As the novel is set during the Mexican Revolution, violence is inextricably linked to the time period and to the theme of liberation. In order to liberate themselves of the violent rule of the oligarchy, the rebels respond with organized political violence. Both the old oligarchy and the leaders of the rebellion are predominantly men, creating a sense that violence is a necessary part of maleness and male-dominated culture (or machismo). The novel, however, primarily focuses on the lives of women during that time. Rather than pitting male violence against female submissiveness, Esquivel instead creates a story which asks the question: in order to survive amidst both the old order and against the violence of the Revolution, must women either choose submissiveness or violence in kind? The novel further explores the insidious nature of abusive relationships, and shows the process by which abuse threatens to destroy the victim’s sense of self.
On a political level, the violence of the Revolution at first happens only in the background—but it gradually begins to interfere more with the characters’ lives. When federal troops lay siege to Piedras Negras, they kidnap Pedro and force Mama Elena and Chencha into hiding in the town center. Rosaura goes into labor, and Tita faces the dangerous task of delivering baby Roberto on her own. Even as the fighting escalates, the characters are forced to acclimate to a certain level of violence so that they can continue to go on with their own lives.
Both before and during the Revolution, male violence against women is a constant threat. After Rosaura and Pedro move away, rebels come through and decimate the local ranches in search of supplies, though Mama Elena runs them off. Later, the chaos of the war makes the ranch vulnerable, and bandits come and raid it, raping Chencha and leaving Mama Elena paralyzed. There are also other stories of rape in the novel: Dr. John Brown tells Tita about his grandmother, Morning Light, who was kidnapped and forced to marry John’s white grandfather. Sergeant Treviño, a soldier in Gertrudis’ troop, avenges the brutal rape of his mother and sister by killing their assailant.
But women aren’t merely depicted as victims of male violence in the novel. Female characters interact with violence in very different ways, often defying gender norms by becoming the aggressor. Mama Elena embraces violence through her physical abuse of Tita and her mastery of slaughtering animals for food. The brutality Mama Elena uses to control her household, however brutal, may be seen as her answer to the male violence that already pervades her culture. Mama Elena doesn’t question the patriarchy or its inherent violence, but instead patterns patriarchal oppression by using violence against those with less power than her.
While there are numerous examples of male violence in the novel, the principle violent relationship is between Mama Elena and Tita. Mama Elena’s role as abuser is evident because she not only forces Tita to submit, but also punishes Tita for expressing any emotion which would show the extent of her suffering. When Tita tries to ask Mama Elena’s permission to marry Pedro, Mama Elena not only refuses, but tells Tita that she is forbidden from expressing her disagreement. When Tita’s tears fall into Rosaura’s wedding cake, making everyone at the wedding cry and vomit, Mama Elena thinks Tita poisoned the cake. She beats Tita so badly that Tita is unable to get out of bed for weeks. Just as in many abusive romantic relationships, Tita is expected to take care of and love the person who beats her.
While Gertrudis is just as comfortable with violence as Mama Elena, her relationship with it is very different. Gertrudis chooses to freely join the Revolution as a fighter and works her way through the ranks to become a general. For Gertrudis, the answer to male violence isn’t to imitate it. Instead, she uses violence to challenge existing social structures. Rather than using violence on those weaker than her, like Mama Elena, Gertrudis fights those more powerful than her.
Esquivel makes a point to highlight the pervasiveness of violence in women’s lives, both in their societies and in their personal relationships. In the case of Gertrudis, the novel treats political violence as a sometimes necessary means to a worthy end. However, the novel rejects all other forms of violence, particularly those forms that have a lasting emotional impact on the victims.
Violence and Abuse ThemeTracker
Violence and Abuse Quotes in Like Water for Chocolate
You don’t have an opinion, and that’s all I want to hear about it. For generations, not a single person in my family has ever questioned this tradition, and no daughter of mine is going to be the one to start.
She felt like screaming. Yes, she was having problems, when they had chosen something to be neutered, they’d made a mistake, they should have chosen her. At least then there would be some justification for not allowing her to marry and giving Rosaura her place beside the man she loved.
It occurred to her that she could use her mother’s strength right now. Mama Elena was merciless, killing with single blow. But then again not always. For Tita she had made an exception; she had been killing her a little at a time since she was a child, and she still hadn’t quite finished her off. Pedro and Rosaura’s marriage had left Tita broken in both heart and in mind, like the quail.
I have a very good aim and a very bad temper, Captain. The next shot is for you, and I assure you that I can shoot you before they can kill me, so it would be best for us to respect each other. If we die, no one will miss me very much, but won’t the nation mourn your loss?
Instead of eating, she would stare at her hands for hours on end. She would regard them like a baby, marveling that they belonged to her. She could move them however she pleased, yet she didn’t know what to do with them, other than knitting. She had never taken time to stop and think about these things.
You know how men are. They all say they won’t eat off a plate that isn’t clean.
Now she finally understood the meaning of the expression “fresh as a head of lettuce” – that’s the odd, detached way a lettuce should feel at being separated abruptly from another lettuce with which it had grown up. It would be illogical to expect it to feel pain at this separation from another lettuce with which it had never spoken, nor established any type of communication, and which it only knew from its outer leaves, unaware that there were many others hidden inside it.
Pedro! What are you doing here?
Without answering, Pedro went to her, extinguished the lamp, pulled her to a brass bed that had once belonged to her sister, Gertrudis, and throwing himself upon her, caused her to lose her virginity and learn of true love.
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! I hate you, I’ve always hated you!
Tita had said the magic words that would make Mama Elena disappear forever.