Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

In her essay “Writing As an Act of Hope,” Isabel Allende explains that she writes in order to illuminate “some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers.” The reality that she describes in...

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In her essay “Writing As an Act of Hope,” Isabel Allende explains that she writes in order to illuminate “some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers.” The reality that she describes in “Toad’s Mouth” is rooted in Latin American history. In the 1500’s, Spanish explorers and soldiers took over the South American continent; the impact they had on indigenous societies was prodigious.

In “Toad’s Mouth,” the English couple control wealth and labor in a country that is not their own. They represent any imperialist force that takes control of land and people for personal gain. Indifferent to local customs, the owners of Sheepbreeders, Ltd., maintain their prim exteriors by observing tea time and wearing fancy clothes inappropriate to the landscape. They do not interact with the peasants. They treat the native population with so little respect that they blindly allow their sheep to graze atop sacred ruins.

Much of Allende’s fiction is set in Latin America, and her characters often face the duality of the poverty and wealth that can exist there. Wealth, Allende explains in her essay, is in the hands of few, yet carries with it the “pretension to dignity and civilization.” In “Toad’s Mouth,” the English couple consider themselves dignified, but Allende depicts them as absurd and misplaced, concerned only with themselves. In contrast, the peasants live with dignity, treating one another with love and respect. It is the peasants, not the wealthy ranch owners, who form a community, work the land they love, and celebrate their passion for Hermelinda.

As a lover, Hermelinda represents the wild and generous strength of the land itself. She also mothers the men, feeding them soup when they are ill, or mending their clothes. Finally, she is their goddess, a symbol of ancient fertility rituals and the perfect recipient of their worship. She loves them as much as they love her, and the relationship is fruitful, benefiting all. Just as the land for centuries gave native people the means to survive, Hermelinda helps the men overcome their hardships.

Pablo, representing Spain, successfully seduces Hermelinda, then draws her away from her friends. He understands the game of Toad’s Mouth perfectly and wins at his first try. His passion is angry, defiant, and selfish, but strong as well, and she willingly follows him, as many indigenous people followed the customs of Spain, abandoning their native languages for Spanish and their ancient religions for Roman Catholicism.

The reserved English couple, however, misunderstand the game of Toad’s Mouth entirely. They neither know nor love Hermelinda; they fear the joy she initiates and pretend not to notice the laughter that rises from her shack. Trapped in their pretensions, the ranch owners cannot feel the earthy passion of the land they attempt to control. Because they refuse to interact with the culture, they miss its beauty. They shelter themselves from what they think is barbaric and cannot see how they destroy it. In the end, they unwittingly mock their own ignorance by playing with the fake toad themselves.

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