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How Is Family Honor Portrayed in the Novels Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Marquez and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel?

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How is family honor portrayed in the novels Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Marquez and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel?

Honor can be perceived in different ways – to some it may be the integrity of their beliefs, while to others it may be a source of dignity and social distinction. In the context of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Like Water for Chocolate, which are both set in Latin American cultures, the adherence to family honor and values are viewed as one of the highest moral obligations. Events and characters in both novels revolve around the notion of fulfilling the expectations brought on by the honor of family traditions. This idea of honor and its excessive bearing on morality is a questionable concept criticized by both authors throughout the novels as they expose its hypocrisy and detrimental effects on society.

In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the dogmatic nature of family honor and its adverse effects are immediately established when the Vicario brothers murder Santiago Nasar in an attempt to regain their family’s lost honor. Although they “killed him openly” [Marquez, pg. 49], the brothers insisted that they were innocent, claiming “Before God and before men… It was a matter of honor” [Marquez, pg. 49]. Not only does this portray the violent potential of honor, it also signifies the ignorance behind the motives of honor. The notion that the brothers made no attempt to conceal the murder and instead, committing it “openly”, signifies that they genuinely believed their act was justified. Marquez uses repetition in “Before God and before men” to emphasize the hypocrisy of honor depicted by the brothers pleading innocence for murder in the presence of “God” and “men”. This image is particularly ironic as murder is an atrocity forbidden by religion; the contradiction between this and the brothers’ belief that they are innocent “before God” indicates the double standard of honor.

All charges against the brothers are eventually acquitted on the basis that the “homicide” was a “legitimate defense of honor” [Marquez, pg. 48]. The oxymoronic statement that “homicide”, in any situation, can be considered “legitimate” exposes the irrationality of honor; expressing Marquez’s view that honor, especially when linked with violence, is in fact, not honorable at all. Although the Vicario brothers are seen as the major perpetrators, everyone in the town played a role in the homicide. Society’s tacit complicity is evident when Prudencia Cote’s mother becomes aware of the brother’s intentions to murder Santiago Nasar, and instead of intervening, states “Honor doesn’t wait” [Marquez, pg. 63]. This personification of honor exaggerates its importance; portraying society’s view of honor being an unwritten code which precedes everything.

The empowering effect of honor on moral value is also apparent in Like Water for Chocolate when Treviño “restored the honor of his family” [Esquivel, pg. 195] by killing and cutting off the testicles of the man who raped his mother. This idea that an act as absurd and grotesque as cutting off a man’s testicles is needed to restore family honor ridicules the very precepts of honor. It is also established that this “was the only savage act that Treviño committed in is life” [Esquivel, pg. 195], this indicates that the blind pursuit of honor can lead even “refined” and “elegant” [Esquivel, pg. 95] men to brutality. Furthermore, the narrator describes this “savage act” to have been committed with “great dignity” [Esquivel, pg. 195]; the juxtaposition between the words “savage” and “dignity” portrays the contradictory nature of honor killings, expressing Esquivel’s criticisms of honor.

In both novels, marriage is seen by society as an obligation of honor rather than an act of love. This is illustrated in Like Water for Chocolate when, after announcing that “it was impossible for Tita to marry” [Esquivel, pg. 13], Mama Elena stated, “let me suggest my daughter Rosaura… She is one hundred percent available, and ready for marriage” [Esquivel, pg. 13]. The ease in which Mama Elena was able to “suggest” Rosaura for marriage without even conferring with either of the daughters, along with the italicized “She”, implies that she has complete control over whether and whom their daughters would marry. This implication portrays marriage as a tool at Mama Elena’s disposal. Furthermore, the context in which she uses the word “ready” shows that marriage is viewed as a duty which one prepares for, similar to any household chore, this is even illustrated by the characters within the novel when Chencha exclaimed “Your ma talks about being ready for marriage like she was dishing up a plate of enchiladas!” [Esquivel, pg. 14].

Similarly in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the Vicario sisters are described as “better-reared” and “perfect” [Esquivel, pg. 31] - referring to their piety and ability to provide for a family. The narrator ironically claimed, “The brother’s were brought up to be men. The daughters were brought up to be married” – the blatant tone of this statement portrays an image of marriage being the ultimate purpose of women The narrator then continues to describe the upbringing of Angela Vicario and her sisters, emphasizing that “They knew how to do screen embroidery, sew by machine, weave bone lace… and write engagement announcements” [Esquivel, pg. 31], this list of chores are all domestic tasks further establishing the role of women as subservient.

