The Burning Plain and Other Stories

Major Themes

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The problematic relationship between father and son

Problematic relationships between father and son are plentiful in The Burning Plain. We see them in “No dogs bark,” “Tell them not to kill me!” and “The burning plain,” among other stories. These strained relationships can be symptomatic of the general breakdown of the family institution after the Mexican Revolution, or they be metaphors for the wider political circumstances faced by the Mexican nation during this period. Often in The Burning Plain, the father can represent the state apparatus which endeavors to create a union with the land (frequently portrayed in Rulfo and other Latin American works as the wife or mother). This union will ideally result in a son representing the nation. As we see in many of the stories in this collection, however, this process is almost always incomplete. The son (the nation) is typically in some way estranged from his father (the state).

Eroticism

The theme of eroticism is also frequent in The Burning Plain. Among other stories it appears in “Macario,” “We’re very poor,” and “Anacleto Morones.” At times this eroticism is unconscious or innocent, as we see in “Macario” and “We’re very poor,” and at others it is quite the opposite, as in “Anacleto Morones.” In any case, those who dedicate themselves to erotic pleasure in Rulfo’s works are often characterized as mentally unbalanced. Macario clearly has a developmental disorder that alienates him from mainstream society, and should Tacha continue on the path of her sisters and become a prostitute, she too will be treated as an immoral woman. As we see in “Anacleto Morones” Lucas Lucatero is rejected by the Congregation of Amula as a lascivious heretic. It is important to note that in all these cases eroticism is infertile.

Death

The anticipation of death is omnipresent in Rulfo’s collection of short stories, and death itself appears in quite a few of them. “No dogs bark,” “Tell them not to kill me,” “Talpa,” “Luvina,” “No dogs bark” and “The man” are just a few. The constant shadow of death leads to a certain fatalism in The Burning Plain, which leads the reader to expect the worst in any given situation. The reader is made aware of this predisposition in a story like “The night they left him alone” where seemingly certain death awaits the protagonist but claims his companions instead.

Disequilibrium in nature

Nature frequently appears as unbalanced in the stories in The Burning Plain. In “They gave us the land” there is an overabundance of land, but an extreme paucity of water makes that land useless. In “We’re very poor” we encounter just the opposite: so much water that it threatens the family’s future. Nature rarely presents itself in Rulfo’s works as a balanced force. Its unpredictability always conspires against the characters, never working in their favor. The harsh natural environment mirrors the behavior of the protagonists, who frequently act in an equally savage manner, as we see in “The man.”

Testimony/Confession

Many of Rulfo’s stories have testimonial or confessional qualities. In “Talpa” the main character confesses to having killed his brother, while in “Remember” the narrator asks the reader or listener to confess to knowing Urbano Gómez. In “The man” both the pursuer and the “man” confess their shortcomings to the reader, just as the shepherd confesses to the authorities, and in “Macario” the main character tells us in an intimate tone what everyday life is like for him. In these and other stories confession and testimony have ties to the Catholic rite of penance, but they also have a narrative function. The intimacy afforded by the confessional tone allows the narrators to tell their stories in an unguarded fashion that lends itself well to the task of objective analysis. It is a conversational, informal discourse that casts the reader in the role of judge or priest. We are charged with evaluating the events as objectively as possible.

The Mexican Revolution and its shortcomings

The stories in The Burning Plain cannot be fully appreciated without first considering the historical context in which they take place. Nearly all of the stories take place after 1920, following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and they all deal, even if indirectly, with everyday life after this momentous event. Rulfo’s evaluation of the Revolution is almost always negative, and his concerns range from topics as broad as: Cycles of violence (“The man,” “The burning plain”); Illegitimate children (“The burning plain”); The unrealized goal of land reform (“They gave us the land,” “Tell them not to kill me,” “The Hill of the Comadres”); Failed educational reform (“Luvina”); Immigration to the North (“Paso del Norte”); The subsequent Cristero War (“Anacleto Morones,” “The night they left him alone”). In just under one hundred pages Rulfo manages to give us a vivid panoramic view of the many struggles faced by rural Mexicans in the postrevolutionary period.

The Cristero War

Another historical theme which provides some context for these stories is the Cristero War. This war, which occurred between 1926 and 1929 was a conservative reaction to the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) and more specifically the "revolutionary" government of Plutarco Elias Calles. Catholic militias rose up to protest the restricted rights of the Church under this new government and the Constitution of 1917. The Cristero rebels believed they were fighting for Christ. It is for this reason that Feliciano’s character repeatedly makes references such as “Long live Christ, Our Lord!” in "The night they left him alone" and Lucas Lucatero recounts having to confess at gunpoint before the Cristeros in "Anacleto Morones." The conflict was ended through diplomacy just as the future of the Cristero cause was beginning to appear more promising.

The "Rulfian" narrator

Due to the relatively homogeneous style, tone and content of many of Rulfo’s stories in The Burning Plain, it is possible to conceive of nearly all the third person narrators as nearly interchangeable. This character, (along with nearly all the others) is dispossessed of any physical description. His narration is limited and occurs in third person. This narrator’s job—the same in each short story narrated in the third person—is to discreetly point out relevant and often more poetic details to the reader (for instance, in “No dogs bark” he notes that the father and son form just one wavering shadow, “una sola sombra, tambaleante”). Concentrated brevity is the goal in the narrator’s discourse, since Rulfo felt that the best short stories should be as short as possible.