Undergraduate Student Critical Essays about Under the Feet of Jesus
The Migrant Working “Hero” Supporting Marxist Theory
Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes accurately portrays the life of the migrant working class. The novel shines light on many of the hardships faced by migrant working families through the perspectives of the characters Estrella, Petra, Alejo, and Perfecto. Estrella is seen as the main protagonist of the novel, Petra is her mother, Perfecto is her step-father, and Alejo is another young migrant worker who crosses Estrella’s path in the novel. The progression of each character reveals which Archetype each character falls into. Several theorists have confirmed the existence and relevance of these Archetypes, including Carl Jung, Caroline Myss, James Frazer, and Northrop Frye. Their work and theories combined create a web of character types that can be noticed through action patterns, character traits, and aspects of the human psyche. As the characters develop into their respective Archetypes, they also reveal concepts supported by Marxist theory throughout the novel. The most prevalent concepts that appear in Viramontes’ novel are the oppression of religion, capitalism and competition, and how the lower classes resist or succumb to these oppressions and the limitations that they are presented with.
What is Archetype Theory?
According to George Hogenson, “That which is seen in the archetypal sense is the archetypal image” (Hogenson 3). To put it simply, if it appears to be a certain Archetype, then it is that Archetype. This point is argued by many Archetype theorists. These theorists argue that each character has traits that place them into a category of reoccurring “images” and types (Boeree). According to Carl Jung’s theory, Archetypes are “the contents of the collective unconscious” (Boeree). In simplest terms, characters fall into these molds based on their individual traits and readers place them into these molds, most times without thinking. Several Archetypes are made apparent within the novel through the characteristics that the characters display.
Archetypes are not only a composite of character traits, but according to Hogenson, they represent “action patterns.” This means that the Hero character in one novel will follow a similar action pattern to the Hero in another, simply because they are both heroes. Readers are able to make this connection because they are unconsciously searching for the traits that each character displays. Archetypes deeply connect with the human psyche. Hogenson states that “the psyche was first of all and most of the time a place of images, and that vision was the most critical of the senses such that ‘seeing’ the oedipal drama enacted would have a particularly powerful impact.” Hogenson is explaining that Archetypes connect to psychology because they are based on the human psyche and the images it creates for each character based on their action patterns. As readers take in certain traits, they again, unconsciously search for the ways they appear within other novels and media.
Certain literary archetypes help readers better understand a novel’s purposes and intent. A careful analysis of the novel through the Archetype lens places Estrella under the Hero and Self Archetypes, Petra under the Earth Mother Archetype, Alejo under the Damsel in Distress, and Perfecto under the Wise Old Man, Mentor, and Coward Archetypes. The Self Archetype “represents the transcendence of all opposites, so that every aspect of your personality is expressed equally” (Boeree). The Self Archetype is the identification and realization of one’s personal identity. The Hero is, quite simply put, the primary protagonist in many tales. The Hero represents the character that undergoes trials and tribulations and is the “defeater of evil dragons. Basically, he represents the ego…and is often engaged in fighting the shadow, in the form of dragons and other monsters” (Boeree). The Hero usually learns some sort of lesson or completes some sort of task which allows him or her to “save the day” and molds them into a role model for others. The Great Mother “is symbolized by the primordial mother or "earth mother" of mythology, by Eve and Mary in western traditions, and by less personal symbols such as the church, the nation, a forest, or the ocean” (Boeree). The Mentor is typically the character that teaches the Hero and is eventually who the Hero becomes after hanging up the cape. The Archetypes that are made apparent throughout Under the Feet of Jesus shine more light on the already present Marxist themes.
What is Marxist Theory?
According to Lois Tyson, Marxist theory explains that the socioeconomic system we live in determines how we are educated, what religion we practice, and how we perceive ourselves and is largely “concerned with how the socioeconomic system in which we live shapes our personal identity” (111). In terms of literature, Marxist theory questions how the “oppressive socioeconomic ideologies influence the characters’ behavior [and if] the literary work combat[s] those ideologies by clearly illustrating the damage they do” (Tyson 111). Marxist theory also argues that unrestrained competition is oppressive because it only leaves room for success for the rich and selfish (Tyson 114). In Tyson’s words, “they’re the ones willing to do whatever it takes to win. The result is that the needs of the whole are usually overlooked, and the needs of those least willing or able to compete are usually sacrificed entirely” (Tyson 114). Marxism also views the American Dream as a capitalist ideology, and therefore, as oppressive because it “blinds us to the reality that a vast number of people have not had and do not have equal opportunity in education, employment, or housing due to such factors as…their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class” (Tyson 115). Tyson also explains that Marxist Theory includes one aspect that is directly involved with Viramontes’ novel: Rugged Individualism. According to Tyson, the concept of individualism “holds up for our admiration the example of the individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved” (Tyson 115). As marvelous as this may sound, it is often not found in reality because falling into this category requires putting “self-interest above the needs of the community” and firmly believing that “nice guys finish last” (Tyson 116). Finally, Marxist Theory finds religion to be an extreme force of oppression for lower socioeconomic classes. Tyson states that “one of the best-known Marxist sayings is that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’” (Tyson 117). The actions performed in the name of religion keep the poor oppressed because they make the poor feel that there is no other way to get help. They must turn to religion and truly believe that even though they are poor on earth, they will be greatly rewarded in the afterlife, and this prevents them from putting any effort forward when it comes to fighting the oppression that capitalism brings.
