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Themes In The Novel The Tortilla Curtain English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1924 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Boyle’s “The Tortilla Curtain” is a well woven literary piece that proves to be the best and the most successful of all his novels in history. Looking at his style of writing, he knits together illegal immigration, poverty, social class, racism, the American dream and xenophobia into a highly contrasted society that runs deep into the veins of the 21st Century America. Most publicists and scholars as well as critics have posed Boyle’s novel, “The Tortilla Curtain” as ‘a timely provocative account’ that vividly highlights the immigration events in central California. Following this stance, Boyle had a purpose of writing this book and its success is dependent on the nature of understanding of his writing by the readers. The success of any literary piece is guaranteed if the writer achieves the “unity of thought.” This implies that the main reasons why the author wrote the books are communicated to the reader; the same understanding of the book is shared between the author and the reader. This context seeks to analyze symbolism and the major themes that Boyle portrays in “The Tortilla Curtain.”

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The protagonists in this novel form the key focus in the analysis of the themes and symbolism used. The story entails two families that belong to the low class and the middle class in the society. The poor family consists of illegal Mexican immigrants (Candido and América) and the rich family (Kyra and Delaney) who are a real estate agent and columnist in an environmentalist magazine respectively. The setting of the novel portrays a man eat man society whereby the middle class care less about the low class. The story is woven from the two families that are intertwined from the time when Kyra has an accident which involves Candido, the poor man.

The American Dream encompasses the belief that as long as one enters America and works hard, success is inevitable. This is a mere illusion as Candido and América remains the poorest in spite of their hard work. The middle class family works less yet they have a better life than those who work tirelessly. It is inevitable that everyone aspire good life and this is the reason why immigrants moved into the United States. Each of them had their share in making the American dream come true regardless of the hardships that they have to go through. The dreams of the two couples are varied but they both find nothing but illusions in their dreams at the end. It all matters where they are and what they want to achieve and since none achieves, then the American dream to them is just but an illusion.

The aspect of class and racism will be discussed together in this analysis. The gated community where Kyra and his family live creates a gap between the haves and the have-nots. It does not only tear the middle and low class apart but also portrays racism between the whites and other ethnic minorities such as the Mexicans in the United States. At first Delaney, is a liberalist who believes in equal opportunity. This is evidenced in his quote that, “everyone deserves a chance […] immigrants are the lifeblood of this country” (p.101). However, this is blurred by his concern on the environment over the starving immigrants (the poor) as he quotes,”chewing up resources of the planet like locusts” (82). The contempt and atrocity of racists is shown in Delaney when he hits Candido with his car and pays off a bloody $20 bill (13). Candido decides not to call the police because he knows that he is in the country illegally: On the other hand, Melaney hesitates to call the police because he only hit a Mexican forgetting that he had committed a crime. The$20 bill is an insult and serves as a bribe to blackmail the poor man to remain silent after the ordeal. In support of this, Jack who is an attorney is portrayed as a racist as he supports the stone wall construction and the gate. He fails in his duty to reinforce the law in the knowledge of a crime already committed. The attitude and fear they have on Mexicans is purely on the segregation of the Mexicans as shown in his quote, “You want another crazy Mexican throwing himself under your wheels hoping for an insurance payoff?” (102). This leads to the next theme; xenophobia.

By definition, xenophobia is the feeling of hatred and fear that is experience by the citizens of a country when immigrants’ sets foot in their land. Though the immigrants are feared to be criminal, the actual perpetrators are inside the wall that was built. They are afraid of competition from the immigrants. They understand that the immigrants have the potential yet they will not give them equal opportunities as the citizens. Instead they exploit their vulnerability by paying low wages for work so that they can make huge profits. This portrays them as selfish. In addition, they are criminals who are perceived as honourable members of the society. They thus use the power gained to discriminate against the ethnic minorities. Work should be a move to improve the living standards of the employees and therefore people of true spirit care about their employees’ welfare.

