Female Perspective on Sexual Acts in the Modern Novel: An Examination of Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero
Sexuality is one of the most widespread and diverse themes in literature, and the modern novel has allowed for much more explicit and varied examinations of sexuality. Of utmost importance to sexuality, in life and in literature, is the actual sex act, which reaches its pinnacle in heterosexual relationships in the act traditional and procreative act of sexual intercourse. This act is necessarily a human universal; without it, humanity would not exist. This makes it a very powerful act to depict in literature, all pruderies and controversies surrounding this depiction aside, and many authors have engaged in an exploration of the metaphysical and spiritual creative aspects of sexual intercourse that mirror the biological creation of the act.
Equally noted in the history of literature — and in new ways in the modern novel — is the opposing force of domination and destruction that is an inherent part of sexual intercourse, especially from the point-of-view of the feminine. Though the sex act often leads to great joy and release, for the feminine it is also an intrusive and sometimes violent experience; an irreversible initiation into the world of pleasure through a painful and often shameful ritual. In many societies the sex act marks a public transformation of the woman, into a respected wife and maternal figure when the sexual intercourse takes place within the confines of sanctioned relationships, and into a defiled and stigmatized woman in any other situation. The various attitudes towards sexuality and the sex act itself are hugely dependent on the cultural and gender identity that produces these views, and an examination of two modern novels written by women of very different cultural backgrounds reveals this shifting perspective of the feminine role in intercourse.
Nawal El Saadawi is a female psychologist working in Egypt, a complex society with many different influences, including forms of Islam that are very restrictive and even abusive towards women. Her novel Woman at Point Zero reflects this narrowness of culture and reduction of the importance and passion of the feminine though the examination of Firdaus, who spends much of her life as a prostitute. In this novel, sexual acts are seen with the male figure as the actor, and agency on the part of the feminine is almost completely obliterated. Firdaus’ introduction to sexuality and physical acts of sex comes at a very young age from sexual games played with her male friend Ibrahim: “He would make me lie down beneath a pile of straw, and lift up my galabeya. We played at ‘bride and bridegroom.’ From some part in my body, where exactly I did not know, would come a sensation of sharp pleasure” (Saadawi, 14).
Even these early experiences, though pleasurable, are subtly marked by the domination of the masculine over the feminine: “he would make me” does not connote a mutual engagement in experimentation; though this scene is not described with horror and resistance, Firdaus demonstrates a passivity and lack of understanding of the act. It is also interesting that even as children this act is associated with playing “bride and bridegroom;” even as children, the roles of the separate genders as prescribed by society are understood to apply supremely during the sex act.
Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate portrays a very different vision of sexuality and the sex act. The Mexico to which Esquivel and her characters belong is marked by the forced mixture of two conflicting cultures that occurred during Spanish colonization. In a way, the history of the country mirrors the destructive and dominant view of the sex act; Spanish invaders brought their restrictive brand of Catholicism to the indigenous peoples of the area, figuratively raping the land and culture while forcing their own beliefs and social structures on what would be considered in many ways a much more liberal culture (and, it might be noted, literally raping many of the indigenous women). Today’s Mexican culture and ethnic identity constitutes the blending of these two opposing forces, and the portrayal of sexuality and the sex act in Like Water for Chocolate clearly illustrates the conflicts between these opposing forces.
The sex act is largely glorified in Like Water for Chocolate, especially as it allows externally applied restrictions to be thrown off by the individuals participating in the act. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Gertrudis begins exuding a sexual scent and heat that sets a small structure on fire and attracts the leader of a nearby rebel army:
Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste time, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto his horse in front of him, face-to-face, and carried her away. The horse, which seemed to be obeying higher orders too, kept galloping as if it already knew their ultimate destination, even though Juan had thrown the reins aside and was passionately kissing and embracing Gertrudis. The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies as they made love for the first time, at a gallop and with a great deal of difficulty.”
At first glance, this scene, too, seems to remove the agency of the feminine in regards to the act of sexual intercourse. Gertrudis is lifted onto the horse and galloped away with. The attraction and subsequent actions of Juan, however, are brought about by the extreme feminine sexuality that Gertrudis exudes. The fact that the horse “seemed to be obeying higher orders too,” coupled with the may instances of magical realism in the novel, suggests that Gertrudis and Juan are engaging in an almost supernatural act of intercourse; it represents a release and freedom of the feminine to engage in this uninhibited and unavoidable act of sex.
Sex is oddly liberating in Woman at Point Zero, too, but no in expected ways. Soon after her childhood exploits (or exploitation), Firdaus receives a ritualistic circumcision, which involves cutting out the clitoris — the source of the “sharp pleasure” she mentions in her scene with Ibrahim. This marks the beginning of Firdaus’ and the novel’s view of sexual intercourse as a performance of duty and service as opposed to an activity of mutual pleasure. As a woman in Egyptian society, Firdaus is expected to receive no utility from the sex act. Indeed, her first encounters with intercourse reinforce both the lack of agency and this concept of a performance of duty, and the old man to whom she has been married takes no different a view:
He would come back in the middle of the night, pull the cover away from me, slap my face, and then bear down on me with all his weight. I kept my eyes closed and abandoned my body. It lay there under him without movement, emptied of all desire, pleasure, or even pain, feeling nothing. A dead body with no life in it at all, like a piece of food, or an empty sock, or a shoe.”
As the novel progresses, however, and Firdaus turns to the quite lucrative profession of prostitution, her body actually becomes her means to freedom. She even demonstrates her power by refusing certain customers; her desirability has become a source of empowerment rather than a burden. The act of intercourse becomes more complex, as it becomes impossible to tell which partner is using the other. Through the acceptance and even encouragement of the masculine, Woman at Point Zero shows a strange instance of the feminine gaining power and dominance in the sex act.
Feminine control of and during the sex act also appears as a theme throughout Like Water for Chocolate. Gertrudis returns as the leader of a rebel army; though appearing to have less agency in the above quoted scene of sexual encounter, she strongly asserts her identity as the dominant force, even among militaristic men. The culminating act of the novel also clearly illustrates this principle. During the second time Tita and Pedro make love — and the only time they do so with complete abandonment, without fear of getting caught, the world reacts in a manner typical of magical realism, with the massive fluttering sound of a thousand doves wings: “Tita was aware of none of this, she was experiencing a climax so intense that her closed eyes glowed, and a brilliant tunnel appeared before her” (Esquivel, 220). This tunnel leads to the afterlife, and means death. Tita is able to keep herself back from this light, resisting the temptation in order to enjoy her newfound world of pleasure with Pedro. Pedro, however, crosses over into the light; the act of uninhibited sexual intercourse is too powerful for him, and he is consumed by it. Though the book’s central conflict is the denial of Tita’s right to determine and assert her own feminine sexual identity, in reality it proves stronger than Pedro’s masculine energy.
Woman at Point Zero and Like Water for Chocolate show instances of sexuality and the sex act in very different cultures. Both novels explore the relationship of the feminine to the act of sexual intercourse with conclusions that are perhaps surprising, and in many ways strikingly similar. These very modern stories illustrate the impossibility of truly suppressing female sexual desire, or even of mis-categorizing it as subservient to dominant male forces. Attempts to do so, as these novels show, are not only futile but highly destructive.
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York: Anchor, 1995.
Saadawi, Nawal El. Woman at Point Zero. London: Zed Books, 1990.
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