The Use of Symbolism and Magical Realism in Bless Me, Ultima
Human societies all over the world follow a set of religious beliefs and values. These beliefs and values play an important role in shaping the behavior and thoughts of an individual. The role played by religion in human life is very significant, as it influences his/her attitude towards life. The novel “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya depicts the influence of religious beliefs on the life of the protagonist, Antonio Marez.
Antonio Marez lives with his Catholic mother and vaquero father in Guadalupe, New Mexico. As both his parents follow a different set of religious beliefs, Antonio faces a conflicting situation where he has to select the religious beliefs he would follow in his life. The other person who shapes Antonio’s thoughts regarding the religious beliefs is Ultima, the woman who comes to stay with his family. Ultima aids Antonio in solving his conflicts, as she instills the belief in him that he is the one who will choose his destiny.
Through the use of symbolism and magical realism, the author brings forth the situation of Antonio who is caught between conflicting cultural beliefs of his parents.
Throughout the novel, the author has utilized symbolism and magical realism to portray the cultural and religious influences on Antonio. The symbolism and magical realism in the novel aid in understanding the local culture in which Antonio is growing up. Ultima is the person who helps Antonio in solving his conflicts and comprehending the significance of moral independence in life. Her mythical powers point towards the role played by magical realism in the plot of the novel. Although the Catholic culture refuses to acknowledge the mythical powers of Ultima, it represents the folk culture prevalent in the region. The powers of Ultima are magical in nature but her spirituality is real and presents her belief in various religious values. Antonio experiences her mythical powers the moment Ultima takes his hand “She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun’s home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement.” (Anaya 1). Her magical powers bring numerous changes in the life of Antonio, as she teaches him to look at the world from a new perspective.
When Antonio is confused regarding his cultural identity owing to the different cultural beliefs followed by his parents, Ultima is the one who helps him in choosing his own destiny. She acts as a bridge between the contrasting cultures of Antonio’s mother and father. As a curandera, she works as an intermediary between the different cultures. Her power is representative of her awareness of the differences among the various cultures. “Anaya explains the power of curandera as that of human heart, but in fact demonstrates that it is derived from the knowledge of mystic thought processes, the awareness and resolutions of contradictions within the culture.” (Lamadrid 499). The magical realism is an important part of the plot, as it opens a new world to Antonio who looks beyond the cultures of his parents and understands the teachings of Ultima. Ultima makes Antonio realize that all are one in the world which is beyond the contrasting cultures of his parents. “You have been seeing only parts, she finished and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.” (Anaya 113). Antonio comprehends this fact which aids him in overcoming the conflicts that are raging within him. “In perhaps the most global or cosmic synthesis of the novel, Ultima in a dream reveals to Antonio the totality which subsumes the oppositions contained in his culture at the moment when they seemed about to split into a dichotomy and create another apocalypse.” (Lamadrid 500). The magical realism brings together the contrasting cultural world in the novel and presents the world from the point of view of the folk culture of the region.
The beliefs and values of the different cultures in the novel are depicted through symbolism. The symbols such as the golden carp, the owl of Ultima and the Maria’s statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe represent the beliefs of the people belonging to the various cultures. The symbols connect the characters in the novel with the cultural group whose beliefs and values the person is following in his/her life. “As this story, and any story, develops and concludes, social worlds emerge, dissolve, retreat, overlap, and persevere, all through the symbolic meanings constructed through the words and objects used by the characters in particular social interactions or cultural practices.” (Myers & Beach). These symbols aid in understanding the beliefs that influence the lives of the people. Antonio is also influenced by the beliefs represented by these symbols. Each symbol plays an important role in the plot of the story, as the characters in the novel seek the aid of these symbols to comprehend the meaning of their cultural beliefs and values.
The Golden Carp
Among the various symbols utilized in the novel, the golden carp is significant and influencing. The golden carp in the novel symbolizes non-Christian beliefs. Antonio, who was following Christian beliefs, as his mother had wished for him, seems to be influenced by the golden carp and its magical powers. When Antonio watches the golden carp along with Cico, he is captivated by the sight of the golden carp. “The orange of the golden carp appeared at the edge of the pond. . . . We watched in silence at the beauty and grandeur of the great fish. Out of the corners of my eyes I saw Cico hold his hand to his breast as the golden carp glided by.” (Anaya 108). Antonio doubts his Christian beliefs after he sees the golden carp and knows about its magical powers. There is a legend behind the golden carp and this legend presents the world from a perspective which differed from the Christian beliefs that were held by Antonio. The golden carp makes Antonio realize that there were other gods which were different from the god he worshipped. The gold carp symbolizes the shift of Antonio from Christian beliefs to non-Christian beliefs.
The owl of Ultima symbolizes the mystical powers possessed by Ultima. The owl also makes Antonio feel that he is being protected. When the owl sings at night in soft tones, Antonio feels comforted by its song, as he experiences the presence of Ultima’s magical powers and realizes Ultima’s ability to protect him. In the end when the owl is killed, Ultima also loses her life, as her spirit was present in the owl. After the death of Ultima, Antonio buries the owl, as Ultima had requested him to do so before dying. The importance of owl in the life of Ulitma and Antonio is comprehended from Antonio’s feelings upon burying the owl. While burying the owl, Antonio comments that he is burying Ultima. The owl represented the healing powers of Ultima and her capability to provide protection to Antonio.
The Statue of Virgin of Guadalupe
The statue of Maria, the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes the Christian beliefs of the people living in Antonio’s native place. Antonio worshipped the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe with dark skin points towards the incorporation of the local culture of Antonio’s homeland with the culture of the European Catholic Church. She represents the value of forgiveness and the need to understand the teachings of different cultures. The cultural conflicts between the culture of European Catholic church and the native culture of Antonio’s homeland are resolved through the depiction of Maria, as a dark-skinned Virgin.
The Green Color
The use of green color in the novel symbolizes mystery. Antonio is influenced by the powers of Ultima when he meets her. “She took my hand and I fell the power of a whirlwind sweep around me. Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river.” (Anaya). The green color brings forth the mystery surrounding the powers of Ultima in the novel.
In the novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, the author depicts the various cultures of Antonio’s homeland through magical realism and symbolism. The character of Ulitma and the folk culture of the region represent magical realism. The religious beliefs of the people living in the native place of Antonio are portrayed in the novel through the use of symbols. These symbols bring forth the contrast in the cultural values of the region in which Antonio was leading his life.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima: A Novel. Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol Internat. 1990.
Lamadrid, Enrique. Myth as the Cognitive Process of Popular Culture in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless
Me, Ultima: The Dialectics of Knowledge. Hispania. 68:3 (1985): 496-501.
Myers, Jamie & Beach, Richard. Constructing Critical Literacy Practices Through Technology
Tools and Inquiry. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 4:3 (2004).
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