Bless Me, Ultima
Summary: Quince (15)
Antonio is delirious with pneumonia for several days. Narciso’s death is declared an accident by the coroner. When Andrew enters Antonio’s sickroom, he seems uncomfortable. After he leaves, Ultima assures Antonio that he didn’t reveal Andrew’s secret in his delirium.
María likes to hear Antonio read prayers in both English and Spanish. Unlike many of their people, she wants her children to know both languages. León and Eugene come to visit for Christmas. They bought a car in Las Vegas but have totaled it during the drive to Guadalupe. The tension between Gabriel and his sons grows. When León and Eugene leave for Sante Fe, Andrew goes with them.
Summary: Dieciséis (16)
Antonio hopes that his first Communion will bring him an understanding of why Tenorio’s evil goes unpunished. Tenorio confronts Antonio on his way home from school one day. He shouts that another of his daughters is dying and vows to kill Ultima, but he hurries away without harming Antonio. When Antonio reports Tenorio’s threats, Ultima assures him that Tenorio won’t ambush her as easily as he did Narciso.
Summary: Diecisiete (17)
Antonio and his friends begin taking catechism lessons with Father Byrnes. That spring, fierce dust storms incite rumors of the atomic bomb. Antonio eagerly looks forward to receiving the knowledge of God. Gabriel laughs when Antonio reports that some people think the atomic bomb has caused the fierce dust storms. He replies that the wind is the voice of the llano. By blowing dust in their faces, it is telling the people that they have sucked the land dry with overgrazing.
Although he doesn’t believe in God, Florence attends the catechism lessons because he wants to be with his friends. Florence’s mother died when he was three, and his father slowly killed himself with drink. Now his sisters are prostitutes at Rosie’s house. He asks Antonio why God would do such things to him. Antonio cannot answer because these are the very questions that haunt Antonio himself. When Antonio and Florence are late to catechism lessons, Father Byrnes punishes Florence but not Antonio. Florence stands patiently in the aisle, holding his arms out to his side, while Bones quietly vandalizes a pew near the oblivious Father Byrnes. Father Byrnes tells a frightening story to explain how long eternity is. He tells the children to imagine that they must move a huge pile of sand across the ocean by allowing a little bird to move one grain of sand at a time. When the bird has finished moving the pile of sand, the first day of eternity has passed.
Summary: Dieciocho (18)
Antonio begs Florence to go through with confession and Communion to save himself an eternity in hell. Samuel suggests that the golden carp might be a better god for Florence. They decide to take Florence to see him during the summer.
María buys Antonio a new suit for his first confession and Communion. Antonio’s friends decide to make him pretend to be a priest so he can hear their confessions. The children gather around, eager to listen. Horse confesses that he made a hole to see into the girls’ bathroom at school. Antonio assigns a penance and remembers the golden carp’s prophecy. Bones confesses an even more titillating sin, witnessing two high school students having sex, and Antonio gives him the same penance as Horse. When the children try to force Florence to play along, Florence states that he has no sins because God has sinned against him. The children shrink in horror and suggest beating, stoning, or killing him for his blasphemy. Antonio shouts that he absolves Florence of all his sins. The children fall on Antonio in anger and begin to beat him. They stop only when the priest calls them into the church for confession. Florence tells Antonio that he should have given him a penance, adding that Antonio could never be their priest.
Analysis: Quince–Dieciocho (15–18)
In these chapters, it becomes clear to Antonio that social prejudice and entrenched assumptions often unfairly determine the course of justice. Because the Catholic mainstream in the town considers Narciso to be nothing more than the town drunk, no one is interested in punishing his murderer. The coroner illustrates this unexamined prejudice when he decides to rule Narciso’s death an accident, in defiance of every piece of available evidence. This event teaches Antonio about the tragic unfairness of social prejudice. Antonio also begins to deal with the linguistic component of his cultural identity when María insists that he learn his prayers in English as well as in Spanish. She still hopes that Antonio will be a priest, a spiritual leader for his people, and by insisting that fluency in English and Spanish will make him a better priest, María demonstrates her awareness of the fact that Anglo culture is placing increasing pressures on her own culture. She considers bilingualism a good way to adapt to these changes. Antonio has already felt the sting of Anglo arrogance toward his cultural and ethnic identity at his school.
The conflict between Antonio’s maternal and paternal heritages ceases to be his major preoccupation in these chapters, as the main conflict of the novel becomes Antonio’s struggle to find a coherent way to understand his experiences. Neither Catholicism nor Ultima’s brand of spirituality can completely reflect Antonio’s evolving sense of identity and destiny. After society refuses to punish Tenorio for murdering Narciso, Antonio struggles to understand why there is evil in the world. He regards the Catholic Church with both extreme hope and extreme doubt. As a bulwark against these doubts, he places all his hopes on his first Communion, certain that it will bring him complete understanding.
Father Byrnes’s unjust punishment of Florence and not Antonio when both boys are late demonstrates to Antonio that even priests can be prejudiced and unfair, and the action undermines Antonio’s faith in the goodness of the Catholic Church. However, in Antonio’s society the only suggestion that there is room for questioning religious tenets comes from Florence’s willingness to question Catholic orthodoxy during classes. Florence’s concern is that Father Byrnes’s teaching does not give the children a hopeful understanding of God but a fear of him. And despite Father Byrnes’s teachings, it is hope that sustains Antonio in the face of doubt and the incontrovertible recognition that there is evil in the world. Antonio desperately wants Florence to have some form of hope as well, a wish he acts on when he agrees with Samuel that perhaps the golden carp will give him hope where the Catholic God has failed.
The authority of the Catholic Church, however, is implicitly undermined by the attitude with which Antonio’s friends treat the confession ceremony. The children sensationalize the confessional ritual with sexual voyeurism and compete with one another to confess the worst sin. None of them would probably explicitly acknowledge the element of voyeurism that is inherent in confession, even to themselves. However, their behavior suggests that they have subconsciously recognized that the ceremony has a titillating element. This experience shows Antonio that he may not be suited to life as a priest. Florence does not suggest that it is any failing in Antonio, but rather that his mock congregation is not ready for the kind of priest that Antonio would be.
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