Like Water for Chocolate playfully imitates the steamy romances included in Hispanic women’s magazines and simultaneously pays tribute to the arts of the kitchen. The novel begins and ends in the kitchen, where Tita’s grandniece prepares one of Tita’s recipes, illustrating that the plot is above all a vehicle for the author to celebrate food and cooking as the center of daily lives and destinies. This message is also evident in the fact that cooking is the root cause for the events of Magical Realism or fantasy that pervade the novel. The importance of freedom for women is the novel’s central feminist theme.
Tita learns the most important lessons about life in the kitchen from the Indian cook Nacha. As in the book’s title, descriptions of how characters feel in various situations are presented in imagery from food and cooking. In addition, the unique ways in which food is prepared and the ingredients employed are shown as determining or redefining people’s fates, as with the wedding cake prepared by Tita that spoils Rosaura’s reception and destroys Nacha’s life. The novel equates understanding these secrets of the power of food with understanding life. In its language, food-related events, characterization in terms of attitudes toward food and cooking, and cookbook-like form, this novel makes culinary activity itself the captivating stuff of literature.
Central to conveying a message of liberation for Mexican women is the choice of a traditionally female space in Mexican society, the kitchen, as defining characters’ lives. To this end, the novel’s action is set temporally around the time of the Mexican Revolution, when women’s rights in Mexico were also being redefined and reevaluated. Clearly, however, it is not the kitchen but societal codes that have restricted women’s independence. Mamá Elena’s miserable death from poisoning and Rosaura’s grotesque demise testify to the evils of unquestioning allegiance to tradition in the name of keeping up appearances. The novel suggests that Gertrudis’s uninhibited happiness, by contrast, is the direct consequence of her rebellious freedom. The plainest evidence of this novelistic message of liberation, even if it applies principally to amorous freedom, appears in the marriage of Rosaura’s daughter Esperanza, who, through Tita’s guidance, refuses to succumb to the family tradition that has enslaved her aunt.
In the end, the blending of culinary and literary arts, which triumphs most obviously in the survival of Tita’s cookbook and diary at the novel’s conclusion, offers would-be cooks and writers new recipes for creative expression.
Duty and Responsibility The first chapter begins the novel's exploration of duty, responsibility, and tradition as they present Tita's main conflict. Family tradition requires that she reject Pedro's marriage proposal so she can stay at home and take care of her widowed mother for the rest of her life. If she turns her back on this tradition, she will not fulfill what society considers her responsibility to her mother. Rosaura decides that she also will impose this tradition upon her daughter Esperanza and so prevent her from marrying Alex Brown. Tita recognizes, however, that the tradition is unfair; if she cannot marry and have children, who will support her in her old age? She tells Rosaura that she will go against tradition as long as she has to, "as long as this cursed tradition doesn't take me into account." Nevertheless, she and Pedro respect his duty toward his wife and child, for they remain discreet in their love as long as she lives.
Obedience In order to fulfill her responsibilities toward her mother,...
(This entire section contains 1225 words.)
Tita must obey her—a difficult task, given Mama Elena's authoritative nature. Mama Elena makes harsh demands on Tita throughout her life and expects her to obey without question. Mama Elena feels that Tita has never had the "proper deference" towards her mother, and so she is particularly harsh on her youngest daughter. Even when Tita sews "perfect creation" for the wedding, Mama Elena makes her rip out the seam and do it over because she did not baste it first, as Mama instructed. After Mama Elena decides that Pedro will marry Rosaura, she insists that Tita cook the wedding feast, knowing how difficult that task will be for her. When Nacha dies, Mama Elena decides Tita must take full responsibility for the meals on the ranch, which leaves Tita little time for anything else. Tita's struggle to determine what is the proper degree of obedience due to her mother is a major conflict in the novel.
Cruelty and Violence Mama Elena often resorts to cruelty and violence as she forces Tita to obey her. Many of the responsibilities she imposes on Tita, especially those relating to Pedro and Rosaura's wedding, are blatant acts of cruelty, given Tita's pain over losing Pedro. Mama Elena meets Tita's slightest protest with angry tirades and beatings. If she even suspects that Tita has not fulfilled her duties, as when she thought that Tita intentionally ruined the wedding cake, she beats her. When Tita dares to stand up to her mother and to blame her for Roberto's death, Mama Elena smacks her across the face with a wooden spoon and breaks her nose. This everyday cruelty does not seem so unusual, however, in a land where a widow must protect herself and her family from bandits and revolutionaries.
Victim and Victimization When Mama Elena coerces Tita into obeying her cruel dictates, she victimizes her. Tita becomes a victim of Mama Elena's obsessive need for power and control. Mama Elena confines Tita to the kitchen, where her life consists of providing for the needs of others. She rejects Tita's individuality and tries to force her to suppress her sense of selfhood. Tita's growth as an individual depends on her ability to free herself from the role of victim.
