What tensions are created for Antonio in his life because of his parents’ different backgrounds?
Because Antonio’s mother is a Luna and his father is a Marez, Antonio is born into a ready conflict between the two families. While his mother hopes that he will become a priest, a hope that is shared by Antonio’s Luna uncles, his father hopes that he will become a vaquero like the Marez. This tension between the families is highlighted by the conflict that arises at the moment of Antonio’s birth and causes him a great deal of anxiety about his purpose in life. Although Antonio does not want to disappoint either of his parents, he must eventually choose his own path.
Is the novel a romance, a fantasy, or a realistic life story? Why?
The novel contains elements of all of these types of stories. It is a very realistic life story because it follows the growth of its young protagonist as he deals with real life issues. It is also based on the author’s actual childhood. At the same time, the novel contains many elements of fantasy and magic, with the myth of the Golden Carp, the good magic of Ultima, and the black magic of the Trementina sisters. Finally, the novel is also a romance novel because it is centered on the relationship between Antonio and Ultima and traces their development and growth. Therefore, although the novel is, at its center, a realistic coming-of-age story, it still contains all of the romance and magic of the myths that it describes.
What are the events in the book that change Antonio’s life the most? What are they and why are they so important?
The deaths of Lupito, Narciso, and Florence are significant life-changing events for Antonio. The death of Lupito is particularly significant because it is the first death Antonio has witnessed, and it inspires his first questions about sin, death, and morality. Although these experiences are the most obvious choices, the novel also contains other experiences which could be read as being equally life-changing. Antonio’s first experience with the Golden Carp is very important because it helps him to develop a new faith and begin to question the restrictions of Catholicism. Similarly, Antonio’s presence when Ultima lifts the curse from Uncle Lucas provides Antonio with his first clear insight to the world of magic and pagan healing. Finally, Ultima’s death and Antonio’s burial of the owl can also be read as a crucial life-changing experience because of Antonio’s eventual understanding that he must follow his own path in life.
What is the importance of dreams in the novel? Which dream is the most important to Antonio is his questions about life?
Antonio has several dreams throughout the novel, each of which highlight his particular anxiety or obsession at the time. His dreams provide key insights into his character because they allow the reader to mark the development of his character; his early dreams are concerned with his future and the conflict between the Luna and the Marez while his later dreams are apocalyptic and concerned with larger issues of morality. The most apocalyptic dream is also perhaps the most important dream in terms of Antonio’s questions about life. In this dream, everything in the world is destroyed in horrific bloodshed, and the Golden Carp decides to give new birth and new purity to the world. Although Antonio is still fearful of sin and religion, this dream gives him new hope for a world of sinners.
What will Antonio become when he grows up? A priest? A vaquero? Why or why not?
Antonio’s future is not clear because, at the end of the novel, he has finally decided to choose his own path. Instead of adhering to the beliefs of his mother or the desires of his father, he will fulfill Ultima’s encouragement to follow his heart. With this in mind, it seems likely that Antonio will probably become a writer. At his birth, he reached out to the pen and paper, an action which, according to Ultima, will result in him becoming a man of learning. Whether or not this means that Antonio will become a priest as well is uncertain. Considering his questions about religion and morality and his anxieties about sin, it seems as if the life of a priest is not for him. However, no matter what he decides to do when he becomes an adult, the most important thing is that he has learned to make his own path.
What is the significance of Antonio discovering Andrew’s presence at the brothel?
Andrew’s presence at the brothel undercuts Antonio’s view of his brother in several ways. First of all, Antonio makes a clear connection between sin and the brothel. Andrew’s presence in the den of sin ruins Antonio’s idealized view of him, particularly since he had always denied the idea that Andrew would keep company with prostitutes. Secondly, Andrew refusal to leave the brothel indirectly leads to Narciso’s murder at Tenorio’s hands. If Andrew had not been blinded by his lust and had accompanied Narciso, Narciso’s death could have been avoided. Antonio cannot help but blame his brother for the second death of the book. Finally, Andrew’s presence at the brothel undercuts one of Antonio’s dream in which Andrew promised not to enter the brothel until Antonio had lost his innocence. Since Andrew has entered the brothel, Antonio must assume that he has also lost his own innocence.
How does the novel demonstrate the conflict between the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the pagan beliefs of the Golden Carp?
This tension is highlighted by the roles played by several characters in the book. Ultima, a figure that clearly corresponds to pagan beliefs and New Mexican myth, is set in opposition to Father Byrnes, the strict priest who upholds Catholic doctrine. Over the course of the book, both characters strive to teach Antonio their individual crafts, with Ultima introducing him to herbs, plants, and the presence of the river, and Father Byrnes teaching Antonio his catechism. Antonio’s mother, a devoutly Catholic woman, is determined to make Antonio into a priest and is set in conflict with Antonio’s father, who worships the earth and the sky as a true vaquero. The character of Florence is also extremely significant in emphasizing this conflict between religion and paganism. His insistence that a compassionate God cannot exist in the world sets Antonio at odds with his own Catholic upbringing and desire to help his friend find faith.
What is the significance of Antonio’s age in the novel? How would the novel be different if he were older?
