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The Theme Of Power English Literature Essay

In both ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ (LWC) by Laura Esquivel and ‘A Woman at Point Zero’ (WPZ) by Nawal El Saadawi, the author shapes the reader’s opinion on the theme of power. The theme power is presented in both of the books protagonist’s, Mami Elena and Firdaus. Both characters show significant feminine power throughout the book as vigorous and bold characters. Mami Elena’s power is expressed through the actions she inflicts on her daughters and the capability to control each of their fates. Firdaus’s power is portrayed as a prostitute; using her status to manipulate men’s desire to her own advantage.

“Woman at point zero” narrates the story of Firdaus, an Eqyptian female of the 20th century, born and raised within the misery of lower class and chauvinist Muslim society. For Firdaus her mindset of power is simple: men have power and women do not. “By birth, I was lower class… My Father…. Knew very few things in life…How to exchange his virgin daughter for a dowry when there was still time…How to bend over the headman’s hand and pretend to kiss it, how to beat his wife and make her bite dust each night….” [2] El Saadawi describes Firdaus as a powerless character since birth, described as being “lower class”; and also a description of power represented by her father beating her mother. Because of her misfortunate cultural position, the character is persecuted by sexual harassment and constrained submission to male desire. As a result, female suffering and oppression is clearly identified by the reader throughout the novel. Thus creating Firdaus, a prestigious prostitute, whose interaction with society is confined within the basis of male persecution, acquiring power over them. Such an appalling vision of the male gender is generated by concurring experiences of obnoxious masculine behavior. Accordingly, man is intentionally portrayed by the author as grotesque and gruesome.

The phrase "like water for chocolate" comes from the Spanish "como agua para chocolate". [3] This phrase is a common expression in Spanish speaking countries and was the inspiration for Laura Esquivel's novel title (the name has a double-meaning). In some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, hot chocolate is made not with milk, but with water instead. Water is boiled and chunks of milk chocolate are dropped in to melt. The saying "like water for chocolate," alludes to this fact and also to the common use of the expression as a metaphor for describing a state of passion or sexual arousal. In some parts of Latin America, the saying is also equivalent to being 'boiling mad' in anger. Laura Esquivel creates Mama Elena the tyrannical, widowed matriarch of the De La Garza clan revolves around the subjugation of her daughters. Her fierce dominion over her three daughters inspires fear within all of them.

“All my life I have been searching for something that would fill me with pride, make me feel superior to everyone else, including kings, princes and rulers” [4] This quote refers to how ‘Firdaus’ discovers how vulnerable men are when a prostitute refuses to sleep with them. With the status of prostitution she is overwhelmed with power and feels in complete control. Men will explode in fear and offer larger sums of money simply because they feel as if they are losing their power over women; however they do not realize it is the prostitute gaining power. When she possesses money of her own, she has power over people who slander her, and can give herself a respectable name. Her mindset was only changed until she met a high class prostitute named ‘Sharifa’. Sharifa is portrayed as a wealthy high class prostitute who manipulates men’s desire for sex to her own advantage. She acts as a teacher to ‘Firdaus’, teaching her how to use her physical appearances as a tool to attract men. This is where her power had originated from; the teaching from ‘Sharifa’. Soon after she notices ‘Sharifa’ treats her as a tool, she runs away to be an independent prostitute and applies to skills she had obtained. As Sharifa states; "She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it." [5] Firdaus is able to do anything she wants, after being handed tips, and lessons by Sharifa she is able to take her prostitution status to a whole new level.

The method Mama Elena uses to gain control over her daughters is by using violence and cruelty against them, whether psychological or physical . “Obey your Mommy and Dadd”. [6] This quote refers to how the daughters of Mama Elena have no choice but to obey Mama Elena, since their father had passed away before. Mama Elena already starts with power unlike Firdaus who has slowly to gain her power. “If she couldn’t marry, was she at least allowed to experience love? Or not even that?” [7] Tita being the youngest daughter of hers is unable to marry or have children because of the ridiculous tradition. Whatever signs of love Mama Elena sensed inside of Tita she would try to disrupt and sabotage. This root of her evil is from her previous lover who had left her, if she senses one of her daughters loving someone else she will feel overpowered and powerless. After Tita meets Pedro Mama Elena sees his affection for Tita so she conjures a plot against Tita; thus introducing Rosaura to Pedro. Soon after Pedro decides to marry Rosaura to get closer to Tita because he realizes her fate is sealed. Tita does not know of Pedro’s intentions and is mentally hurt by losing her only chance of gaining true love. She suffers harshly and spends a lot of her time weeping about this incident. If Mama Elena suspects the slightest idea that ‘Tita’ has no fulfilled her duties, such as when she is suspected of messing up the sewing on the wedding present, or the poison put inside the wedding cake, she physically abuses her. She is beaten harshly and is always left with scars, bruises and injuries: this teaches the daughters that not to make the same mistake again and displays the extreme power Mama Elena holds over them. When Tita attempts to blames Mami Elena for Roberto’s death she picks up a wooden spoon and breaks Tita’s nose leaving her no medical care and to slowly endure the pain. “Mama Elena was merciless, killing with a 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 finished her off.” [8] 

“ Nacha! Don't say that. As my youngest daughter, Tita will care for me until the day I die. She won't marry.” [9] The reason for her absurd vision of Duty and Responsibility is so that ‘Mami Elena’ is able to gain full control over her daughters and not lose power. Eventually when Rosaura gives birth to Espranza Rosaura imposes the same fate on her daughter. Esquivel introduces the baby to show that even though ‘Mami Elena’ had died Rosaura had still kept to the tradition even after all the treacherous things she had inflicted upon Rosaura. It shows how ‘Mami Elena’ had polluted the mind of Rosaura and how her power even though she was dead overruled ‘Rosaura’s’ self conscience

"I now knew that all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices, and that an expensive prostitute was better than a cheap one." [10] As a prostitute Firdaus uses her power to command higher and higher prices simply by denying men of their wants. She was able to control the prices for her service showing her power over men. Men would crave for her; ‘Firdaus’ would use this to her advantage to make them suffer. As she becomes powerful and notorious as prostitute money starts piling in for her. She gets this mind sense that as you have more money you also get more powerful which she had learnt from Sharifa. When the pimp comes into the picture, ‘Firdaus’ see’s him as a threat blocking her uprising. The pimp threatens to defame her or kill her, proving that no matter how much she had, Firdaus was still vulnerable to men because she had something to lose.

Both Esquivel and El Saadawi present the theme of power effectively through the characters, Mama Elena and Firdaus using a variety of techniques. “Like water for chocolate” and “Woman at point zero”, with its blatantly sexist narrator are two novels written by two different female writers in totally different cultural circumstances; Esquivel being raised in Mexico, and El Saadawi being raised in Egypt. The reader therefore inevitably obtains a different level of insight of the protagonists however the theme of power still conforms with similarities between them. However no one can deny that both texts provide a fascinating view of the complexities and confusions of power.

By Timothy Lui

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