Sex Roles The novel closely relates Tita's victimization to the issue of sex roles. When Tita's mother confines her to the kitchen, she relegates her to a limited domestic sphere. There Tita's role becomes a traditionally female one—that of selfless nurturer, placing the needs of others before her own. In this limited role, Tita struggles to find a sense of identity. When Tita is taken to Dr. Brown's house, she marvels at her hands, for she discovers "she could move them however she pleased." At the ranch, "what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined." She learns of Dr. Brown's grandmother, Morning Light, who experimented with herbs and became a respected healer.
Love and Passion The forces of love and passion conflict with Tita's desire to fulfill her responsibilities toward her mother. In obeying her mother, Tita must suppress her feelings for Pedro. Her sister Gertrudis, on the other hand, allows herself to freely express her passion when she runs off with Juan and soon begins work at abrothel. Tita's and Gertrudis's passionate natures also emerge through their enjoyment of food. Both relish good meals, although Tita is the only one who knows how to prepare one. At one point, Gertrudis brings the revolutionary army to the De la Garza ranch so she can sample her sister' s hot chocolate, cream fritters, and other recipes. The food analogy also applies to the love of John Brown for Tita. Although he is captivated by her beauty, he feels no passionate jealousy over her relationship with Pedro. He comes from a North American family where the food, as Tita finds, "is bland and didn't appeal."
Sanity and Insanity As the need to obey her mother clashes with her own desires, Tita begins to lose her sanity. When Mama Elena sends Rosaura, Pedro, and Roberto away, Tita loses all interest in life. The news of Roberto's death pushes her over the edge and she escapes to the pigeon house, refusing to come out. When John removes her from the oppressive atmosphere her mother has created, and he and Chencha offer her comfort and love, her sanity returns. Mama Elena never questions her own state of mind, although she is obsessive in her need to dominate her daughters. When Tita is found in the pigeon house, Mama Elena ironically states that "there's no place in this house for maniacs'"
Creativity and Imagination Through Tita's creativity in the kitchen, she finds an outlet for her suppressed emotions. Thus, ironically, while Mama Elena tries to control Tita by confining her to the kitchen and forcing her to prepare all of the family's meals, Tita is also able to strengthen her relationship with others and to gain a clearer sense of herself. She pours all of her passion for Pedro into her meals, which helps to further bond the two. Her cooking also creates a bond with Pedro's two children, easing her pain over not being able to have children of her own with him. Tita's imaginative cooking is also a way for her to rebel against her mother; she recalls that whenever she failed to follow a recipe exactly, "she was always sure ... that Mama Elena would find out and, instead of congratulating her on her creativity, give her a terrible tongue-lashing for disobeying the rules."
Supernatural The final important element of the novel is Esquivel's use of the supernatural. Tita's magical dishes, which produce waves of longing and uncontrollable desire, become a metaphor for creativity and self-expression. Like an artist, Tita pours herself into her cooking and produces works of art that evoke strong emotions in others. Her careful preparation of her family's food also reveals her loving nature. Another supernatural aspect, the spirits of the dead that appear to Tita throughout the novel, suggest that one's influence does not disappear after death. Nacha's spirit gives Tita confidence when she needs it, much like Nacha had done while she was alive. Mama Elena's spirit tries to control Tita from the grave, making her feel guilty about her passion for Pedro.
Love is the most powerful force in this book. It is associated with dazzling light and heat, its absence with unbearable chill. A look can literally start a fire. Tita, feeling cold and alone, imagines Gertrudis, after she fled the ranch in a burst of passion, looking up at a star: "Surely the heat from her body, which was inflamed by love, would travel with that gaze across an infinite distance, with no loss of energy, until it landed on the star she was watching." The power is so great that
those huge stars have lasted for millions of years by taking care never to absorb any of the fiery rays lovers all over the world send up at them night after night. To avoid that, the star generates so much heat inside itself that it shatters the rays into a thousand pieces. . . . This is the reason the stars shine so brightly at night.
Like fire, love must be handled with care. As John Brown explains to Tita,
each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can't strike them all by ourselves. . . . Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. ... If one doesn't find out in time what will set off those explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.
Once started, however, the fire can spread out of control. John cautions,
You must of course take care to light the matches one at a time. If a powerful emotion should ignite them all at once they would produce a splendor so dazzling that it would illuminate far beyond what we can normally see, and then a brilliant tunnel would appear before our eyes, revealing the path we forgot the moment we were born, and summoning us to regain the divine origin we had lost.