These forms of oppression put a great deal of limitations on the lower class, and in the case of Under the Feet of Jesus, the non-U.S. citizen migrant workers who make up this novel. Often times, migrant workers do not have the documentation required for certain luxuries that U.S. citizens have, such as Medicare, home ownership, or permanent residence within the United States. Even the setting of Viramontes’ novel is a Marxist contradiction. In her article, “Finding the Metaphorical Key Under the Feet of Jesus,” Norma Helsper explains how “the harsh reality of the daily existence of migrant farm workers, their poverty, is presented in constant contrast with the incredible natural beauty and wealth of California.” The environment the migrant workers live in is almost constantly mocking them because they are forced to live in the underdeveloped areas and work while there are houses and cities nearby that they cannot be a part of because they lack the proper documentation, and they are only permitted to live within the borders of the United States while they work. Anne Shea brings this to light in her article, “'Don't Let Them Make You Feel You Did a Crime': Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony.” Shea writes, “The H-2A visa classifies farm laborers as non-citizens and ‘non-immigrants.’ This classification bars workers from the status of both ‘citizen’ and ‘immigrant,’ effectively ensuring their continued alien status within the United States” (Shea 3). The documents that some migrant workers receive allow them to work in the United States, but it does not grant them citizenship, and in many cases, prevents them from obtaining permanent citizenship. Another serious disadvantage faced by migrant workers is the lack of support from a Union. Although there are several unions that exist and fight for a “safe working environment, a living wage, and a measure of control over the workplace” (Shea 1), like the United Farm workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Shea 1), many migrant workers are underrepresented and often do not receive the support they need to stay in the country to work. Although there are many sections of this novel that portray Marxist ideals, there is also a more subtle support of these Marxist themes through the Archetypes that each character represents. A careful examination of these archetypes allows for a more meaningful interpretation of this novel.
Estrella: Hero and Self
The character Estrella is the Hero of the novel. Much of the story is told through her perspective and the reader witnesses Estrella undergo the most change throughout the novel. She battles her way through education systems as she and her family migrate from place to place, learning her alphabet more from Perfecto using tools as examples (Viramontes 24). She overcomes her lack of formal education by learning from experience, and rather than attend a school that focuses on her cleanliness rather than her grammatical ability (Viramontes 24), she chooses to learn from her experiences in the actual world. This is an important step towards identifying both the Hero and the Self Archetype because Estrella is beginning to form her own sense of identity. Viramontes explains that “for the first time, Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusty nails piercing the heels of her bare feet” (Viramontes 24). This shows how much of a struggle language is for Estrella, and how she comes to realize how the English language can be used as an oppressive force. The knowledge that Estrella receives through Perfecto’s lessons can be seen as transforming, and confirmed by Alan Maloney. Maloney states that “any organism processing specific genetic capacities to learn can, through learning, be exposed to selective pressures favoring modifications in the design of that organism which promote, in turn, enhanced future learning” (page needed).
Estrella’s true act of heroism and what pushes her even farther into the Hero Archetype takes place in the nurse’s office. After being overcharged by the nurse for a diagnosis that she could have made herself, Estrella grabs a crowbar and physically threatens the nurse (Viramontes 149). This passage connects to both Archetypal and Marxist theories because Estrella is displaying characteristics of the Rugged Individualist by defending her own morals and values. Estrella is focusing on getting Perfecto’s money back and she is willing to resort to violence to do so. She is standing alone against this oppressive force while the rest of her family has basically accepted the fact that the nurse has taken whatever money they had and given them nothing in return (Viramontes 150). This Rugged Individualism is even more noticeable when Viramontes writes,
“-Did you hurt her? –Sweet Jesus, what do you think? Her anger flared. Does it matter now? –For what? he whispered. –For what? Estrella asked. For what? For nine dollars and seven cents!” (151).
