At times, the line between reality and the ‘magical’ is so thin that the union between both realms can become something ‘ordinary’. Magical realism “is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction” (Brittanica). Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate makes use of magical realism in her novel-cookbook hybrid by making readers aware of the magic within the domestic arts. The use of domestic arts and magical realism creates a story that goes beyond the assumption that the domestic sphere is confining for women and explores how it can be both oppressive and liberating. With this in mind, I will explore how magical realism and the domestic arts are used to emphasize the effects of tradition on its characters, with a specific focus on Tita’s journey to freedom and self-agency.
In Like Water for Chocolate, readers are introduced to Tita’s struggle for freedom very early on through foreshadowing. From the first page of the novel, Tita was described to be very sensitive to onions, causing her to cry and make “her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table” (Esquivel 5). It is here where readers may realize that the domestic arts will have a big role in Tita’s life. Others may also realize the subtle foreshadowing of this introduction as Tita’s life is from then on, full of many hardships and repressed emotions. This is one of the only times she is able to express herself freely, allowing her emotions to flow.
Magical realism is also immediately but subtly introduced in Tita’s birth scene, establishing its subtle use so as to make uncommon occurrences ‘ordinary.’ The first use of magical elements occurs when “Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor… Enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack” (Esquivel 6). The salt remaining from Tita’s tears is an exaggeration that is not questioned by Nacha but also serves to foreshadow her future hardships and deep connection to the kitchen and all it encompasses.
Tita’s connection to the kitchen brought on her love for the domestic arts, however, this love for cooking would also be used against her. The domestic arts are both confining and freeing for Tita throughout the novel. Confining, in the sense that her mother would put her in charge of the kitchen and would find fault in Tita’s cooking, and freeing, in that it allowed Tita to have an outlet to express her repressed emotions, emotions she was forced to hide in fear of the consequences of breaking Mama Elena’s rule to not cry or complain. Tita lived in fear and ‘never took time to stop and think” for she always believed that “what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined, no questions asked’ (Esquivel 109).
Tita’s confinement to the kitchen begins when her beloved, Pedro, asks for Tita’s hand in marriage. In the novel, it is customary for the youngest daughter to take care of her mother until she dies (Esquivel 10). Tita, being the youngest, is confined to this tradition and without consideration for her feelings, Mama Elena offers Rosaura to Pedro and is ordered to bake their wedding cake. For the first time, Tita does not enjoy the process of cooking and begins to learn to repress her feelings through distractions to avoid punishment.
Due to Tita’s deep connection to cooking, her emotions make their way into her dishes, whether it be for better or for worse. In the case of Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding cake, Tita, struck by grief and despair, cries and her tears make their way into the cake. Although her tears did not alter the flavor, they evoked a sense of longing and caused all the wedding guests to engage in “collective vomiting” following a moment of tears and sobs (Esquivel 39). From this, magical realism is present in the reactions to Tita’s food as it is not realistic for the emotions that are felt during the baking process to have such a drastic effect on those who consume the dish. Likewise, Tita’s dishes were also capable of other kinds of effects. “It is always possible to find a space from which one can practice what is prohibited” (Spanos 31).
Unable to express her ardent love for Pedro, Tita began to cook her love and passion into her food. The most notable dish that does this was Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce wherein the forbidden couple “discovered a new system of communication, in which Tita was the transmitter, Pedro the receiver, and poor Gertrudis the medium” (Esquivel 52). Through cooking, Tita was able to take control, she could control her dishes and “the effects they could have were beyond Mama Elena’s iron command” (Esquivel 48). Furthermore, her quail dish also embodies the idea that women can “reclaim the kitchen as a place or space of artistic and creative power and not just a place of mere confinement and oppression” (Spanos 32). Slowly, Tita is able to experience some freedom and begins to question her situation.
The food Tita prepares is magical, it freed her sister. The effect the quail had on her sister Gertrudis is in many ways exaggerated but works to show how Tita unintentionally encouraged her sister to liberate herself. Her dish was made with passion and sparked a fire in both Pedro and Gertrudis, with Gertrudis suffering more from its symptoms, particularly heating up. To combat the heat, Gertrudis rushed to take a shower but “the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body, they evaporated before they reached her”(Esquivel 54). Tita’s dishes are magical in how they transport people to places, evoke emotions, and compel individuals to act. In other words, “the preparation and eating of food is thus a symbolic representation of living” (De Valdes 80). Each recipe has its own story, an emotion, and power accompanying it, signifying Tita’s power in being able to ingrain such emotion into her dishes.
Towards the end of the novel, Tita, with all her new knowledge, eventually gathers the courage to dispel Mama Elena’s beliefs and restrictions. Once full of “fear that she felt when she was cooking and didn’t follow a recipe to the letter,” after all that she went through, Tita faced her mother’s ghost (Esquivel 198). Tita bravely states she is “a person who has a perfect right to love her life as she pleases” effectively making Mama Elena disappear after setting Pedro on fire on her way out (Esquivel 199). With new obstacles thereafter, she takes it upon herself to teach her niece, Esperanza, all that she knows to help her exercise her self-agency by encouraging her to make her own choices and go to school despite Rosaura’s hesitance (Esquivel 239). Tita succeeds as she prepares the meal to be served at her niece’s wedding, a meal that sets her and Pedro free to express their love after years of suffering and hiding.
Despite the restrictions placed upon Tita by her mother, Tita still manages to control her life by conveying her emotions through cooking. Her emotion-filled dishes cast spells on whoever eats them, causing them to break out in tears or spark a desire for passion, feeling what she feels. Through cooking, she is able to communicate what she was told to conceal for the sake of upholding tradition. Through Tita’s character, “Esquivel reclaims the kitchen as a very serious domestic sphere which is the most sacred place in the house, and from which the protagonist controls her destiny through her recipes” (Spanos 30). The kitchen may be confining women to stereotypical roles, however, they can also be enjoyable and magical when women are free to make their own choice, unbound by tradition, rules, and norms. Through Tita’s struggles, readers learn the freeing magic food contains, with one bite, you are free to feel and express.
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