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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
An emphasis on thinking independently about moral decisions pervades Bless Me, Ultima. Antonio’s progress toward moral independence is the main marker of his maturity and development throughout the novel. Antonio’s struggle to reconcile the complexities of his experience with his religion leads him to conclude that he must make his own decisions. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the failure of the church to explain the most pressing questions about morality and human experience.
Ultima acts as Antonio’s guide as he learns the importance of moral independence. Ultima teaches him that the most difficult questions about life can never be answered entirely by a single religion or cultural tradition. Antonio has questions about evil, forgiveness, truth, and the soul, questions he can answer only for himself. Antonio once believed that the Communion ritual would answer all his questions, but Ultima teaches him that he must think for himself and arrive at his own conclusions.
Bless Me, Ultima explores the difficulty of reconciling conflicting cultural traditions. In the end, Anaya suggests that a person can draw from several cultural traditions to forge a more complex and adaptable identity. Antonio is so eager to find a single, definitive answer to the questions that haunt him because he has been influenced by many conflicting cultures. The first major conflict involves his parents. His Luna mother wishes for him to become a priest, while his vaquero father wishes for him to ride the llano. Each parent has deeply rooted cultural convictions. Next is the conflict within his town between its Spanish and indigenous cultures. We see evidence of this conflict in the pronounced tension between Ultima’s mystical folklore and the Catholic church. Another conflict takes place at Antonio’s school between Spanish and English speakers.
Anaya uses these conflicts to explore the influence of culture on identity. Many characters in the book are limited by their cultural prejudices and never learn to look beyond their own assumptions. For example, the townspeople condemn Narciso for being a drunk and refuse to acknowledge that his traumatic experience in the war might play a part in his psychological state. Ultima teaches Antonio to avoid the limitations inherent in abiding by one culture, one religion, or one creed. Instead, Ultima encourages Antonio to embrace all of the cultural influences in his life to become a better person.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Antonio has a number of dreams throughout the novel, from his early dream about watching his own birth to his later dreams about his brothers calling for his help. Anaya uses the recurrent dream motif to show how Antonio’s interpretations of his thoughts and experiences change as he develops as a character. In his early dreams, for instance, Antonio is largely preoccupied with the question of his destiny, of whether he will become a vaquero or a priest. But in his later dreams, he is preoccupied with much larger questions of family, morality, and duty. This gradual transformation, traced in dreams, reflects Antonio’s growth from childhood to maturity. His dreams also offer him a rich and variable set of images and symbols with which to understand his own life.
The recurring presence of various family relationships—uncles, siblings, and parents, especially—provides a subtle commentary on the nature of identity and ultimately underscores the book’s main theme of moral independence. Many of Antonio’s family members seek to define his future, especially his uncles, who argue about whether he will become a priest or a vaquero. Antonio looks to other members of his family to help define his identity, especially when he tries to model himself after Andrew, his older brother. In the end, Antonio must learn to make his own choices, drawing from the wisdom and experience of his family, but not being limited by their wishes and perspectives.
Ultima once predicts vaguely that Antonio will be a “man of learning.” Many scenes in the book explore Antonio’s education, both religious (his Communion classes) and academic (his school classes). Antonio’s growth and development serve as examples of education. Ultima believes that every experience helps inform one’s identity and perspective on life. Bless Me, Ultima is the story of Antonio’s growth from childhood to maturity. His progress is represented by his gradually expanding education, both in the classroom and in his own introspective interpretation of his experience.
Ultima represents the importance of tolerance and understanding. Though she comes from an indigenous mystical tradition, she openly acknowledges the value of the Catholic faith. She also encourages Antonio to draw from the various conflicting sets of ideals that define his outlook. Learning the importance of tolerance marks Antonio’s growth, especially as he begins to realize that some religions may be better suited to some people than to others, as Florence is seemingly better suited to the faith of the golden carp than to Catholicism.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The golden carp represents a magical religious order not connected to Catholicism. The golden carp legend offers its own brand of wisdom, comfort, and moral guidance. Within the context of the novel’s themes, the carp supports the idea that every religious tradition offers different, but equally valid, lessons about the world. Antonio first rejects the golden carp, feeling that he is abandoning God by simply pursuing an interest in the magical fish. He learns later that the carp can actually help in his endeavor to draw from all the cultural and religious sources available to him in crafting his own identity and finding his own answers.
Ultima’s owl represents her life force and the power of her religious mysticism. The owl sings softly outside Antonio’s window at night. Its song symbolizes Ultima’s comforting presence in Antonio’s life and the protective power of her magic. At the end of the novel, Tenorio’s killing of the owl literally destroys Ultima’s life force and leads very quickly to her death. Antonio equates Ultima with the owl—when he buries it, he says that he is really burying Ultima.
María’s statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes forgiveness, understanding, and the resolution of cultural conflict. The story of the dark-skinned Virgin represents the reconciliation of the European Catholic Church with the indigenous culture of Antonio’s homeland. Antonio turns to the Virgin repeatedly when he is frustrated by his failure to find a forgiving god.