The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by Juan Rulfo
"The man" ("El hombre")
The first of this very challenging story’s two parts is narrated in third person and alternates between descriptions of two different people: a fugitive “man” and his “pursuer,” often referred to as “the one who was following him.” The perspective changes every couple of paragraphs from one man to the other, so for the purpose of clarity in this summary I will refer to the fugitive as the “man” and the follower as the “pursuer.” In addition, it is important to note that every once in a while the author includes a purely descriptive paragraph about the terrain. In instances such as these it is impossible to definitively attribute these descriptions to the experience of one man or the other.
“The man” begins with back-and-forth narration, as a man walks through the sand and his pursuer follows at a distance. The pursuer notes that the man is missing his left big toe, which makes him easy to track.
The pursuer says out loud that the man is using a machete to clear his path: “You can tell he was gripped by fear. Fear always leaves marks. That’s what will cause his downfall.” The narrator shifts back to the man and explains that his courage is disappearing as the horizon seems to get further and further away. He cut away roots and grass and “chewed on a slimy mess” before spitting it out in anger. It is the dry season and the terrain is very thorny and rough. He decides to stop using the machete because otherwise it will get dull. The man hears the sound of his own voice.
Although the narrator does not signal it explicitly, the narration then moves backwards in time to an earlier sequence of events. The man is outside a house at night with his machete and is greeted by two dogs in the darkness. The narration then jumps back to the present perspective of the pursuer who talks to himself about what happened next in the house. He says that the man didn’t wake up the people in the house. He arrived at around one in the morning at the moment when, taken over by sleep, the body is completely unsuspecting. In the next paragraph the man then says to himself: “I shouldn’t have killed all of them.”
In the present, the man approaches a winding river. The perspective then shifts back to the moment when the man was in the house. The man asks for forgiveness and then “began his work.” Although it is not completely clear to the reader exactly what is happening, we later understand that he is killing three people in their sleep with a machete. As this happens he can’t tell if the moisture on his face is sweat or tears.
The pursuer then notes that at this point in the trail the man must have sat down beside the river to wait for the sun to come out. He says that he remembers that day because it was the day he buried his newborn son. He says he remembers the flowers he was carrying were faded and drooping since the sun wasn’t out that afternoon.
The perspective then shifts back to the fugitive man, who continues on his way, very guilt-stricken. He says to himself that he had to leave the path in order to avoid others. The man then says to himself that he has to be careful when crossing the river, which is a “tangle of bends” that might take him back to where he doesn’t want to be.
The narration then shifts back to the pursuer, who imagines himself talking to members of his dead family as he walks. The pursuer then reveals the significant detail that the fleeing man was only trying to get revenge for the murder of his brother. He explains that the man’s name is José Alcancía, and that José is the brother of a man he killed. The difference between the pursuer’s act of murder and that of José is that José killed his victims while they were asleep, whereas the pursuer killed José’s brother face to face. The pursuer goes on to explain that he waited for José for a month, knowing he would come to kill him. However, the burial of his newborn baby delayed him one day and this was the day the man came to the house.
The perspective shifts back to the guilt-ridden man (José), who clearly thinks he managed to kill his pursuer. In the meantime, he is still concerned that he has not been able to find a way out of the riverbed.
Sensing that the man he is chasing has reached a dead end, the pursuer says to himself: “You’re caught.” He decides to sit and wait for the man to come back since he knows the fugitive is blocked from proceeding by the river. He says he will use the time to practice his aim and plan where he will shoot the man: “Time doesn’t matter. I’m patient.” Sure enough, when the perspective shifts back to the man, he realizes: “I’ll have to go back.”
The story then shifts to its second part, which is narrated in first person by a shepherd. His narration seems to take form of a transcript of an interrogation where only the interviewee’s responses are recorded. The shepherd describes how he saw the man from a distance. The man wandered the riverbed, obviously lost.
The shepherd then explains how he saw the man come back to the riverbed a while later, skinnier than before. The man approached the shepherd and asked if the sheep were his before grabbing a ewe, turning it over and sucking on its teats. The animal protested but the man held it so tightly it couldn’t escape. The man said he was from far away and that he hadn’t eaten in days. The narrator reports that he would have killed him if he had known about the murders. However, the man didn’t seem evil, and talked with sadness about his wife and children. The shepherd mentions that later the man ate an animal that had died of disease.
The tone of the story then becomes more urgent as the shepherd appears to defend himself from his accusers: “So now when I come to tell you what I know, I’m in cahoots with him? […] And you say you’re going to throw me in jail for hiding that guy? Like I was the one who killed that family. I just came to tell you that there’s a dead man in a pool of the river.” He insists that had he known who the man was, he would have killed him.
The shepherd then relates finding the man dead. He says that he thought the man somehow drowned in a pool when he found him, but then he saw that the back of his neck was filled with bullet holes.
The multiple perspectives in “The man” make it a relatively unique story in Rulfo’s production. Three perspectives are employed by the author, and though they might seem to belong to very different characters, they all actually correspond quite well with the Rulfian practice of character interchangeability. While we might be tempted to classify José as the murderer and Urquidi as the pursuer, this is really just a game of cat and mouse where the roles are exchanged every so often.
Though at the beginning José is pursued by Urquidi, in the course of the story we learn that José was originally looking for Urquidi in order to exact revenge for the murder of his brother before he killed his family. When the story ends, we learn from the shepherd’s testimony that Urquidi has again turned into a wanted man. In this manner, the two men are actually quite similar in that they both love their family’s very much (Urquidi talks with great sadness about the loss of his sons, and the shepherd tells us José cried when he talked about his wife and children), and each also killed a member of the other’s family. As a result, through their monologues we see how they classify themselves as both pursuer and pursued, murderer and victim, family man and bad father. We as readers find ourselves reacting with both empathy and dismay at both man’s actions. In the end we see that each man’s particular circumstances end up being secondary to the cycle of violence in which they are trapped. This lack of differentiation between the two men is reinforced by the fact that the reader can scarcely tell the characters’ voices apart amidst the alternating quotation marks and italics.
This cycle of violence does not limit itself to José and Urquidi, however. At the story’s end it widens to include the shepherd, who at first was merely an innocent witness. Now he becomes converted into a suspect, someone to be pursued by the law. Since he is being interrogated by the Licenciado we can see that the local government officials who should work to end this cycle only add to it. The intervention of official juridical forces does not resolve problems but rather creates more victims. This is yet another indictment of the post-revolutionary government in Mexico. All three men are fugitives in their own country.
In this story the reader also observes the breakdown of family institutions. Both of the men in the first part of the story lose contact with their families as a result of personal vendettas. The fugitive man has abandoned his wife and children in order to seek revenge on the pursuer, and the pursuer has lost his family as a result of killing the fugitive’s brother. We also learn that the pursuer was off on his own when his family was killed, mourning the loss of his infant son. In this manner, these personal acts of vengeance come at the price of a breakdown of the institution of the family. It is no coincidence that the most shocking crime is committed against the innocent members of a family while they sleep in their own home.
Throughout this story, the impossibility of escape emerges as a dominant theme. The armed struggle of the Revolution began a cycle of violence from which none of the characters can disentangle themselves. Violence has evidently become so prevalent that it no longer requires justification. Hence the apparent lack of information surrounding the events that set off the conflict between José and Urquidi. Why did Urquidi kill José’s brother? What did José’s brother do to deserve his fate? The attitudes of both men imply that these details have become too distant to be relevant. The cycle of violence began at some point they are compelled to continue it. Perhaps this is why Rulfo originally titled this story “Where the river runs in circles.”
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