Under the Feet of Jesus: A Viewing through the New Critical Theory Lens
Arguably one of the most crucial skills to possess while examining literature is the skill to analyze the piece through a formalistic or critical approach. Lois Tyson, in her book Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature names the formalistic approach “New Critical Theory” and focuses on these formal elements: tension, ambiguity, imagery, symbol, metaphor, simile, and unity. All of these elements work together in a piece of literature in order to assist the reader in comprehension of the authorial intent and the deeper message of the story. Helena María Viramontes clearly utilizes many of these elements in her novel Under the Feet of Jesus, including tension, imagery, and ambiguity. Analyzing and developing the meaning behind these critical elements is fundamental in developing a more in-depth understanding of the characters and their struggles, as well as the overall message of the novel.
Viramontes’ use of tension throughout her novel is quite gripping. Tyson defines tension as something that is “created by the interplay between two opposing concepts, such as conformity and rebellion, belonging and alienation, harmony and conflict, or tradition and change” (41). Interestingly, Viramontes seems to strategically place the tension in her novel so that it is spread throughout instead of working up to a tense, climactic scene and then diffusing from that point. The first significant instance of tension in Under the Feet of Jesus comes quite early when the family is being introduced and Estrella begins thinking of all of the various things that the family depends on to survive:
The silence and the barn and the clouds meant many things. It was always a question of work, and work depended on the harvest, the car running, their health, the conditions of the road, how long the money held out, and the weather, which meant they could depend on nothing. (4)
Through this reflection, one is able to get a glimpse into the worries of this migrant family and the desperate feeling that comes with having nothing to depend on for support but each other. The family’s daily existence shows a clash between harmony and conflict—because they cannot rely on much of anything in their lives, they cannot find harmony and, therefore, they live within a constant state of conflict.
Still, even the notion of having a family to depend on is not something that this family can take for granted with absolute certainty. This brings us to the second significant wave of tension that we experience as readers. In the novel, when Petra is left without a husband to help her support her children, she becomes extremely overwhelmed and, at one point, feels as if she cannot stay, Viramontes writes:
Petra broke, her mouth a cut jagged line. She bolted out of the apartment, pounded down the plaster stairs through the parking lot and out into the street and ran some more. She stalled on the boulevard intersection divide and waited for the cars to stop, waited for him, for anyone, to guide her across the wide pavement; but the beads rolled on, fast howling shrieks of sharp silver pins just inches away from her. (19)
Petra’s conflict with tradition and change arises at this point, as she does not yet believe that she can take on the task of raising her children by herself. In the novel, Petra has been convinced by her friends that no woman can keep her children fed without a husband and that, if she were to leave her husband, he would come after her in order to kill her and her children. When the roles were reversed and Petra’s husband left her, she felt lost and, eventually, finds Perfecto in order to take the missing father’s place as the authority figure of the family.
Possibly one of the most dramatic, tense passages in the book occurs when Estrella and her family take Alejo to a small, run-down clinic. From their entrance into the clinic, the family is worn-down and extremely concerned about Alejo’s health as well as how they are going to pay for his doctor’s visit. While the nurse is attending to Alejo, the family’s irritation increases, only to worsen when the nurse does not give the family any new information but still charges the family a fee for the clinic visit. Realizing that she has no other choice, Estrella decides to take extreme measures:
Estrella slammed the crowbar down on the desk, shattering the school pictures of the nurse’s children, sending the pencils flying to the floor, and breaking the porcelain cat with a nurse’s cap into pieces. The nurse dropped her purse, shielded her face with her hands. Estrella waited. The nurse began to cry but still had not moved. Estrella knocked the folders which spread like cards on the floor. A lid fell and circled on the floor until it rounded to a complete stop. Estrella held out her hand, palm up. (149-50)
When Estrella had to decide between conformity and rebellion, she almost landed somewhere in the middle of the two choices. The position that Estrella was in, left her two choices: the first being to pay the nurse and let Alejo die and the second to get her money back from the nurse and use that money to pay for gas to reach the hospital for Alejo. While Estrella rebelled in the way that she threatened the nurse to give her the money back, she also stayed as honest as she could by only taking the exact amount that she had given the nurse in the first place—making it a point to count out the money for everyone to see. These examples of tension in Under the Feet of Jesus are by no means exhaustive, yet they all possess a commonality that links them together in purpose—each example illustrates the vulnerability and fear that the migrant family feels day to day. Without this tension, the plight of the migrant family may not be as clear to the reader who lacks the life experiences to relate to these individuals.
