Pedro Páramo is both a simple and very difficult work to summarize. It follows a labyrinthine structure in which the past is interspersed with the present, sometimes in ways that are not clear until halfway through a section. Much of the responsibility for crafting a chronological narrative falls to the reader. Furthermore, there are several narrators, some first-person and some third-person omniscient. This short summary will present events more or less as they unfold in the novel, though with some synthesis of events for the sake of a more cohesive summary.
The story begins with Juan Preciado narrating a trip he takes to his mother's home village of Comala. She has recently died and asked him to find his father, Pedro Páramo, in the village where she was born. As he approaches, a man on a burro, Abundio, overtakes him and leads him down to the valley. Abundio tells him that he is Pedro's son as well, and that their father has been dead a long time. He introduces Juan to the large expanse of land around Comala, called the Media Luna.
Once in the village, Juan finds it is deserted. He seeks out a woman named doña Eduviges on Abundio's recommendation, and finds her in an old house. She tells him that the voices of the dead can be heard in Comala, and confesses she knew he was coming, as his mother sent a message despite being dead. She tells Juan a bit about his mother's childhood and also that Abundio has been long dead as well. Juan tries to tell her about his aunt whom he grew up with, but she ignores him. Juan hears a horse galloping by, and is told about Miguel Páramo, Pedro's cruel bastard son - yet the only child he recognized - who was killed on a horse ride. His horse rides forever lamenting his owner's passing. She tells him about the night Miguel died, and seems sad about it.
Interspersed with Juan's first hours in Comala is a narrative recounting the childhood of Pedro Páramo. He is young and poor, and he pines for a girl named Susana who had left the village long before. He is reprimanded by his family for dreaming, and they send him to run errands. He later gets a job but shows an independent streak that keeps him from impressing his family. His memories shift to the moment when his father died, and the anger he felt over it.
The narrative shifts to the story of Father Rentería, the parish priest of Comala who hates the Páramo family but nevertheless forgives them their sins because they can pay. He hates himself for having blessed Miguel's corpse at the boy's funeral, since Miguel had raped the priest's niece Ana and killed her father. He is further haunted by memories of having denied Eduviges atonement because she killed herself, a hypocrisy considering he had forgiven Miguel for worse sins.
Back in Juan's present, Eduviges leaves him to sleep, but he is kept awake by howling in his room. Suddenly, Damiana Cisneros, another childhood friend of his mother, arrives and takes him to her house. She tells him the cries he heard were those of Toribio Aldrete, a man Pedro had murdered for refusing to cooperate with his takeover of the Media Luna.
The reader is introduced to adult Pedro, and his attempts to purchase the entire Media Luna. With the help of a supervisor named don Fulgor Sedano, who had also worked for Pedro's father Lucas Páramo, Pedro devises a plan to marry or romance the women to whom his family owes debts in order to avoid paying them back. Their first target is Dolorita Preciado (who will later give birth to Juan). They are able to secure the marriage, and so does Pedro's conquest of the Media Luna begin. His first order of business is the murder of the man whose ghost Juan heard.
In the present, as Damiana walks Juan through town, she explains to him that many spirits haunt Comala, reliving their past lives. After she suddenly disappears from his sight, he overhears several conversations from spirits, most about Pedro. He begins to wonder whether he should leave the village, when a woman taps him on the shoulder and invites him to her home. He accepts, and there he meets the woman's brother, Donis. Donis and his sister are involved in an incestuous relationship, which has particularly scarred the sister. They seem to be alive, and invite him to stay. The next morning, he overhears them wondering whether his presence will damn their house. Donis is out when he awakes, and so the sister explains the extent of her misery living alone in Comala in such an unhealthy relationship.
Donis returns, and he and his sister leave together. Juan sleeps, until woken by an old woman who is taking sheets from under Donis's bed. He spends several days caught between sleep and waking. When he does wake up, he finds Donis's sister lying next to him. She tells him that Donis has left, perhaps forever, and that Juan can now take care of her. He wakes again later feeling stifled from the heat, and escapes out into the town square where, unable to breathe, he dies.
