Study Guide

Marcelo in the Real World Themes

  • Language and Communication

    If ever there was a book about the struggle to communicate, it's Marcelo in the Real World. Our hero Marcelo's got something resembling Asperger's Syndrome, which means that other people seem even more baffling to him than they do to the rest of us. He doesn't get stuff like facial expressions or figures of speech. Sure, we all have times when we have no clue what other people are talking about, but Marcelo's actually had to take classes in figuring it out. Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world where someone tells you it's raining cats and dogs and you run to the window to look for falling animals? If you took all human speech literally and couldn't read context—like facial expressions, for example—the "real world" would get really exhausting really fast. It's no wonder Marcelo would rather chill with the horses than with other human beings.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. In what way is the IM related to Marcelo's inability to communicate effectively? Is there a connection?
    2. How does Marcelo know when someone's angry? How do you know when someone's angry?
    3. How does Marcelo differentiate between small talk and "large talk"?
    4. What is it about Jasmine that makes it easier for Marcelo to communicate with her than with others? What does that say about their relationship?
    5. Why does Marcelo refer to himself in the third person?

    Chew on This

    The better he learns to communicate with other people, the more Marcelo loses his IM.

    Understanding the suffering religion alleviates is one of the ways Marcelo attempts to understand human emotion and the needs of "normal" people.

  • Suffering

    To Marcelo, suffering and death are just facts of life, and he doesn't see why they're such a big deal. He's not a jerk; his brain just works way differently from most people's. But when he learns about Ixtel, he learns the true meaning of suffering: this is a girl who can't do basic mammal stuff—like eating, for example—without pain. By putting himself in Ixtel's shoes, he realizes he has to do something; this girl needs a Superman big time. Even though helping her may very well hurt his family, he realizes he doesn't have a choice. What else can you do when you're Marcelo in the Real World besides put on your cape and swoop in?

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Ixtel's pain affect Marcelo more profoundly than the pain of the kids in the oncology ward?
    2. Why does Marcelo cry for the first and only time when he sees the list Jasmine made for him, but not when he meets Ixtel? What do those tears mean?
    3. What kind of suffering might Marcelo have witnessed at Paterson?
    4. How does Rabbi Heschel help Marcelo understand the other people's pain?

    Chew on This

    Marcelo may not understand human interaction, but in empathizing with others' pain for the first time, he learns about human feelings, which is a step in the right direction.

    Arturo compounds Marcelo's suffering by forcing him to work at the law firm instead of listening to what Marcelo really wants. The fact that Marcelo doesn't realize his dissatisfaction as suffering doesn't mean it's any less profound, even if it's not as profound as Ixtel's.

  • Sex

    Okay, so there's no actual sex in Marcelo in the Real World. But there's all kinds of thinking about it. Wendell wants it constantly, Jasmine doesn't get why everybody wants it with her, and Marcelo's just trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The obsession with sex is just one of the facets of the "real world" that baffles him completely. "Sexual intercourse," as he calls it, is nothing more than how babies are made, right? And if two people have sex, doesn't it mean they're in love? After all, that's how he's always been told it works. Ah, if only it were that simple.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What is it about Wendell's description of what he wants to do to Jasmine that makes Marcelo call it "fucking" instead of "making love" or "sexual intercourse"?
    2. What does Wendell say that makes Marcelo understand the difference?
    3. Why doesn't Marcelo experience sexual attraction?
    4. When Rabbi Heschel asks Marcelo if he knows about sex, he tells her he knows that it's for making babies. He asks Wendell if he loves Jasmine, but he doesn't ask if Wendell wants to have a baby with her. Why not?

    Chew on This

    Marcelo may not know about rape (we never find out for sure if he does or not), but he instinctively knows that what Wendell wants to do with Jasmine isn't right.

    Arturo and Aurora don't appear to have talked to Marcelo about sex, like most parents do with their children. It appears that they've relied on Paterson to teach him.

  • Religion

    In Marcelo in the Real World, Marcelo's interest in religion starts out as an obsessive Asperger's-kid interest. He was raised Catholic, but he's studying Judaism with his mom's rabbi buddy, and he named his dog Namu after a Buddhist prayer. But once he enters the "real world" of the law firm and sees more and more suffering and injustice, religious teachings stop being so abstract. And when he hears Wendell talk about sex, that whole thing about Adam and Eve gets a lot more real, too. Thankfully, he's got Rabbi Heschel to explain it all with stories about Volkswagens and hemorrhoids.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Marcelo feel compelled to quote scripture to others and pray the rosary in public? How do these things comfort him?
    2. What Buddhist prayer does Namu's name come from, and why do you think Marcelo chose it?
    3. Why does Marcelo's obsession with religion lessen throughout the course of the book? Is it for the same reason his IM starts to fade, or is something else going on?

    Chew on This

    Aurora practices Catholicism, but you can totally tell she doesn't really believe in God.

