Cultural Constraints: The Uses of Archetypes in Like Water for Chocolate, Roofops of Tehran, and Purple Hibiscus

August 9, 2021 by Essay Writer

Every culture has unique social tradition placed upon their ancestors for many generations. These social constraints force their people to adhere to the same set of boundaries because it is deemed as proper and acceptable. These constraints often make it hard for evolving as a society and create unfair limitations for the young and especially the females in their society. Writers, often forced into the brunt of these constraints, developed a new genre with an end goal to try and encourage political and social change. These writers highlight the huge issues that are deemed unjust or abusive in each society to promote social awareness. Often a predictable formula is used to show every unique aspect of how people can be oppressed by their society. It starts with a perpetrator, the person or people who are doing the harm, then it shows how an individual is victimized by these overbearing authority figures and their failure to rebel, next a character who incites rebellion is introduced to show how change can happen, and lastly a preserver, often the main character, who goes through victimization and rebellion, yet ends up making the greatest difference while preserving the distinctive qualities of their culture. Three writers: Laura Esquivel from Mexico, Mahbod Seraji from Iran, and Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria in their respective novels prove that this formula is nonspecific to a culture. Like Water for Chocolate, Rooftops of Tehran, and Purple Hibiscus harness these archetypes to highlight and promote social change in their societies and inspire readers across all cultures to do the same.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel has a main perpetrator in Mamma Elena. She holds her daughters to the cultural constraints that her family set many generations ago. For Gertrudis and Rosaura, while they are constrained to marry people her mother approves of and sets up for them, they do not bear the brunt of the oppression. For Tita, however, being the youngest means she is destined to take care of her mother until the day she dies and never marry or find love. This is portrayed when Mamma Elena threatens, “For generations, not a single person in my family has ever questioned this tradition, and no daughter of mine is going to be the one to start” (Esquivel 11). This is particularly constraining for Tita because she fell in love with a local man named Pablo and can’t marry him or express her love for him. Mamma Elena shows no sympathy for Tita and seeing Pablo as a viable suitor she sets Rosaura to marry him. Mamma Elena has no regard for Tita’s feelings or wants in life and demands her to forever feed, bathe, and take care of her. Mamma Elena refuses to take Tita’s opinions and wants into consideration and is the enforcer of the cultural constraints.

The highly oppressive and censored government in Rooftops of Tehran is the main perpetrator. The Savak is the government agency that goes around enforcing these cultural constraints. In Rooftops, the Savak oppresses both by raiding for censored books and by searching and imprisoning rebels. One example of their detestable acts is when they came for doctor, “The agents detest crowds witnessing the inhumane treatment of their captives. They quickly push Doctor into the car and take off” (Seraji 83). Doctor was just one of the people the Savak targeted. Pasha felt their presence during a childhood raid of his house and Zara felt their presence when she was banished and forced into hiding. This religious tradition the Savak enforces is much like the family tradition Mamma Elena constrains Tita with in Like Water for Chocolate. Unlike in Tita’s world, however, rebellion has severe consequences in this book, often the people who speak out about the wrongdoings of their government pay with their life. Without the Savak enforcing these tyrannical views, Pasha would not have felt the tragedy in losing his mentor and letting go of the woman he loved.

The main character Kambili gets hurt by a number of people and governing bodies, but the perpetrator in Purple Hibiscus is Eugene or Papa. Like Mamma Elena, Papa grew up with an harsh and strict background. His childhood was during the era when coups and government instability plagued Nigeria. Rooftops of Tehran also had a tyrannical government where people were captured or imprisoned for speaking against their ways. Eugene left to England to do much of his schooling and came back with western religion and ideals. These ideals are the way he constraints his family. Papa forces his children to perfection in every way and is so reliant on tradition that if broken he punishes them severely. His children and wife are not sheltered from beatings and verbal abuse. Papa even goes so far as to hospitalize Mamma, “We stood at the landing and watched Papa descend. Mama was slung over his shoulder like the jute sacks of rice his factory workers bought in bulk at the Seme Border” (Adichie 33). Jaja broke this routine of expected perfection when he refused to take offering at mass. Papa puts God above everything else so to him this was a personal attack. Papa refuses to accept the Nigerian culture and even purposefully changes his action to reflect a more British upbringing when talking to people of lighter skin or authority figures. He holds his children to this standard and is unbending in his rule.

Mamma Elena victimizes all of her children in Like Water for Chocolate, but the one who is constrained the most is Rosaura. Rosaura is victimized when Mamma Elena forces her to betray her sister and marry Pablo. Instead of staying true to her sister and trying to get out of marrying him, she accepts her mother’s ruling. Rosaura becomes jealous of Tita and Pablo’s true love and is mean and deceitful to her. She doesn’t think Tita should still be in love with Pablo because he is married to her. Rosaura refuses to see Tita’s side in the story and how she truly was the victim. This leads to Rosaura’s awful end. Her death is described by John when he says, “…he found Rosaura, her lips purple, body deflated, eyes wild, with a distant look, sighing out her last flatulent breath. John’s diagnosis was an acute congestion of the stomach” (Esquivel 233). She allowed bitterness and hatred to define her and in the end she was left lonely and empty save from gas.