Here, it becomes apparent that Estrella was going to do whatever it took to regain what she felt rightfully belonged to her family. She felt that the nurse should have found alternative ways to accept payment, and she was going to make sure the nurse understood that. Estrella’s actions here reveal the irony of her Archetype. Typically, her actions would be noticed as rebellious and wrong, but since she is defending her personal beliefs by protecting the life of another, these actions are morally acceptable and even heroic.
Although Estrella leaves Alejo alone in the hospital in the end, she shines in the Hero Archetype before fully realizing her potential and identity, eventually bringing her into the Self Archetype. At the end of the novel, when Petra is praying and Perfecto is facing inner turmoil, Estrella climbs to the top of the barn and opens the door; she is a metaphorical star guiding all those who stray towards home (Viramontes 176). Estrella has fully transitioned into the Self Archetype because she fully understands what she is meant to do if Perfecto leaves. Not only must she live up to her self-made title of a guiding star, but she must also fit into the role of a parental figure and help Petra take care of the children. Since Petra is going to give birth to another child, Estrella must mold into the Mentor Archetype if Perfecto leaves. She will be largely responsible for the education and care of the current children as well as the new child coming while Petra recovers from labor, if she even survives.
Estrella’s journey leads her through a complete change of self and in the end, brings her to understand that she has a higher calling than simply working in the fields for the rest of her life. When someone with the socioeconomic status of a migrant worker is seen in the Hero and Self Archetypes, it reveals how there are and have been people in the world who fight against the oppression of capitalism for the chance to call America their home. Estrella, in this aspect, is the example of the rise of the lower class. She resists the oppression of capitalism and competition, and ignores the opiates of religion in order to make a path of her own, rather than follow that of her predecessors. Although Estrella seems to resist the oppression brought forth by religion, the exact opposite can be said of her mother, Petra.
Petra: Great mother
Petra’s character in this novel fits into the Great Mother Archetype because of her mothering ways as well as her unquestioned faith in her religion and natural remedies. Rather than allowing Alejo to go directly to a hospital, Petra takes it upon herself to bring him in and care for him first (Viramontes 97). Petra also relies heavily on religion as the Great Mother, illustrating important Marxist themes Of everyone in the family, she is the one who believes that spiritual answers will come for realistic questions. Rather than fight against the issues that her family is facing, she turns to religion with hope that all will go according to the plan of her deity. For example, when Alejo comes to the family for help, and Perfecto is considering sending him away, Petra says, “one never knows what obstacles God puts before us as a test” (Viramontes 97). This reveals that Petra believes God sends tests to his subjects to observe their faith and loyalty to Him. She believes that every opportunity to do some form of good may be a test from God, and that their performance on this test will either hold a spot for her in Heaven or it will take it away. Later in the novel there is a vivid scene where Petra is holding each child’s documents, as well as her own, and places them under the feet of a miniature statue of Jesus (Viramontes 166). This is where the religion as the “opiate of masses” (Tyson 117) comes into context within the novel. Petra relies so heavily on her faith that it is almost as if she is completely oblivious to the true nature of the secular world around her. It seems unimportant to her that her family is suffering financially and medically because she believes that at the end of it all, her religion will take care of her problems.
Petra’s disregard for finance is apparent when Perfecto and Estrella discuss tearing down the barn. She appears to be both surprised and angry as she raises her voice to Perfecto (Viramontes 153). This reveals her naivety to the true nature of her family’s economic situation. She does not realize that they need the money in order to survive because she is succumbing to the opiate of religion. Basically, she is allowing herself to be oppressed because the church is telling her that although she is poor in life, she will be wealthy in the afterlife. Her unwavering faith is something of a concern because it prevents the progression of the family. When one member of a group is willing to be subject to oppression and a majority of the members are young children, there is nothing to stop them from falling into the same habits of relying on religion to rescue them from their worries. However, there is a positive side to being the Great Mother. Petra chooses to care for her family with natural remedies, rather than high-priced, professional medical attention because she believes and relies so heavily on her faith and religion. She also fits into this category because she is the caregiver and the teacher. She has the ability to teach her children life lessons and she cares for them unconditionally. Viramontes writes that “She [Petra] wanted her children to stay innocent and honest, wanted them to be as content as when they first arrived somewhere; but she forced them to be older for their own safety” (40). This passage reveals that Petra wishes her children had time to celebrate their youth, rather than force maturity and knowledge onto them; but she understands that it is necessary for their survival.
