The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by Juan Rulfo
The narrator tells us that Urbano Gómez died a while ago, perhaps fifteen years, but that he was a memorable person. He was often called “Grandfather” and his other son, Fidencio, had two “frisky” daughters, one of which had the mean nickname of “Stuck Up.” The other daughter was tall and blue-eyed and many said she wasn’t his. This one got hiccups often and one time interrupted Mass at the moment of the Elevation: “it seemed like she was laughing and crying at the same time.” She wound up marrying Lucio Chico the tavern owner.
They called Urbano’s mother “Eggplant” because she would always get pregnant whenever she fooled around. She had money, but it all went into elaborate burials since all her children died shortly after being born. The wakes were always expensive so she lost her fortune this way. Only two of her children, Urbano and Natalia, survived. “Eggplant” died in her last childbirth, but in life she was a scrapper. The narrator tells us she would always get into arguments with the saleswomen in the market. Eventually when she became poor she had to rummage through the trash to find scraps to feed her children with.
The narrator explains that “Urbano Gómez was more or less our age — maybe a few months older” and was a bit of a swindler or trickster. He sold the narrator Pink flowers, even though they were easy to find on the hillsides. He also sold fruit he had stolen or bought for less from other places, along with whatever other junk he had on him.
We also learn Urbano was also Nachito Rivera’s brother-in-law. Nachito got “feeble-minded” after marrying his wife Inés who then had to take care of him. Nachito would spend all day playing songs on an out of tune mandolin. The narrator and his interlocutor would always go with Urbano to visit his sister and “drink the fruit juice we always owed her for and never paid for.” Later on in life Urbano lost his friends because everyone avoided him so they would not have to pay him back. The narrator wonders if this is why he turned bad, “or maybe he was just that way right from birth.”
Urbano was expelled from school before his fifth year because he got caught “playing man and wife” with his cousin Stuck Up. They humiliated him by pulling him out the doors by his ears between rows of boys and girls: “He marched along there with his face held high, shaking his fist at all of us, like he was saying, ‘You’ll pay for this.’” Later came Stuck Up who burst into tears, “a shrill weeping you could hear all afternoon like it was a coyote’s howl.” The narrator remarks that “only if your memory’s real bad you won’t remember that.”
It is rumored that Urbano’s uncle Fidencio gave him a beating so bad that he almost left the boy paralyzed. This caused Urbano to leave the village. He eventually came back as a policeman, however. He would just sit in the town’s main square with his gun between his legs, “staring at all of us filled with hate.” He never said anything and pretended not to know anyone.
The narrator then remarks that soon afterwards Urbano killed his brother-in-law Nachito. At nighttime Nachito had decided to serenade him with his out of tune mandolin. The church bells were still ringing for the souls in purgatory when the people in the church heard the screams and saw “Nachito on his back defending himself with the mandolin and Urbano hitting him again and again with the butt of his mauser, not hearing what the people shouted at him, rabid, like a sick dog.” Finally someone took the gun away and hit him in the back with it. Urbano collapsed over the garden bench and lay there for the rest of the night. He left in the morning, but not before asking for the priest’s blessing at the church, which he was denied.
The narrator tells us that Urbano was arrested on the road. He didn’t resist and even put the noose around his neck and picked out the tree for them to hang him. The narrator ends the story with another reference to “you,” the reader or interlocutor: “You must remember him, because we were classmates at school, and you knew him just like I did.”
“Remember” is a particularly short story told in third person by a narrator who employs a confidential tone. Like many of Rulfo’s stories, this tale has the intimate feel of a monologue or a recited religious litany. The narrator recalls details about Urbano Gómez and his family as if he were speaking to an invisible interlocutor or perhaps directly to the reader.
A significant trend in Rulfo’s narrative is the manner in which he manages to include or even implicate the reader in the story. In “Remember,” the narrator repeatedly draws the reader into a dialog with him, even if only through the use of rhetorical comments such as “You must’ve known her,” or “Urbano Gómez was more or less our age — maybe a few months older.” Still more frequent is the narrator’s use of the word “remember” early on in quite a few sentences. When “remember” appears at the beginning of a sentence, it is never as a question. In fact, there are no rhetorical questions asked of the reader or interlocutor. This is significant because the narrator is not asking us to remember, he is telling us — or even commanding us — to remember.
If the narrator were to ask us to remember and not tell us to do so, we would find it easier to disengage from the story and shift the burden of memory onto someone else, onto a contemporary of the narrator, perhaps. However, the way the narrator commands us to dedicate to memory (or revive it in our memory) the story of Urbano Gómez demands the reader’s more active participation. The story’s final line seems almost accusatory in nature: “You must remember him, because we were classmates at school, and you knew him just like I did.”
These words seem to elicit a particular response from the reader, specifically a confession. Additionally, as we know by now, many of the stories in this collection already come in the form of a confession. It almost seems as though after so many characters have spilled their darkest secrets out on the page, the narrator is now asking the reader to do the same: Confess that you know Urbano Gómez or someone like him, and that you have tried to forget about them. Confess that stories like his are not as far from your own experience as you might like to think. This confession need not be articulated out loud. The narrator seems to suggest it would be sufficient to simply engage our memory and “remember.”
Rulfo was undoubtedly a politically and socially committed writer. His stories are filled with vivid descriptions of the shortcomings of overarching political institutions like the judicial system, the legislative branch, or the system of public education. In this story, however, there is no apparent institution or governmental department at which one can point a finger. It has been easy up until now for the reader to shake his or her fist at the sky and curse the abstract “powers that be.”
For this reason “Remember” is special because it is the individual, rather than the institution, that finally must bear the burden of responsibility for the tragic end of Urbano Gómez. It is we who abandoned him along the way: “we’d go with Urbano to see his sister, and to drink the fruit juice we always owed her and never paid her for […]. Later on he didn’t have any friends left because all of us, when we’d see him, would avoid him so he wouldn’t collect from us.” Individuals like “us” also subjected him to merciless ridicule as he exited the school after being expelled, and the narrator tells us so: “Only if your memory’s real bad you won’t remember that.” In the end Urbano certainly fully recognizes his own guilt in the murder of Nachito (“he himself tied the rope around his neck and even picked out the tree of his choice for them to hang him from”), it is only fair that we should reciprocate and acknowledge or “confess” our role in forsaking him along the way.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
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