The novel is initially narrated by Juan Preciado (though we do not learn his name until much later). He has come to his mother's home village of Comala after promising her on her deathbed to travel there and find the father he has never met: Pedro Páramo. She wishes him to reclaim "what's ours…What he should have given me but never did" (3). Though he initially did not intend to honor the promise, his "imagination took flight" as he thought about rejoining Pedro (3).
On an extremely hot August day, Juan stands on a hill above Comala with a man named Abundio, who is leading him by burro down into the valley where the village sits. His mother's voice (which is set apart by italics in the text) resonates in his mind, reminding him that the village is a pastoral landscape (4). Juan is surprised that the town does not live up to the image her nostalgic longings created in his mind. The man is glibly surprised at Juan's desire to come here, since "no one's come this way" for years (5). When Abundio learns that Juan is traveling to find his father Pedro Páramo, he at first grows silent and then admits that Pedro Páramo is his father as well, and calls the man "living bile" (5). Abundio further tells him that the heat will worsen when they get to Comala, which "sits on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of hell" (6). As Juan thinks on the photograph of his mother that he carries, Abundio points out towards the Media Luna, the large expanse of land past Comala, all of which was owned by Pedro Páramo. Juan notes that the town seems deserted, and Abundio tells him that Pedro Páramo is dead.
Juan walks through the deserted main street of Comala, noting its overgrown doorways and lack of life. He sees a woman around a corner, but she quickly disappears. Suddenly, she appears again, walking past him, and he inquires of her where he can find doña Eduviges. She points him to "the house beside the bridge", and though it suddenly grows dark, he is able to imagine that the village is alive because his "head was still filled with sounds and voices" (8). He recalls how his mother promised he would be able to hear her in Comala, and he laments that she sent him in pursuit of a dead man. He makes his way to the house that the woman had indicated, but before he can knock, doña Eduviges opens the door to let him in.
Juan has decided to stay. He jumps a bit back in time to recall how he parted from Abundio (who only gives his name at this point), and how the latter had invited Juan to his house across the Media Luna, but advised him to first look up doña Eduviges. After giving his name, Abundio had left Juan.
Doña Eduviges seems to have expected Juan. She recognizes him as Dolorita's son (Dolorita was his mother; this is the first time we've heard her name). Doña Eduviges tells him that Dolorita had sent word of his arrival that day, and when Juan insists she is dead, doña Eduviges adds that her death explains the weakness of her voice. She shows Juan to his room and though there is nothing on which to sleep, promises he will rest well. Doña Eduviges reminisces about when she and Dolorita were girls, how they had promised to die together, and decides she will soon join Dolorita. She also mentions that Juan should have been her (doña Eduviges's) son. Both because he is exhausted and because he worries she is crazy, he declines her invitation to eat in favor of rest.
The next section switches to a third-person omniscient narrator, and is set in Pedro Páramo's youth. It is a rainy, forlorn day, and the young Pedro has locked himself in the privy (outhouse), to his mother's chagrin. While on the toilet, he thinks in first-person of Susana, remembering how they used to fly kites together. Pedro's mother finally breaks into the privy and demands Pedro get up and help his grandmother shell corn.
Pedro's grandmother reprimands the boy for his absence, and sends him to clean the mill, but he is all the while lost in his thoughts of Susana, who he imagines is hidden high beyond the clouds. When Pedro tells his grandmother that the mill is broken, she laments they cannot afford a new one because they spent their money on Pedro's grandfather's funeral. She sends the boy to beg credit from a nearby businesswoman until the harvest refills their coffers. He takes some money and leaves.
That night, Pedro lies in bed listening to the rain on the roof, still thinking of Susana. Further in his house, Pedro hears the women speaking the rosary, after which his mother comes to his room to reprimand him for not joining them in the remembrance of his grandfather. She leaves him alone, and he hears her crying nearby.