Alejo: Damsel in Distress
Alejo represents a Damsel in Distress archetype - Although this is typically a woman’s role, Alejo fits it well because of his need for care and medical attention in the last half of the novel. He hardly knows Estrella and her family, but he immediately asks them for the help he requires, rather than going directly to a hospital after being accidently poisoned by pesticides. Much like the typical Damsel in Distress, Alejo depends on the love and care from the Hero, Estrella. While he is sick and being treated by Petra’s natural remedies, Estrella is constantly by his side protecting him (Viramontes 117). Even as he is lying in the hospital bed awaiting treatment, he desperately wants Estrella with him, even though they both know that she has to leave because she and her family cannot be financially responsible for his medical care (Viramontes 154). Although Alejo can be interpreted as the Damsel in Distress, his character traits throughout the novel connect him to Marxist theory as well. Alejo often talks about what he plans to do with his life and how he plans to be eternal, like the rocks (Viramontes 52). He talks with his cousin about how he plans to study geology. These conversations exemplify Alejo’s naivety about the reality of the American Dream. He firmly believes that he will be able to receive an equal education that will land him a high paying job in a limited field when the reality is that he has very little chance of achieving such a goal because of the competition that takes place in a capitalist society, especially for one in his social class. Alejo is ultimately the Damsel in Distress of the novel because his fate is not his own to decide. He has no control after he becomes ill. His life depends on the actions of those around him and even though he is left alone in a hospital at the end, Estrella and her family may have saved his life.
Perfecto: Wise Old Man, Mentor, and Coward
Perfecto is the Wise Old Man and Mentor because his actions reflect the qualities attributed to those Archetypes. He teaches Estrella when traditional schools could not, and has a Merlin-like bond with her that is not seen with the other children (Viramontes 24). Although he is responsible for much of her knowledge, it is more apparent as the novel progresses that there will be a reversal of power between the two characters, where the Hero will become the Mentor, and the Mentor will simply become the Wise Old Man. Although Perfecto transitions to this Wise Old Man Archetype and continues to give common answers to major problems, like how they need to take down the barn for money (Viramontes 127), he slowly transitions into what Caroline Myss refers to as the Bully or Coward.
Myss defines the coward as “manifest[ing] the core truth that the spirit is always stronger than the body. Symbolically, our physical bodies can "bully" our spirits with any number of reasons why we should back down from our challenges, which appear to overwhelm us by their size and shape.” In Perfecto’s situation, the physical world creates serious limits and questions about his spiritual and emotional world. His predicament as a migrant worker, in poor health, who wishes to return to his hometown makes him question his love for Petra and his family. He is no longer sure of his ability to care for his adopted family. This challenge is another trait of the Coward Archetype. Myss explains that “the Coward within must stand up to being bullied by his own inner fears, which is the path to empowerment through these two Archetypes” (Myss). By leaving Perfecto’s final decision to the reader’s interpretation, Viramontes allows Perfecto to be seen with both positive and negative aspects. His internal conflict is apparent as Viramontes writes, “Perfecto wanted to load up his tools, a few blankets, some peaches. He couldn’t tell whether it was fear or love that held him back” (Viramontes 162).
When reflecting on the meanings of Under the Feet of Jesus, it is apparent that each major character falls into a specific story-telling image, or Archetype. It is also apparent that these character traits reveal support that allows further analysis using Marxist theory. As the characters persevere through tough times and make difficult choices, they reveal their human characteristics, though they live in a society where they are often seen by others as sub-human. The migrant workers of this time are both necessary for and oppressed by capitalism and competition. The characters of Under the Feet of Jesus are looking for a place to call home, and the place that they are working on making their own will not allow them permanent residence within its borders because they do not have the right paperwork, or their children are denied educations because they lack the proper documents, or because the documents the do have classify them as “non-citizens.” As Estrella is shaped further into the Hero Archetype, it becomes apparent at the end of the novel that she is a symbol of hope to the migrant working class. She stands against those who oppress her, while Petra succumbs to the opiate of religion, Alejo remains naïve to the reality behind the American Dream, and believes in it even when facing possible death, while Perfecto struggles with internal conflicts, forcing him to choose to be a Coward or a Wise Old Man.
Boeree, George. "Carl Jung." Personality Theories. George Boeree, 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/jung.html>.
Helsper, Norma. "Finding the Metaphorical Key: Under the Feet of Jesus." 6 Sept. 2001. PDF file.
Hogenson, George B. "Archetypes as Action Patterns." Journal of Analytical Psychology 54.3 (2009): 325-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.
Maloney, A. "Archetype Theory, Evolutionary Psychology, and the Baldwin Effect: A Commentary on Hogenson's Paper." Journal of Analytical Psychology 48.1 (2003): 101-07. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Myss, Caroline. "A Gallery of Archetypes.” Caroline Myss. Myss, 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Shea, Anne. "'Don't Let Them Make You Feel You Did a Crime': Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony." MELUS 28.1 (2003): 123-44. PDF file.
Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write about Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print
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