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The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis

by Juan Rulfo

“No dogs bark” ("No oyes ladrar los perros")

Summary

The story with a father’s request that his son Ignacio tell him if he can’t hear anything or see any lights in the distance: “You up there, Ignacio! Don’t you hear something or see a light somewhere?” Ignacio responds that he does not, and the father says that they must be getting close.

The reader slowly realizes that Ignacio is being carried in a sitting position on his father’s shoulders. This is a technique typical of Rulfo, who likes to keep certain information from his readers in order to disorient them and make them work to make sense of a story. We do not yet know the relationship between the two adult men (both are referred to as “men”) or why Ignacio is being carried.

The father notes that they should soon be getting to the town of Tonaya, which someone told them was just beyond the hill they crossed hours ago. The father says he is tired and Ignacio responds, “Put me down.” The “old man” is able to lean against a property wall for a few moments but does not lower his son. The narrator notes that the son speaks very little, and less and less with time. He also seems to sleep at times or tremble as if he were very cold. We hereby know that something is wrong with Ignacio but we do not know what. The son’s feet dig into his father’s sides as if they were spurs and his hands shake his head as if it were a rattle.

The father wonders aloud where "Tonaya" is; Ignacio responds that the doesn’t feel well and wants to be set down. The father responds that he’ll get his son to the town and there the doctor will see him.

At this point, the relationship between father and son becomes more nuanced. The father notes that he is not doing this for Ignacio, but rather for Ignacio’s dead mother, who would never have forgiven him for leaving her son where he found him. He says that his wife is what gives him courage, not his son, who has caused him “nothing but trouble, humiliation, and shame.” We discover that Ignacio has been a wandering thief and has even murdered people, including the father’s old friend, Tranquilino, who baptized the boy.

The father again asks Ignacio if he can see or hear anything, to which he responds in the negative. The father observes that Ignacio should be able to hear the dogs barking even thought the lights in the town have been turned off. The son asks for water but the father says he can’t let him down because he won’t be able to lift him up again. This leads the father to speak about Ignacio's mother, who died when her son was a baby. The memory of Ignacio’s mother seems to make Ignacio cry, even though he never did anything for her. He says his son’s body was always full of evil rather than love.

At the end of the story we finally glimpse the events that brought Ignacio to this point. The father notes that now “they” have wounded Ignacio’s body. He notes that all Ignacio’s “friends” have been killed, only they didn’t have anyone to look after them as Ignacio does.

Finally, the two men arrive at Tonaya, with it’s roofs shining in the moonlight. When the father gets to the first house he leans against the wall. With difficulty he slips Ignacio’s dangling body off his back and separates his son’s hands from around his neck. Now that Ignacio is no longer blocking his hearing, the sound of dogs barking.

In a circular fashion, the story ends as it began, with the father words on the inefficacy of Ignacio as a lookout. “And you didn’t hear them, Ignacio?” he says. “You didn’t even help me listen.”

Analysis

In this story we witness a common theme in Mexican literature, as well as in that of Latin America as a whole: the problematic nature of the father-son relationship. Ignacio’s relationship with his father is interesting in and of itself for the way in which the father, despite being clearly at odds with his son, nevertheless undertakes the incredible task of carrying him to Tonaya. It can be also be read, however, as an allegory of the problematic relationship of the post-revolutionary period with the idealistic Revolution that preceded it.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-20) was driven by idealism and hope for a great future, particularly one where the poor would receive the land they desired and the economic stability that had previously belonged to corrupt politicians. Many of these hopes were never realized however, since instead of land reform, a new generation of corruption began where previous revolutionaries sold their allegiance to the highest bidder.

Although the allegory is far from obvious, we can see the outlines of this problem in the relationship of Ignacio and his father. The father clearly had great hopes for his family (a common metaphor for the “nation”) but these quickly faded with the loss of his wife and the fragmentation of his family. The next generation — his son Ignacio — due in part to the impossibility of this ideal “family” and his own shortcomings, has become corrupted, much like many during the post-revolutionary period.

The role of the bad friends who contribute to Ignacio’s downfall is important here, since “friends” are allegiances that are outside the family and the nation. These friends could be metaphors for the role of the foreign influences (such as the United States) that tried to benefit economically from the chaos that followed the Revolution.

Rulfo does not neatly wrap this story up in allegory, however, since the father’s feelings for his son are clearly ambivalent. He feels the strong desire to reject his son, but nevertheless must yield to the urge to save him from mortal danger. Perhaps this could be a sign of the persistence of revolutionary idealism in the face of what is clearly a lost cause.

The political shortcomings of the Revolution and their subsequent repercussions are not treated directly by the story, but are certainly hidden below its surface and emanate out through the dramatic events narrated. Evidence of these failures is implicit in “No dogs bark” in the question of why the father is carrying the son to Tonaya, and not to his own town. The unstated reason is that there is no doctor where the father and son live. With this simple detail, Rulfo manages to work in a persistent problem that the Revolution proposed to vanquish, the basic issues of social security: health care, shelter, employment, education. He does not denounce or draw attention to it, but the lack of a doctor remains as an underlying cause of the two men’s predicament. As a result, in the most subtle way — and without taking away from the aesthetic value of the work — these stories continue to serve as nagging reminders of how so many promises were broken or forgotten.

One could argue “No dogs bark” has some of the theatrical qualities of tragedy in the fatalistic manner in which the characters are driven towards their inevitable destruction. This quality is supported by the way the story largely consists of dialog between the father and son. It is also notable that “No dogs bark” also exhibits a tendency towards romanticism. The night, the moon and the individual heroism of the father in carrying his son contribute to this romantic impulse, and these elements serve in turn to heighten the force of the story’s tragic ending.

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