*ATTENTION* This is not a book review. It is a post about ecocritical topics within the novel. Do not read any further if you want to read Mexican Gothic with fresh eyes! Save this post to come back and delve a little deeper. 😊 To see a spoiler-free review, click here. Thanks!
Noemí Taboada travels to a mansion in the misty woods to keep tabs on her questionably ill and confused cousin who was recently married to the son of an old-wealth family. After some frightening encounters, she soon learns that family secrets flow deeper than the foundation of the house. Will Noemí uncover the truth in time save her cousin, or will she even be able to save herself?
All opinions are my own and do not reflect the beliefs/opinions of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the publishers, or the Book of the Month Club.
This post is not a book review as much as it is a brief ecocritical discourse/opinion piece.
It’s for the nerds out there.
Intended to get us all thinking critically about what we are reading.
Today we’ll use a few questions from the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s list of ecocritical questions mentioned in a previous post. Let’s dive in!
Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy?
Check out this quote: “The higher the train moved and the closer it got to El Triunfo, though, the more the bucolic landscape changed and Noemí reassessed her idea of it. Deep ravines cut the land, and rugged ridges loomed outside the window. What had been charming rivulets turned into strong, gushing rivers, which spelled doom should anyone be dragged by their currents. ( . . . ) The land kept its riches in the dark, sprouting no trees with fruit. The air grew thin as the train struggled up the mountain until it sputtered and stopped.” (pg 15-16)
(First of all, I love alliteration in any piece of writing: rugged ridges, sputtered and stopped. My heart sings!)
A few paragraphs prior to this quote, we learned that Noemí’s family used to vacation in a house by the sea and that the forest lived more on her periphery; it was something that existed but didn’t play a role in her life – or perhaps, it’s role was its absence. Due to her father’s successful business, her family had the luxury of living and vacationing where they chose.
We then learned that Noemí finds the quaint and colorful views from the bottom of the mountain to be pretty. To Noemí, the quality of the first landscape was in its “bucolic” identity as well as the fact that it at one point held a wealth of silver. As she gets closer to her destination (her cousin’s husband’s family home, aptly named High Place), the description becomes harsh and the “doom” of the gushing rivers foreshadows what awaits Noemí.
Bonus anthropomorphism: The last sentence in the quote conjures an image of a train literally struggling for breath as it treks up the mountainside. Even before Noemí arrived at High Place, she had a sense of breathlessness.
We see hierarchy represented in the literal elevation of High Place. When I lived in California, I remember driving down the coast and seeing a lone house above a cliff that looked like it could only be reached by helicopter. In Mexican Gothic, the Doyle family wants to be left alone (unless they can get something out of you) and the mistress of the house definitely doesn’t want anyone upsetting the status quo.
The Doyles view the environment as a tool to be harnessed: It is second-most powerful only to man, and the man who can control it becomes a god.
How is nature empowered or oppressed in this work?
On the one hand, nature is viewed as something that can be taken or avoided, as is the case with Noemí’s family avoiding the forest. Though she recognizes her cousin’s romantic notions of misty woods and quaint living, Noemí views the Doyle family’s choice of land as inhospitable – too dark, too bleak, too foggy, essentially too depressing. Beyond that, nature is something to be taken advantage of: The family’s deepest secret (which I won’t even spoil here, just in case!) is a gross misuse of a divine offering.
Through Francis’s eyes, we see a curiosity of nature. His plant enthusiasm is reminiscent of the Victorian era (see this post on Dusty Old Thing for more info about the Victorian plant craze). As we see intelligence used for both good and evil, we also see nature used to heal and to hurt.
How are animals represented in this text and what is their relationship to humans?
Animals have a few roles in this novel. At one point, Noemi scratches the ears of a dog in town, demonstrating her character’s kindness.
There are moments when Noemi understands that she and her cousin are like the beautiful butterflies immortalized in a collection – beautiful, untouchable, too late to be saved.
A key animal throughout the text is the snake. An image of it wrapped a circle with its own head in its mouth is the Doyle family symbol and when you find out why, is especially disturbing.
Moreno-Garcia uses the common fear of snakes to her advantage. As the Gothic Library Blog writes in the post Snakes in Gothic Literature, “Associated with deception, temptation, and sin, snakes make powerful symbols of abstract evil, in addition to the connotations they already hold as genuine objects of fear in the real world.” (She also has posts about cats and dogs in horror/gothic lit – check it out!)
Although we never see a real snake, the repeated image of one is enough to get the message across.
I feel that the absence of animals also plays a role in this text. You’ll typically see birds and woodland creatures scurrying about in places full of food and water. Clearly, High Place and it’s grounds are no inviting piece of real estate.
What is the influence on metaphors and representations of the land and the environment on how we treat it?
One of the things that sticks out to me is the Doyle family’s silver mine. Since it was abandoned and there was no one to take care of it, is prone to flooding. If we don’t take care of nature and/or don’t take care to ensure its protections, it cannot take care of us.
What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people (women, minorities, immigrants, etc.) and treatment of the land?
Howard Doyle’s references to eugenics, superior and inferior races, and the blatant disregard for the Mexican miners who died under his employ show that he views the “inferior races” as disposable. They were good enough to work in his mine and make him a handsome profit, but they weren’t worth sharing it with. His attitude was much the same about women in general. Noemí and Catalina were his exceptions to the rule – he found them to be ornamental and unconventional therefore wanted them as part of his “collection.”
Noemí rightfully takes offense at Howard’s eugenic commentary and at his treatment of the miners. She recognizes that he only views them as tools: Mexican men for mining silver and pretty women for bearing children. One could infer that the author agrees with Noemí and that the ultimate demise of Howard corroborates this message.
I do not believe Moreno-Garcia intended this to be an environmental novel in that sense that we should start recycling and become more ecologically conscious, but to me it shows a great deal about how land and people affect and interact with each other.
The beauty of ecocritical questions is that you can apply them to anything. Unless the text is quite technical, it’s hard for it not to be shaped by the landscape in some way.
Thanks for joining me on Oak + River Books’ first Nature in the Novel post! I’m looking forward to doing this again – lots of great novels coming up soon on the TBR.
Happy reading, friends!