The Burning Plain and Other Stories

Summary and Analysis of "Macario"

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Summary

This story, which is better described as a monologue, begins with Macario describing the task of killing frogs that his Godmother has set for him: “I am sitting by the sewer waiting for the frogs to come out.” Godmother had trouble sleeping the night before due to their singing so she “ordered” him to sit by the sewer with a board to “whack to smithereens every frong that may come hopping out.” Macario discusses the difference in appearance between toads and frogs, noting that like the toads, Godmother’s eyes are black, whereas like the frogs, Felipa’s eyes are green. Frogs are good to eat, whereas toads are not, a detail which we later learn corresponds with the two women’s general disposition and relationship with Macario.

Macario tells us that he loves Felipa more than Godmother, but that Godmother is the one who pays for the all the food in the house, so he and Felipa follow her orders. Felipa shops and cooks for Macario and Godmother, and we get the impression she is a housekeeper who receives food and lodging in exchange for the work she does. Macario’s tells us his job in the house is to do the dishes and carry wood for the stove. Godmother divides up and serves the food. To Macario’s delight, Felipa sometimes doesn’t feel hungry and gives him her food.

The protagonist then begins to tell us of the most dominant force in his life, hunger. He says: “I’m always hungry and I never get filled up,” “They say in the street that I’m crazy because I never stop being hungry. Godmother has heard them say that. I haven’t.” As the story develops we learn that Macario is generally unaware of what other people think of him, only of what he thinks of them. As a result, Godmother is usually the one to tell him of his effect on the outside world and is careful to protect it from Macario’s disruptive nature. At church she ties his hands with her shawl (“she says it’s because they say I do crazy things”) so that he is tied to her. Macario also tells us that he has been accused of “hanging” a lady, “just to be doing it,” and that sometimes he is invited to eat by people who then throw stones at him. Due to these negative encounters with the outside world, he prefers life at Godmother’s house.

Macario then goes on to describe Felipa’s breast milk, “as sweet as hibiscus flowers,” and better than goat’s or sow’s milk. She used to come into his room every night and lean over him to let him suckle, at “the breasts she has where we just have ribs.” Macario says that the hibiscus flowers often let him forget his hunger, and that Felipa’s milk has the same flavor. He prefers the milk to the flowers however, because as he sucked, she would also “tickle him all over.” At the end she would usually sleep by him until morning. This section of the text shows us the complex nature of Macario and Felipa’s relationship.

One reason Macario appreciates Felipa’s company is because he isn’t afraid of being damned to hell if he is in her presence. She puts at ease his fear of dying, saying that when she goes to heaven she will tell God about Macario’s sins and ask for his forgiveness so that Macario doesn’t have to worry anymore. She goes to confession everyday to help rid Macario of the devils he has inside by confessing for him.

Macario then begins to tell us about his hard head and how he loves to bang it against different surfaces (pillars, the floor) with different rhythms and intensities in order to make it sound like a drum. He especially wants to reproduce the sound of the drum that accompanies the wood flute he hears outside when in church. He also refers to leaving the house at night in order to wander the streets.

Macario explains that he needs to have his hands tied after strangers throw rocks at him because he likes to pick at the scabs from his injuries. He says that the blood has a good taste, like that of Felipa’s milk. This is why he doesn’t leave the house. He likes to bar the door to his room so that his sins can’t find him in the dark. When he goes to sleep he doesn’t leave a torch on so he can see the cockroaches that climb on him, instead he just slaps them and listens to them “pop like firecrackers.” He doesn’t know if crickets make the same sound when smashed. Felipa says the noise of crickets drowns out the screams of the souls in purgatory. Macario therefore concludes that without crickets, “the world would be filled with the screams of holy souls.” Every once in a while he feels a scorpion crawl across him and has to stay very still. Felipa was stung once on the behind by a scorpion and was in horrible pain. Macario rubbed spit on the sting but it didn’t help.