Back in Juan Preciado's present, doña Eduviges talks to him. She tells him how Abundio was a good man before the town fell on hard times, and how he grew quiet and forlorn after he went deaf from a firecracker. She insists Juan's guide could not have been Abundio, since Abundio is deaf - and dead. She then begins to explain to him how she was "nearly [his] mother" (15). After a soothsayer named Osorio told Dolorita (who also goes by Dolores) that she should avoid sexual relations on the night of her wedding to Pedro Páramo, Dolorita begged doña Eduviges to take her place in the dark room, promising he would not catch on. Her friend finally agreed – partially because she too was attracted to Pedro – but nothing happened between them. The following night, Dolores became pregnant, so did fate not make doña Eduviges Juan's mother. As Juan recollects his mother's pastoral depictions of the village, doña Eduviges also tells him how Dolorita hated his father for his tyrannical, patriarchal ways. Finally, Dolorita had enough, and left with Juan to live with her sister Gertrudis. Juan begins to tell doña Eduviges how his Aunt Gertrudis encouraged his mother to return, and how she refused to return unless Pedro sent for her, but then Juan notices that doña Eduviges is not listening to him.
Already in the first 20 pages, a first-time reader of Pedro Páramo is aware that the novel is keeping secrets. And indeed, successful analysis of the novel should begin with the recognition that it does not "make sense" in the traditional way we expect of novels. That is not to suggest that a reader should not piece the story together – in fact, much of the novel's success lies in its ability to make the reader an active participant in interpreting it – but it is comprised not of discernable lessons or philosophies, but instead of interlocked questions, symbols, and themes. Any interpretation is likely to be contradicted by another element of the work, but this is not a mark of imperfection, but rather a suggestion that the novel is meant to be understood as a fragmented text.
Published in 1955, Pedro Páramo is considered not only a precursor to the contemporary Latin American novel, but also an early example of modernism, a genre in which traditional perspective is eschewed in favor of myriad approaches meant to reflect the fragmented nature of contemporary life. Pedro Páramo already employs three different perspectives in its first section, without any clear demarcation of the separation between them. What begins as a recognizable narrative – a young first-person narrator wishes to reunite with the father he never knew – is quickly confused by the shift to a third-person omniscient narrator who allows Pedro to narrate his longing for Susana in the first-person. Similarly, the voice of Juan's mother interrupts his own narration on several occasions. These shifts are initially difficult to note, since Rulfo does not provide any headings to direct his reader. Further, even within Juan's narration, time is not continuous. For example, he begins his journey when he has almost reached Comala, and then jumps back to when he met his guide Abundio. These sorts of temporal shift will only grow more profuse as the novel progresses.
There are several ways to understand the use of myriad perspectives, all of which will be further extrapolated in Analyses of subsequent sections. However, one can already glimpse an attempt to replicate the rhythms of memory in Rulfo's construction. Clearly, one of the novel's primary themes is nostalgia. Dolorita has created a nostalgic view of Comala that haunts Juan Preciado, doña Eduviges is quick to fall into reminisces, and Pedro as a child was desperately nostalgic for his lost love Susana. Considering that, on its most basic level, this is a story of a young man attempting to reclaim his mother's nostalgia in addition to his familial legacy, it is understandable that the novel would not follow a strict timeline. Instead, it leaps around in the way we tend to remember our lives – in impressions, glances, and moments, rather than as a series of cause-and-effect. However, this interpretation – that the novel is meant to reflect Juan's memory – is confounded by the shift to Pedro's youth, something Juan ostensibly should have no access to remembering since he was not alive at the time it took place.
Another approach at understanding the perspective lies in perhaps the novel's most confounding aspect thus far: the dead can speak. Known to be deaf, Abundio not only can hear (despite what doña Eduviges later says of him), but he is apparently dead. Similarly, Juan Preciado notes that though the town around him is dead, he begins to hear its "sounds and voices" in his mind (8).
This theme of death is already resonant in the opening pages, and will only grow more pronounced. A good microcosm of the town's decrepitude and death can be seen in his description of doña Eduviges on page 16: "Her face was transparent, as if the blood had drained from it…Her eyes were sunk out of sight." Like Eduviges, the town itself has shriveled up and died, and yet it continues to speak. In this way, we already get a glimpse of one of the novel's major thrusts – the inescapability of lost and dead voices, the way that they persist in telling their stories.
