The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by Juan Rulfo
“Talpa” is narrated in third person by a nameless character who is described only as the brother of Tanilo and the lover of Tanilo’s wife, Natalia. The story begins at what is technically its end, with a description of Natalia throwing herself into her mother’s arms and sobbing upon their return to Zenzontla. The narrator tells us she has been keeping these emotions inside for the entire journey. He explains that she has not been able to cry because they had been under the stress of burying Tanilo without help in Talpa. This had been done using their bare hands and in great haste in order to “hide Tanilo in the grave so he wouldn’t keep on scaring people with his smell so full of death.” Natalia did not allow herself to cry on the way home despite the way their footsteps seemed “like blows on Tanilo’s grave.”
Natalia cried in her mother’s arms in order to upset the woman, so she would know Natalia was truly suffering from the death of her husband. The narrator explains that he felt her weeping inside him too, “as if she was wringing out the cloth of our sins.” He goes on to conclude the first section of the story with the startling confession that he and Natalia killed Tanilo Santos. He says they made Tanilo come with them to Talpa, knowing the journey would kill him.
The perspective of the story then shifts from a description of the recent past (Natalia and the narrator’s return to Zenzontla) to the more distant past (the journey to Talpa and the events that preceeded it). The narrator tells us that the idea of traveling to Talpa was Tanilo’s before anyone else thought of it. Tanilo had been hoping someone would take him for years, ever since he noticed the purple blisters on his arms and legs. The blisters then became wounds that didn’t bleed but oozed yellow pus. He said he knew that the only cure available was to travel to Talpa so the Virgin of Talpa could cure him with her gaze. Talpa was far away and the voyage would be difficult under the hot sun and cold March nights, but it would be worth it when the Virgin washed his wounds “making everything fresh and new like a recently rained-on field.”
The narrator explains that he and Natalia encouraged this notion. They would both have to go with him: the narrator because he is Tanilo’s brother, Natalia because she is his wife. Natalia would have to help him, “taking him by the arm, bearing his weight on her shoulders […], while he dragged along on his hope.”
The narrator tells us that he and Natalia had feelings for each other, but that as long as Talpa was alive they could never be together because she would have to take care of him. Both the narrator and Natalia feel guilt for their role in expediting Talpa's death. What makes them feel particularly guilty, however, is the way they pushed Tanilo on when he did not want to walk anymore. When he told them he wanted to go back home Natalia and the narrator would yank him up and tell him they couldn’t go back since Talpa was now closer than Zenzontla. This was a lie however since Talpa was still many days away. They wanted him to die.
The narrator recalls the nights on the road particularly well. At first they would have some light from the fire, but when it died down they would go off into the shadows and make love. Night after night the heat of their bodies would combine with that of the earth until the cold dawn arrived. During these times Natalia would finally feel as if she were resting.
Getting to the main road to Talpa took twenty days of travel alone. However, at the main road pilgrims began to join them and they formed a river-like mass, pushing one another along. The current of people was difficult to navigate with Tanilo, and the dust raised by the throngs made travel extra difficult. Only at nighttime was the trio able to rest from the sun that had beat down on them all day. The days also began to get longer and the nights shorter since it was now March and they had left Zenzontla in the middle of February.
Tanilo’s condition began to worsen and he started to say he didn’t want to proceed. His feet had begun to bleed and they helped him recuperate. He said he would stay there for a couple of days and then return to Zenzontla. Natalia and the narrator, however, could feel no pity for him. Natalia rubbed his feet with alcohol and encouraged him, saying only the Virgin of Talpa could cure him.
The narrator explains that they finally entered Talpa at the end of March singing a hymn praising the Lord. A lot of people were already returning home. Inspired by the religious sights and sounds of Talpa, Tanilo decided to do penance. He tied his feet together so that walking was harder and wanted to wear a crown of thorns. Later he bandaged his eyes and decided to walk on this knees. Due to this self-mortification he took on a dehumanized appearance: “that thing that was my brother Tanilo Santos reached Talpa, that thing so covered with plasters and dried streaks of blood that it left in the air a sour smell like a dead animal when he passed by.”
When they entered the church Natalia had Tanilo kneel beside her in front of the golden figure of the Virgin of Talpa. He started to pray and “let a huge tear fall, from way down inside him, snuffing out the candle Natalia had placed in his hands.” He continued praying, shouting so that he could hear himself over the other pilgrims. The narrator repeats that all this didn’t matter, though, because Tanilo died anyway. A priest recited a prayer to the Virgin from the pulpit and the narrator and Natalia discovered that Tanilo had died with his head resting on his knees.
