Like Water For Chocolate can be distilled into the stories of two women, Tita De La Garza and her mother, the formidable Mama Elena. The trajectory of their struggle against one another is the axis around which the entire novel turns. Tita, the protagonist, strives for love, freedom, and individuality, and Mama Elena, the chief antagonist, stands as the prime opposition to the fulfillment of these goals. This mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty from its inception, when Tita is brought into the world prematurely after her father's sudden death. Mama Elena is the opposite of a nurturer, never forging any bond with Tita. Tita develops a relationship with food that gives her the power to nurture and give outlet to her emotions.
As with most literary pairings, Tita and Mama Elena share a central characteristic that defines both their individual struggles and their conflict with each other. The revelation that Mama Elena herself suffered the pangs of lost love is an important thematic complement to Tita's deprivation. The reaction of each woman to her predicament helps delineate their differing characters. Whereas Mama Elena lets the loss of love turn her into a sinister and domineering mother, Tita, while obeying her mother's command outwardly, engages in a lifelong struggle for love, which she eventually wins through the strength of spirit.
The structuring of Like Water for Chocolate as "A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies," as it is subtitled, establishes the filter through which the reader will experience the world of the novel. Like Tita--whose knowledge of life is "based on the kitchen"-- the reader must explore the work through the role and power of food, guided by the recipes that begin each chapter. The division of the novel into "monthly installments" conjures up the image of serial narratives published in periodicals (often women's magazines). This organization, along with the matter-of-fact weaving of recipes and remedies into the fabric of the narrative, underscores the fact that the novel offers substantial opportunities for feminist analysis.
In addition to serving as a central organizing principle, food is often a direct cause of physical and emotional unrest, and serves as a medium through which emotions can be transmitted. Tita prepares most of the food in the novel, and she uses food to express her emotions because her lowly cultural status affords her no other opportunity to do so. The vomiting and moroseness at Rosaura's wedding results from the guests' eating the cake that bears Tita's tears. Likewise, the sexual frenzy that compels Gertrudis to leave the ranch is occasioned by the transmission of Tita's passion for Pedro into the dish she prepares for dinner. These incidents suggest a simultaneous commodification and uncontrollability of emotion; food is a potent force in the world of the novel, and it lets Tita assert her identity.
Images of heat and fire permeate the novel as expressions of intense emotion. Because heat is the catalyst that causes food to undergo chemical change, substantial waves of it are present at many of the moments when food is being prepared. In the science of cooking, heat is a force to be used precisely; the novel's title phrase "like water for chocolate," refers to the fact that water must be brought to the brink of boiling several times before it is ready to be used in the making of hot chocolate. However, the heat of emotions, cannot be so controlled. Heat is a symbol for desire and physical love throughout the text: in Gertrudis' flight from the ranch; Pedro's lustful gazing at Tita in the shower; and the post-coital death of Pedro, among many other instances. The inner fire of the individual constitutes an important theme in the novel, and much of Tita's struggle centers on cultivating this fire. These uses of fire point toward a duality in its symbolism, as a source of strength and a force of destruction. The coupling of death and desire that occurs when the love between Tita and Pedro is freed epitomizes this duality.
In Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel extends the religious-mythical themes of magic realism to the everyday world of the domestic realm of a female-dominated household. Though not a story of the battles, great figures, and moral challenges generally associated with the epic form, Esquivel elevates this story of women, and one woman in particular, to such proportions. This strategy leads the reader to explore the feminist properties of Like Water For Chocolate, which are evident in the depictions of Tita's struggle to gain independence and develop her identity, and also in the fact that this struggle is depicted at all. In creating this female-centered cast of characters, Esquivel imagines a world in which men are physically present only occasionally, though the legacy of sexism and the confinement of women to the domestic sphere persist. Esquivel does not offer her readers the vision of a utopian sisterhood, but rather insight into the way women are restricted by standards of societal propriety perpetuated by other women.
Although Like Water for Chocolate playfully appropriates resources from the Spanish American canon (most notably, from Magical Realism), the novel may be identified more closely with popular serial formulas such as the sentimental novel and its descendants. Laura Esquivel has chosen to use conventions from popular discourse that will be easily recognized by the reader: Tita, treated like a servant in her own home, is denied marriage to the man she loves because of the social sanctions represented by her mother; there is a growing tension between the lovers prior to the consummation of their relation; there is a series of impediments and tragedies, including the death of Pedro’s son and Tita’s subsequent emotional crisis; Tita is rescued by a kindly older man (the fact that he is North American makes him particularly innocuous) whose selfless love cannot be reciprocated; there is an obligatory (false) pregnancy; and there is even a scene in which Tita swoons. In short, like the archetypal romantic heroine, Tita must go through difficult trials, but she is ultimately rewarded at the end as love triumphs. In addition, as is typical of serial discourse, there is a continual play in the novel of climax/anticlimax as each crisis is resolved and a new one takes its place, as well as a tendency to fall into melodramatic and overwrought prose.
The appropriation of popular discourse, with its emphasis on such “feminine” values as nurturing and selflessness, is a means of undermining the patriarchal system. Furthermore, since such genres are forms of discourse often written by women and for a female public, Esquivel reinforces the idea of a community of women. Just as the rituals associated with cooking provide Tita with a sense of security, the fact that these popular genres often rely on formulae provides women with an order and a control that may not exist in their everyday world. Nevertheless, a close reading of Esquivel’s text reveals that although the novel replicates popular forms on the surface, a deliberate inversion of roles has been effected that allows the author to appropriate this genre and challenge it at the same time. One obvious variation from the norm is that, unlike the characters in standard romance fiction, in which passivity is considered a virtue, Esquivel’s women are stronger and more decisive than their male counterparts. The head of the family is a woman, one of the sisters becomes a general in the Revolution, and it is Tita, not Pedro, who eventually dares to stand up to her mother and to Rosaura as well. Moreover, even before her rebellion, Tita wields an underground power through the strange effects produced by her cooking as she “penetrates” her beloved through the sensual power of her culinary creations. Finally, although love triumphs at the end of the novel by uniting the lovers in death, Like Water for Chocolate further challenges the sentimental canon as it negates the formulaic “happy ending”—at least in a traditional sense.
Esquivel invites the reader to reassess conventional approaches to literature by experiencing the pleasure of the text, through flagrant sight—gags, and, especially, through the sensorial stimuli—the scents, tastes, colors and textures—induced by food. The use of the taste and scent of food as a device to stimulate memory is not unique, but Esquivel approaches the subject playfully: Tita compares her emotional and physical states in terms of ludicrous culinary metaphors that question both the seriousness of canonized discourse and the timeworn metaphors of popular literature. The narrator’s means of expression is humorous but at the same time concrete; it transcends abstract notions of femininity and returns them to immediate experience. The “culinary” metaphors, along with the recipes and household remedies that frame the narrative, allow Esquivel to rescue the neglected oral tradition of female discourse by creating a chain of characters through which the story (and the recipes) have been handed down (from Nacha to Tita to Esperanza to the narrator). Thus, although the novel revolves around a love story, Tita’s awakening as a woman is not dependent upon men but, rather, upon her own realization of this ancient tradition.