The story begins with the narrator hearing the sound of dogs barking after walking for hours without coming across a trace of anything living on the plain. He describes the “Big Plain” as a totally inhospitable place where the ground is so dry it cracks. There is a town ahead in the distance, though, with all the sounds and smells that typically accompany it.
The narrator explains that he and his three companions (named Faustino, Esteban and Melitón) have been walking since dawn and that it is now four in the afternoon. The men walk two by two and as the narrator looks over his shoulder he realizes that they are now alone. At eleven o’clock there were more than twenty men in their party, but that number has dwindled down to the four that remain.
Faustino remarks that it may rain, and the four men look up at a black cloud in the hope he is right, but then return to their silence. No one speaks because it is simply too hot. Suddenly “a big fat drop of water falls, making a hole in the earth and leaving a mark like spit. It’s the only one that falls.” The men wait for other drops, but none come and the cloud races off into the distance. As a result, “the drop of water which fell here by mistake is gobbled up by the thirsty earth.
The narrator complains to himself about the enormity of the plain and its uselessness, and the men begin walking again. He remembers that since he was a boy he has never seen rain fall on the plain. There are no animals or birds that live there, and only a few huizache trees and some patches of grass.
The story’s protagonist remembers that before they set out on foot, the men had horses and carried rifles, but that is not the case now. He notes that the government officials’ decision to take away their rifles was a good idea since it can be dangerous to be armed in these parts. If you have your rifle with you, you can be killed without warning in these parts. In the narrator’s opinion, taking the horses away was a bad idea, however, since they would have made the trip across the plain much easier.
The narrator notes how, when his eyes scan the horizon of the plain, it is remarkable how they don’t find anything to settle on. There is just open, useless land. Only a few lizards stick their heads out from time to time before returning to the shade of a rock. The narrator explains that this land has been given to them for planting—but where will they find shade to rest from their work?
The narrator goes on to describe the conversation the men had with the government official. To the peasants dismay this man explained to them that they could have all the land on the Big Plain up to the town. They protested that they wanted to be near the river, where the town and the cultivatable land can be found, but the officials said the issue wasn’t up for discussion. They only sarcastically remarked that the men shouldn’t be “afraid to have so much land just for yourselves.” The men complained that there is no water on the plain, and the official’s response is that when the rainy season comes, there will be plenty of water for corn. The peasants press him and argue that no corn will grow because the land is too hard for planting. The official’s final response is that they can complain in writing to the government, but that they should be arguing with the large landowners and not the government who is giving them land. The men immediately say their complaint is with the Big Plain and not the government. They try to start the conversation over but the official refuses to listen.
This is what has brought the men to cross the plain in search of arable land. It is clear, however, that the plain is no more than a “sizzling frying pan.” Not even buzzards appear on the plain. They can only be seen flying high and fast in order to get away as quickly as possible. Melitón speculates that perhaps they could run mares on the plain, a comment that makes the others think he is suffering from sunstroke since they don’t have any mares.
The narrator then notices that Esteban is carrying a red hen under his coat. When he asks Esteban where he found the hen, Esteban replies that she is his and that she’s from his chicken yard. He hasn’t brought her along for food but rather because he wants to take care of her. He brings her with him whenever he goes far from home. The narrator recommends that Esteban let her out of his coat so that she doesn’t get smothered. Esteban takes her out and blows air on her.
Finally the men come to the cliff. They descend it in single file and Esteban holds the hen by her legs and swings her to avoid hitting her head on the rocks. After walking for so long in the open they they enjoy getting dusty during the descent. As soon as they reach the bottom of the barranca the land improves. Birds are flying over the green trees above the river, and they can hear the dogs barking nearer now. The wind carries the other noises of the town toward them.
When they get to the first houses Esteban unties the hen’s legs and lets her run off into some nearby trees. He tells the others this is where he is stopping and they all begin to go their separate ways as they move into town. The narrator closes the story with the simple declaration: “The land they’ve given us is back up yonder.”
The need of the rural poor for arable land was one of the main objectives of the Mexican Revolution. The title of the story lets us know from the very beginning that we are now in the postrevolutionary period, where the goals of the armed uprising have been realized and the peasants have received the parcels of land they laid so many laid down their lives for.
The irony, however, is that the land they have been given is the desert-like Big Plain, a place which no one—not even buzzards—wants to occupy for very long. Indeed, as soon as the four men set foot upon its surface, their only goal is to cross it and get to the town and river on the other side. The Revolution, which seemed to be a breeding ground for great ideals, has proved to be as sterile as the cracked surface of the plain.
Rulfo’s use of the present tense in the story brings to life the sense of exhaustion and defeat that the travelers face, and implies that this failure of the Revolution is something that continues to this very day. This narrative strategy is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of irony, which is evident in the way the travelers simply move from a town on one side of the plain to the other, gaining nothing. This fatalistic futility is crystallized in especially poetic fashion in the one drop of rain that falls “by mistake” on the plain and is immediately swallowed up. It is also supremely ironic that before setting out to claim their land the men must surrender the horses and weapons that helped them win the Revolution. The implication is that they have ceased to be revolutionaries and must now return to being poor, oppressed peasants who—once again—lack the means to impose their will on the world. In addition, apparently one set of wealthy landowners has simply been replaced by another, since the official invites them to complain to the “large-estate owners” and not to him. Clearly the government has returned to being of little use to rural folk and—as we see in the character of the official—a new opportunistic bureaucracy with little sense of solidarity has risen.
It is also notable that this story was the first to appear in the version of The Burning Plain which was printed in 1945. In this manner, Rulfo clearly wanted to foreground the issue of land reform toward the end of the presidency of Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-1946), and more specifically this government’s abandonment of the project of land redistribution.
This story is perhaps most notable for the way it concentrates into so few pages the deep irony and resignation of this particular historical moment. Rather than the beginning of something new, the Revolution has proven to be a disenfranchising and uprooting event. This is evident in the moving description of Esteban who does not want to leave behind his hen since there would be no one at home to take care of it. It is important that, as in his other stories, Rulfo never critiques these problems explicitly. The reader is lead to them along the same winding path that the characters take as they cross the desert. Like the narrator, it often occurs to us that “we’ve walked more than the ground we’ve covered,” and that the characters’ story means much more than the six pages it is written on.