The Burning Plain and Other Stories Suggested Essays
by Juan Rulfo
Suggested Essay Questions
Why does Rulfo choose to give so many of his stories confessional or testimonial qualities? What does this form demand of the narrators and how does it show up in their narration? What does it demand of the reader who reads the confession? Consider stories such as “Talpa,” “Macario,” “The man,” “Tell them not to kill me!” or “Remember."
The confessional style of narration, especially in Mexico’s Catholic cultural context, puts the reader in the position of being the priest or judge for the narrator and characters. This makes the reader’s job more difficult, since he or she is strongly encouraged to decide what to make of the story; the reader cannot simply sit back and passively enjoy the chilling tale. The testimonial genre is evident The Burning Plain in the abundance of monologues or one-sided conversations that take place. Often the narrator also tells the story in an intimate tone as if it were intended only for the reader’s consumption. In a story like “Remember” the tables are turned, since through the repetition of the command “remember” the narrator appears to demand a confession of recognition from the reader. This could have the effect of reminding us that we too have a “guilty” hand — however small — in creating the world inhabited by Rulfo’s characters.
What does the use of shifting perspectives in stories like “The man” and “At daybreak” achieve? How and why does the author elect to utilize this technique and what is its effect on the reader?
One purpose of the shifting perspectives in these stories is to humanize the different characters presented. In “The man” the reader is encouraged to identify with the both the fugitive and the pursuer, despite the fact that they have both committed horrible crimes. When the two men are allowed to speak in their own voice they facilitate empathy in the reader. One might conclude that when the reader identifies with the character, he is likely to appreciate the difficulty of his circumstances and understand that both men (and later the shepherd) are caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Rulfo’s stories are often praised for capturing the simple voice of rural Mexicans in the post-revolutionary period. Do you agree with this observation? If so, how does Rulfo achieve this effect and if not, how does he fail?
Rulfo’s tales certainly have a simple, intimate, rustic feel to them, and this has often been problematically associated with the “essence” of rural folk. The characters’ apparently pure and straightforward tone seems to go hand in hand with mankind’s pure, straightforward existence when surrounded by nature. This stands in stark contrast with the complicated, cosmopolitan and often duplicitous discourses associated with urban centers. It is important to note that many would dispute that “simple” discourse is an accurate characterization of the “rural” voice. One can find an abundance of discourses in rural Mexico. Characters like Lucas Lucatero and the women of Amula are one example of characters in Rulfo’s works that are far from the rural ideal. When they speak, what they say and what they mean are two very different things. Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, if one analyzes the discourse used by Rulfian narrators, their words are actually highly poetic and full of metaphor. Two examples of this are the description of the moon in “No dogs bark” or the description of the drop of rain swallowed by the Big Plain in “They gave us the land.”
Death is one of the most prominent themes in The Burning Plain. How is death presented in the “Tell them not to kill me,” “The night they left him alone” and “Talpa”? What are the different characterizations of death in these stories, and what narrative strategies does the author use to depict it? What is their affect on the reader?
Death is omnipresent in The Burning Plain and is in fact so dominant that — given the chance — the reader is tempted to jump to the conclusion that the protagonist will die in each story. This is the case in “The night they left him alone,” where the narrator creates such a foreboding atmosphere that we cannot help but conclude that Feliciano will die. Death, particularly the evasion of death, is the motivating and transformative factor in each story. Nearly all the characters find themselves in a constant struggle—what could be characterized as a “limit-experience”—where death threatens them. This often forces them to resort to acts that reveal their true mettle. In “Tell them not to kill me!” Juvencio is an excellent example of a character who routinely faced the prospect of death throughout his life but who, in the definitive “moment of truth” collapses and desperately begs for mercy.
The Mexican Revolution and the post-revolutionary period provide the historical context for the stories in The Burning Plain. Many would claim, however, that the Revolution is rarely examined in a direct manner in this collection. How is the influence of the Revolution apparent in The Burning Plain and what are some of Rulfo’s critiques of it? How are these critique presented and — if they are developed tangentially — why does he often choose to make them secondary?
Rulfo criticizes the shortcomings of the Mexican Revolution during the post-revolutionary period in nearly every story. The system of justice is analyzed in “The man” and “At daybreak,” while the crucial topic of land reform is treated in “They gave us the land,” “Tell them not to kill me!” and “The Hill of the Comadres,” among others. Educational reform is revealed to be severely lacking in “Luvina.” It is notable that these critiques are usually presented indirectly, such that only the prepared reader notices the hand politics has the situation. Only in a few cases, most notably “They gave us the land,” is the issue presented overtly. The secondary presentation of these topics allows the author to concentrate on presenting the struggles of individuals (and those intertwined with them) rather than getting caught up in analyzing the impersonal overarching structures of power.
Where does power reside in The Burning Plain? Who possesses power and how does it manifest itself? Who are the “powerful” and who is “powerless”?
Rather than presenting a social hierarchy where the wealthy and powerful landowners exploit the poor and powerless peasants — in essence, the system which sparked the Mexican Revolution — Rulfo opts to locate power in a different place. There are few “powerful” people in The Burning Plain, only powerful relationships. Some seeming exceptions are the differences in power between people like Don Lupe and Juvencio in “Tell them not to kill me, or between Old Esteban and Don Justo in “At daybreak,” but these relationships are superseded in importance by the relationship between Juvencio and Justino, Don Lupe and the Colonel, Don Justo and his niece, or Esteban and his wife. Relationships are more likely to be the place where power is exercised, and this is where the faceless “revolutionary” government is lacking. It “doesn’t have a mother,” according to the citizens of Luvina, and therefore is unable to command complete respect or obedience.
