As Damiana Cisneros leads Juan to her house, she tells him how the "town is filled with echoes" - voices that will not fade away (41). For a while, she had heard the sounds of a fiesta in the town square even though nothing was there. The fact that those sounds have faded suggests to her that other voices might likewise fade. She acknowledges the voices as belonging to ghosts, and tells how her sister Sixtina's ghost had recently begged Damiana to pray for her. Juan asks Damiana if his mother had alerted her to his arrival, and she says no, after which she suddenly disappears, leaving him alone in the streets. This section marks the first time that Juan Preciado's name is mentioned in the novel.
Juan sees a man crossing the street, and hears two women talking about how the man is following them. As that man is the one who is reputed to collect girls for Pedro Páramo, they are concerned and decide to go home. Juan does not see them; he can only hear them.
The voices that Juan hears take control of the narrative. He recounts a conversation between a creditor and debtor. The latter, whose name is mentioned as Galileo, denies his land has been sold to Pedro Páramo, whereas the creditor insists it is so, and that such denials could cost him his life.
In another conversation from the past, a man insists to a woman named Chona that she must come with him, even though she insists she would rather wait until her elderly, sickly father dies. When she tells the man she does not want to see him again, he leaves.
Juan notes that the voices continue, and recounts a song he hears. He sees carts creaking by, and hears his mother's voice in his mind, telling him how things tend to happen "suddenly" in Comala (46). As they disappear before him, he wonders whether he should simply leave, but a woman – whose name will never be given; she is referred to merely as Donis's sister - taps him on the shoulder and invites him into her crumbling house, which she shares with a man, later identified as Donis. When Juan enters, both Donis and his sister are naked. When he asks them if they are dead, they do not reply. The woman says they heard him banging his head against their door – a detail Juan had not shared with the reader, if it is indeed true – and so they let him in. When he confesses his fatigue, they invite him to sleep there.
The next morning, Juan hears the woman and man conversing about who he might be. She wonders if he is "lost," as many are in Comala, and Donis brushes her off so he can continue sleeping (47). She is worried because she saw Juan "tossing in his sleep" in a painful way that reminds her of her own reaction on "the first time [Donis] did it to [her]. How it hurt, and how bad [she] felt about doing it" (48). He dismisses her insinuations of inappropriate sexual conduct and she wonders aloud whether Juan's heavy soul will bring trouble to their house. Juan hears her get out of bed and begin to work in the kitchen.
He wakes later and is served some terrible coffee, for which she apologizes, saying they're "so short of everything" (50). She asks where he is going, and he tells her "anywhere" (50). When he asks where her husband has gone, she tells him that Donis is her brother, not her husband, but that he wants to keep that a secret, presumably because of their incestuous relationship. She tells him they have been in Comala "forever", and when he inquires whether they knew his mother Dolores, she says she never left the house out of fear and shame. She still will not leave for fear that the ghosts will see her and recognize the sin on her face, even though Juan identifies it as an "ordinary face" (51). She adds that the ghosts are stuck because they "don't have enough prayers" to release all the pained souls (52). She tells how the Bishop once visited and refused to either pardon her or marry her to Donis, even when she defended it as a tragedy of circumstance in a town where they "were so alone…the only two left" (52). They hear Donis approaching, and he enters complaining that he was unable to catch a calf he has been pursuing. Juan tells Donis he knows their secret, but that he understands and does not judge them. She tells him to wait till the next morning to set out on his journey.
Later that night, a sleeping Juan wakes to find both his hosts gone. He then sees an "ancient" and "thin" woman enter the house and retrieve some sheets from a trunk hidden under Donis's bed (54). Terrified, Juan stays in bed until he is later woken by Donis's sister, who offers him tea to help his fright. When Juan tells them about the woman, Donis insists that he is merely acting crazy to get attention.
Juan loses track of time – he thinks he is walking along the main thoroughfare and hears a burro driver telling someone to call upon doña Eduviges. He finally wakes to realize he is sleeping next to Donis's sister, whose naked body is wrapped up against his. She tells him that Donis has been gone all day, and that he might never return now that Juan has arrived. She says that Donis has wanted to leave for some time, but needed a man there to take care of her before he could do so. She offers him some meager food, and says she had to trade her mother's clean sheets sheets with her sister for the food. Her sister was the woman Juan saw, but she did not want to admit that in front of Donis.
The narrative shifts to an unattributed conversation that seems to be between Juan and his mother. He tells her he is in "her village" and asks if she can see him. She cannot. Back in the room, he accepts Donis's sister's invitation to sleep next to her.
In the middle of the night, Juan wakes feeling stifled from the heat. He staggers out into the street, and, unable to breathe, tries to capture the air in his hands "until it was so thin it slipped through [his] fingers forever" (57). Though it is not explicitly stated, Juan dies. The last thing he sees is foamy, white clouds swirling above his head.
The narrative shifts to a conversation between Dorotea and Juan. Though initially confusing, it becomes clear that Juan has died and is speaking to the spirit of Dorotea. She accuses him of lying about the cause of his death (suffocation), claiming that she and Donis dragged his still body from the town plaza to an alley, something she could not have done if the night had lacked air as he claims. He then admits that "the murmuring" is what killed him. He hears his mother's voice telling him how life in Comala makes one want to live forever, and how the memories there are ever-present. He admits to her that he was drawn to the plaza not by a lack of air, but by voices. When he arrived, he could make out their cry: "Pray for us" (59). It was then that he died. Dorotea scolds him for having come to Comala from "hope", and confesses that, when still alive, she too had been encouraged by illusions of having had a son (60). In her lifetime, she was always suspicious that others had taken her child, but a terrible dream convinced her that she had never had a child at all. It was then that she decided to quit living, and let herself die. She and Juan are now buried in the same grave, their bodies intertwined. She tells him not to be frightened of the sound of footsteps above them, and begs him to find comfort in the fact that they will be there for a long time.
