A Duty and Responsibility
The first chapter begins the novel’s exploration of the theme of duty, responsibility, and tradition as it presents Tita’s main conflict. Family tradition requires that she reject Pedro’s marriage proposal so she can stay at home and take care of her widowed mother for the rest of her life. If she turns her back on this tradition, she will not fulfill what society considers her responsibility to her mother. Rosaura decides that she also will enforce this tradition for her daughter Esperanza and so prevent her from marrying Alex Brown. Tita recognizes, however, that the tradition is unfair; if she cannot marry and have children, who will support her in her age? She tells Rosaura that she will go against tradition as long as she has to, “as long as this cursed tradition doesn’t take me into account.” Nevertheless, she and Pedro respect his duty toward his wife and child, for they remain discreet in their love as long as she lives.
In order to fulfill her responsibilities toward her mother, Tita must obey her-a difficult task, given Mama Elena’s authoritative nature. Mama Elena makes harsh demands on Tita throughout her life and expects her to obey without question. Tita has never had the “proper deference” towards her mother, Mama Elena feels, and so she is particularly harsh on her youngest daughter. Even when Tita sews “perfect creation” for the wedding, Mama Elena makes her rip out the seam and do it over because she did not baste it first, as Mama instructed. After Mama Elena decides that Pedro will marry Rosaura, she insists that Tita cook the wedding feast, knowing how difficult that task will be for her. When Nacha dies, Mama Elena decides Tita must take full responsibility for the meals on the ranch, which leaves Tita little time for anything else. Tita’s struggle to determine what is the proper degree of obedience due to her mother is a major conflict in the novel.
C Cruelty and Violence
Mama Elena often resorts to cruelty and violence as she forces Tita to obey her. Many of the responsibilities she imposes on Tita, especially those relating to Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, are blatant acts of cruelty, given Tita’s pain over losing Pedro. Mama Elena meets Tita’s slightest protest with angry tirades and beatings. Even when she just suspects that Tita has not fulfilled her duties, as when she thought that Tita intentionally ruined the wedding cake, she beats her. When Tita dares to stand up to her mother and to blame her for Roberto’s death, Mama Elena smacks her across the face with a wooden spoon and breaks her nose. This everyday cruelty does not seem so unusual, however, in a land where a widow must protect herself and her family from bandits and revolutionaries.
D Victim and Victimization
When Mama Elena coerces Tita into obeying her cruel dictates, she victimizes her. Tita becomes a victim of Mama Elena’s obsessive need for power and control. Mama Elena confines Tita to the kitchen, where her life consists of providing for the needs of others. She rejects Tita’s individuality and tries to force her to suppress her sense of selfhood. Tita’s growth as an individual depends on her ability to free herself from the role of victim.
E Sex Roles
The novel closely relates Tita’s victimization to the issue of sex roles. When Tita’s mother confines her to the kitchen, she relegates her to a limited domestic sphere. There Tita’s role becomes a traditionally female one-that of selfless nurturer, placing the needs of others before her own. In this limited role, Tita struggles to find a sense of identity. When Tita is taken to Dr. Brown’s house, she marvels at her hands, for she discovers “she could move them however she pleased.” At the ranch, “what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined.” She learns of Dr. Brown’s grandmother, Morning Light, who experimented with herbs and became a respected healer.
F Love and Passion
The forces of love and passion conflict with Tita’s desire to fulfill her responsibilities toward her mother. In obeying her mother, Tita must suppress her feelings for Pedro. Her sister Gertrudis, on the other hand, allows herself to freely express her passion when she runs off with Juan and soon begins work at a brothel. Tita’s and Gertrudis’s passionate natures also emerge through their enjoyment of food. Both relish good meals, although Tita is the only one who knows how to prepare one. At one point, Gertrudis brings the revolutionary army to the De la Garza ranch so she can sample her sister’s hot chocolate, cream fritters, and other recipes. This parallel can be carried over to the love of John Brown for Tita. Although he is captivated by her beauty, he feels no passionate jealousy over her relationship with Pedro. He comes from a North American family where the food, as Tita finds, “is bland and didn’t appeal.”
G Sanity and Insanity
As the need to obey her mother clashes with her own desires, Tita begins to lose her sanity. When Mama Elena sends Rosaura, Pedro, and Roberto away, Tita loses all interest in life. The news of Roberto’s death pushes her over the edge and she escapes to the dovecote, refusing to come out. When John removes her from the oppressive atmosphere her mother has created, and he and Chencha offer her comfort and love, her sanity returns. Mama Elena never questions her own state of mind, although she is obsessive in her need to dominate her daughters. When Tita is found in the dovecote, Mama Elena ironically states that “there’s no place in this house for maniacs!”
H Creativity and Imagination
Through Tita’s creativity in the kitchen, she finds an outlet for her suppressed emotions. Thus, ironically, while Mama Elena tries to control Tita by confining her to the kitchen and forcing her to prepare all of the family’s meals, Tita is also able to strengthen her relationship with others and to gain a clearer sense of herself. She pours all of her passion for Pedro into her meals, which helps to further bond the two. Her cooking also creates a bond with Pedro’s two children, easing the pain over not being able to have children of her own with him. Tita’s imaginative cooking is also a way for her to rebel against her mother; she recalls that whenever she failed to follow a recipe exactly, “she was always sure … that Mama Elena would find out and, instead of congratulating her on her creativity, give her a terrible tongue-lashing for disobeying the rules.”
The final important element of the novel is Esquivel’s use of the supernatural. Tita’s magical dishes, which produce waves of longing and uncontrollable desire, become a metaphor for creativity and self-expression. Like an artist, Tita pours herself into her cooking and produces works of art that evoke strong emotions in others. Her careful preparation of her family’s food also reveals her loving nature. Another supernatural aspect, the spirits of the dead that appear to Tita throughout the novel, suggest that one’s influence does not disappear after death. Nacha’s spirit helps give Tita confidence when she needs it, much like Nacha had done while she was alive. Mama Elena’s spirit tries to control Tita from the grave, making her feel guilty about her passion for Pedro.