Quite possibly the easiest formal element to overlook in a novel is that of imagery, more specifically symbolism. Tyson defines symbolism as something that “has both literal and figurative meaning” (43). The reason that it can be overlooked here is due to the fact that Viramontes incorporates each symbol into the text in such a fluid manner that its interpretive significance is most likely only to be caught on a second or third reading. In doing so, the story of the migrant family seems more realistic than romantic, sending a message that confirms the authenticity of the situation. One of the most significant symbols in Under the Feet of Jesus, which would be quite difficult to overlook, is the barn that is located right next to the run-down house that the migrant family is occupying. Cecelia Lawless, in her article “Helena María Viramontes’ Homing Devices in Under the Feet of Jesus,” describes the barn as a “dangerous place that is no longer solid on the ground. Thus this symbol for home represents a fragile and perhaps outdated home at best” (361). While the barn may not be the place in which the family is sleeping, the reader sees a continuous connection to the barn as a point of reference as well as a constant source of comfort for Estrella during the difficult times in her life. Estrella constantly retreats to the barn in her mind when she feels uncomfortable or hopeless and we see her spirit come back to life at the end of the novel in her beloved barn. Dan Latimer observes this pattern in his article, “The La Brea Tar Pits, Tongues of Fire: Helena María Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus and Its Background,” when he notes that “Viramontes chooses to end the novel in the barn where the novel began, the barn to which, according to the novel’s opening, they were apparently headed all along. This scene reprises all the earlier themes and motifs associated with this nominal building” (338). Viramontes’ choice to both began and end the novel in the barn suggests that Estrella may have possibly, finally, been able to depend on something in her constantly changing life—the barn. While Estrella sees the barn as a source of comfort, Perfecto sees the barn in a different way, as a source of stability for income. At various points in the novel, Perfecto asks Estrella to help him tear down the barn—her source of comfort—in order to earn a few extra dollars for himself. The reader is aware that Perfecto plans on using his extra money in order to return to Mexico and abandon the family. In essence, Perfecto’s interest in the monetary value of tearing down the barn clashes with the barn’s sense of comfort for Estrella.
Aside from the barn, another of the symbolic objects that Viramontes introduces is that of the Quaker Oats package:
Estrella grabbed the chubby pink cheeks of the Quaker man, the red and white and blue cylinder package and shook it violently and its music was empty. The twins started to cry, and for a moment Estrella’s eyes narrowed until Petra saw her headlock the Quaker man’s paperboard head like a hollow drum and the twins sniffed their runny noses…and then she remembered her eldest daughter Estrella trying to feed the children with noise, pounding her feet drumming her hand and dancing loca to no music at all, dancing loca with the full of empty Quaker man. (19-20)
With the description that Viramontes gives, we are able to see the connection between the colors of the American flag and the colors of the can that Estrella is using as a distraction for the twins’ hungry stomachs. The emptiness of the can mixed with the colors of the American flag is a clear, bold representation of the emptiness of the American dream for this particular migrant family. In this passage, Viramontes also describes the music as being empty but does not specify what it is missing. Of course, quite literally the Quaker can is missing the oats; however, the music that is missing is something quite essential to the survival of this family: hope. At this point, Petra is not comfortable in her duties as a single mother to this struggling family and Estrella has to learn how to care for the twins, to distract them as best as she can while fighting her own struggle for hunger. Even one single, tiny oat left in the box could have provided Estrella with a speck of hope for the family.
In the same symbolic approach, Estrella later refers to the Sun Maid Raisin box while she is picking grapes in the fields. As she is struggling with her hot, difficult work, Estrella thinks to herself:
Carrying the full basket to the paper was not like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella saw in the markets, not like the woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her. The sun was white and it made Estrella’s eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth. The woman with the red bonnet did not know this. (49-50)
This commentary on the working life of a migrant worker illustrates the harshness of their job conditions and how their sufferings are often hidden in American culture, only to be printed on boxes as if they are happy, healthy people in good working conditions. The objects like the Sun Maid raisin box show how commercial advertising is able to twist an image in order to attract the consumer and keep the attention away from the awful conditions of migrant workers in the fields. In fact, these images oftentimes go as far as to lead society to believe that the migrant workers are perfectly content with their jobs and choose the life that they lead, rather than being forced into an option that will help to put some sort of food on the table and keep their families alive for one more day.