To aid this interpretation, it is useful to consider Comala as a type of purgatory, or even hell. The most obvious evidence for this is Abundio's description of the town as sitting on the mouth of hell. However, even without this phrase, Juan Preciado's descent into Comala follows a classic epic archetype of the descent into hell. Traditionally, such a descent – as was taken by Odysseus, Anaeus, and Dante – involves the use of a guide who leads the hero into a prolonged descent into heat. Abundio serves this purpose, and his insistence that they are traveling into a dead place only echoes the possibility that Juan is submerging himself into a realm of dead, lost souls seeking redemption. There are some interpretations of the novel that suggest Juan Preciado is already dead at the time he enters Comala. Consider the first line – "I came to Comala…" The tense implies that he remains in the town at the time of speaking, which gives it a fatalistic air that will be complicated in later sections.
Whether he is dead or not, Juan Preciado is certainly engaging with a realm that exists beyond physical reality. There are many images of disassociation that begin in this section. Certainly, disassociation is a good description of the novel's perspective, which uses the basic narrative as a starting point for more experimental approaches. However, there are elements of his narration that also suggest he is disassociated from his body. He tends to describe his body parts as separate from his overall identity. In doña Eduviges' home, he notes, "I felt I was in a faraway world and let myself be pulled along by the current. My body…surrendered completely; it had slipped its ties and anyone who wanted could have wrung me out like a rag" (11). Even if we consider the interpretation of Comala as hell too simplistic, it is certain that the village is greater than its physical reality.
However, one of the most impressive elements of Rulfo's work is how it does remain grounded in some physical reality despite its transcendent nature. For instance, the geography that Rulfo uses employs much realistic physical detail. The description of the Media Luna and the landscape certainly bring atmospheric weight, but they also correlate to rural Mexico, and speak to an economic system wherein one landowner – in this case, Pedro – controlled a village through his expansive holdings. Further, the idea of dead towns has a real basis in Mexican history. As noted in the section on The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Cristero War of 1926-1929, Mexico's revolutions had many impacts, one of which was the steady mass desertion of rural towns in favor of cities. In exploring nostalgia, Rulfo is writing a work embroiled in the nostalgia of a lost Mexico, a place potentially like the one Dolorita remembers and which is no more in the contemporary world.
Another way in which the novel explores the human impulse to be grounded is through its title character, Pedro Páramo. Though we have barely met him, there are elements of his character that are already clear. First is the revelation that he has fathered many children; in fact, Juan is his only legitimate son, as we will find out. Despite Pedro's longing for Susana – a character we will learn more about later – he is introduced for the first time while sitting on a toilet. This image counteracts his transcendent longing, and marks him as a creature very much of the Earth. Further, we glimpse his selfishness – he takes the money from his mother and grandmother with no intention of honoring their orders – and his obstinacy in the way he refuses to do anything he is asked to do, even choosing not to say the rosary for his departed grandfather. The life of poverty that Pedro lived will help to explain the way he later seizes control of the Media Luna, in a way vicious enough to counteract Dolorita's nostalgia even in a time before the rural population leaves for the cities. Finally, Juan Preciado shows an inclination towards worldly wealth in his pursuit of Pedro. On the first page, he notes that he had no intention of honoring his mother's wish until he began to dream of this father. What is implicitly stated here is that he is curious about and desirous of whatever it is his mother wishes him to reclaim from Pedro. He, too, wants worldly reward, but of course in the process of seeking it, finds himself descending into somewhere altogether other-worldly.
Finally, it is worth noting two elements of Rulfo's masterful writing. The first is his rhythmic language. Beyond his poetic facility for words, this style illustrates Rulfo's ability to integrate silence and stillness into his writing. Read the work aloud to note how often it seems to demand a pause from the reader. Such rhythm helps to engender the pervasive atmosphere of longing and death that defines the novel. Secondly, he makes great use of the objective correlative, a device wherein an element not controlled by the character – like the weather – correlates to the emotional state of the character nevertheless. Rulfo begins many of his sections with descriptions of the weather or landscape, all of which are described in realistic terms but which clearly have a dual purpose of creating an emotional, visceral context for the scene to follow. For example, Comala's intense - almost hellish - heat creates an immediate sense of discomfort for Juan.