In Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate” the narrator tells about the magnificent life of Tita de la Garza. It continues the tradition of Latin magical realism, the main goal of which is to express the reality using fantastic, magical and mythological elements. The author also uses this style in order to reduce vital and archaic sources of human existence, so the main component of this reduction is food. Food and its cooking is a method of establishing a connection with other people and building their lives both on local (the world of human passions) and global (the world of Mexican culture) levels of reality. The essay will discuss the use of magical realism as a central way of storytelling from the exposition to the resolution of the conflict between Tita and her mother.
The novel is divided into twelve chapters, from the Tita’s birth on the kitchen table to her death. However, it can be read as a collection of Tita’s favorite recipes from the cookbook and then interpreted as a chronicle of her life. In this case, the novel’s narrator says that Tita “will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes” (Esquivel). Laura Esquivel proposes that every episode of one’s life must be prepared in a certain way, with giving some spices, so Jaffe stated that the protagonist teaches “the secrets of life” in the kitchen.
“Like Water for Chocolate” is unusual from the very beginning that brings in mind the best examples from magical realism. The setting of the story takes place in the rebellion of Mexico, where bandits and robbers are repeatedly appearing and often take place in the Tita’s life. However, the real setting is the kitchen, where “the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food” (Esquivel). It is at the beginning of the story, and there is no coincidence that Tita will have a specific (or spiced?) life with numerous episodes. Perhaps, Tita is crying not only because of onions, but also, as Januzzi proposed, she already knows about her fate to adhere to ridiculous family traditions, especially to be unmarried in order to take care of the old mother. This is the first detail that indicates that we are dealing with magical realism, similar to Gabriel García Márquez’s writing style. For Latin, Americans cuisine has a very essential meaning, even a sacral sense, especially in wartime when food is not enough for everyone. In other words, there is an untypical situation in every-day life that constantly changed someone’s life. In this particular situation, supernatural or even unreal elements fully exist in Tita’s life. For example, her youngest sister Gertrudis is so greasy that the wooden shower becomes burning: “On her, the food seemed to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs” (Esquivel). Esquivel uses this hyperbole in order to express the special meaning of food as it has even a destructive nature.
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As we see, this is a very odd family with Mama’s Elena, who is a leader there. Actually, she makes all decisions and indicates what must be done and what not. Elena refuses Pedro Muzquiz, who comes to the family and wants to marry Tita, who was a teenager at that time. Mother said to Tita that she (Tita) knows perfectly that “the youngest daughter means you have to take care of me until the day I die” (Esquivel). The girl stays at the kitchen while her fate is decided, so later Elena told her that Pedro has agreed to marry Rosaura. In fact, it is a great tragedy for Tita, because she cannot believe that her beloved could make such a suggestion. On the other hand, she understands that he could do nothing in this situation. She is practically a hostage of matriarchy, humbly adhering to its rules. However, this does not reduce Tita’s pain, even more, escalating the conflict between her and Mama Elena. This fact also separates the girl and her sisters, who have always been opposed to her world that “seemed full of unknown dangers, and they were terrified of it” (Esquivel). The choice of a family is also typical for Latin American magical realism because it condenses all the fears and joys of the nation. It is also a holistic repository of myths, which are binding both historical and imaginary realities.
The conflict in the novel has a purely feminine nature as we almost did not meet a single male character in the text, except Pedro. There are other male characters but they are submissive and secondary personages. Obviously, the author tries to break the masculine tradition of magical realism, highlighting the strong and passionate women, who are bound to map the trajectory of feminist history in Mexican society. At the same time, Gass emphasizes that “Esquivel’s feminism balances precariously between embracing patriarchy and resisting it”. The recent conflict is a very special one and perfectly fits into the tradition of magical realism. It is a conflict between love/passion and Tita’s wish to save the odd family tradition even sacrificing her feelings to Pedro, from whom “she felt her blood pulsing, searing her veins” (Esquivel). By the way, Esquivel often uses sharping bodily metaphors to convey the feelings and emotions of the characters. As for Tita, she suppresses her emotions because submits to Mama Elena, so it makes her suffer even more. There is a brilliant magical episode in the text when Tita and Nacha are preparing the wedding cake for Rosaura’s marriage. When they whip the mixture adding every single egg with the total amount of 180 pieces, Tita begins to cry. She has cried a lot to the mixture, so it did not want to thicken because of her tears. Then she cried without tears and “is said to hurt even more like dry labor but at least she wasn’t making the cake batter soggy” (Esquivel). In this episode it is clearly seen how the magical realism works in the case of negation of physical laws, constructing something very poetic and unusual as well. Tita’s tears changed the mixture and it means that she did not really want to let Pedro go, but could do nothing about it. However, Gertrudis behaves much freer, so she does not suppress her passion as Tita does and escapes with Juan far away.
