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Throughout the novel, Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita, the struggling protagonist wages an emotional battle with herself. Given that the tale takes place in early 20th century Mexico, the concepts of uncontested familial obligations and matriarchal rule were socially accepted values. For a daughter especially, to dissent from her mother’s word was considered outrageous. Consequently, on the one hand, Tita feels bound to the traditionally accepted role of the youngest daughter to remain unwed so as to care for her mother, whereas on the other she holds a reciprocated passion for her older sister’s husband, Pedro. This prominent theme of filial duty versus sexual desire is accentuated throughout the night meeting scene in Chapter 5, making this passage a pivotal moment in the novel. Additionally, the passage is representative of the animalistic tendencies in Tita, Pedro, and Mama Elena alike.
First, the setting and mood created by Esquivel lays the foundation for the passage, creating an ambiance of moral tension and forbidden desire. As the night shrouds everything in darkness, Tita finds her vision impaired both literally and figuratively, which creates confusion and tension. Adding to this is the close proximity of Pedro and Mama Elena. While the former’s nearness heightens Tita’s sexual awareness, the latter’s presence functions to shut such feelings down. The soundscape Esquivel creates serves to complement the tension, as the “violent beating” (line 17) of Pedro’s heart mixes in with the soft sound of Tita’s footsteps. An aura of suspense ensues, in which neither character knows whether to risk embracing the other in the dead of night, while both Rosaura and Mama Elena are asleep only a few steps away. The mood remains static for the better part of the passage, reaching the pinnacle of tension at Tita and Pedro’s most intimate moment when Mama Elena wakes and inquires about who is up and about. In this anti-climatic moment, the mood rapidly and rather comically—given Tita’s dual physical and emotional urges of a pressuring need to urinate and her longing for Pedro—changes to one of suppressed desire and feigned normality, as neither Tita nor Pedro is willing to risk being found out by Mama Elena.
The structure and stylistic conventions Esquivel employs also function to reflect the significance of this passage as a turning point. The dual narrative, whereby the third person point of view constantly switches between Pedro and Tita gives an anxious feel to the passage. This alternation, combined with the continuous use of indefinite articles and vivid, sensuous diction emphasizes the importance of Tita to Pedro. Moreover, it furthers the running motifs of the novel, such as food and its sexual symbolism, through the “jasmine and cooking odor” (line 15), given off by Tita, which enraptures Pedro. This theme is further alluded to as Pedro is “eating a slice of watermelon and thinking of Tita” (line 10) in that, when the instances of food and love are combined, the conceit of food as an erotic symbol is made evident. Furthermore, the antithetical theme of filial obligations against raw love is conveyed through the use of adjectives such as “timidly” (line 24) and “fearful” (line 26), indicating the emotional confusion Tita feels, as she is caught between loving Pedro, and remaining obedient to her mother.
When Tita and Pedro finally meet in the dark, the aural and the olfactory, which are already animal senses, give way to the tactile as Tita is surprised to “feel someone pull her” (line 20) towards them. Esquivel writes that the night is so dark that not even a “glimmer of light” (line 7) remained, signifying a lack of vision, which subsequently serves to heighten their alternative senses, giving a more attentive and animalistic aura to both characters. Powerful and evocative sexual imagery is then applied as Pedro and Tita explore each other, Tita “timidly touch(ing)” (line 24) Pedro, while he “invit(es) her to explore his body” (line 24). This moment when erotic tactile images are used is their most heightened instance of connection.
The scene’s literary devices help to portray Tita and Pedro’s paradoxical attraction and affliction. Pedro’s line of thought exemplifies the characters’ conflicted feelings: as he “couldn’t sleep thinking of her there, a few steps from him…and from Mama Elena, too, of course” (line 12). The use of ellipses here suggests better than words the ever-lingering presence of Mama Elena, be it actual or subconscious. Whenever Pedro lets his thoughts wander, he somehow manages to encounter Mama Elena. Later, when he realizes that this is an opportune, yet inconvenient, moment to meet Tita, he approaches her “quiet as a cat” (line 16). The simile furthers Pedro’s animal persona, as he makes his way towards Tita, his desired mate, which parallels their finding their way to one another using hearing and smell. Elena then utters a “cry” (line 26) out of the night, in this case a howl of warning, another instance of animal tendencies in the passage. This is also true of the obstacles they encounter. No matter how close they get to each other, the alpha female of the familial troop, Mama Elena, always manages to divide the two, and enforce her pecking order in the household, thus reiterating the conflicting themes of nature versus society, and typifying the two lovers’ relationship throughout the novel.