    Rabbi Heschel feels that religious leaders have messed things up royally, but she doesn't give up being a rabbi because religion is personal for her.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Another term for "lies and deceit" in Marcelo and the Real World could be "Sandoval and Holmes." Their lies are whoppers and cause a ton of suffering. And even though Marcelo knows this is very wrong, he learns to do a bit of lying himself. As soon as he learns how Vidromek (and therefore Arturo) hurt Ixtel, his black-and-white world turns gray right quick. To Marcelo, sustaining a lie feels like giving the hamster on the wheel of his brain a Red Bull and a triple espresso; it's not easy or comfortable. But he's willing to think fast if it means Ixtel can get a new face.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What's the first lie Marcelo tells, and why does he tell it?
    2. Is Marcelo correct when he says lying takes a lot of mental energy, or is that only the case for him? Do you think normal people feel this way, too?
    3. Is a lie of omission as wrong as telling a blatant fib? For example, is Vidromek lying when they (presumably) ask Arturo to conceal evidence? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Marcelo understands that lying is wrong, but he's willing to lie to Arturo to the point that he jeopardizes the financial security of his whole family. That makes him a bit of a hypocrite.

    Arturo and Holmes have become rich by lying, and the richer people become, the more they tend to cling to the habits that made them that way. The desire for wealth can cause people to abandon the truth.

  • Society and Class

    Marcelo has no concept of class distinction until he sees three things: that the houses in Robert Steely's neighborhood are closer together than in his own, that Amos's yard is full of faded lawn ornaments, and that Ixtel has to live in a convent that used to be a mansion but now houses more than 40 people. He's so naïve about this stuff that he never mentions poverty in Marcelo in the Real World; we're not sure if he even really comprehends how money works. After all, he's never had to. But nothing says "awakening to class differences" like a private-school kid with his own custom treehouse discovering pink flamingos, Bud Light, and fiddle music for the first time.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Marcelo makes note of the fact that not only does Amos have lawn ornaments, some of them are faded. Why is this significant to him?
    2. Does Marcelo's awareness of other people's survival despite lack of money make him less afraid of his family losing their wealth? Why or why not?
    3. Why isn't Marcelo impressed or intimidated by Wendell's yacht and Harvard education? Why doesn't he compare himself to Wendell, like others would, and wonder why his family doesn't have a yacht despite Arturo's wealth?

    Chew on This

    Stork shows us that some people are less fortunate than others by detailing their possessions—for example, Jasmine owns only a keyboard and CDs, while Wendell has a yacht.

    Even though his mother, a nurse, makes significantly less money than Arturo, and probably even less than Jerry Garcia, Marcelo chooses to follow in her footsteps rather than his father's because he doesn't care a lick about moolah.

  • Power

    Marcelo in the Real World shows us how money brings both power and corruption. Sandoval and Holmes attain their power (and their riches) by behaving like giant bullies, and Jasmine tells Marcelo that people hire them because they're the best at being mean and ruthless. But the money comes with a big karmic invoice—they have to look the other way when really bad things happen to people like Ixtel. Wendell's totally cool with it, because hey, mo' money, mo' yachts. Marcelo, on the other hand? Not so much. And when he learns how his dad pays for Paterson, suddenly going back there doesn't seem nearly as important as helping someone who's hurting.

    Questions About Power

    1. If Marcelo didn't have Asperger's, would he have become like Wendell? Are his cognitive differences solely responsible for his purity of heart?
    2. Does Adam and Eve's post-apple-eating shame prove that Satan has more power over people than God?
    3. When Marcelo helps Ixtel, is there some part of him that's asserting his power over Arturo, or does he just want to do the right thing?

    Chew on This

    Wendell has been so corrupted by power and greed that he's willing to basically rape women.

    Once he learns about Arturo's cheating, Marcelo has a kind of power over his mother, but he chooses not to use it so as not to hurt her. What can we say? He's a nice guy.

  • Justice and Judgment

    That Marcelo in the Real World is about justice and judgment is a no-brainer: after all, it's set in a law firm. But where we really see this theme is in Marcelo's actions toward Ixtel. He judges Arturo's actions as wrong, and he attempts to get justice for the person Arturo hurt. We also see it in Wendell's judgment of Jasmine, when he tells Marcelo that no matter how much he might want her, he could never love or marry her because she barely finished high school and she's, well, experienced. The judgments that hurt people most are usually the kind that happen outside the courtroom.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is Marcelo's finding justice for Ixtel an injustice to his mother and sister? Why or why not?
    2. Why is Arturo more committed to injustice than justice, even though he's an attorney?
    3. What does Marcelo learn about the theme of justice and judgment from Rabbi Heschel?

    Chew on This

    The more expensive the law school you attend, the more likely you are to be unjust to others in a desire to maintain privilege and prestige.

    Marcelo is willing to accept justice for defying Arturo by agreeing to go to Oak Ridge instead of arguing his right to return to Paterson.