The novel is presented as a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist grows and develops as he experiences the tragedies of life. Another important theme of the novel is the question of sin and morality and the loss of innocence. At the beginning of the novel, Antonio is only six years old and very much a child in terms of understanding and innocence. Over the course of the novel, however, Antonio is exposed to events that force him to lose his innocence: the death of Lupito by the river, Narciso’s murder by Tenorio, Florence’s accidental drowning, and Ultima’s death. Antonio must learn to reconcile this loss of innocence in order to become a man and follow his own path in life. Eventually, he is able to overcome his anxieties and realizes that a life of faith and a life of action are not mutually exclusive. Because this loss of innocence is a crucial element of the novel and Antonio’s development as a character, the novel would not be as successful if he were older. Antonio’s older brothers are already beyond this age of self-awareness, and it is important that Antonio is both self-aware and susceptible to change as an individual.
What is the role of women in the novel? Is the strongest character male or female?
The culture of Latino communities is patriarchal in nature, with men existing in the positions of power. Corresponding to that expectation, women do not place a hugely active role in the novel. Antonio’s mother urges him to become a priest, but she does not have any power in the community or even the power to decide her son’s future. Antonio’s sisters are even more passive in the book; unlike Antonio’s brothers who are very strong characters, his sisters are involved in very little of the plot. All of the important events in the novel (the death of Lupito; the murder of Narciso; Florence’s drowning; the discovery of the Golden Carp) take place with limited or no female presence. The only exception to this rule is Ultima. Over all, Ultima is the strongest character in the book, and she ultimately teaches Antonio the most about life and the path to follow in his future. She also has the most power in the book and is able to use magic to lift curses and reinforce balance. Ultima’s strength as a character is perhaps due to her position as a curandera. Although she is important in the community, her skills and power her from the rest of the town and ensure that she can never truly fit in with everyone else. In order for her to have power and exist as a strong female character, it seems that Ultima must lead an isolated existence.
What scene in the novel forces the readers to question Ultima’s true nature? Why is this scene important?
Readers are forced to question Ultima’s true nature in the scene when Tenorio and his mob accuse Ultima of witchcraft. They agree to test Ultima by placing a cross of needles above the doorway and seeing if she is able to pass through; if she cannot, they reason, she must be a witch. Ultima successfully passes through the doorway, but Antonio notices that the cross has fallen on the ground. It is unclear whether or not Ultima was truly able to pass through the doorway when it is marked with the holy cross. This realization forces Antonio to question the dichotomy between good and evil. Ultima performs good deeds, but she is still accused of being a witch. At the same time, Tenorio takes evil actions but cannot be blamed for seeking to avenge the deaths of his daughters. Antonio must ultimately conclude that a good person is one who acts according to the spirit of Catholicism, not necessary the person who upholds the law of Catholicism.
Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is one of the best novels of initiation in the Chicano tradition. The novel presents a powerful story of a young boy moving toward adulthood; Antonio’s choices on that journey reveal the rich and diverse traditions of the Mexican Americans of the American Southwest. Ultima helps Antonio heal the split into which he is born, pulled as he is between the heritage of his father, who was a cowboy, and that of his mother, whose family members are farmers. This spiritual split between the Márez and Luna families, between the plains and the town, and between Ultima’s magical folk religion and Catholicism is the central conflict of Antonio’s childhood.
In the end, Antonio is not forced to choose between the two traditions of the horsemen and the farmers, but rather he blends them into a workable identity for himself. It also becomes clear, as a result of his association with Ultima and his use of words to influence the events of the novel, that he will use his gift for words, imagination, and learning to become not a priest but rather a writer. He achieves this fusion only through the aid of Ultima.
Ultima is a spiritual guide who teaches the young boy and directs him toward his future. Antonio will have to reach it himself, but Ultima points him in the right direction and protects him even after her death. Ultima not only helps Antonio reach adulthood but also teaches him a number of important lessons along the way—the healing arts of nature, for example, and the power of love. As Antonio says toward the end of his journey: “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.”
When Antonio looks back on his youth toward the end of the novel, he realizes what he gained from the adults in his life. From his mother he learned how close people are to the earth. From his father and Ultima he learned that “the greater immortality is in the freedom of man, and that freedom is best nourished by the noble expanse of land and air and pure, white sky.” From these important lessons Antonio’s adult self emerges.
Ultima helps Antonio to achieve his own identity; at the end of the novel, he directs his mother to take his sisters to their room. “It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as a man; she nodded and obeyed.” Ultima also helps Antonio to heal the split in his own heritage; he can be a Catholic (as his mother wants) and a believer in the golden carp as well. Anaya’s novel is important in the way it uses the literary and folk traditions of the American Southwest. The religious symbolism of the novel can be understood only in the context of that cultural geography, and Anaya taps a rich vein of southwestern folklore and history.
Characterization is rather two-dimensional, although the major characters (particularly Ultima) have shadings: For example, is she a bruja(witch), or just a healer? This question receives a somewhat noncommittal answer when she demonstrates that she is not a witch by walking through a door marked with a cross; however, the cross, made of needles, falls apart as she does so. The characterization works in terms of the point of view of the novel, which is that of a naïve young boy growing up in rural New Mexico.
Much more complex are the symbolic aspects of the novel. Antonio’s dreams have a rich significance; they reflect and predict actions in the novel. They are, in the truest sense, revelations. Likewise, the literary symbolism of the novel—the importance of water, for example (the golden carp, the drowning) and of religious rituals (both Christian and native spiritual)—is complex and effective. A reading of the oppositions of the novel (Luna/Márez or moon/sea, female/male, agrarian/pastoral) points out its complexity and its final reconciliations. Anaya produced a novel of deep and subtle meaning, and one that reveals some of the rich literary traditions of the American Southwest.