The main theme of Bless Me, Ultima is the coming-of-age of Tony, the protagonist. (The protagonist is the chief character in a novel or play.) Although this theme is usually associated with protagonists older than Tony, who is not yet nine when the story ends, Tony goes through a huge learning process during the approximately two years the story covers. This occurs not only in school, where he learns English for the first time and is an excellent student, but also in catechism classes which expose him to the doctrines of the Catholic church.
He also learns continually from Ultima, who teaches him the things that are not taught in school or catechism. From her he learns about nature and the many ways in which humans are connected to the earth. She teaches him that even plants have spirits, and that all things in the universe are connected in harmony, even though there is also good and evil in the world. Ultima also teaches him tolerance and understanding, two essential qualities of wisdom.
However, Tony’s mental growth is not always easy. He is assailed by moral and religious questions for which he can find no satisfactory answered within the confines of the Catholic church. He is aware of the complexity of many of these questions. For example, he wonders whether his father will go to hell because he was part of the mob that killed Lupito. And when he receives a blessing from Ultima, the experience is similar to being hit by a “dust devil.” A “dust devil” was a small whirlwind in the llano, so called because it was said to carry an evil spirit inside it. Is there then, Tony wonders, no difference between the power of good and the power of evil? And if Ultima is indeed on the side of good, as he soon realizes she is, how does her magic relate to the teachings of the Church? (Although Ultima acknowledges the value of Christianity, her knowledge comes from another source.)
And how will Tony be affected by the massive conflict between good and evil that drives the main action of the story? How will he reconcile the existence of good and evil (which finds easy support in Catholic doctrine), with the more pantheistic doctrine that Ultima teaches? Pantheism is the belief that everything in creation, including animals and plants, is a part of the all-pervading divine spirit. The growing Tony must grapple with this complicated metaphysical web and decide what he believes and where he stands.
Tony faces yet another dilemma when he discovers the pagan myth of the golden carp. This provides him with a moving religious experience, something that he failed to get from his first holy communion. How can he reconcile the existence of the golden carp with the Catholic doctrines he has been taught?
Tony also has to deal with the conflict between his parents, who each has very different backgrounds and beliefs. His mother is a pious Catholic, whose social ideal is a community of farmers ruled over by a priest, which she hopes Tony will become. Will Tony honor his mother’s wish, which is also supported by his uncles? Or will he grow up indifferent to organized religion, like his father, who values the life of the restless free cowboy? Like any young boy growing up, Tony has to cope with the pressures of family expectations. The reader is reminded of this by the story of Tony’s three older brothers, who turn their backs on their father’s dream in order to live their own lives. Is this the model for Tony’s future?
By the end of the novel, Tony has lost much of his earlier innocence. He realizes that it is up to him to develop his own value system and sense of identity. Encouraged by Ultima, he decides to honor all the cultural and religious traditions to which he is exposed, but to think for himself as well.
The coming-of-age novel is also known as the Bildungsroman, a German term that means literally “novel of formation.” It refers to a novel that shows the development of the protagonist’s mind and character from childhood to maturity.