The protagonist says he likes it better in his room than outside because Godmother lets him eat whatever he wants, including the slop for the pigs. Macario will stay at the house as long as they continue to feed him. He then returns to the original topic of conversation and says no frogs have come out of the sewer while he has been talking. He says Godmother will be angry if the frogs start singing again and pray to the saints to send him straight to hell without purgatory (where his papa and mama are) so he had better keep talking. With the last lines of the story Macario returns to the topic of Felipa’s milk, saying he wishes he could have a few swallows of it.

Analysis

“Macario” is undoubtedly the most challenging of Rulfo’s short stories to summarize due to its narrative style. The story is really more of a monologue than a short story, and it is delivered by the protagonist, Macario, in one long paragraph in the first person. The flowing nature of Macario’s discourse resembles the technique of “stream of consciousness,” as the character free-associates, jumping from one topic to another and back in very little time. The sentences are short and simple, as in other Rulfo stories. The difference is that, in addition to capturing the voice of simple rural folk, here Rulfo’s language also communicates Macario’s childlike nature.

While the rural town life Macario describes is very much the same as we encounter in other Rulfo stories, the “stream of conscious” narration is quite different. This is one of the few stories where there is no external narrator. The presentation of the character of Macario is akin to that which appears in Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo, where characters’ thoughts are often related in an unmediated manner.

This exploration of Macario’s complicated psyche is also notable when compared with the other stories in the collection. The majority of the characters in The Burning Plain are involved in basic but intense — and often instinctual — struggles with the land, the elements, or political forces beyond their control. In many cases these vaguely outlined characters are almost mutually substitutable. In “Macario,” however, we find the author content to explore the psyche of a most unique and irreplaceable figure, that of the town idiot. He is undoubtedly one of the most complex of Rulfo’s characters. His nature is strongly ambivalent, as he alternately entertains us (as he describes his Godmother’s habit of tying him up while in church) or repulses us (as he describes eating pig slop or crushing cockroaches or frogs and scratching his scabs). The story of his adoption by Godmother and Felipa is also a touching one, yet his relationship with the latter is likewise simultaneously beautiful and strange — or even taboo. These elements all combine to make “Macario” a particularly complex and unusual short story in Rulfo’s collection, both in its presentation and in the demands it makes on us as readers.

Macario’s relationship with Felipa is one of the most interesting aspects of this short story, and is one source of the ambivalence it produces in the reader. Felipa is undoubtedly a nurturing figure in Macario’s life since she gives him her extra food, prays for him, and treats him with kindness. At the same time, her nurturing qualities manifest themselves in an unsettling fashion when we learn she used to feed him her breast milk. The reader is not given a time reference on when this occurred, we only know it happened when Macario was younger (and we do not know how old he is now). This would seem rather innocent if we did not also learn that after feeding him she would tickle him and spend the rest of the night in his bed. This strange undercurrent of sexuality is actually a theme in Rulfo’s production that some have characterized as “unconscious eroticism”: “Felipa used to come every night to the room where I sleep, and snuggle up next to me, leaning over me […]. Then she would fix her breasts so that I could suck the sweet, hot milk that came out in streams on my tongue.” We also observe this technique of “unconscious eroticism” in the description of the pubescent Tacha, whose growing breasts and work for her perdition, in “We’re very poor.”

One cannot discount Felipa’s role as a surrogate mother to Macario, however. While, the moment of breastfeeding and subsequent tickling has erotic tones, these are complicated in turn by other factors in the wider Mexican political landscape. The desperate economic situation has evidently left all three of the characters in the story displaced. Although Macario is the most overt outcast, the husbandless Godmother has clearly been isolated from a relatively wealthy class since she willingly takes on Macario and Felipa. Felipa in turn must have also lost her family in order to be capable of breastfeeding.

As a result, these characters have all managed to subtly build a makeshift family out of the wreckage of the post-revolutionary period. This fact makes Macario Rulfo’s happiest character (perhaps his only happy character), and makes this short story perhaps the only evidence of the rural poor triumphing over adversity in The Burning Plain. Sadly, Rulfo could be placing this story at the beginning of the collection in order to metaphorically represent the destruction of happiness in the stories that follow.