Thus, the conflict develops as Tita’s internal opposition to the external circumstances. They can be interpreted through two main aspects. Firstly, as it was already told, it is a conflict with mum’s dictatorship. Esquivel built the hierarchy in reverse perspective where the head is a woman, and all others are her microcopies. Secondly, it is a conflict between democracy and totalitarian regime that takes the universal historical meaning, especially in the Mexican context. This is the very usual method of magical realism where some local events are generalized to the more epic political context (it can be compared with the most famous Carpentier’s novel “The Kingdom of this World”).
One more central historical point is the Mexican revolution in the recent text. The goal of this revolution is to be independent of Spain that was exactly embodied in the image of caring Mama Elena. Basically, food is an ambiguous symbol in the novel, which both escalates and deescalates the conflict. Tita’s magical dishes, cooked in the situation of depression or happiness, are the clear metaphors of life creativity. Food becomes a bright image of the character’s love, so it is also a powerful channel of communication with Pedro. Hence, Esquivel puts so many recipes into the text, but they exist only in a poetic magical realistic form, personifying pure energy of desire.
When Elena sends her daughters away, Tita begins to lose the meaning of life, except “for her interest in feeding worms to a helpless pigeon” (Esquivel). When she learns about Roberto’s death she escapes to the pigeon house and does not want to go out. This episode means that Tita also lost her passion and rejects food as the marker of life. John takes her away from the depressive cave and her passion wakes up again. As Jaffe mentioned, the expression “Como agua para chocolate” describes Tita’s anger at the confinement to the kitchen (220). Even when she escapes from the kitchen, she imprisons herself in the next cave again. Moreover, when Mama died, her spirit has always reminded about her, controlling Tita even after death (Esquivel). She comes to her when Tita suggests she is probably pregnant. As always, mum warns her about Pedro. Other ghosts are also present. For example, Nacha’s spirit always supports Tita in difficult situations. The climax of this story is that Tita’s mum does not have an influence on her anymore. Thus, the dictatorship was overthrown in both cases: Mama Elena cannot affect her daughter and the Mexican revolution has become the first step for liberation.
Perhaps, Esquivel used this magical realism manner in order to express the idea of eternal existence even after physical death. It means that some things are stronger than our reality, especially uncontrolled phenomena. As a result, Mama Elena left Tita when realized that she was not pregnant, but she did not leave Pedro and then engulfed him in flames.
In the last months, Tita and Pedro finally united. They, the victims of their own rejection of the social codes of the kitchen, found themselves “alone at last” (Esquivel) when Tita’s mother died. It is interesting that only after her death Tita has found the hidden letters of Mama Elena and a mulatto. It means that Elena also had the traumatic experience of love, and therefore endured it to her younger daughter, has made her a prisoner of her own distresses and misery.
In the end, Tita and Pedro are together and when they are dancing at Esperanza’s wedding they look the happiest people in the world. They can finally be free in their love with nothing and nobody constraining them. First of all, there is no dictate of Mama Elena. In this case, Tita does not even think of her. This does not mean that Tita has never loved her mother. It only means that she gives her love to the only one person. When Pedro dies, she refuses to live without him in this world, because “with him went all the candles” (Esquivel). Moreover, Tita will continue to live in her recipes, because only food can awaken a passion for life, and thus it can awake Tita.
It must be concluded, that Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate” is a perfect example of how magical realism works. First, it shows how routine can be multi-faceted, and magical things can transform into a routine. Esquivel conveys the meaning of life through food, providing in this manner the magical content of both. Second, this is a story about feelings and passions, which are in conflict with the dictatorship tradition and strongly connects with food as a symbol of eternal life. Moreover, the principle of magical realism ignores the rational intention of reality, indicating in this manner the primitive, but still the most powerful instincts (passion, love, anger, power, and others). Thus, the cooking recipes are Tita’s method of archiving the life experience from her birth to her death. Her passion is a special way of existence in this world, so Esquivel believes that there are no social, cultural and political codes that can fix human nature but only feel. Third, it is a beautiful collection of cooking recipes for all times in which concentrates the wisdom of one Mexican woman. The novel has evolved from the telling story to myth, where all recipes could be a universal parable.
The novel brings forward the idea of food that symbolizes vital energy, which is embodied in passion for life and especially in love to Pedro. Thus, for Tita cooking food means keeping the fire of love both to Pedro and her family, even Mama Elena does not accept her daughter’s choice. The whole book is a perfect example of Mexican magical realism, where the imagination always gets into reality and awakes the archaic energy, directed into the sphere of passion and love.