Another book where characters are victimized is in Rooftops of Tehran, especially through the story of Doctor. Doctor was multifaceted in his need to commit rebellion but also his love for his friends and family. The SAVAK punished him severely before he was able to fully make a difference, in the end making him the victim in the story. Unlike Rosaura in Like Water for Chocolate, Doctor mentored Pasha through the most essential developing years of his life and taught him through books and friendship the art of being open minded. Rosaura had the potential to be a similar character for Tita, but let jealousy and competition overrun their sibling bond. While Doctor truly cared about Pasha and being his friend, his desire to instigate social change often took precedence. The last summer Pasha saw Doctor, he told Pasha he was leaving to go educate farmers in rural regions. The SAVAK supposedly caught him planning with a terrorist group to blow up a dam, however. The policing organization tracked him down, dragged him away, and they never saw Doctor again. The SAVAK showed up weeks later to talk to Zari’s family. The situation is explained by Faheemah, “They want them to pay for the bullet… Doctor’s bullet” (Seraji 128). Doctor was stopped before he could achieve the social change he so desperately sought for the nation. The SAVAK made him the ultimate victim, but Doctor’s death spurred both Zari and Pasha to push even harder against their tyrannical government.

Just like in the other two novels, the perpetrator hurts many people in Purple Hibiscus, but the character most constrained by Papa’s oppression is Mamma. She doesn’t mean to anger her husband, but Eugene sees little actions as personal attacks against himself or God. He refuses to accept anything less than perfect Western ideals and religion. For example, when Mamma was sick due to her pregnancy and didn’t want to see the Pastor after mass. She didn’t mean to be sick or disappoint Eugene, but he refused to sympathize. For most of the book, Mamma didn’t understand the unhealthy relationship she was in, and often pretended like nothing was wrong. For example, when upset or hurt Mamma would go and polish her figurines or the case they were in, avoiding the problems. “Mamma stood hugging herself in the center of the living room… Mamma started at the lowest layer, polishing both the shelf and the figurines” (Adichie 35). This demonstrates her lack of hope, she couldn’t even deal with the abuse that she avoided the subject of it. Eventually, we see a change in Mamma. The years of abuse finally add up for her and all hope for her future is lost. Realizing this Mamma works up the courage to poison Eugene and joins the rebellion in her household. This dual archetype is similar to Doctor in Rooftops of Tehran. Showing that characters can rebel and still be broken down to a simple victim.

In Like Water for Chocolate, rebellion is the only way for Gertrudis to escape the suffocating presence of Mamma Elena. For years Gertrudis was oppressed emotionally and sexually by her mother through her traditions. She never had the chance to grow and develop at a healthy pace because her mother was controlling her. This oppression finally became too much and Gertrudis committed the ultimate act of rebellion. The scent of her fiery energy attracted a rebel general and he picked her up, “Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away” (Esquivel 55-56). Gertrudis was less dynamic than Tita in her rebellion, however. She rebelled to save herself from the constraints of her mother, while rebelled for the sake of future generations. Gertrudis achieved freedom and expressed her sexual desires without worry of disaproval from Mamma Elena, making her the true symbol of rebellion.

Through her unfaltering defiance of the government, even at the sake of her own freedom, Zari is the true rebel in Rooftops of Tehran. When Doctor is killed by the SAVAK, Zari goes through a developing period. She realizes all the problems the government has and can’t stay quiet about them any longer. She tries to save Pasha from the pain by telling him to not get attached to her, but he is already too in love with her to care. Zari’s passions and hatred for the tyrannical leader the Shah come to a climax at the public event for his birthday. Zari decides to make a public statement and brings gasoline and a match with her. When the Shah’s vehicle comes close to them, “Zari runs out into the street, lights a match, and sets herself on fire” (Seraji 215). This last moment of rebellion was for the 40th day anniversary of Doctor’s death. The SAVAK made the situation worse by not allowing Doctor’s friends and family to mourn his death but destroying evidence of his birth because they saw him as a traitor. Zari’s rebellion sets a precedence of change for Pasha and their friends. No longer can they sit by and allow the SAVAK to control them, they must fight. Zari loses her freedom and is banished to secrecy in another area for her crimes, but she felt she rectified the maltreatment of Doctor by the SAVAK. Zari commits the act of rebellion that is the catalyst for the social change sought for by Pasha.

