms of perspective. Ibsen asserts that Esquivel presents the individual experience of history (an example would be that Esquivel’s heroines exhibit traits not traditionally associated with women), while Márquez’s novel reexamines historical trends.

Jaffe, Janice A. “Hispanic American Women Writers’ Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate).” Women’s Studies 22 (March, 1993): 217-230. Esquivel’s use of the kitchen is depicted as liberating and creative for women. The novel is placed in the context of literature by female writers that envisions the kitchen as a space of female repression or, alternatively, of community and creativity. Concludes that Esquivel’s positive appropriation of the kitchen was possible only after earlier feminist writers’ denunciation of how domestic chores enslaved generations of women.

Leonardi, Susan J. “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster à la Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie.” PMLA 104, no. 3 (May, 1989): 340-347. Leonardi considers the act of foodmaking a collaborative activity that implicates the reader, since the nature of sharing recipes has “some interesting relationships to both reading and writing. . . . Even the root of recipe—the Latin recipere—implies an exchange, a giver and a receiver.”

McMurray, George. “Two Mexican Feminist Writers.” Hispania 73 (December, 1990): 1035-1036. McMurray briefly outlines the novel’s plot, emphasizing the Magical Realism. He attributes the book’s popularity to Magical Realism and traces this aspect of the novel to the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Also discusses a novel by Mexican writer Angeles Mastretta that McMurray views as representative of contemporary feminist trends in Latino literature.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Radway shows that popular romances share many characteristics with oral literature, which reinforces a connection to the orally transmitted traditions of cooking and household remedies that structure the novel. Similarly, both the novela rosa and the telenovela emphasize the notion of pleasure in storytelling, a pleasure Radway considers utopian.