Like Water For Chocolate can be distilled into the stories of two women, Tita De La Garza and her mother, the formidable Mama Elena. The trajectory of their struggle against one another is the axis around which the entire novel turns. Tita, the protagonist, strives for love, freedom, and individuality, and Mama Elena, the chief antagonist, stands as the prime opposition to the fulfillment of these goals. This mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty from its inception, when Tita is brought into the world prematurely after her father's sudden death. Mama Elena is the opposite of a nurturer, never forging any bond with Tita. Tita develops a relationship with food that gives her the power to nurture and give outlet to her emotions.
As with most literary pairings, Tita and Mama Elena share a central characteristic that defines both their individual struggles and their conflict with each other. The revelation that Mama Elena herself suffered the pangs of lost love is an important thematic complement to Tita's deprivation. The reaction of each woman to her predicament helps delineate their differing characters. Whereas Mama Elena lets the loss of love turn her into a sinister and domineering mother, Tita, while obeying her mother's command outwardly, engages in a lifelong struggle for love, which she eventually wins through the strength of spirit.
The structuring of Like Water for Chocolate as "A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies," as it is subtitled, establishes the filter through which the reader will experience the world of the novel. Like Tita--whose knowledge of life is "based on the kitchen"-- the reader must explore the work through the role and power of food, guided by the recipes that begin each chapter. The division of the novel into "monthly installments" conjures up the image of serial narratives published in periodicals (often women's magazines). This organization, along with the matter-of-fact weaving of recipes and remedies into the fabric of the narrative, underscores the fact that the novel offers substantial opportunities for feminist analysis.
In addition to serving as a central organizing principle, food is often a direct cause of physical and emotional unrest, and serves as a medium through which emotions can be transmitted. Tita prepares most of the food in the novel, and she uses food to express her emotions because her lowly cultural status affords her no other opportunity to do so. The vomiting and moroseness at Rosaura's wedding results from the guests' eating the cake that bears Tita's tears. Likewise, the sexual frenzy that compels Gertrudis to leave the ranch is occasioned by the transmission of Tita's passion for Pedro into the dish she prepares for dinner. These incidents suggest a simultaneous commodification and uncontrollability of emotion; food is a potent force in the world of the novel, and it lets Tita assert her identity.
Images of heat and fire permeate the novel as expressions of intense emotion. Because heat is the catalyst that causes food to undergo chemical change, substantial waves of it are present at many of the moments when food is being prepared. In the science of cooking, heat is a force to be used precisely; the novel's title phrase "like water for chocolate," refers to the fact that water must be brought to the brink of boiling several times before it is ready to be used in the making of hot chocolate. However, the heat of emotions, cannot be so controlled. Heat is a symbol for desire and physical love throughout the text: in Gertrudis' flight from the ranch; Pedro's lustful gazing at Tita in the shower; and the post-coital death of Pedro, among many other instances. The inner fire of the individual constitutes an important theme in the novel, and much of Tita's struggle centers on cultivating this fire. These uses of fire point toward a duality in its symbolism, as a source of strength and a force of destruction. The coupling of death and desire that occurs when the love between Tita and Pedro is freed epitomizes this duality.
In Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel extends the religious-mythical themes of magic realism to the everyday world of the domestic realm of a female-dominated household. Though not a story of the battles, great figures, and moral challenges generally associated with the epic form, Esquivel elevates this story of women, and one woman in particular, to such proportions. This strategy leads the reader to explore the feminist properties of Like Water For Chocolate, which are evident in the depictions of Tita's struggle to gain independence and develop her identity, and also in the fact that this struggle is depicted at all. In creating this female-centered cast of characters, Esquivel imagines a world in which men are physically present only occasionally, though the legacy of sexism and the confinement of women to the domestic sphere persist. Esquivel does not offer her readers the vision of a utopian sisterhood, but rather insight into the way women are restricted by standards of societal propriety perpetuated by other women.