Jaja’s rebellion in Purple Hibiscus was more understated than Zari’s, but still essential for defying the oppressor’s power. Jaja was less radical in his rebellion, taking years for him to muster up more than just disobeying his father. Jaja’s journey to rebellion matched the fighting going on in Nigeria after the military coup. When Ade Coker, a newspaper editor who printed articles questioning the new government, died in a fiery explosion in his home. This explosion was the turning point for both the country’s rebellion and Jaja’s. Jaja developed and aided by visits with forward thinking Aunty Ifeoma started noticing the tyranny not just beginning in the country, but in his own home. He noticed that Aunty treated her children well, and instead of oppression and strict rule, they advocated for communication and love. Jaja’s first moment of defiance that instigated the war in their home was when he openly refused to take Eucharist at mass with Papa Eugene watching. Papa saw this as the greatest form of disrespect and was so angry that after mass, “Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figures on the étagère” (Adichie 3). This small act of rebellion was the first time Papa ever felt resistance by his family. Jaja’s rebellion mixed with the want to be like Aunty Ifeoma’s family was the catalyst for the breakdown of their family parallel to the breakdown of the country.

The person who works through the constraints to preserve her culture in Like Water for Chocolate is Tita. Out of the three sisters, she is the most constrained by Mamma Elena. She does not let this stop her from fighting her mother’s antifeminist traditional ways, however. Mamma Elena wants to force Tita to stay at home, never marry or be educated, and take care of her until the day she dies. This keeps Tita away from the man she fell in love with, Pablo. Through forging her own path even at the expense of her relationship with her mother, Tita was truly able to make a difference not just for her own life, but for the next generation. Esperanza, Rosaura and Pablo’s daughter, was set to follow in the same footsteps as Tita, both being the youngest daughters. Rosaura planned to force Esperanza to stay home, Tita never stopped fighting against this and even got Esperanza an education and artistic training. Finally, Tita achieved her final goal in allowing Esperanza to become who she wants, “How proud she felt to see Esperanza so self-confident, so intelligent, so perfectly prepared, so happy, so capable, and at the same time, so feminine and womanly, in the fullest sense of the world” (Esquivel 240). Tita proves herself to be the greatest catalyst to implementing social change in her outdated family traditions. In the end, by being true to herself and allowing her femininity to flourish, Tita achieves happiness for herself, and breaks the cycle for generations to come.

Pasha’s character in Rooftops of Tehran takes a similar journey to Tita’s in Like Water for Chocolate. Both go through life being victimized but rebel not just for themselves, but for the good of others and their culture, making them the preservers in their respective novels. Pasha goes through many hardships in life due to the tyrannical government agency the SAVAK, but is made stronger in his resolve to change things. Both Doctor and Zari mentor this feeling of rebellion in Pasha, but it isn’t until he sees what the government has done to Zari, that he is resolved in his actions. When talking to a broken Zari after he finds out she’s alive but banished by the Savak, Pasha finally comes to terms with leaving for awhile. Ahmad pushes him for it as well saying, “You’ll go away for a while, study at the finest university in the States, and come back an educated man” (Seraji 309). He needs to go to the U.S. and become a filmmaker to show Iran to the rest of the world. Zari’s family is to be exiled, but he will come back for her and come back to Iran an educated many. He even tells his family he may write a book about what happened, perhaps a social commentary pushing for change from the people in their society. Pasha has worked through the constraints placed on his family and friends and grown from them to help save the culture he loves, making him the ultimate preserver.

Similar to all three of the preservers in these novels, Kambili in Purple Hibiscus was developing as a teenager. Kambili did not learn the joys and value of her own culture because she grew up in such a western household. Papa Eugene taught her that Nigerian culture was barbaric and below them. Papa’s refusal to accept Nigerian culture led her to be estranged for much of her family including her tribal grandfather. Kambili began spending more time with Aunty Ifeoma, however, and her ideals of what culture truly meant began to change. Kambili saw the best of both worlds when she was with Aunty. They are educated and by no means lower class, but still appreciate and remember the indigenous culture of their ancestors. Kambili realized that she did not have to choose a culture, and that both belonged to her. This realization is evident in the main symbol in the book, the Purple Hibiscus. When Jaja first noticed it, he exclaimed, “I didn’t know there were purple hibiscuses” (Adichie 128).This flower is a cross breed that would not exist without two separate breeds working together to make a more beautiful and revered flower. The purple hibiscus is essential in the development of both Jaja and Kambili into their realization that Papa Eugene was not always right. Kambili realizes that her culture should not be rejected, and Aunty Ifeoma’s family is proof that western education and Nigerian cultural practices complement each other.

These three books demonstrate the archetypes that emerge in social commentaries with a coming of age spin. Each character in the novel goes through terrible injustices, depending on how they respond and change to these labels them as the perpetrator, Victims, rebels, and preservers. This is prominent in real life as well. Every person especially young adults, as seen in most of these novels, goes through hardships. What a person chooses to get out of it is a direct choice for their archetype. We are all products of our upbringing, but even some characters who were abused or put under the same social constraints as their parents chose to not apply them to the next generation. This is truly the real world application. Each person must not choose to lay their personal battles on their children or young people, but break the cycle and become stronger and emotionally sure. Social commentaries allow the reader to see the psychological journey of all 4 archetypes. We can see that preserving culture while still rebelling to solve the problems within it, is the most rewarding.


Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.

Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York: Random House, 1992. Print.

Seraji, Mahbod. Rooftops of Tehran. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.

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