Perhaps the reason for Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus to be interpreted in various intriguing ways is due to her intentional use of ambiguity throughout the novel. Viramontes’ ambiguity is especially directed towards three major elements: the last barn scene, the idea of “us versus them,” and the idea of home. These three elements, in particular, influence the main characters and shape the way that they act as well as the way that they feel about certain things. In reference to the barn, the reader may pick up on the idea throughout the story that it has become a place of refuge for Estrella. After all, the story begins and ends in that very barn. The symbolic, imagery loaded ending for Estrella in the barn is a significant area of ambiguity that critics have commented about. However, not all of the analyses of the end scene are congruent; in fact, there are scholars that see the ending on two completely different ends of the spectrum. Scott Beck and Dan Latimer are two critical readers who disagree on what Estrella’s ascending to the top of the barn symbolizes. According to Beck in his article, “Representations of Mexican American Migrant Childhood in Rivera’s…y no se lo tragó la tierra and Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus,” Estrella’s actions in the barn at the end of the novel are representative of such:
The statement demonstrates her understanding of the oppressive implications of the first word in her title Under the Feet of Jesus, which implies that her entire novel can be read as proposing an anti-colonial understanding of Christianity as a colonizing religion that encourages and justifies the submission of the oppressed, both internally and socially…The beheading of Jesucristo at the end of Under the Feet of Jesus and Estrella’s climb toward the heavens establishes her independence from faith of her mother and father. ..the statue breaks, and Estrella herself symbolically replaces the image as she stands tall atop the barn that she has been forbidden to enter. (17)
In Beck’s view, Estrella is moving away from Christianity and is embracing herself as a strong woman that has survived through many of life’s hardships at a very young age. In this interpretation, Estrella is the embodiment of strength and power, refusing to rely on God to help her find a way to triumph over her hardships. On the opposing side of this interpretation, however, is Dan Latimer in his article, “The La Brea Tar Pits, Tongues of Fire: Helena María Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Its Background.” In this article, Latimer suggests that, for Estrella, “to climb onto the roof is like climbing out of a box. This ‘box’ perhaps suggest a coffin, so there’s a kind of resurrection of Estrella…There, under the sky where the angels live, her sweat dries, strands of her hair palpate her face, and she feels pleased beyond any other moment of joy she’s ever experienced” (339). In Latimer’s description and analysis of this scene, Estrella symbolizes something close to a Christ-like figure as she is being ‘resurrected.’ This is vastly different from the interpretation of Beck which suggests that Estrella is moving in the exact opposite direction, liberating herself from Christianity. In both critical essays, however, Estrella is portrayed in a coming-of-age light as she embraces her strength and seems ready to take on the world from the top of the barn.
While Estrella’s ascent to the top of the barn is a defining, powerful moment in the book, there also exists smaller, seemingly insignificant comments that are made that highlight the turmoil that often exists between different races and different classes of people. For example, Petra’s inner dialogue at the health clinic suggests that there are serious issues with the theme of “us versus them.” While Petra does not say out loud what she is thinking about the nurse, one could imagine that it would not be difficult to read in her body language. Before the nurse even begins examining Alejo or charges the family for their visit, Petra thinks to herself, “The cotton balls in the jar looked too white, like imitation cotton…” (136). While this line in itself could be suggestive with the comment of the cotton balls being “too white,” we understand exactly what Petra really thinks when she is examining the nurse later and thinks to herself, “she wore too much red lipstick, too much perfume and asked too many questions and seemed too clean, too white just like the imitation cotton” (141). At this point, one can see the true racial divide in this situation. Instead of Petra being upset at the people who set the clinic prices or are at fault for her misfortune, she creates an atmosphere of us (migrant workers of color) versus them (whites). Petra’s criticism of the nurse was not about her service, or lack thereof, or the fact that she charged the family for the visit when she could not tell them anything; Petra’s criticism of the nurse relied heavily on the way that she looked, her physical attributes, her race. Yet, this is something that could be entirely overlooked, for Viramontes’ writing is ambiguous enough that Petra does not have to come out and say that she does not like the nurse because she is white, she need only hint toward her feelings. Not only that, Viramontes has set up the book in such a way that a reader of any race feels great sympathy toward the migrant family. By the time the reader reaches the scene with the nurse, there is little sympathy left for the other characters—especially if they are not suffering the life of a migrant worker. Because of this, the racist feelings that Petra portrays in her mind almost seem to the reader as if they are justified, not hypocritical.
