Feminism in Death and the Maiden and Like Water for Chocolate

By Justine M. Baek
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

The theme of feminism is present in Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, and Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate. Both works showcase strong female protagonists endeavouring to escape and solve the issues of their pasts. However both women deal with these issues in different ways.

Tita, the protagonist from Esquivel's novel, grows from a submissive, suffocated girl into a strong, independent woman. In contrast, Paulina, the progtagonist of Dorman's play, becomes suffocated and paranoid after her torture. However, interestingly, through torturing Roberto, Paulina demonstrates her abrupt change into a dominating, vindictive woman through her possession of a gun. But in spite of the restrictions they are subjected to because of their gender, the female protagonists of both works are able to overcome their limitations and become strong and independent women. The two heroines’ struggle to become independent and free in their world epitomizes the struggles of women in society to become strong and independent despite the boundaries society places upon them because they are women.

In Death and the Maiden, the change in Paulina’s character from weak to strong and independent is representative of the feminism theme that exists within the play. In the beginning, Paulina’s depicted as paranoid, weak and defenceless. This is emphasized through her relationship with Gerardo. It is clear that, in her relationship with Gerardo, Gerardo is the dominant one of the couple at the start of the play. This is evident when Gerardo does not ask Paulina’s opinion before accepting the Commission.

Paulina asks him “You told the president you accepted didn’t you? Before you asked me? Didn’t you? I need the truth Gerardo.”

[Gerardo says] “Yes. I told him I’d do it. Yes. Before asking you” (Dorfman, 1990).

By neglecting to consider Paulina’s opinion; Gerardo unintentionally takes away her voice and her freedom to make choices that will determine her own future. Gerardo does this once again when he asks Roberto to stay the night without first consulting Paulina. He tells her “He’s a friend. So don’t be scared. Tomorrow you can make us a nice breakfast...” (Dorfman, 1990). It is evident that he treats Paulina almost like a “Silly. Silly girl, [his] baby” (Dorfman, 1990) and expects her only to perform domestic duties- and Paulina never questions his authority.

However Paulina quickly changes from the victim to the victimizer when she decides to torture Roberto and in doing so, changes from a submissive, tolerating woman, to a strong, vindictive one. She now has all the power. However, it is interesting that Paulina’s power does not originate from her own will, but from her possession of the gun. She demonstrates the power that comes with wielding a gun and the power that is thus given to her when Gerardo attempts to take control of her plans:

Gerardo orders “Untie him, Paulina.”

[Paulina replies] “No.” [Gerardo says] “Then I will.”

He moves toward Roberto. Suddenly, a shot from Paulina’s gun rings out.... Gerardo takes a step backward and Roberto looks desperate.

This quotation highlights the two men’s fear of, not Paulina’s power, but rather, of the power of the gun. In this way, the gun becomes a symbol of power, and Paulina is able to act out her plan using this power to dominate the men. She uses this power to torture Roberto, exhibiting her change from a weak to a strong female protagonist. Her strength is used to hurt, torture, and take revenge on Roberto. She states “Let’s get this clear, Doctor. Threat time is over. Out there you bastards may still give the orders, but in here, for now, I’m in command. Now is that clear?” (Dorfman, 1990).

This quotation demonstrates Paulina’s complete authority over Roberto’s life. But by directing her point at the plural of ‘bastard’, it is clear that Paulina addresses not only Roberto specifically, but all the controlling and dominating men in the world who restrict women of society from their independence and freedom. This includes Gerardo, as Paulina’s insubordination is directed against not only Roberto’s control over her, but also Gerardo`s control over her life. This is evident when Gerardo says:

“You can’t do this.”

[Paulina replies] “When are you going to stop telling me what I can and can’t do. “you can’t do this, you can do that, you can’t do this. I did it” (Dorfman, 1990).

Her rebelliousness against the control of Gerardo is highlighted in this quotation. She is tired of being controlled, tired of being limited and dominated by other men. This is representative of the struggle of women in society to become equal in power and freedom to men. However, while Paulina seems to have graduated from a weak, and submissive individual to a strong and powerful dominator, it is clear that her sense of independence and power is an artificial one. This is demonstrated when Gerardo says:

“While you point it at me, there is no possible dialogue.”

[Paulina replies] “On the contrary, as soon as I stop pointing it at you, all dialogue will automatically terminate. If I put it down you’ll use your strength to win the argument” (Dorfman, 1990).

This quotation reveals how, on a superficial level, the gun gives Paulina the power to make her own decisions. It can be argued that Paulina was stronger and more independent prior to her torture. This is apparent when Paulina states “I didn’t get my diploma… I didn’t get too far with my studies… Lucky for me, because I felt a— certain apprehension about medicine” (Dorfman, 1990). Then she says “I was wild and fearless, willing to do anything. I can’t believe that I didn’t have an ounce of fear in my whole body at that time” (Dorfman, 1990). Through these quotations, it is clear that Paulina was studying medicine, and previously risked her life to save others.

This suggests that Paulina was more independent and free before her torture. Even now, when she possesses all the power, she has a superficial sense of domination- in reality, Paulina is still trapped, imprisoned in her past and unable to embrace freedom. Thus, throughout the play, the change in Paulina’s character from weak, and submissive, to strong and dominating, is evident. However, Dorfman also uses Paulina to epitomize women in society. They are restricted by the Gerardos and Robertos of the world that prevent them from becoming independent individuals in society. It is only by force and violence that Paulina is able to overcome the men and dominate them.