Consider the role of the narrator. Often nameless and faceless, many might argue that the chroniclers in most of Rulfo’s stories are interchangeable. Nevertheless, these narrators are far from unremarkable. What qualities does the “Rulfian” narrator have and why does the author so often choose a similar character to tell each story? Given these qualities, what sort of relationship does this narrator develop with the reader?
The “Rulfian” narrator is generally poor and lives in a rural part of Mexico. The narrator is also usually a male voice, often times a mature, paternal one. However, there are several examples of younger male voices, such as Macario — who may only be an infantile adult — or the brother of Tacha in “We’re very poor.” The narrator is also often engaged in or narrating a “limit-experience” where life hangs in the balance. By electing to use a similar character in each story Rulfo may be trying to capture the universal voice of rural Mexicans. He could also be trying to suggest the universality of the experiences faced by the narrators: everyone in this region has suffered similarly.
Are the characters of Anacleto Morones and Lucas Lucatero entirely negative in “Anacleto Morones”? What is the function of role of men like them in rural Mexico? Can they be seen as more than simply immoral corrupters of women?
In “Anacleto Morones” the two picaroons, Anacleto and Lucatero, are far from immoral characters to be condemned. They are purveyors of pleasure, more specifically sexual and comic pleasure. The reader is especially equipped to appreciate the latter, after having read an entire collection of generally dark and often upsetting stories. They serve the function of giving a whole subgroup of Mexican society (aging, unmarried spinsters) a sense of self-worth. Although the women try to appear pious and distant, we can tell from the conduct of women like Pancha — and from the stories told by her fellow congregation members — that Anacleto and Lucatero are responsible for the few moments of happiness they have enjoyed. Granted, this often came with a fair dose of heartache, but the women would likely agree with Tennyson’s famous quote that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
In The Burning Plain there are a number of stories that begin in medias res, after the story is already in progress. Some even “begin at the end,” so to speak, with the narrator first telling the reader what has happened, and only then going about explaining how the characters find themselves in their predicament. This is the case in stories like “Talpa,” “Tell them not to kill me!”, and “The Hill of the Comadres.” Why do the narrators in these tales choose to employ the technique of foreshadowing so early instead of saving the surprise until the very end? How does this affect the reading process?
The use of foreshadowing or direct revelation of a story’s end allow the reader to concentrate on the details leading up to the story’s end. Instead of concentrating all one’s attention and energy on discovering what the story’s end is, readers are encouraged to concentrate on the “means” by which the author and characters arrive there. There is an implicit didactic purpose here as well, since the reader can spend more time figuring out what the mistake was that caused Juvencio to be tied up and condemned to death in “Tell them not to kill me!”, or that caused Tanilo to consider himself his brother’s murderer. These types of stories are typically “harder” to read, since the reader has to “work” to find something of value that goes beyond the simple appreciation of diegesis or narration.
"Naturalism" is a realist tendency in narrative that often tends to stress the predetermining influence of the environment, primal instincts and genetics in a character's conduct. What evidence of this do we see in The Burning Plain?
The Burning Plain is certainly narrated in a realist tone. Rulfo has been praised for capturing the “authentic” voice of rural post-revolutionary Mexico. This collection can also be called naturalist since it has a generally pessimistic view of human existence where all conduct is predetermined. Three of the predetermining forces in naturalist works are the environment, primal instincts and genetics. One of the best examples of naturalism in The Burning Plain is “We’re very poor,” since the characters face all three of these elements. Mother Nature conspires to defeat poor Tacha’s family, since the flooded river has ruined their crop and taken her cow. This means that she will likely have no choice but to become a prostitute. Primal instincts are evident in Tacha’s sisters’ sex-drive, which pushes them (and their lovers) to fool around as adolescents and dooms them to resort to selling their bodies in the future. Genetics also play a role here since the mother wonders why there was no apparent history of promiscuity in her family, perhaps implying that the trait comes from her husband’s family. “Macario” is another story where primal instincts and genetics are present as predetermining factors.
The Burning Plain and Other Stories Essays and Related Content
- The Burning Plain and Other Stories: Major Themes
- The Burning Plain and Other Stories: Questions
- The Burning Plain and Other Stories: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Juan Rulfo: Biography
- The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary
- About The Burning Plain and Other Stories
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of "They gave us the land" ("Nos han dado la tierra")
- Summary and Analysis of "Macario"
- Summary and Analysis of “The Hill of the Comadres” ("La Cuesta de las Comadres")
- Summary and Analysis of “We’re very poor” ("Es que somos muy pobres")
- Summary and Analysis of "The man" ("El hombre")
- Summary and Analysis of “At daybreak” ("En la madrugada")
- Summary and Analysis of “Talpa”
- Summary and Analysis of “The burning plain” ("El Llano en llamas")
- Summary and Analysis of “Tell them not to kill me!” ("¡Diles que no me maten!")
- Summary and Analysis of “Luvina”
- Summary and Analysis of “The night they left him alone” ("La noche que lo dejaron solo")
- Summary and Analysis of “Remember” ("Acuérdate")
- Summary and Analysis of “No dogs bark” ("No oyes ladrar los perros")
- Summary and Analysis of “Paso del Norte”
- Summary and Analysis of “Anacleto Morones”
- Where is the Power in Rulfian Narrative?
- Related Links on The Burning Plain and Other Stories
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources