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T. C. Boyle, author of The Tortilla Curtain, stated in defense of his harsh depiction of characters Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher that, “If it’s satire, it has to bite somebody, has to have teeth in it, otherwise it’s useless” (Penguin Group). This comes as a response to critics who argue that the Mossbacher’s characterizations are flat caricature and that Boyle’s tone is not one of daring satire but of hollow contempt and sarcasm. The reason Boyle depicts the Mossbacher characters as being extremely harsh, is for them to stand out. If they did not stand out, they would not serve their purpose in helping the overall satire expose the main theme. Therefore, the critics of Boyle’s text are only supporting Boyle’s view on a good satire. Recognizing how much the characters stand out proves how effective Boyle’s strategies are. Also, the critics acknowledge that Boyle uses sarcasm, which is an element of a satire that works to reveal the main theme. Therefore, the harsh and critical depiction of some of the characters and the sarcasm used are reasons why The Tortilla Curtain is in fact an effective satire, exposing the hypocrisy and racism in our society.
Before delving into the main theme of The Tortilla Curtain and how it is exposed through satirical writing, we should first explore the argument that the work is not a satire. The Tortilla Curtain is a work that confronts the controversial issue of illegal immigration by illustrating two families which are the Mossbachers, a wealthy couple living in a gated community, and the Rincons, illegal immigrants that camp in a ravine near the Mossbacher’s home. One may argue that Boyle attacks those who are racist and insensitive to illegal immigrants by portraying the Mossbachers in such a harsh light. However, a publication is not a satire just because it attacks something or points out the negatives in a society. Also, as stated, the Mossbachers are seen as insensitive and ignorant and their hypocrisy can be satirical. Yet, a work containing satirical elements does not necessarily declare that work to be a satire.
How then can we argue that The Tortilla Curtain is not just a satire, but an effective one? The answer may be found in the prior argument that the work is not a satire. First, let us look at the initial description of the dictionary definition. Webster’s reads that a satire is “A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn” (Agnes 551). Couldn’t we perceive ridiculing and scorning to be attacking something? There are many instances in The Tortilla Curtain in which the author attacks racism and opposition to immigration. He does this by depicting the Mossbachers in a harsh and critical light with many follies such as insensitivity. For instance, when Delaney Mossbacher hits Candido Rincon with his car he does not get a doctor or call for help. There was no medical attention, or any kind of attention for that matter, given to Candido. No, the only thing Delaney does is give Candido twenty dollars. True, Delaney had some guilt, but only for a brief moment. Soon, “he felt his guilt turn to anger, to outrage” (Boyle 11). Why was he angry? He automatically assumes that Candido is illegal, a “criminal”, polluting the environment, and felt that he did not belong in that ravine or on that road in the first place. These would not be the thoughts of someone that isn’t insensitive or discriminatory after they brutally strike a man with their car. Someone of sensitivity would feel sadness and guilt and do anything to help the poor man. Therefore, because the novel uses Delaney’s character flaw of insensitivity to illegal immigrants to attack racism, it can be considered a satire.
Another human folly illuminated in The Tortilla Curtain that ridicules and scorns those who discriminate is ignorance. For the sake of consistency, let us continue to examine the character of Delaney. One example of Delaney’s ignorance occurs when graffiti appears on the wall surrounding the Mossbacher’s neighborhood. Delaney automatically believes it was the Mexicans that did it. When he sets up a video camera to catch the delinquents, he expects that he would be helping the police capture them and giving them “a one-way ticket back to Tijuana” (Boyle 320). However, Delaney never saw with his own eyes anyone defacing the property. He is ignorant to believe that all Mexicans are criminals and because he has seen Mexicans in the area, it was Mexicans that committed the crime. Once again, this illustrates a folly of Delaney’s, criticizing discrimination in our society. Here, we see that to create a satiric effect and to fully illustrate a major social issue, Boyle’s choice of character traits for Delaney is exceptionally forceful.
Now, let us consider the second given definition for “satire” in Webster’s Dictionary: “Trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” (Agnes 551). To fully probe this, we must understand the last part of the definition. What vice or folly is being exposed and discredited? Boyle is attempting to expose and discredit the theme of hypocrisy and racism, which are vices and follies, of our society. Now we can consider how irony and sarcasm are engaged with Boyle’s theme. Boyle utilizes his characters, Delaney in particular, to add irony to his novel. Isn’t it ironic that Delaney writes for a nature column and is in a wildlife foundation member yet on the other hand he wanted to move right onto the space where animals live? This form of irony depicts Delaney as being a hypocrite. Another example of Delaney’s ironic thoughts and behaviors is evident with the issue of the new gate around the community. Delaney was opposed to a gated community and felt that there was no justification for “locking yourself away from the rest of society” (Boyle 101). Yet, it is ironic that he then gives into his neighbors plans to have a wall built around the neighborhood.
Finally, consider how Delaney is a firm believer in his liberal humanist ideals, as evidenced by his weekly environmentalist column. He holds a stance that “immigrants are the lifeblood of this country” and everyone has a duty to respect the dignity of others who wish to enter the country (Boyle 101). However, paradoxically, he believes Mexicans are a threat, assumes it was Mexicans that caused the fire and the graffiti, and eventually seeks to send Candido to prison, based on the fact that he is Mexican, when he takes a gun and follows Candido to his shelter. All of these examples of irony are used by Boyle to expose the theme of hypocrisy.
After studying examples of how the novel is a satire that effectively exposes the theme of hypocrisy and racism, we must consider the critics’ opinion that the Mossbachers are written as flat caricatures. Actually, the critics are correct. Boyle’s characters are a little stereotypical and predictable, but it is also true that this is exactly what this satire needs to present the issue. Boyle’s characters, Kyra and Delaney, have to be hollow in order for the satire to be effective, otherwise it would be been too soft and would not help point out the theme or the fact that there needs to be a change in society. Like Boyle stated, a satire has to “bite somebody.” The Mossbacher characters have to be exaggerated to put the point across and that is why they are flat caricatures. One instance of this exaggeration of character is how the Mossbachers do not just attempt to eat healthy when they can, they strictly only eat wholesome foods. Focusing on Mrs. Mossbacher now, Kyra, whose character remains consistent throughout the novel, could be categorized as the racially intolerant, self-centered upper-middle class female stereotype. She fails to demonstrate another side to her character with continuous acts of prejudiced behavior, including her supporting of gating of the community and helping the removal of the labor exchange in order to reduce the amount of Mexicans in her real estate area. A more rounded character would not have as deep of an impact. If Boyle would have accurately portrayed the life of a real suburban, liberal family, the story would be boring, would not be a satire, and it would not serve its purpose to expose hypocrisy and racism in our society.
We have seen how T. C. Boyle harshly depicts Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher in The Tortilla Curtain in order to effectively pinpoint the issues of hypocrisy and racism, which characterize many Americans, to shape his satire and affect his readers. While Boyle scorns Kyra and Delaney for their insensitivity, ignorance, and discrimination, these characters are not entirely hollow, and their situation is crucial to the author’s powerful commentary and satire. Boyle intends for his readers to empathize with the main characters’ position and to realize the similarities between the Mossbachers’ reality and their own. Before the incident where Delaney hits Candido with his car, only to leave him with nothing more than twenty dollars, many readers may have thought Delaney to be one of their own; an upper-middle class family living in a private gated community. Yet, once the reader thinks about their similitude to the Mossbachers, Boyle turns the reader against the Mossbachers by portraying them as flat and harsh. Hence, in the end the reader realizes their own faults and those of society. Overall, Boyle creates a satire to make comments about society in order to provoke change. Thus, by casting the Mossbachers in such harsh and obviously racist light, Boyle makes the reader criticize his or herself.
1. Boyle, T.C. The Tortilla Curtain. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.
2. Penguin Group (USA). Penguin Putnam Inc. 2006 <http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/tortilla_curtain.html>.
3. Staff of Webster’s New World Dictionary. Webster’s New World Dictionary and
Thesaurus. Ed. Michael Agnes. New York: Macmillan, 1996.
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