Up to this point, we have examined two rather ambiguous sections of Viramontes’ novel; however, quite possibly the most ambiguous theme that exists in Under the Feet of Jesus is the idea of home and what that means to the characters. Cecelia Lawless, in her article “Helena María Viramontes’ Homing Devices in Under the Feet of Jesus,” suggests that “part of the project of Under the Feet of Jesus is to subvert and undermine the claim of the ‘safe house’ so as to make us question the cultural significance of the place that in one way or another we all inhabit” (363). In her observations, Lawless raises some interesting questions: what is a safe home? Does Estrella’s family have a safe home? Where is Estrella’s home? While ‘home’ probably carries a different meaning with each person, one thing that they most likely all have in common is comfort. After all, one ought to feel safe and comfortable in one’s own home. However, we often see in Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus that the family does not feel safe or comfortable; in fact, at times they are not sure how they can financially carry on from one day to the next, as we see when they are attempting to care for Alejo. If this migrant family does not feel comfortable or safe, do they have a home? While the idea of home may be different amongst a variety of people, there is a commonality that lies within a person’s need for food, water, shelter, and protection before contentment is really felt. For Alejo, that “taste” of home comes when he is taken in by Estrella’s family to care for him while he is ill; however, his family support system is gone when he is abandon at the hospital. For Estrella’s family, these basic needs are not consistent realities.
For Estrella, the ‘safe place’ is the barn, not the small cabin the family stays in, which becomes ironic as Perfecto demands her to stay away from it because it is old and dangerous. However, when Estrella has a struggle with anyone in her family or with her condition as a migrant worker, she immediately conjures up the barn in her mind and she becomes more at ease. In fact, just before she runs to the barn at the end of the book, when the reader sees her as a young, strong woman, she hears Perfecto and Petra arguing, a sign that her family is once again falling apart. By retreating to the barn, one could take that as Estrella ‘going home’, to a place where she cannot hear Petra and Perfecto fighting and where there is peace again.
In contrast to Estrella, Perfecto seems to be the true ‘homeless’ character in the novel. As Lawless points out, “this migrant family on the border between Mexico and the United States is also on the border between home and homelessness” (365). Perfecto, just like the rest of the family, is not guaranteed a safe, worry-free environment in which to help Petra raise her children. In fact, Perfecto has taken up the job of helping Petra to raise her children, not his own. While we are not given much information about Perfecto’s previous life, we know enough to understand that Perfecto’s heart does not really, truly belong with Petra in the United States; if Perfecto could have what he truly wanted, we know that he would be in Mexico, the place he considers his home. Yet, we almost get the feeling through Perfecto’s flashbacks that there is something, or now a lack of something, in Mexico that would keep him from being completely happy as well. As Perfecto struggles with his uncomfortable feelings about his current situation and longs to be in Mexico, we begin to see his relationship with Petra deteriorate, losing the sense of a home even more. Either way, Perfecto seems to be stuck in a hopeless situation—no matter where he goes, he is dreaming of being in a different place, having a different life.
Considering all of the combined pieces of tension, ambiguity, and symbolism that come together in Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus, one may begin to understand their importance. While some aspects of the story, such as tension, provide an intriguing story line that is mostly important for entertainment, it also provides the reader with an insight into the feelings of the characters and the way that they react to certain situations. As far as symbolism goes, the importance cannot be stressed enough. Without the symbolism, the story would be a simple tale of a migrant family who took care of an ill boy. However, because of the symbolism, the story transforms into a tale of a migrant family who believed in the American Dream but quickly realized that they were living in an American Nightmare in which their reality and the reality of wealthier, white people seemed to be on two opposite ends of the spectrum. The ambiguity added into this helps us to make our own personal, creative interpretations of the story and allows for the reader to adopt more than one opinion or understanding of the novel and its elements. For example, the way in which each reader of Under the Feet of Jesus views Estrella could be completely different—she could either be a Jesus-like figure or an embodiment of strength that strays away from Christianity. All of these critical elements together form what is referred to as organic unity, a key focus of New Critical Theory. When a novel is said to have organic unity, the novel’s critical elements function together in such a way that they are essential for the functionality and artistry of the novel. Helena María Viramontes’ novel could be said to have organic unity for it is one that depends upon its critical elements and the readers’ interpretations of those elements in order for a more profound understanding of the work.
Beck, Scott A. “Representations of Mexican American Migrant Childhood in Rivera’s…y no se lo tragó la tierra and Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus.” Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe 29.1 (2008-2009): 14-24. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 November 2012.
Johannessen, Lene. “The Meaning of Place in Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus.” Holding Their Own: Perspectives on the Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States. Eds. Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Heike Raphael-Hernandez. Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenburg (2000): 100-108. Web. 21 November 2012.
Latimer, Dan. “The La Brea Tar Pits, Tongues of Fire: Helena María Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Its Background.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 85.3-4 (2002): 323-346. JSTOR. Web. 21 November 2012.
Lawless, Cecelia. “Helena María Viramontes’ Homing Devices in Under the Feet of Jesus.” Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home. Eds. Catherine Wily and Fiona Barnes. New York: Garland (1996): 361-382. Web. 21 November 2012.
Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Viramontes, Helena María. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.