The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by Juan Rulfo
“We’re very poor” ("Es que somos muy pobres")
“We’re very poor” begins with a sentence that sums up the tone of the story quite well: “Everything is going from bad to worse here.” The narrator is speaking about the hardships that his family has recently had to endure, and he subsequently tells us that his Aunt Jacinta died last week, and then during the burial “it began raining like never before.” The rain represents a problem because it has ruined the rye harvest which was stacked outside to dry in the sun, making the narrator's father very angry.
The storm came unexpectedly, “in great waves of water,” without giving the family time to bring any of the harvest inside. All they could do was sit under their roof watching the water. On top of these misfortunes, we are told that the cow that the father had given to the narrator’s twelve-year-old sister Tacha for her birthday has been swept away by the river.
The narrator then talks about the river, saying it began to rise at around dawn three nights ago. He had been sleeping but the noise of the river woke him up and made him get out of bed, because he thought the roof might be caving in. When he woke in the morning it was still raining and the roar of the river sounded closer and louder than before. Now the narrator could smell the river, “like you smell a fire, the rotting smell of backwater.” When he went to look at the river it had breached it’s banks and was climbing along the town’s main street toward the home of a woman called La Tambora. Water was gushing out of her front door. The woman was desperately trying to move hens into the street so they could find a place to escape the water. The narrator also notes that the tamarind tree in Aunt Jacinta’s yard has been taken by the river. This is a sign that this is an extraordinary flood, since the tree has always survived when the river rose in the past.
Tacha and the narrator went back later in the afternoon to watch “that mountain of water that kept getting thicker and darker” and has risen far beyond where the bridge should be. The two stood there for hours without tiring, just contemplating the water’s fury. Afterwards they moved back to where one could talk over the sound, and then they learned that the river had taken away La Serpentina, Tacha’s cow with one red ear and pretty eyes.
The narrator asks himself how it occurred to La Serpentina to cross the river when it was so violent. All he can think of is that she must have fallen asleep and drowned when the water reached her. He remembers that she was always content to stay and sleep in the corral rather than leaving to feed. The narrator wonders if the cow woke up when the water touched her. He imagines she must have been frightened and tried to escape, but she probably got confused and got a cramp in the black slippery water. Perhaps she cried for help: “Only God knows how she bellowed.”
The main character then asks a man who saw her swept away if he also saw the cow’s calf. The man didn’t know, however. He only saw the spotted La Serpentina wash by with her legs in the air before she turned over and disappeared. The man had been fishing firewood out of the river so he couldn’t be sure what was floating by. As a result, the family doesn’t know if the calf died with its mother.
The family is particularly upset because now Tacha is without her cow. The father worked hard to acquire the animal to give to her as a future dowry. This way she wouldn’t become a “bad woman” (a prostitute, in the Spanish), like his two older sisters did. The father says they were bad because they were poor and very wild. They were difficult children, went out with the wrong types of men and listened to the whistles directed their way at nighttime. They would go down to the river for water all too often and all of a sudden would both be rolling around naked on the ground with a man each.
After putting up with them for as long as he could, the narrator’s father ran the two girls off. They went to Ayutla where they are now “bad women.” This is what makes the father upset, because he doesn’t want Tacha to turn into a prostitute. Now she is very poor without the cow and will have trouble attracting “a good man who will always love her.” The narrator explains that before someone would have “had the courage to marry her, just to get that fine cow.”
The family’s last hope is that the calf survived. If it didn’t Tacha is all too close to becoming a “bad woman.” The mother questions God’s decision to punish her daughters, especially since her family has always consisted of good people, ever since her grandmother. She wonders where her daughters went wrong, because she can’t find any fault in the way they were raised. She hopes God will look after them.
The father says there is nothing they can do now. The danger is that Tacha is growing, particularly her chest, and her breasts are “promising to be like her sisters,” “the kind that […] attract attention.” He is sure that his daughter’s breasts will catch the eye of local men and that she will end up a prostitute.
The narrator observes Tacha crying over the cow. At his side in her pink dress he watches as “streams of dirty water run down her face as if the river had gotten inside her.” He hugs her but she cries harder, and a noise comes out of her mouth — like the river as it overrides its banks — and she shakes as the water rises. The story ends as the narrator describes how drops from the river splash Tacha’s face, and her breasts move up and down rhythmically “as if suddenly they were beginning to swell, to start now on the road to ruin.”
In “We’re very poor” we once against perceive Rulfo’s subtle critique of post-revolutionary Mexican society. This time it is the economy that comes under fire, however, as the reader immediately notices the profoundly rudimentary agricultural methods of the narrator’s family. The family has no choice but to set the harvest of rye out in the open to dry under the sun. As a result, when bad weather comes there is no way to shelter it. Additionally, when it needs to be moved, this can only be accomplished by hand. This description emphasizes the extremely underdeveloped nature of Mexican agriculture, especially in comparison with the modern capitalist system that the contemporary government hopes to impose.
Given the relatively poor quality of the redistributed land after the Revolution, many of the hopes of the rural poor rested in the possession of capital or consumption goods. In “We’re very poor” resources are so scarce that all the family’s hopes rest in the cow La Serpentina and her calf. This spotted cow with a pink ear and pretty eyes receives more physical description than the vast majority of Rulfo’s characters.
The role of the father is prominent once again in “We’re very poor.” Throughout The Burning Plain the father is the person charged with the responsibility of shepherding his family through the various trials of life, and in this case we see he is the first to recognize the full ramifications of the flood. With the rising of the waters not only has the family lost its collective capital in the ruined rye, but also that of their last daughter. The father’s failed economic attempt to capitalize therefore leads to a moral failure as it means his daughter will become a prostitute.
The Rulfian theme of “unbalanced nature” is once again at play in this story. While in “They gave us the land,” there is an extreme shortage of water on the Big Plain, in this there is far too much water. This lack of equilibrium in nature is a common theme in Rulfo and proves to be the downfall of many of his characters.
Such emphasis on the natural environment and its effect on the men and women who are subject to its whims might remind us of the “naturalist” quality of much of Rulfo’s writing. Naturalism is a philosophical and literary movement which gained impulse during the 19th century and stressed the importance of realist representation and science, as opposed to the ideal. In “We’re very poor” we see in an objective manner the effect of three of the primary forces at work in naturalist writing: the environment, biological heritage and the instincts. All three of these factors conspire to determine the fate of Tacha: the floods kills her cow, the mother contemplates her family tree to discover where the trait of being a “bad woman” comes from, and we see that Tacha’s sisters clearly succumb to their instinct to fool around with the opposite sex. As we can see from these elements, naturalism tends to show that — just like in the description of Tacha’s breasts at the end of the story — nature usually works toward man’s destruction.
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