That powerful emotion is, of course, love, and at the moment of their greatest ecstasy, when they are finally free to fulfill their passion, love opens that tunnel to Pedro and Tita, then sends out glowing sparks and ignites the ranch for all to see. The fires burn for a week, and the ash they leave behind makes that land the most fertile in the region. Such intense love is clearly both wonderful and dangerous, but without love we are nothing. When asked why she had Tita and Pedro die at their moment of ecstasy, Esquivel explained that there's not really a place in the world for their kind of love. Their love, so powerful and so long delayed, burns out of control. When handled with care and allowed to develop naturally, however, love can and should be the ultimate joy of this life.
Esquivel makes room in her book for many kinds of love. John Brown's tenderness stands in striking contrast to Pedro's passion. After rescuing Tita from the dovecote, "John's large, loving hands had taken off her clothes and bathed her and carefully removed the pigeon droppings from her body, leaving her clean and sweet-smelling. His love for her is marked by restraint and respect and an infinite capacity to forgive."
When Tita confesses to him that she is not sure whether she loves him or Pedro more, he answers calmly that "I would be delighted to be your companion for the rest of your life—but you must think over very carefully whether I am the man for you or not." As the person who gave Tita her freedom and taught her to make choices, he is able to stand back and let her make this most important choice for herself. Although his peace, serenity, and reason cannot compete in the end with Pedro's agitation and passion, and he loses the woman he loves, his devotion endures for the rest of his life. Esquivel leaves no doubt, though, about whether Tita chose the right man—as Gertrudis observes, her love for Pedro "is one of the truest loves I've ever seen. Pedro and you have both made the mistake of trying to keep the truth a secret, but it will come out in time." Such love cannot be denied forever. John knows this and is able to give her up as his final gift of love.
Strong love exists, too, between women, especially between Nacha and Tita and between Tita and Esperanza. Nacha and Tita understand each other without speaking, and their bond endures beyond death. Nacha gave Tita life by feeding and caring for her as a child and gave her a "sixth sense" about "everything concerning food." Nacha dies on Rosaura and Pedro's wedding day, a casualty of the longing Tita baked into the cake, but she returns often when Tita needs her—most significantly, to prepare the wedding bed and light the candles for Tita and Pedro's ultimate night of passion, Tita, in turn, develops a closeness with her niece Esperanza, whom she loves and feeds and protects, just as Nacha did her, some twenty years earlier. The biological mothers—Mama Elena, Rosaura—are unable to love their children, that is until the third generation, when Esperanza breaks the pattern and raises her daughter herself. "My mama! . . ." the narrator writes in the final paragraph. "how wonderful the flavor, the aroma of her kitchen, her stories as she prepared the meal, her Christmas rolls."
This final observation highlights another important theme—the cycle of time and the coexistence of past and present. The narrator continues, "I don't know why mine [the rolls] never turn out like hers, or why my tears flow so freely when I prepare them—perhaps I am as sensitive to onions as Tita, my great-aunt, who will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes." The past need not be conjured up—it is just always there. Smells bring the past to the foreground repeatedly, not only for Tita but also for her sister Gertrudis (smell of chocolate), her lover Juan (the aura of roses), and Pedro (Tita's fragrance of jasmine mixed with cooking smells). As Tita observes, "smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present. Tita liked to take a deep breath and let the characteristic smoke and smell transport her through the recesses of her memory." The association is involuntary. While recovering at John's, Tita is reawakened to life by a bowl of oxtail soup from Chencha, which provides much more than physical sustenance:
With the first sip, Nacha appeared there at her side, stroking her hair as she ate, as she had done when she was little and was. sick, kissing her forehead over and over. . . . As always throughout her life, with a whiff of onion, the tears began. She cried as she hadn't cried since the day she was born. How good it was to have a long talk with Nacha.
The merger of Nacha and Tita and Esperanza and Tita's great-niece into a single consciousness is rooted in their common experience of kitchen, food and smells, which is tangibly represented in that recipe book that miraculously survives the conflagration:
When Esperanza, my mother, returned from her wedding trip, all that she found under the remains of what had been the ranch was this cookbook, which she bequeathed to me when she died, and which tells in each of its recipes the story of a love interred.
Past and present are one here.
Esquivel offers hope that people learn to cope no matter what fate has in store for them. But she makes a dramatic case that simply coping is not always enough. While she feels that rules are important and should be respected under most circumstances, she emphasizes in her interview with Loewenstein that "everyone always has another possibility of doing as one chooses, of breaking the rules, of transgressing them." Tita breaks the rules, but she is not daring enough to really break the rules. After her mother's death, she reflects on the difficulties: "Life had taught her that it was not that easy; there are few prepared to fulfill their desires whatever the cost." Esquivel seems to argue the primacy of free choice in weighing those costs and setting a course of action.