Bless Me, Ultima

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Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Analysis

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Growing Up Theme Icon
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Knowledge Theme Icon
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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.
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon

Much of the plot is powered by different characters' desires for revenge and punishment. Chávez wants revenge against Lupito, Tenorio wants revenge against Ultima and Narciso, and even Ultima wants to punish Tenorio for tampering with fate. It seems that the gods also have a similar human need for punishment – at first it is only the Christian God with his horribly eternal Hell, but even the golden carp plans to drown all the sinners someday. The briefly-mentioned atomic bomb also represents a real-life cataclysmic punishment that echoes the apocalypses of the gods.

In the end, Ultima and the Virgin of Guadalupe are the only compromising, forgiving alternatives. The Virgin Mary is a Christian symbol, but Antonio sees her as a mother-figure willing to listen and forgive, unlike the strict male gods. Ultima is also a mother-figure, and though she punishes Tenorio for his crimes, she also asks that he be forgiven, and accepts her own death to balance out his.

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Punishment and Forgiveness Quotes in Bless Me, Ultima

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

"Ay, how true," my mother said and clutched me tightly, "and what a sin it is for a boy to grow into a man--"
It was a sin to grow up and be a man.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), María Luna Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

It is the day after Antonio's first real traumatic experience—witnessing the death of Lupito. As the family prepares for Mass, Ultima calls Antonio a "man," only for María to contradict her and say that Antonio is still a "baby."

Throughout most of the book, Antonio is faced with conflicting forces pulling him in different directions, both regarding what he will grow up to be and whether he will grow up at all. María, as we see here, consistently clings to Antonio's childhood innocence, and wants to keep him from being corrupted by the world and becoming a man. She connects this innocence with the perceived innocence of the priesthood, and so (later) wants Antonio to become a priest when he gets older—she knows she can't keep him from aging and maturing, but she does want to keep him innocent. Here she explicitly connects "becoming a man" with "sin," and Antonio immediately internalizes the message by repeating it to himself. This particular worldview will later conflict with others Antonio experiences, and be the cause of much confusion and inner turmoil for him.


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Chapter 4 (Cuatro) Quotes

God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Virgin of Guadalupe
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Antonio ponders Catholicism and its tenets, as he understands them. Antonio still thinks with the simplicity and literalism of a child, but he is also, as usual, very perceptive and thoughtful. He knows that as a good Catholic, he is supposed to love God more than anything else, but Antonio can't help finding God harsh and unforgiving, an aloof figure who demands perfection and punishes those who break his laws. However, Antonio sees the Virgin Mary—particularly the Virgin of Guadalupe—as a kinder, more forgiving, and more relatable figure.

On one level this seems to be just the young, sensitive Antonio finding comfort in a loving mother-figure rather than a judgmental father-figure. But the Virgin of Guadalupe is also unique in her special connection to Antonio's Chicano identity. She is a Catholic figure, but also one intimately connected to the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and so not wholly connected to the religion of the white colonizers. In this way she symbolizes the kind of blend of cultures that make up Anaya's vision of Chicano identity.

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.

Chapter 11 (Once) Quotes

"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 14 (Catorce) Quotes

And I remembered my dream. Andrew had said that he would not enter the house of the naked women until I had lost my innocence. Had I already lost my innocence? How? I had seen Lupito murdered… I had seen Ultima's cure… I had seen the men come to hang her… I had seen the awful fight just now… I had seen and reveled in the beauty of the golden carp!

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima, Andrew Márez, Lupito
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

While following Narciso, Antonio sees his brother Andrew at Rosie's brothel. Antonio then remembers his dream (described in a previous quotation) about Andrew not entering the brothel until Antonio himself had lost his innocence. Thus Antonio is shocked to see his brother in such a "sinful" state, but is even more appalled at what this might mean for his own soul.

Antonio continues to connect "innocence" with both the idea of childish ignorance and Catholic doctrine, and so sees the loss of innocence as inherently being sorrowful and sinful. Furthermore, he then sees anything that seems to contradict Catholicism as perhaps being the cause of his loss of innocence—not just his tragic experiences of death (Lupito's murder and Ultima's near-murder), but notably his witnessing of Ultima's magic and the golden carp. Antonio is distraught, and fears that he has condemned himself with his actions—immediately looking past Andrew's perceived loss of innocence and worrying about his own possible sinfulness.

You foolish boy, God roared, don't you see you are caught in your own trap! You would have a God who forgives all, but when it comes to your personal whims you seek punishment for your vengeance. You would have my mother rule my heavens, you would send all sinners to her for forgiveness, but you would also have her taint her hands with the blood of vengeance
Vengeance is Mine! He shouted, not even your golden carp would give up that power as a god!

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp, The Virgin of Guadalupe
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio has seen Tenorio kill Narciso, and, traumatized, he has fallen into a fever. In his feverish state Antonio has more vivid and fantastical dreams, and it is from his dreams that this quotation is taken.

Antonio wants God to forgive Narciso, as he knows that despite his flaws, Narciso was a good man at heart and certainly didn't deserve to die as he did. The God of Antonio's dream, however, calls Antonio out on his hypocrisy—if God forgives Narciso, then he must forgive Tenorio as well (something Antonio protests against). And if God punishes Tenorio, then he must punish Narciso as well. The dream-God then brings up the Virgin of Guadalupe, suggesting that his "mother" isn't the easy way out Antonio had hoped—she cannot be inconsistent either, forgiving those Antonio wants to be forgiven and punishing those he wants punished. The dream-God then goes further—even the golden carp, he says, who is an even more drastic alternative to Christianity, would not give up the power of punishing sinners.

In his dream, at least, it seems there is nowhere Antonio can turn to find the kind of understanding that he seeks. At the same time, he is starting to realize the more difficult aspects of a worldview based on empathy and forgiveness—if he is truly to embrace his instinctual beliefs, then Antonio must learn to forgive even people like Tenorio.

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

The thundering report of the rifle followed the flash of fire. That shot destroyed the quiet, moonlit peace of the hill, and it shattered my childhood into a thousand fragments that long ago stopped falling and are now dusty relics gathered in distant memories.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ultima's Owl
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

Tenorio has just shot Ultima's owl, having figured out that the bird is some sort of life force or "familiar" for her, and that killing it will ultimately kill Ultima as well. At this climactic moment, however, the narrator (adult Antonio) suddenly steps back, placing the present sound of the rifle shot in the larger context of Antonio's entire childhood history.

In a way, this narrative decision shows Antonio already acting on Ultima's and Gabriel's important advice—he is drawing strength from his memories and experiences, even the painful ones, and using them to create something new (the story itself). Antonio does not react to Tenorio's murderous act with rage, but neither does he offer forgiveness. Instead he simply offers understanding, and an acknowledgement that this act has deeply affected his entire life, including the very narrative he is relating now.