Like Water For Virgins

Passage: […] she was unable to concentrate on making the icing for the cake, no matter how hard she tried. The whiteness of the granulated sugar frightened her. She felt powerless against it, feeling that at any moment the white colour might seize her mind, dragging along those snow-white images from her childhood, may-time images of being taken, all in white to offer white flowers to the Virgin. She entered the church in a row of girls all dressed in white and approached the altar, which was covered with white candles and flowers, illuminated by a heavenly white light streaming through the stained-glass window of the white church. Never had she entered that church, not once, without dreaming of the day she would enter it on the arm of a man. She had to block out not just this thought but all the memories that caused her so much pain: she had to finish the frosting of her sister’s wedding cake. Making a supreme effort, she began to prepare it. (Esquivel 34-35)

Literary techniques inform the reader of the greater meaning behind the words simply telling the story and allow the reader to interpret the text in this way. This essay will analyse how form produces meaning through reference to the literary techniques utilised by Laura Esquivel in the above passage taken from her novel, Like Water for Chocolate. The passage describes the novel’s protagonist, Tita, and her unwillingness to contribute her cooking skills to the wedding of Tita’s sister, Rosaura, and Tita’s true love, Pedro. This passage is significant to the text as a whole because it exemplifies how tradition forces perversities that wouldn’t normally occur by portraying how Tita has had virginity forced upon her. Esquivel conveys this through Tita’s character development with the use of oblique language, never explicitly stating the notion. Instead, it is understood through the use of repetition, flashback, visual imagery, religious allusions and lexical choice. By analysing how each of these individual techniques contributes to Tita’s character development, we will prove form and content work together to produce meaning.

This passage occurs in the earlier part of the story. The de la Garza family operates in a tradition wherein the youngest daughter of the family is never allowed to marry or leave the family home as it is her duty to look after her mother until the day she dies. The protagonist’s mother, Mama Elena, enforces this tradition when Tita is fifteen years old and her love interest, Pedro, comes to ask for her hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses and offers her eldest daughter, Rosaura, instead. Pedro agrees so as to be closer to Tita; this arrangement leads to much trauma and distress in the household. The passage is about Tita’s struggle to cope with the oppressive nature of her Mexican family’s tradition and is caused by her forced involvement and contributions on preparing the twenty-course feast for the wedding she hates.

The most salient literary technique Esquivel uses to convey how Tita’s virginity and purity is forced upon her in this passage is the flashback. Esquivel provides a brief succession of visual images portraying the protagonist’s participation in religious rituals as a young girl: “being taken, all in white to offer white flowers to the Virgin.” Her past participation in the ritual demonstrates Tita values tradition and this is why she does not immediately break from the tradition set forth by her mother. Tita practiced this with her sisters and community, unaware of the commitment she was making to a celibate future. What she does in the past affects her future. She is following in the Virgin Mary’s footsteps, to which she has shown respect and commitment whereas her sisters and friends do not have the same obligations. In the flashback she has white flowers and in reality she has white frosting. This shows a visual similarity between past and present. Her reality is making the cake frosting for the wedding but she does not want to because it symbolises a marriage she resents. It is a struggle between impure thoughts and forced purity. Making a sacrifice to the Virgin Mary is in a way a commitment to being her. Therefore, this flashback juxtaposed with reality shows Tita is compelled to be virginal despite her own desires.

Tita’s forced virginity is also conveyed in Like Water for Chocolate through many religious allusions. The importance of religion and tradition to her is conveyed through the visual imagery “those snow-white images from her childhood, may-time images of being taken, all in white to offer white flowers to the Virgin”. In this example there are two references to the Virgin Mary, firstly in “may-time” as May is Mary’s month and secondly in “the Virgin”. The repetition shows the significance of this religious icon to a girl whom cannot marry. The Virgin is a religious symbol of purity and restraint, a sort of opposite for how Tita feels and is represented in Like Water for Chocolate. They may both be celibate but Mary still acquires a husband and son. Tita does not even have that. This use of religious symbols is another aspect of Tita’s character development showing her underlying contempt for Mary’s choices, as Tita would not choose the same.

Another technique Esquivel employs to convey Tita’s forced virginity is repetition. Esquivel repeats the word “white” in various incarnations eight times in this passage. The colour traditionally symbolises purity and virginity, especially in Christian cultures when paired with allusions to the Virgin Mary. White as a symbol of purity is juxtaposed with Tita’s impure thoughts of not supporting the pending nuptials. Repetition of “white” links all the different images from the memory together and then links it to the kitchen and the food through the principle image of the sugar. The connotations of sugar as an indulgence means Tita indulging herself in her own misery. White lends a dreamlike quality to the image. It is also an absence of colour, washed out and lifeless, absence of passion or emotion.

Similarly, Esquivel manipulates the setting to depict how virginity and celibacy are antipathetic with Tita. From birth, Tita is portrayed as perfectly at home in the kitchen. Food becomes a linguistic form for her, magic realism conveying underlying emotions from Tita to other characters in the novel. However, in this passage, Tita is completely distraught and feeling unsafe as she was “unable to concentrate on making the icing for the cake, no matter how hard she tried”. Esquivel also portrays the church setting in such a colourless, lifeless manner that, although Tita romanticises the traditions she was a part of, she seems completely out of place there. Displacing the main character in this way leaves her with nowhere to go, adding to her character development. This imbalance shows Tita is being forced into an unnatural state.

An additional technique employed to convey the forced virginity of Tita is the repeated use of female pronouns and lack of masculine presence in the passage. Women dominate the majority of the passage. They are both explicitly referred to as the Virgin Mary and Rosaura are or to Mama Elena’s commands, which all these characters are carrying out. Instead of naming Tita, Esquivel achieves a greater empathetic connection with the reader: it could have been anyone. The fact that it is a feminine pronoun complies with the female archetype of overly sensitive or emotional and sentimental. Focusing on two notable women and emphasising Tita, at least through repetition of “she”, contrasts with the distinct lack of masculine presence in the passage. The masculine figure is only referred to spuriously as “arm of a man”. It is not even a whole man but just his arm, further diminishing his importance. By removing the masculine aspect, Esquivel creates a physical virginity in the text. A man is implicitly needed in order to break it. The lack of male presence conjures a kind of linguistic nunnery where all the women are celibate out of necessity. It is physically impossible for Tita to not be a virgin, no matter how she yearns otherwise.

In summation, Esquivel’s character development of Tita amounts to the portrayal of a woman who has been forced into a state that does not comply with her natural character. She is an innately sexual being and yearns for it throughout the novel. We could not understand this passage’s true meaning without the analysis of the literary techniques it is made up from. As literary techniques are an intrinsic aspect of the novel as a linguistic form of communication, we have successfully proved form and content work together to produce the meaning of traditions forcing perversities that wouldn’t normally occur.

Reference

Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate, Great Britain: Doubleday, 1989. Print.

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