During the process of devising and writing Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo toyed with the idea of titling the novel The Whispers. It's a useful idea to consider, since this section of the novel, while growing significantly more insular and complex, cements the themes of the novel in a clear way. What Rulfo is exploring is the way that whispers of the past both inform and torment the present, and implicitly pose a challenge for the future: should we move forward with hope or dread?
The first element to address in these pages is the perspective, which grows significantly more complicated. Almost right away in this section, other voices begin to take over the narrative. Even though we are almost exclusively told the story from Juan's perspective here (there are few temporal jumps to Pedro's past), much of the narrative turns into a recounting of what he hears from others, to the point that some short sections cannot be attributed to any particular voice. On page 44, Juan is literally overtaken by the voices; the past and present overlap for the reader, and no attempt is made to delineate them. Following this section is a jump into Pedro's past, which poses an interesting question. Is this a jump in time as we've grown accustomed to from the novel thus far, where a third-person omniscient narrator takes control from Juan's first-person narration, or is this simply another of those voices that Juan hears? If it is the latter, then the multiple perspectives might actually be the voice of one narrator, albeit a narrator (Juan) who is unable to distinguish between overbearing memories, persistent voices, and his own present. This interpretation is not meant to smooth over the fragmented nature of the novel, but instead to suggest that this fragmentation is less a clever literary device and more a comment on the way that time overlaps onto itself.
This sense of a present that is tormented by voices of the past validates the interpretation of Comala as a purgatory. The basic concept of purgatory is that souls can reflect on their past sins in an effort to do penance for them and thereby gain absolution and enter heaven. It is telling that Juan dies when he realizes what the souls are crying: "Pray for us." The voices he hears are those of souls tormented by a past they cannot escape. Further, as Damiana Cisneros believes that the voices can fade over time, so might these tormented souls one day make peace with their past sins and gain such reward. Comala is a realm where people – even those ostensibly living, like Donis's sister – are obsessed with their sins, since being weighed down by sin necessitates they remain in this dead, hot place.
Undoubtedly, the primary theme of the section is death, if only because our narrator dies and continues to speak. As discussed before, death itself serves as a metaphor – for the past, for memory, for stasis – but it is overwhelming here. The account of Juan's death is intriguing, considering that we get contradictory details. The initial report is given directly to the reader by Juan, who explains that he died from asphyxiation - the street was too hot and the air absent, so he died. However, when Dorotea challenges this claim, he admits to her that he died not from a lack of air, but from a surplus of the "murmuring"; this can be interpreted as death by fright. The accounts provide a mirror image to one another: in one, he dies from too little of something; in the other, he dies from too much of something. And yet both ironically speak to a type of emptiness, a life devoid of promise, hope or sustenance. Like many things in the novel, the mode of Juan's death is ambiguous and thematic.
Indeed, perhaps the most antagonistic presence both in Juan's time and in the past that gets recounted through voices, is the sin of lifelessness. If we consider life as movement and change, then Comala is a realm of stasis and hence, death. Consider what Damiana says: "every sigh is like a drop of your life being swallowed up." She is referring to Juan's mother, who lived her life weighed down by regret and eventually died from it. The one semi-flashback to Pedro's time in this section echoes the theme through the story of Chona, who is encouraged by the man (probably don Fulgor) to leave her elderly father to die so she can exploit her youth and beauty. The complication, of course, comes from the fact that she is escaping a sexual exploitative situation by refusing to go with him, while at the same time, she commits the same sin as those of Comala – they refuse to move forward. The incestuous situation of Donis and his sister also echo this idea of stasis. Here, incest is a symbol of turning inward, refusing to let the outside world in, and indeed, this couple lives a depraved life devoid of any other human contact. Comala becomes a place where life has stopped, the air and heat do not circulate, and souls are left to mourn the past rather than anticipate the future. Even Juan, as he falls further into its quagmire, finds his mother can no longer see him.
Of course, even in this rather dense and complicated section, connections to the Earthly world can be made. These depictions of a stifling and inescapable past have an equivilent in Mexico's history. Rulfo is exploring the voices of a village left behind in the face of social change, with its sins left unexplored. He does not offer a simple and incontrovertible nostalgia, but rather he considers how certain stagnant social systems led to torment and sin that were never quite resolved.
One of those systems is of course the patriarchy. Donis's sister, who is unnamed in the narrative, is a prime example of a woman whose spirit and body have been abused and ruined. Pedro's tyranny over women – shown in his attempt to get Chona as one of his many mistresses – is another manifestation.
Another of these systems is religion. Considering how highly charged the Catholic mythology of Mexico is, the cruelty shown by the bishop to Donis's sister is particularly harsh. The people of Comala are reliant on a forgiveness that comes at a price, and even when their stagnant system has forced them into "sin" – as her reliance on Donis did to her – they are left to fend for themselves in a purgatory either literally or figuratively, in society. This critique continues as the story of Father Rentería deepens in later sections.
Finally, it is interesting to think about the simplicity of the novel's main story. In a sense, despite its myriad perspectives and supernatural qualities, the main thrust remains that of a young man in search of his father. However, most stories necessarily concern a character's journey into his future; he takes action, that action produces consequences, he deals with those consequences, etc. It is a temporal chain of events. In Pedro Páramo, the protagonist's journey is literally into the past. He decides to seek out Comala, finds it is defined not by its present but by its past, and is overwhelmed by it. There is a moment in this section where he considers whether he should leave, whether he should commit to a "normal" life of pursuing a future, but he hesitates and is forced to continue digging back down into the past. He is now stuck underground with Dorotea, and will be there "a long time".