Bless Me, Ultima

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Themes and Colors
Growing Up Theme Icon
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Knowledge Theme Icon
Language and Culture Theme Icon
Christianity vs. the Supernatural Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bless Me, Ultima, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Knowledge Theme Icon

The story of Antonio's coming of age is intertwined with his quest for knowledge. He is always asking questions, and is most excited about Communion because it will mean gaining knowledge of God. Ultima is a symbol of a different, mysterious kind of knowledge, as she knows people's fates, the ways of the earth, and healing herbs and magic spells.

Throughout the book knowledge is also associated with growing up and losing innocence. Florence points out that Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden was wanting to gain knowledge of Good and Evil, and the atomic bomb is condemned as humans competing with God's knowledge. Tony's dreams and experiences with Rosie's brothel also imply that when he learns certain things he will lose his innocence and become a man.

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Knowledge Quotes in Bless Me, Ultima

Below you will find the important quotes in Bless Me, Ultima related to the theme of Knowledge.
Chapter 3 (Tres) Quotes

"But I want to know, there are so many things I want to know," I insisted.
"A curandera cannot give away her secrets," she said, "but if a person really wants to know, then he will listen and see and be patient. Knowledge comes slowly--"

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio is very curious and eager for definite answers, at this point particularly about Lupito's death and the idea of the afterlife. While María, in her Catholic worldview, has associated gaining knowledge with sin, Antonio can't help but continue to want that knowledge—and in his immaturity he wants it now. Ultima, however, teaches Antonio that knowledge comes best with experience, and so one must be patient. This is a good example of Ultima's role as a mother figure and spiritual guide for Antonio—encouraging his growth but also protecting him, allowing him to experience the world for himself but also giving him the strength to endure it.


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Chapter 6 (Seis) Quotes

"Ay! My man of learning!" my mother smiled when I entered the kitchen. She swept me in her arms and before I knew it she was crying on my shoulder. "My baby will be gone today," she sobbed.
"He will be all right," Ultima said. "The sons must leave the sides of their mothers," she said almost sternly and pulled my mother gently.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima (speaker), María Luna Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Again María makes it clear that she doesn't want Antonio to grow up and lose his innocence, but if he must, she wants him to be a "man of learning" and become a priest. This desire obviously comes from María's strong Catholic faith, but also from her family's tradition of priesthood and her idea that becoming a priest means staying innocent and avoiding the sin of "becoming a man." (This idea becomes confusing for Antonio later, as being a "man of learning" is associated with becoming a priest and receiving divine knowledge, but elsewhere knowledge is associated with sin, pride, and corruption.)

Ultima, then, again acts as a figure of gentle but firm wisdom, encouraging Antonio to grow up but also to make his own choices and grow up in the way that is best for him. It's also interesting to note that Ultima's quote at the end of the passage is seemingly a reference to a Bible verse from Ephesians: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." That verse refers to marriage, and so isn't wholly applicable in its entirety here, but it is surprising that Ultima—the figure usually most connected with the supernatural and paganism—seems to be so comfortable quoting from the Bible (if indeed she is).

Chapter 9 (Nueve) Quotes

You are innocent until you understand, the priest of the church said, and you will understand good and evil when the communion is placed in your mouth and God fills your body.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from one of Antonio's vivid, sometimes prophetic dreams. This particular dream is very thematically important, as it brings up ideas of sexuality, the "corrupting" force of knowledge, and also the kind of divine knowledge that supposedly comes with one's First Communion (according to the dream-priest, at least). Anaya uses "dream logic" to connect ideas in a compelling manner, and here he makes an intriguing association—using language that typically describes Adam and Eve and the Biblical "Fall of Man" to instead describe Holy Communion.

Antonio looks forward to his First Communion, hoping that when he receives the wafer (the body of Christ, according to Catholic doctrine) he will get some answers to his many questions. Yet here the dream-priest compares this divine knowledge to a loss of innocence, and also uses the language of the Biblical book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise because they ate the fruit that makes them "understand good and evil"—punished for seeking forbidden knowledge. This suggests that there is no way to gain any kind of knowledge or understanding and remain innocent, but also implies that an ignorant innocence is perhaps not something worth clinging to anyway.

"The golden carp," I said to myself, "a new god?" I could not believe this strange story, and yet I could not disbelieve Samuel. "Is the golden carp still here?"
"Yes," Samuel answered. His voice was strong with faith. It made me shiver, not because it was cold but because the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken. If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Samuel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp, The Virgin of Guadalupe
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Samuel has told Antonio about the golden carp, a kind of pagan god who supposedly lives in the river surrounding the town. The golden carp becomes a crucial symbol in the novel after this, representative of a kind of naturalistic, indigenous alternative to Catholicism, but also a god who shares many characteristics with the Christian God. (What Antonio first learns is that the god became a carp to protect his people, similar to Christ's sacrifice—but later Antonio will learn that the carp, too, plans to harshly punish all sinners just as the Christian God does.)

