Analysis of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican writer Laura Esquivel (1950– ) wrote Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies as an extraordinary tale of the unique relationship between the magic of love and the sensuality of food. Actual cooking recipes abound in the novel as epigraphs to introduce chapters. Her unique admixture of physical passion and fl avorful sustenance is cast in the hyperbolic style of magic realism. Like Water for Chocolate’s colorful union of realism and fantasy make the novel a tour de force as Esquivel’s extremely sensual language reaches a highly descriptive plane. Brewing and boiling like an incredible spicy bouillabaisse, it carries the reader through an enchantingly entertaining journey that is compelling and innovative.

Laura Esquivel / MUBI

Esquivel first wrote Like Water for Chocolate as a screenplay; however, when she was unable to get it produced, she reshaped the story into a novel, which was published in 1989 in Spanish and then translated into English two years later. The novel quickly became an international best seller and gained critical acclaim the world over for its innovative structure and style.

Much of Esquivel’s writing is identified as partaking of the genre of magic realism, a term first used in 1925 by Franz Roh when describing a “quasi-surrealistic work of a group of German painters in the 1920s.” Magic realism came into its own in literature in the latter part of the 20th century. In Like Water for Chocolate, scenes of magic realism include Esquivel’s description of the house in which the protagonist Tita lives. This house, always bursting with the preparation of wonderful tasty delights, belies the constant undercurrent of passions and descriptive catastrophic occurrences in the lives of the author’s characters. Esquivel has maintained that “all objects have consciousness.” Other Latin American writers engaged in magic realism include short story writer Jorge Luis Borjes and novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the Mexican revolution that began in 1910, the story of Like Water for Chocolate takes place on a ranch in Coahuila, located on the border between the United States and Mexico. The story is told in the first person by a young woman whose great aunt is Tita, a main character in the work. The title of the novel refers to the process of boiling water for hot chocolate, and “when someone is about to explode, we say that person is ‘like water for chocolate,’ ” explains scholar Claudia Loewenstein in her interview with Esquivel published in Southwest Review. Fittingly, Esquivel’s romance tells the story of two characters, Tita and Pedro, whose passion is so strong that they are about to explode.

Even though they are in love, these two young starcrossed lovers cannot marry. According to her mother, Mama Elena, because she is the youngest of three daughters, Tita must remain single and care for her widowed mother. In despair, Pedro chooses to marry Rosaura, Tita’s older sister, so that he can at least live near his true love. Esquivel shows the tension of this triangle through magical elements, as evident in the wedding scene. Besides having to watch her sister marry her one true love, Tita must also bake their wedding cake. Her tears and sorrow become part of the cake as she cooks it, and when people eat it at the wedding, they consume not just the cake but Tita’s pain.

The 12 chapters of the novel correspond to 12 months in a year, and each chapter begins with a recipe that relates to the plot. Some critics have pointed out that many readers enjoy the novel as a romance, while other readers may find the work more of a parody of what Maria Elena de Valdes explains as “the Mexican version of women’s fiction published in monthly installments together with recipes, home remedies, dressmaking patterns, short poems, moral exhortations, ideas on home decoration, and the calendar of church observances.” Also, exaggeration in the book suggests a playful twist on traditional romance: Tita’s sister Rosaura suffers a smelly death due to excess fl atulence. Pedro, the hero, has a stroke during an intense sexual climax, and Tita decides to kill herself by swallowing a box of matches, with bursting flames devouring both Tita and Pedro. The scholar Dianna C. Niebylski cautions the reader from attaching a sentimental or romantic view to the novel: “What is so romantic about an ending where practically everything in the novel is burned to a crisp?” However, Esquivel resists calling the novel a parody.

Parody or not, Esquivel’s novel challenges patriarchy and celebrates the domestic sphere of the kitchen. Mama Elena, a strong leader of the family, shows little compassion toward Tita’s situation. One reason to explain her harshness is that she loves someone outside tradition, suffers a broken heart, and spends the rest of her life obeying and enforcing tradition. Esquivel comments that she sees “the mother as being equal to the masculine world and masculine repression, not feminine. Mama Elena is the one who wants to impose norms and a certain social organization,” according to Loewenstein. And like her mother, Rosaura does not challenge convention and follows family and cultural tradition. Other women in the novel make different choices. Gertrudis shows one version of feminism when she leaves home and joins the revolution and becomes a general. Esperanza, part of the next generation, goes to the university. Tita pursues her romance with Pedro to its fiery end.

Barbas-Rhoden, Laura. Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.
Beer, Gabriella de. Contemporary Mexican Women Writers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Colchie, Thomas. A Whistler in the Nightworld: Short Fiction from the Latin Americas. New York: Plume, 2002.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. Translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
———. Malinche. Translated by Ernesto Mestre-Reed. New York: Atria Books, 2006.
———. Swift as Desire. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.
Niebylski, Diana C. Humoring Resistance: Laughter and the Excessive Body in Latin America Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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