This notion of marriage is deeply tied with the question of honor; in a society of strict hierarchies, marriages allow families from lower classes to move up the ladder of society. This is evident when Bayardo, a son of a wealthy family who was recognized “because of the fame of his pictures” [Marquez, pg. 34], asked Angela Vicario for her hand in marriage. The fact that Bayardo was “going to marry whomever he chose” [Marquez, pg. 34] simply because he was from a prominent family portrays how marriage was dependant on the honor it provides for the family as apposed to love. Although Angela is reluctant to marry Bayardo, she has no choice but to consent as her parents urge that “a family dignified by modest means had no right to disdain the prize of destiny” [Marquez, pg. 34], the idea of Angela’s mother disregarding “the inconvenience of lack of love” [Marquez, pg. 35] shows that she uses marriage simply to gain honor for her family by having her daughter marry someone from a family with high social distinction.

In contrast to the desire for Angela Vicario to marry Bayardo in order to gain family honor, Mama Elena, in Like Water For Chocolate, prohibits her daughter Tita to marry in order to preserve the honor of a family tradition. Tita, being the youngest daughter, must “take care of me [Mama Elena] until the day I die” [Esquivel, pg. 10]. This long-standing tradition is portrayed as an absolute, seeing as “not a single person” has “ever questioned this tradition” [Esquivel, pg. 11]. Esquivel challenges these views by presenting characters within the novel who question the reasoning behind this tradition evidently shown when Tita criticizes “her mother’s absurd decision” [Esquivel, pg. 11] by raising numerous questions such as “Had the opinion of the daughter affected by this plan ever been taken into account?” and “If she couldn’t marry, was she at least allowed to experience love?” [Esquivel, pg. 11] This list of rhetorical questions reveals the frailty of this type of perceived honor and challenge its values; imposing Esquivel’s criticisms of how women are imprisoned by its constraints.

The concept of honor in upholding family traditions in Like Water for Chocolate is paralleled with the idea of honor in celibacy before marriage in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In Latin American culture, a woman who disregards this honor is seen as taboo and immediately becomes an outcast to society. This is shown when Bayardo “had given back his bride” [Marquez, pg. 25] shortly after the marriage, when he discovered that Angela is in fact not a virgin.

Similar to Like Water for Chocolate, Chronicle of a Death Foretold exposes the imperfections of honor pertaining to its confining nature. “Even when it was less than two months before she would be married Pura Vicario wouldn’t let her go out alone" [Marquez, pg. 37] - this immediately associates the value of virginity to family honor; Angela’s mother is so desperate to uphold the honor that she takes extreme measures to protect Angela’s virginity. The irony of this is that even after all these precautions, she is still revealed to be unchaste. What is even more ironic is the fact that her “honor” needs to be “watch over” [Marquez, pg. 37] almost as if it is some kind of invaluable treasure; furthermore, the absurdity in using Angela’s “blind father” [Marquez, pg. 37] as a guardian of this honor is painfully amusing as the blindness illustrates how it is senseless for the family to be protecting her virginity as it has already been lost. Also noteworthy, is the fact that Angela’s mother’s maiden name is Pura which is Spanish for pure further adding to the sense of irony by emphasizing the significant connection her mother makes between virginity and purity. All of these undertones within Marquez’s cleverly incorporated irony and writing style make a mockery of the whole perception of honor being “protected” as when the women are not contemptuous of it, the process is shown to be less protecting than it is imprisoning.

The ideals of family honor and their significance is challenged throughout the two novels. Marquez’s heavy use of irony ridicules the townspeople’s perception of family honor as an imperative leading to disastrous repercussions in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Whilst Esquivel presents the reader with events and characters that demonstrate the hardships and suffering brought on by obliging to its moral standards in Like Water for Chocolate. Thus, both novels succeed in illustrating that it is vital, for both the progress of societies and cultivation of liberty, that we challenge questionable conventions to avoid the dangers of falsely perceived honor.

Word Count: 1638

Marquez, G. 1982, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, translated by Alfred A. Knopf, First International Edition
Esquivel L. 1992, Like Water for Chocolate, translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen, Random House Inc.

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