Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood.
These lines, which open the book, briefly introduce many of the novel's main themes, and do so in vivid, almost fantastical language. Antonio, the narrator, is looking back on his childhood from a vantage point… (83 more words in this explanation)
"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.
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… (144 more words in this explanation)
"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--"
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… (71 more words in this explanation)
"It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting – They are quiet like the moon – And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home."
This passage describes one of the fundamental disparities, or inner contradictions, within Antonio's identity—the conflicting pull of his mother's nature and his father's nature. Here Ultima lays out that disparity in clear terms: the Lunas… (174 more words in this explanation)
God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave.
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… (139 more words in this explanation)
"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.
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… (190 more words in this explanation)
"And, they still have Tony," Gene said and looked at me. "Tony will be her priest," he laughed.
"Tony will be her farmer," León added.
"And her dream will be complete and we will be free!" Gene shouted.
Antonio's brothers have returned home from the war, and they seem to have been greatly changed by their experiences. In this passage we see how they, too, have faced pressure from their parents about what… (89 more words in this explanation)
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.
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… (161 more words in this explanation)
"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?
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… (107 more words in this explanation)
"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!
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… (127 more words in this explanation)
"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.
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… (79 more words in this explanation)
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.
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… (69 more words in this explanation)
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!
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… (122 more words in this explanation)
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!
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… (193 more words in this explanation)
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.
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… (105 more words in this explanation)
"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 - "
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… (172 more words in this explanation)
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?
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… (165 more words in this explanation)
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.
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… (145 more words in this explanation)
The lonely river was a sad place to be when one is a small boy who has just seen a friend die.
Antonio has made the decision to tell Florence about the golden carp—assuming that his thoughtful, kind friend would be able to understand and properly appreciate the river deity—only to find that Florence has just tragically… (84 more words in this explanation)
"Ay," she tried to smile, "life is filled with sadness when a boy grows to be a man. But as you grow into manhood you must not despair of life, but gather strength to sustain you – can you understand that."
After experiencing so much tragedy in such a short amount of time (and at such a young age), Antonio's parents and Ultima decide to send Antonio to stay with the Lunas, his uncles on his… (92 more words in this explanation)
"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?"
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… (146 more words in this explanation)
And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.
Gabriel and Antonio continue their conversation as they drive to the Lunas' farm. Gabriel expresses a relatively relativistic view of evil, similar to Ultima's—saying that most "evil" is just things people don't understand. Antonio (as… (85 more words in this explanation)
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.
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… (104 more words in this explanation)
"Take them to their room," I said to my mother. It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as a man; she nodded and obeyed.
Tenorio has just killed Ultima's owl and tried to shoot Antonio, but then Pedro Luna has shot Tenorio and killed him. Everyone is confused by the scene, and Antonio here responds with authority, telling his… (97 more words in this explanation)
"Bless me, Ultima --"
Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were, "I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evening when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you --"
It is from this passage that the book takes its title, and the scene also acts as both a tragic climax and a kind of "moral" to the story. Ultima's final blessing echoes the many… (94 more words in this explanation)