Crossing Cultural Boundaries: Comparing the Literary Qualities of Cather's A Lost Lady and Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate
Imagine, for a moment, Marian Forrester in her kitchen preparing a tray for tea. As she works, her mind wanders to the letter she received in the post today from Frank Ellinger. "It's been too long since Frank has been out from Denver," she thinks as she glances out the window across the meadow, half expecting to see his form approaching. Instead, she sees in the distance an exotic form, a Spanish maiden, and in a cloud of dust a soldier approaches her.
Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away. The horse, which seemed to be obeying higher orders too, kept galloping as if it already knew their ultimate destination, even though Juan had thrown the reins aside and was passionately kissing and embracing Gertrudis. The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies as they made love for the first time, at a gallop and with a great deal of difficulty. (Esquivel 55-56)
An unlikely scene in Mrs. Forrester's Victorian world? The worlds about which Willa Cather and Laura Esquivel write hardly seen congruous. Written in different eras, in different styles, and in different cultures, Cather's A Lost Lady and Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate appear, at first glance, to have little in common. Cather's Victorian realism seems totally incompatible with Esquivel's surrealistic imagery, and yet, if we look closely, we can find common threads woven between the two works. Although differences are obvious, subtle similarities exist in setting, conflict, and central characters.
Writing during the Victorian era, Cather chooses as the setting for her novel the prairie states of the United States at the turn of the century. We find the Industrial Revolution encroaching on the Forresters' lifestyle and threatening the values they hold so dear. Esquivel, a contemporary writer, also writes about the turn of the century, but her novel is set in Mexico near the Texas border during a time of political revolution. In both novels we can see revolution pushing people forward, causing some to cling desperately to the conventions and traditions of the past. Despite the fact that the locations of the two stories are miles apart, both geographically and culturally, we can find a resemblance in the remoteness of the two houses involved. Each is located off to itself, separated from the rest of the community. The Forrester house, we are told, "stood on a low round hill, nearly a mile east of town" (4). It was separated from the town by creeks and meadows and was accessible only by a private lane. Likewise, the De la Garza ranch is located away from the nearest town as we learn when Gertrudis is taking her famous shower; we are told: "By then the scent of roses given off by her body had traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle" (54). This isolation, in each case, may add to the authority of convention and tradition in these families' lives as they are more removed from the tides of change which flow so readily through more urban communities.
Similarities may also be found between these two novels in the conflicts encountered. In both stories the central character is engaged in a struggle between passion and convention. Mrs. Forrester and Tita are both clearly women of passion. Although "lady-like" in all she did, Marian Forrester reveled in her discreet physical relationship with Frank Ellinger. After their tryst in the sleigh, we are told that Frank "stood for a long while holding her crushed up against his breast, her face hidden in his black overcoat. . . . When he got in [the sleigh] beside her, she slipped her hand through his arm and settled softly against him" (55). Bound by social convention and her devotion to the Captain, Marian struggles throughout the story to satisfy her passion within these limits. Likewise, Tita was bound by tradition to be denied the fulfillment of her passion through marriage. She struggles first to escape from the oppression of her mother's demand for acquiescence to family tradition, which requires that Tita, as the youngest daughter, remain single and at home to take care of her mother. Tita tries to escape, realizing her overpowering desire for Pedro. Even facing Pedro's impending marriage to Rosaura, Tita's flame remains alive with hope. When Pedro confesses that the marriage is just his way of remaining close to Tita, "[i]t was as if all her inner joy, which had nearly been extinguished, had suddenly been rekindled by Pedro's warm breath upon her neck, the hot touch of his hands upon her back, his chest pressed impulsively against her breasts. . . . She could have stayed in his arms forever" ( 38). Even closer to Marian Forrester's conflict is Tita's struggle between marrying Pedro or John Brown. Like the Captain's relationship to Marian, John Brown offers Tita stability and social acceptance bound in a life of devotion. But like Marian, Tita desires to quench her lust for passion, which draws her to Pedro. Although in the end the two women chose different solutions, their conflicts were surprisingly similar.
Finally, we can compare the development of the central character in each of the novels. Marian and Tita are both members of well-born families, tied to convention and tradition respectively. Both are motivated by passion and their desire to fulfill it. Each is characterized throughout her novel by an emotional trademark. Tita, for example, is marked by her tears, and Marian is noted for "her many-coloured laugh" (59). Each of these women is shown to have a strong will and the ability to stand up to other characters and to their conflicts. Marian Forrester, as we have seen, manages to maintain a devoted relationship with the Captain, yet she still satisfies her longings for excitement and passion. Her will to pursue her desires was so strong that even after the Captain's death "she was not willing to immolate herself . . . and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; . . . she preferred life on any terms" (145). Tita, likewise, single-mindedly pursues her desire for the fulfillment of her passion. "She knew what set off her explosions, but each time she had managed to light a match, it had persistently been blown out" (116); yet she didn't give up hope. Faced with the dilemma of deciding between an acceptable marriage to John Brown or retaining her relationship with her true love, Pedro, Tita has to contend with admonitions from her mother's spirit. Tita finds the strength to stand up to her mother, telling her: "I'm tired of your tormenting me. Leave me in peace once and for all! . . . I know who I am! A person who has a perfect right to live her life as she pleases. Once and for all, leave me alone; I won't put up with you" (199). Both Tita and Marian are able to battle obstacles standing in their way in order to pursue their true desires.
Although at first glance it seems highly unlikely that these two novels contain any common threads, by inspecting their literary components, we can find many parallels. Both stories are about strong, passionate women living at the turn of the century who face obstacles of tradition and conventionality. Both women pursue their own dreams while striving to maintain some sense of respectability and honor. If Marian were to look up from her kitchen window to see Juan and Gertrudis galloping across the meadow, she would certainly recognize kindred spirits and let out a cheer.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York, Anchor, 1992.