The passage also acts as a pivotal moment in character and plot development because it is the first time that Tita and Pedro physically embrace each other, despite the close proximity of both Rosaura and Mama Elena. It is at this point that, though Mama Elena has no concrete proof of their infidelity, bases her assessment of the situation wholly on instinct, another animalistic trait. Significantly, she realizes that as long as Tita and Pedro are near each other, it will be futile to try to keep them apart. Thus, she speeds up Rosaura and Pedro’s departure for Texas, seeing it as the only way to maintain traditional and socially acceptable behavior in her home. This is also the only scene in which Tita and Pedro are able to embrace each other, guilt free, and with no concern other than each other, apart from at the conclusion and resolution of the novel. It is a time when their love is pure and whole, albeit tense, and they can, briefly, fully express themselves. This provides a contrast to Pedro’s returning later on to find Tita feeling bitter about his departure and in the arms of Dr. Brown. The meeting acts as a confirmation of mutual love, through which Tita and Pedro authenticate their feelings for one another. This is more significant than it may first appear as, earlier on, Tita was unsure about Pedro’s motives for marrying her sister, and his indecisiveness about how to act around her.
Moreover, the conflict between filial commitment and erotic/romantic love is epitomized in this scene. Tita and Pedro find themselves attracted to each other yet concomitantly driven apart. Even when they do overcome their fears regarding social conformity and maternal oppression, they find Mama Elena, as always, the domineering force ensuring their love cannot be openly expressed or consummated. In keeping with the general course of the story, Tita is once again forced to “endure her desire” (line 31) throughout a “tortured night” (line 31). Bent on enforcing her code of ethics in the house, Mama Elena ensures that the two keep to their commitments, Tita to her and Pedro to Rosaura. This is the dominant theme for the first half of the novel, up until Mama Elena’s paralysis.
Therefore, we can see that this scene, in which Tita and Pedro finally confront each other in the dead of night, almost within arms reach of Mama Elena and Rosaura, only to be interrupted by Mama Elena, typifies the central dramatic conflict of the novel. The passage should be seen as a pivotal moment in the novel as it is the only moment, save for the novel’s last scene, in which Tita and Pedro are able to momentarily express their passion for one another. It is also the moment when Mama Elena realizes that her past, present and future attempts at keeping the two apart will be in vain so long as they are near each other. Thus she ensures Pedro leaves for Texas the morning after, while Tita has no other option other than to return to her normal routines as laid out for her by her oppressive mother. Tita and Pedro’s encounter is also emblematic of the general course of the novel as, even though they finally manage to embrace each other, they must do so with meticulous caution and are almost immediately frustrated by Mama Elena.
This mix of innocent love and raw passion seen in this passage will not be repeated until the very end of the novel. Every other time Tita and Pedro meet after this point, a certain jealousy or resentment or confusion is always sown into their other feelings of passion, thus emphasizing the intensity and importance of this night meeting.
Appendix – Passage
From her hammock Tita heard someone get up for a chunk of watermelon. This awakened in her the urge to go to the bathroom. She had been drinking beer all day long, not to cool off, but to make more milk to nurse her nephew.
He was sleeping peaceful next to her sister. Getting up in the dark, she couldn’t see a thing – there wasn’t a glimmer of light. She was walking towards the bathroom, trying to remember where the hammocks were; she didn’t want to stumble into anybody.
Pedro, sitting in his hammock, was eating a slice of watermelon and thinking of Tita. Having her so near made him feel a tremendous excitement. He couldn’t sleep thinking of her there, a few steps from him… and from Mama Elena, too, of course. He heard the sound of footsteps in the shadows and stopped breathing for a few moments. It had to be Tita, her distinctive fragrance wafted towards him on the breeze, a mixture of jasmine and cooking odours that was hers alone. For a moment he thought that Tita has got up to look for him. The sound of her approaching footsteps blended with the violent beating of his heart. But no, the steps were moving away from him, to the bathroom. Pedro got up, quiet as a cat, and followed her.
Tita was surprised to feel someone pull her towards him and cover her mouth, but she realized who it was immediately and didn’t offer any resistance as the hand first slid down her neck to her breasts and then explored her entire body.
While she was receiving a kiss on the lips, Pedro took her hand in his and invited her to explore his body. Tita timidly touched the hard muscles on Pedro’s arms and chest; lower down, she felt a red-hot coal that throbbed through his clothes. She removed her hand, frightened not by her discovery but by a cry from Mama Elena.
‘Tita, where are you?’
‘Right here, Mami, I’m going to the bathroom.’
Fearful that her mother would suspect something, Tita hurried back to the bed where she passed a tortured night, enduring her desire to urinate along with another urge. Her sacrifice didn’t do a bit of good: the following day, Mama Elena – who for a while seemed to have changed her mind about sending Pedro and Rosaura to Texas – speeded up her plans for their departure; three days later they had left the ranch.
Like Water For Chocolate,
Translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen
Black Swan Books
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