The story then returns to its initial perspective of the more recent past, after the trip to Talpa. The narrator says that Natalia’s mother hasn’t asked him what he did with his brother Tanilo. Natalia cried on her shoulder and told her everything.
He and Natalia have begun to be afraid of each other. Tanilo’s body seems to still be with them. They cannot get the image of the cadaver out of their minds, especially the way his eyes were wide open “like he was looking at his own death,” or the stench so thick they could taste it in their mouths.
The narrator concludes with the confession-like observation that what they remember most is that Tanilo was buried in the Talpa graveyard and that they had to throw earth and stones on him “so the wild animals wouldn’t come dig him up.”
Religion is a significant theme throughout The Burning Plain, but it takes a particularly central position in “Talpa.” Not only is the story driven on the surface by Tanilo’s religious pilgrimage to Talpa, but within this frame we also see other characters accommodate Tanilo’s desire to be the consummate pilgrim by themselves behaving as if this were a sacred voyage. Though Natalia and the narrator begin the trip with the intention of finishing off the dying Tanilo so they can be together, along the way they do their best to feed his hope of a religious miracle, if only to further motivate him to drive himself toward an early grave. Ironically, Tanilo had been seeking a surprising miracle of renewed life when he undertook the pilgrimage that unsurprisingly resulted in his death. The narrator ruins the reader’s hope for this kind of miracle in the story’s first lines when he explains that Tanilo did not survive.
However, in a way the pilgrimage to Talpa did result in a miracle — just not the one Tanilo expected. Perhaps the miracle is the effect that the trip has on his wife and brother, who come out of it shamed into abandoning their sinful relationship and stricken by guilt. Additionally, while Tanilo is referred to by the narrator earlier in the story as “that thing that was my brother Tanilo Santos,” his wife and brother come to contemplate him with empathy in his last moments of life. The descriptions of the great tear that extinguishes his candle and of the way his prayerful, curled-up body obstructs the Virgin’s view of the festivities are quite moving and are what drive Natalia and the narrator to feel remorse and finally identify with his suffering.
In this manner, Tanilo truly does become the Christ-like figure he tries to emulate. Through his death and suffering, new awareness is born in Natalia and the narrator. Though the final description of Tanilo’s dead body filled with flies might seem too grotesque to be transcendent, visually graphic depictions of Christ’s suffering on the cross have long been central images in Catholic iconography. The narrator’s discourse — as we see throughout The Burning Plain — also comes in the form of a Catholic-like confession of sins: “we took him there so he’d die, and that’s what I can’t forget.”
During the pilgrimage, Tanilo, Natalia and the narrator seem to do their best to perform the ideal religious narrative to which the sick man is aspiring. Most notably, Tanilo asks to wear a crown of thorns toward the end of the story. Also, the narrator explains in the beginning that Natalia would have to bear “his weight on her shoulders on the trip there and perhaps on the way back,” and later on says that: “Natalia and I felt that our bodies were being bent double. It was as if something was holding us and placing a heavy load on top of us. Tanilo fell down and we had to pick him up and sometimes carry him on our backs.” These descriptions evoke the via crucis or Stations of the Cross, where Jesus struggled to carry the cross and was helped at one point by Simon of Cyrene.
Natalia also is described in a similar way to Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has been identified as an adulteress and a prostitute, and this coincides with the description of Natalia’s nightly lustful liaisons with her husband’s brother. Natalia also washes Tanilo’s blistered feet with alcohol at one point in “Talpa,” which is similar to Mary Magdalene’s washing of Jesus’s feet with oil at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Perhaps not coincidentally, Simon the Pharisee is often viewed as a leper, and leprosy could be one diagnosis of Tanilo’s disease. Lazarus is another character whose sickness could be compared to that of Tanilo. As for the narrator, his traitorous behavior could be compared with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus or with the way Cain lead Abel out into the field to kill him.
In this way, “Talpa” can be read as a religious allegory whose incomplete or even contradictory nature becomes increasingly evident as the characters force themselves to imitate ideals that they know are beyond them. Desperation drives them to call on elements of a number of Biblical tales in an effort to transcend their surroundings. Though the allegory is faulty and predominantly motivated by the trio’s self-interest, the reader nevertheless finds him or herself moved by the painstaking lengths these characters go to in order to make the story of their trip to Talpa approach the status of a parable.
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