Antonio learning about the golden carp is a good example of how gaining knowledge shakes his innocence, making him more mature but also more troubled and confused. Antonio is learning that simplistic world-views rarely hold the entire truth, but he also suddenly has complex, seemingly contradictory information to process.

Chapter 11 (Once) Quotes

"The golden carp," I whispered in awe. I could not have been more entranced if I had seen the Virgin, or God Himself… I felt my body trembling as I saw the bright golden form disappear. I knew I had witnessed a miraculous thing, the appearance of a pagan god… And I thought, the power of God failed where Ultima's worked; and then a sudden illumination of beauty and understanding flashed through my mind. This is what I had expected God to do at my first holy communion!

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp, The Virgin of Guadalupe
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In the company of Cico, Antonio actually sees the golden carp: a magnificent, fantastical, and seemingly holy creature. Antonio is awed at the sight, but then he again feels conflicted, and wonders if he has sinned against the Christian God—while also wondering if the Christian God is the "wrong God" altogether. In this moment Antonio contrasts the seeming reality and power of the carp (and Ultima's magic, which is associated with the carp in his mind) against the seeming ineffectiveness and aloofness of Catholicism. Antonio is seeing things literally, observing life through the eyes of a child, but because of this literalism he draws perceptive conclusions: he has actually seen the carp, and has seen Ultima perform miracles, but he has yet to see any evidence of the power (or even existence) of the Christian God. The vision of the golden carp, then, is a kind of epiphany or granting of divine knowledge, but one that Antonio still feels is somehow improper or sinful.

"But it's not fair to those who don't sin!" I countered.
"Tony," Cico said softly, "all men sin."
I had no answer to that. My own mother had said that losing your innocence and becoming a man was learning to sin. I felt weak and powerless in the knowledge of the impending doom.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Cico (speaker), María Luna Márez
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Previously, the golden carp had seemed like an alternative to the Christian God, a more "natural" and forgiving deity (and also one more connected to the indigenous peoples of the region, instead of the white Christian colonizers of the past), but here Antonio learns that the carp, like God, plans on punishing all the sinners of the town with death—and everyone sins, so no one will escape punishment.

This passage, then, connects to Antonio's learned belief that growing up and gaining knowledge means losing one's innocence and sinning—and sin must always be punished. Furthermore, Antonio now learns that this isn't just a Catholic idea, or just his mother's idea, but is a pagan idea too.

Chapter 12 (Doce) Quotes

Ultima and I continued to search for plants and roots in the hills. I felt more attached to Ultima than to my own mother. Ultima told me the stories and legends of my ancestors. From her I learned the glory and tragedy of the history of my people, and I came to understand how that history stirred in my blood.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima, María Luna Márez
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Ultima continues to act like a mother figure and guide for Antonio as he grows up, as here the narrative briefly speeds up to cover a time of idyllic peace and learning. The majority of Antonio's time spent with Ultima emphasizes the healthier parts of growing up for him—not always witnessing death or experiencing religious crises, but rather gaining knowledge of the land and his own heritage and culture. It is arguably this kind of knowledge—learning the "glory and tragedy of the history of my people"—that is most useful to Antonio as he matures, and that also informs Anaya's project in the novel itself.

Chapter 16 (Dieciseis) Quotes

I could not understand why Narciso, who did good in trying to help Ultima, had lost his life; and why Tenorio, who was evil and had taken a life, was free and unpunished. It didn't seem fair. I thought a great deal about God and why he let such things happen.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima, Tenorio Trementina, Narciso
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio is still troubled by Narciso's death, and with it the perceived unfairness of Catholicism and God's punishments and "forgiveness." In his feverish dreams Antonio recognized the difficulty of embracing either total forgiveness or total justice, yet here he still longs for a God who would better conform to his own experiences and new knowledge of life's complexity. By now Antonio has grown disillusioned with both the Christian God and the golden carp, and has only the Virgin of Guadalupe left as a last hope for an empathetic and understanding (but also just) deity.

At this point Antonio has also just returned to school after Christmas vacation, and he feels more removed from his peers than ever—because of the violence, death, and magic he has seen, but also because his intense questioning of life, death, and religion makes him an outsider.