Similarly, Esquivel also presents the theme of feminism in her book, Like Water for Chocolate. However, Tita grows from a submissive character to a strong and independent protagonist in a positive way. In other words, unlike Paulina, once Tita has power over her own life, Tita does not torture or cause anyone else pain intentionally. Rather, Tita has become stronger in that she has gained the freedom to make her own choices and independently decide her own future. In the beginning, Tita is completely controlled by Mama Elena. This is evident when it is stated that “Tita knew perfectly well that all these questions would have to be buried forever in the archive of questions that have no answers. In the De la Garza family, one obeyed—immediately” (Esquivel, 1989). From this quotation, it is clear that Tita has no voice or say in decisions of her future.

Even though she may question Mama Elena’s decisions, she cannot voice these thoughts; Tita has no power. The restrictions of family traditions introduce the theme of feminism in this novel. Only daughters are limited by this tradition. Thus Tita is representative of women in society who struggle to gain their freedom and independence despite the limits that society presses upon them because they are women. But even as Tita has no power, it is interesting to note that Mama Elena herself is an all-powerful matriarch in her household and is thus able to overcome the patriarchal views of society. This is shown when Father Ignacio says:

“You need a man to defend the house.”

[Mama Elena replies curtly] “I’ve never needed a man for anything; all by myself, I’ve done all right with my ranch and my daughters. Men aren’t that important in this life, Father” (Esquivel, 1989).

Mama Elena exemplifies the role of a feminist here. However, at the same time, she restricts Tita by pressing traditions on her that prevent Tita from controlling her future. Thus, although Mama Elena herself is able to overcome the barriers pressed upon her by society, she in turn restricts and limits her daughter.

Tita is additionally restricted by, ironically, the love of her life, Pedro. Although he truly loves Tita, Pedro also treats her as a sexual object. This is evident when Tita says to him:

“Pedro, I need to talk to you alone.”

Pedro replies “That’s easy, why not go to the dark room? There we can do it without anyone bothering us. I’ve been waiting for you to come there for several days” (Esquivel, 1989).

This quotation shows that Pedro does not even consider that Tita may have to talk to him about anything other than to have sexual relations. In this way Pedro degrades Tita to an object used for his sexual pleasure. Tita’s acceptance of Pedro’s treatment is also an acceptance that she is at a lower level than him. But this soon changes.

Tita’s transition to an independent woman begins when John Brown takes her away from the ranch. Tita’s realization of her newfound freedom is demonstrated as it is described that:

“Instead of eating, she [Tita] would stare at her hands for hours on end…She could move them however she pleased, yet she didn’t know what to do with them... At her mother’s, what she had to do with her hands was strictly determined, no questions asked... without pausing for a moment, without wondering if this was what she wanted. Now, seeing her hands no longer at her mother’s command, she didn’t know what to ask them to do, she had never decided herself before” (Esquivel, 1989).

From this quotation, it is evident that Tita is realizing the fact that she never had a choice before and that she is always controlled by Mama Elena. Now that Mama Elena is no longer there to control her life, Tita realizes how dependent and submissive she has been, and does not know what to do with herself; the realization of her freedom is too much for her. But Tita soon accepts and embraces her newfound freedom revealed when John asks Tita to write the reason she will not talk on the wall. Tita writes ““Because I don’t want to.” With those words Tita had taken her first step toward freedom” (Esquivel, 1989).

This is Tita’s first action of rebellion and thus, her first step to independence and making her own decisions about her life. This newfound independence for Tita is demonstrated further as she chooses to return to the ranch to care for the now paralyzed Mama Elena, even though she previously swears that “She never wanted to live near Mama Elena again” (Esquivel, 1989). In this decision, Tita reveals that she has now advanced to a whole other level of independence- that she feels confident enough in her strength to return to care for Mama Elena, the person who has restricted her from her freedom all her life. She no longer fears Mama Elena’s power, as Tita recognizes that her control over her own future is stronger than that of Mama Elena’s. Tita also demonstrates her new independence when she rebels against Pedro’s control. Tita says to him:

“Pedro, you’re hardly the one to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. When you were going to get married, I didn’t ask you not to do it, even though your wedding destroyed me. You have your life, now leave me in peace to have mine!” (Esquivel, 1989).

This quotation reveals that Tita is no longer bound under the control of Pedro and she shows that she can live her own life without Pedro and Mama Elena. This reveals that Tita has changed from submissive and obedient, to independent and strong. In this way, Tita becomes a feminist, overcoming the limitations pressed upon her by traditions to obtain control over her life and her future.

Thus, in conclusion, the key female protagonists of both works epitomize women who are restricted by society because they are women. Tita begins as weak and submissive; she is unable to voice her own opinions about her life and she is completely at the mercy of Mama Elena and Pedro. However, by the end, Tita is able to overcome the barriers of tradition placed upon her, and in doing so becomes independent and free to make her own decisions about her future. Similarly, Paulina begins as weak and vulnerable, controlled by the men, Gerardo and Roberto. Like Tita, Paulina quickly changes to a stronger, more independent individual in using her power to dominate the men in the play; however, although it may seem as if Paulina has become more independent, she is actually given a superficial sense of power as Paulina only has power when she possesses the gun.

Thus, in actuality, Paulina is unable to make her voice heard to the men without violence and force. Unfortunately, as soon as she loses the gun, Paulina becomes powerless once again. In both works, Esquivel and Dorfman use their protagonists’ struggle for freedom and independence to reflect the struggle of women against the Robertos, the Gerardos, the Pedros, and the Mama Elenas of society that stand as barriers for women. These barriers prevent them from gaining the strength and empowerment to make decisions to determine their own futures.


Dorfman, A. (1994).Death and the maiden. New York: Penguin Books

Esquivel, L. (1989). Like water for chocolate. Mexico: Doubleday

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