Immigration as a theme is portrayed as illegal in the timeline of this novel. This can be coupled by the theme of poverty as it comes out best together. Further in this novel, the coyote symbolizes the immigration. The exploitation of labor for the poor as shown by the low wages paid to Candido is one instance of immigration and poverty. Though they knew that they deserved better, they had no option but to work and earn the meagre wages for survival. They couldn’t talk about it for the fear of the repercussions from the illegal immigration. Poverty is again witnessed when Socorro, Candido’s daughter is born and is suspected to be blind but they cannot face the problems due to poverty. In another instance of poverty, Candido robbing in the city leads to feeding from trash cans to avoid starving. This shows how the society doesn’t care for the poor. This is the lowest form of poverty that one can live in; it’s far beyond the international poverty line that projects that the poorest homestead spends at least $1 a day. Again, it shows the realities of life in the modern era where civilized is highly upheld. What is civilization when the country is symbolized by “coyotes”? This leads us to the use of symbolism in this novel.

In the analysis of symbolism, coyote is the most prominent and a motif that recurs throughout the novel while at the same times the strongest representation of the immigrants in this analysis. Immigration is portrayed as a monster in America in the case where the Mossbacher’s two dogs are feasted by the wild animal. Though a fence is built such as that at the US-Mexican border, they still penetrate (Boyle 39). Delaney’s column coyote experiences are brought in this view as he quotes, “One coyote, who makes his living on the fringes of my community […] has learned to simply chew his way through the plastic irrigation pipes whenever he wants to drink.”(212): This symbolizes Candido who steals water and other basic requirements for his family just like the coyote does to the dogs. In addition, Delaney quotes that, “The coyote is not to blame-he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him” (215). This also applies to Candido’s way of life: He takes up any opportunity that comes to his way such as the case of the Turkey offer and he doesn’t care what the society thinks of him. He is forced to do so for survival and he again resembles the coyote. Think of this: no house and camps in a canyon, digs in garbage in search for food, intrudes on other people’s property for survival; is this not exactly the way a coyote lives? Candido, an illegal immigrant, is not welcome in the city just like the hunted coyote. In addition, José Navidad backs on the symbolic coyote; he is portrayed as the bad guy. He rapes women and survives by intruding on other people’s property. It is more interesting when Candido feels that his space is intruded by José Navidad as quoted, “Now he had to worry about this stinking crack-toothed pendejo nosing around down in the canyon, as if he did not have enough problems already” (90).

The nature of house where one lived defines the class and the achievement of the American dream. The low class live in simple houses that were self made and others were homeless while the middle class lived in fenced houses. Following this, the wall as a symbol of separation between the two classes was constructed. From a general stance, a wall serves as a physical barrier between two parties. In reference to the case at hand, the wall is used metaphorically to keep the two cultures apart. Though the fences have been put in place and failed to serve the purpose it is inevitable that the illegal immigrants will continue to find their way through the US-Mexican border into America in search of success and the achievement of the American dream.

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Those who live inside the wall that is, the middle class and those who live outside the wall, the low class are separated by the wall. The wall also symbolizes the great fear that the Americans had for the Mexicans. The wall is a symbolic device for creating gaps between the haves and the have-nots but this is not the solution to the problems which they perceive to emanate from the Mexicans. As the poor struggles with their lives outside the wall, the haves are also affected as well though they won’t admit it. This is demonstrated when Candido roasts the bird pack given to him by a Turkish customer after a promotion thanks giving (an act of kindness from the customer), it causes fire which extends to the gate community of the haves.

In conclusion, Boyle portrays America’s life a struggle and survival for the fittest. The smartest in adopting and coping with the changing face of America survives. Symbolism comes out as the main stylistic device that was used by the author to complete this well thought literary piece. Through the use of imagery and excellent choice of diction, he voices out the realities of immigrants without sounding rude and offensive. The themes discussed in this novel fit in the contemporary literature: The modern United States is still fighting illegal immigration, poverty, social class and racism. Its current economy is at threat as more immigrants gets their way in America and floods the job market and exert pressure on the natural resources (Stringer x). The American dream and xenophobia are still eminent given the adverse effects of immigration on the economy, the environment and social amenities. Boyle book exhibits powerful mastery of literary techniques which leaves the reader pondering on the immigrants’ situation in the United States more so for those who have future prospects of living and working there. He shows that America is tattered with poverty in the midst of the vast development, hence the economic disparities that are the norm in the global economic arena.

Work Cited

Boyle, Coraghessan. The Tortilla Curtain. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Stringer, Jenny. The Oxford companion to twentieth-century literature in English. United States: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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