Chapter 17 (Diecisiete) Quotes

"The atomic bomb," they whispered, "a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell - " And they pointed south, beyond the green valley of El Puerto. "Man was not made to know so much," the old ladies cried in hushed, hoarse voices. "They compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all - "

Related Symbols: The Atomic Bomb
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

The atomic bomb appears only briefly in the novel (indeed, only in this passage), but it still acts as an important symbol. Here the people of Guadalupe discuss the rumored testing of atomic bombs in the New Mexican desert—part of the U.S. war effort during World War II (when the novel is set). On one level, this is a rare reminder of the larger outside world beyond the borders of Antonio's home region, and the ominous kind of cultural encroachment that is associated with that world—it is a place of war and danger. The idea of the bomb also connects to the book's common motif of apocalyptic punishment, like the Hell of the Christian God and the flood of the golden carp—a kind of universal punishment from which no one can escape. Lastly, the way the "old ladies" discuss the bomb testing ties it to the theme of forbidden knowledge, especially within a religious context. The scientists developing the bomb are seen as "competing with God" and pursuing knowledge that "man was not made to know." This is a direct echo of the Biblical Adam and Eve story, and the idea Antonio has often heard reinforced, that gaining too much knowledge can only mean sinfulness and punishment.

There seemed to be so many pitfalls in the questions we asked. I wanted answers to the questions, but would the knowledge of the answers make me share in the original sin of Adam and Eve?
"And if we didn't have any knowledge?" I asked.
"Then we would be like the dumb animals of the fields," Florence replied.
Animals, I thought. Were the fish of the golden carp happier than we were? Was the golden carp a better God?

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Florence (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio has been going to Catholic catechism class, preparing for his First Communion and hoping for answers to some of his existential questions, but he only feels more conflicted the more he learns. Here he talks with his friend Florence, who is an anomaly among Antonio's peers—he is an atheist.

In this passage knowledge is again associated with sin, and with the "sorrow" of growing up and losing one's innocence. This is also reinforced by the Adam and Eve story, in which their "original sin" was essentially seeking knowledge that was forbidden to them. Antonio wants to avoid sharing in this sin, but he is also insatiably curious, and furthermore wants to take Communion precisely so he can gain knowledge—but, presumably, knowledge of divine origin that is somehow not "sinful." This seeming contradiction is, of course, confusing to Antonio, and Florence's defiant defense of Adam and Eve's sin only adds to his inner conflict. Lastly, this conflict again makes Antonio consider the golden carp, and wonder whether it would be a "better god"—here not because the carp is more merciful or natural, but rather because the carp is a "dumb animal," neither offering nor forbidding any kind of knowledge at all.

Chapter 19 (Diecinueve) Quotes

I closed my eyes and concentrated. I had just swallowed Him, He must be in there! For a moment, on the altar railing, I thought I had felt His warmth, but then everything moved so fast. There wasn't time just to sit and discover Him, like I could do when I sat on the creek bank and watched the golden carp swim in the sun-filtered waters.
God! Why did Lupito die?
Why do you allow the evil of the Trementinas?
Why did you allow Narciso to be murdered when he was doing good?
Why do you punish Florence? Why doesn't he believe?
Will the golden carp rule - ?
A thousand questions pushed through my mind, but the Voice within me did not answer.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Tenorio Trementina, Narciso, Florence, Lupito, The Trementina Sisters
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Antonio finally receives his First Communion. He has been hoping that with the wafer will come divine knowledge and answers to his many questions about God, life, and death—but Antonio feels and hears nothing, and is devastatingly disappointed. According to Catholic doctrine, Jesus is actually physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so Antonio assumes that because he has eaten the wafer, "He must be in there"—God must be inside of him now, and thus he should be getting some answers. Antonio then gives a brief list of some of the questions that have been tormenting him the most, offering a good encapsulation of many of the book's plot points and themes up to now.

Ultimately, this moment creates an increased sense of disillusionment with Christianity for Antonio, but it also allows him to articulate some of the larger themes behind his questions—why sometimes good people are punished and bad ones "forgiven," how seemingly contradictory cultures and religions could be reconciled, and even why death itself exists in a world supposedly created by a benevolent God.

Chapter 22 (Veintidos) Quotes

"Ay, every generation, every man is a part of his past. He cannot escape it, but he may reform the old materials, make something new --"
"Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp – and make something new," I said to myself. That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life. "Papá," I asked, "can a new religion be made?"

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Gabriel Márez (speaker), Ultima
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

As Gabriel drives Antonio to go stay with the Lunas, the father and son have an illuminating and important conversation. Gabriel seems worn out, and no longer has his old fierce desire to make his sons follow in his own footsteps—instead, he now recognizes that becoming a man means to "make something new." This, then, is exactly the lesson Antonio needs to hear, as he continues to struggle with inner conflicts within his own identity and the world-views of those around him.

Antonio's mental response to his father's statement then acts as a kind of thesis statement for Anaya's novel. Antonio must embrace all the seemingly disparate parts of his identity, culture, and religion, and use them to make something new and fundamentally his own. This means accepting at once Luna and Márez ("the moon and the sea"), God and the golden carp, Native American, Spanish, and English culture, curanderismo (Ultima's magic and knowledge) and Catholic priesthood, the "llano and the river valley," and using them to make a new, personal "religion"—a project arguably fulfilled in the writing of the novel itself.