So Far From God

by Ana Castillo
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So Far from God Themes

The main themes in So Far from God are woman as daughter, wife, and mother; the exploitation of women; and religion.

  • Woman as daughter, wife, and mother: La Loca, Caridad, Esperanza, and Fe struggle to fulfill traditional women's roles, while Sofia comes to realize that she must live for herself rather than for her children or husband.
  • The exploitation of women: Exploitation is unavoidable for the women in the novel, whether by men, their neighbors, or their places of work.
  • Religion: The rules of organized, patriarchal religion cause suffering for the characters, while rejecting these constraints leads to freedom.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

So Far from God, a complex, multidimensional novel, blends elements of New Mexican mythology, Pueblo stories, and European Catholicism with home remedies, recipes, and Castillo’s bitingly sardonic humor to tell the story of a remarkable family. The subtext of the novel examines the brutal poverty and discrimination faced by hispanic and indigenous peoples in the Southwest.

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The novel is a probing critique of the racism, sexism, and materialism of American society in general and of social institutions such as the government, the church, and large corporations in particular. Woven into the narrative is a pointed examination of such contemporary issues as political oppression, economic exploitation, and environmental pollution. One of the novel’s main thematic focuses is environmental racism and the lack of protection afforded to minorities and the poor by the policies and agencies intended to safeguard them. The powerfully poetic chapter 15 juxtaposes brutal sociopolitical realities with the deep religious feelings of people making a Way of the Cross procession, presenting a catalog of social and environmental ills: minority families living below the poverty level, growing unemployment, deaths from toxic poisoning, radioactive dumping on reservations, birth defects and cancers linked to uranium contamination. The critique is not limited to sociopolitical issues, for the narrative also examines the problems of socially defined sex roles, sexuality, and women’s struggle for self-respect. Throughout the novel, women strive to define themselves outside restrictive, socially acceptable roles: Esperanza struggles to succeed in a typically male-dominated profession; Caridad struggles to reconcile her feelings for Esmeralda with her internalized expectations; Sofia struggles to keep her family together and her faith intact in the face of repeated challenges and tragedies.

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The novel is also about interpersonal and family relationships; about loyalty, honesty, compassion, and love as the basis for successful relationships. A compulsive gambler who cannot control his addiction, Domingo nevertheless loves Sofia and his daughters; a victim of susto (shock) who cannot commit to a relationship, Tom clearly loves Fe; a nearly textbook-perfect machista (male chauvinist) who refuses to admit his feeling and vulnerabilities, Ruben finally realizes that he truly loves Esperanza. Although the men love the women, their relationships fail because they lack mutual respect, loyalty, and compassion. Yet, it is these very qualities that form the basis of the women’s relationships with one another. Even Fe, who is originally estranged from her family, grows to appreciate the importance of compassion and acceptance.

Castillo’s novel is also a powerful study of personal heroism, of honor, courage, and determination. So Far from God is a remarkable celebration of survival with dignity and joy. The power of the novel lies in the women’s ability not only to survive adversity but also to triumph over it. In the midst of death and tragedy, Castillo affirms life and the human will that sustains it. Refusing to give into despair, the women discover that within themselves they have the power and the vision—both spiritual and political—of the saints they love.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

Woman as Daughter, Wife, and Mother
One of the major themes in So Far From God is the idea of a woman's role in society. Traditionally, Hispanic women are taught to serve three people: father, husband, and child. These roles can be confining, particularly for modern women, and Castillo challenges this image of woman in her novel. The daughters, Esperanza, Fe, Caridad, and La Loca all try to be dutiful daughters and wives, yet they are unsuccessful in these roles. Esperanza's boyfriend leaves her for another woman, while Fe's husband drives her to a job that kills her. Caridad's marriage falls apart as do all of her other relationships, while La Loca's hatred of people effectively rules out romance. Even Sofi acts like a dutiful daughter and passes up the chance for true love. However Castillo complicates this theme by making the alternatives to the traditional role just as unsuccessful. Esperanza puts her career ahead of family and is killed, while her three sisters all choose paths that lead away from the traditional wife and mother syndrome and they all die childless as well. Castillo suggests that until women can see themselves as human beings first, they will be ultimately unsuccessful. Sofi loses everything her culture tells her is important: her husband, her children, and even her home. Only when she has nothing left to lose does Sofi realize that she must live her life for herself as a woman, not as someone's daughter or wife or mother.

Exploitation of Women
The idea of exploitation runs throughout twentieth-century American literature, and So Far From God is no different. Here the exploitation extends to women at home as well as work. Esperanza gives her life for her job as does Fe, but Fe's experience is much harsher. Her employers at the bank and the factory do not really care about her as a human being. In fact, the factory manager takes advantage of Fe's willingness to do whatever job to make a good impression and earn a bonus. She soon discovers that the chemicals she has been using are lethal and the company couldn't care less. Her death is painful and extended as the cancer eats away at her body. Sofi, too, falls victim to emotional and illegal exploitation. Her husband continues to gamble and loses her house and property in a card game. Even though the judge, who won Domingo's bet, knows that his actions were illegal since Domingo neither owned the land, nor could the judge take it, he still forces Sofi to pay rent on her own home. She cannot sue him because of his status as a judge, and so he exploits her ignorance and fear for his own benefit. Caridad is exploited as well, both before and after her "holy recovery.'' She allows herself to become a sexual plaything using sex as a way to forget her pain. After she becomes aware of her spirituality, she allows Dona Felicia and others in her community to use her talents, her struggles, and her faith to their own ends. Caridad's exploitation also costs her her life. Castillo seems to be arguing that exploitation of any kind is unavoidable for women.

Religion
Religion and devotion to a faith causes most of the problems in this novel. The major flash-points deal with how women are supposed to interact with a sexist religion and still remain women. Catholicism, as described in So Far From God, does not allow the female characters any way out. They must submit to male authority or die. Dona Felicia and, at the end, Sofi both reject this kind of religion and are freed from its constraints, but both have lost everything that they hold dear. Caridad tries to rework her religious beliefs, but she cannot escape the effect she has on other people. They mill around her, invade her privacy, and, in the end, force her leap to her death as the only means of escape. Castillo casts religion as a fundamental part of human existence, but argues against the confining rules of organized religion and its evil effects on society at large.

Family Space
Family, traditionally, invokes ideas of warmth, security, and safety. Much as she does with religion, Castillo turns this idea on its head. Family space becomes a place where pain, death, and fear dominate. Fe learns that her life, as she knows it, is over at home when Tom sends her a "dear Jane'' letter, while Sofi loses her home to her husband's gambling problem. Even Caridad's home (the trailer she rents from Felicia and the house her father builds) become sites of pain and victims of theft. Family and family space become sites of loss and pain, forcing readers to rethink their own ideas about security and peace.

Spiritual vs. Physical
Along these same lines, Castillo presents the conflict between spiritual and physical identities. For the women in the novel, spiritual needs are subdued to the needs of the physical. Fe and Esperanza neglect their spiritual needs and are killed for their troubles. However, living totally in the spiritual realm is not an option either. Both Caridad and La Loca choose to ignore the physical world for the spiritual and they, too, die. Castillo seems to suggest that extremes are unhealthy and fatal, but that moderation does not come easily. The conflict between the physical and the spiritual realms is one fought and re-fought by every generation.

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