Juan then wakes underground, buried next to a woman named Dorotea. The rest of the novel involves their conversation and the voices they overhear. She challenges his account of his death, and he admits he died not from asphyxiation but from the "murmuring." She tells him to find comfort in the fact that he will be there for a long time, and argues that one should not be overcome with guilt and suffering. Every since Father Rentería once convinced her she would never be forgiven of her sins, she has been happy to live without excessive guilt.
Back in Pedro's day, don Fulgor oversees the success of the Media Luna, but is resentful about Miguel, who runs around without supervision, wreaking havoc on women and the community. Miguel has been accused of several murders, all of which Pedro's employees are expected to hide. Miguel is told about Dorotea, who, when alive, was a simpleton desperate to have a baby, and he recruits her to collect women for him in exchange for pay.
Later, Pedro is woken to find that Miguel has died, having been thrown off his galloping horse as the reader earlier learned from Eduviges. The father feels no sadness but knows he is beginning to pay for his sins. That night, Father Rentería wanders the countryside alone, upset about his weakness in allowing the Páramo family to buy their absolution. The priest recalls how he sought atonement for his own sins from a colleague in Contla, but was denied. Because of his shame over the denial, Father Rentería continues to refuse absolution to the poor of Comala, a hypocrisy that makes him feel even more guilty.
In Juan's present, he hears the voice of Susana San Juan, the girl whom Pedro loved most of all. She talks to herself about her own mother's funeral, which was organized by her nursemaid Justina. Nobody came to her mother's funeral. Dorotea explains to Juan how Susana, after returning in adulthood to Comala, was married quickly to Pedro, even though she was mentally unstable. Pedro was madly in love with her, and when she died, he gave up on life and let Comala and the surrounding countryside (all of which he owned) slowly die off. This is what led to the mass exodus from Comala, and the suffering that has followed many spirits into the afterlife.
In Pedro's day, Susana and her father, Bartolomé San Juan, return to Comala on Pedro's invitation. He had been searching for them for many years, and finally lured them back with the promise of a house. Though Bartolomé accepts the gift, he does not want his daughter involved with Pedro. There is a strong implication that he and Susana are involved in an incestuous relationship. Because of his resistance, Pedro and don Fulgor devise a plan to send Bartolomé to a mine where he can easily be killed.
Both through a voice that Juan hears and through an omniscient narrator, we learn how, following her father's death, Susana retreated into a feverish fantasy world where she revisited memories of her dead husband Florencio, whom she loved deeply. She refuses to accept Father Rentería's forgiveness, and is unaware of how deeply Pedro pines for her, watching her in the midst of feverish dreams each night, wishing he knew what she dreamed of.
Meanwhile, news is brought to Pedro that don Fulgor has been killed by a burgeoning revolution against the landowning class of rural Mexico. Pedro sends for the revolutionary leaders, and also recruits a mercenary named El Tilcuate to infiltrate the movement. When the leaders arrive, they are clearly disorganized and easy to manipulate, and Pedro convinces them to accept money and men from him, amongst whose number will be El Tilcuate.
Pedro's lawer, Gerardo Trujillo, tries to quit his employer's service but is forced to stay when not given a bonus. Pedro has continued to rape young women because he is unwilling to force himself on Susana, but he is terribly sad over her condition. Meanwhile, the revolution continues to grow, and now includes priests including Father Rentería. Pedro convinces El Tilcuate to continue to fight, but to leave him alone.
When Susana finally dies, after refusing again to receive last rites from Father Rentería, Pedro is devastated. When Comala coincidentally holds a fiesta in the days following her death, the grieved and angry Pedro promises to destroy them, which he ultimately does in the way previously explained by Dorotea. Pedro then retreats into an idle, depressive life, where he sits outside his house all day and does nothing.
Abundio, the guide who first brought Juan into Comala, is introduced in the context of the past. His wife has recently died, and he convinces a shopkeeper's mother to sell him cheap liquor. He gets drunk and stumbles around until he ends up begging money from Pedro, who denies him. Without knowing what he is doing, Abundio stabs Pedro and Damiana, who tried to protect the don. Though men arrive quickly to take Abundio away, Pedro slowly dies, thinking of Susana all the while, and happy to finally be released.