Is there a consistent narrator in Pedro Páramo? If not, identify the different narrators and discuss the effect.
One of the most confounding aspects of the novel on a first read is the multiplicity of voices. On the surface, there seem to be at least four: Juan Preciado, Pedro himself, a third person omniscient narrator, and Susana. On top of these, there are several times that other characters take control of the narrative. Even though they are not officially narrators (their dialogue is merely being recounted, in quotation marks), their voices become prominent for long sections. The effect of such a multiplicity is to confound the reader, so that we take nothing as fundamentally true, constantly question our assumptions, and ultimately become an active participant in piecing together the narrative. This multiplicity of voices helps inform the style and meaning of the text, which unfolds like memory and is ordered thematically rather than chronologically.
However, it is possible to argue that Juan is the sole narrator. The reader does not learn until about halfway through the novel that Juan has died (and potentially has been dead for a long while), and that he hears the voices of the spirits that haunt Comala. It then becomes possible to consider the various narrators as different voices being filtered through Juan himself. The fact that he sometimes does this explicitly – allowing another character to tell her story – offers further evidence to this interpretation. Even if Juan is the sole narrator, this does not detract from the haunted feel of the work.
Discuss the nature of death in Pedro Páramo.
Death permeates the entire novel, to the point that we are often told that everything in Comala is dead. It is so prevalent that our primary narrator is revealed to be dead about halfway through the work. The story explores the nature of memory, nostalgia and the past, partly by recounting the stories of all the citizens who have died in Comala. However, death has significant metaphorical value as well, considering the nature of the afterlife here. These souls constantly relive their pasts, always looking back in an attempt to find restitution for their sins and mistakes. Death then stands not just for the death of a body but also for the passage of time. The town (and the Mexico it represents) has passed away, turned into something new, and in attempting to understand that, both the characters and the reader must think of it as not just past, but as passed away. Death becomes a symbol for all that cannot be recreated, which puts a terribly pessimistic sheen over what otherwise could be a brighter nostalgic story.
Juan Rulfo initially planned on calling his novel The Whispers. Explain how this title would be appropriate to the novel, and how it helps to understand the way it works.
The Whispers serves as an appropriate title for this work both in terms of its world and its main themes. Literally, the story tells of a young man, Juan Preciado, who comes to Comala and must confront a multitude of voices - the whispers of the dead. His basic conflict is how to sort through those voices in order to recreate his father's past, and thereby to understand his own legacy. However, the idea of 'whispers' also speaks to its primary themes, those of death, lifelessness, and nostalgia. Rulfo's conception of our past is that it haunts us, forcing us to revisit it in order to find meaning and forgiveness. The souls of Comala constantly tell their stories in hopes of reaching these goals, and thereby swallow Juan whole. By the end of the novel, it is possible to consider his narration throughout as just another whisper, his own story that he retells in hopes of finding meaning in it.
Why is the novel called Pedro Páramo? Does the title add to or distract from the novel's message?
On the surface, Rulfo seems to have chosen a strange title for his work. Pedro is obviously a major character but not in the sense that we usually expect from a title character. He is certainly the center of Comala's world because of his tyrannical ownership of the Media Luna, but he is nevertheless only part of a fairly large world of characters. However, the fact that the book is named after him suggests how largely he looms not just as a character but as a primal force. The story explores how a whole world can fall into lifelessness and become stifled by its pervasive forces. Pedro is certainly that to Comala, and he hence serves as something of a symbol. Lastly, if one considers the whole book as narrated by Juan, then he also becomes something of a goal to which Juan aspires in an attempt to understand his past. That he is elusive only characterizes the quest as difficult and impossible.
Do a character analysis for both Pedro and Miguel Páramo. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? How do the differences manifest in Comala?
Pedro and Miguel have much in common. Both are understood by the villagers in Comala as evil for obvious reasons: they assault women, rob and murder at will, and show little regard for human dignity. However, Pedro's sins are understandable as effects of a childhood trauma and tactics taken to address that trauma. Losing his father at a young age to senseless murder ruined Pedro, and made him swear revenge on the world - and anyone directly or indirectly connected to the event of his death. Therefore, his monopoly over the Media Luna is not just about money and land, but rather about control. The way he treats people is often in pursuit of this goal. Consider how he collects women – like Juan's mother – at first solely to rid himself of debts so he can acquire land.
Miguel, on the other hand, shows no consideration or purpose in his mayhem. Like his horse, he gallops along as full speed, attacking whatever is in his path. As a motherless child, he could be interpreted as a man lacking grace, but his evil is by all means unfettered. He shows no thought of the future like Pedro does, and does not seem to hate others or wish them ill. He is simply an unchecked id, destined to destroy himself.
Pedro's power is unchecked in Comala, and his sway corrupts everyone he touches. Father Rentería, for example, is coerced into forgiving Miguel upon his death because Pedro can pay for it. The hypocrisy of these actions poison the Church and lead to a generation of unabsolved poor. Miguel's evil is more visceral and apparent, but also less of a force in Comala as a whole. Through effects large and small, the Páramo legacy is one of ruin.
Argue the interpretation that Comala serves as a type of purgatory. In what ways does this interpretation fall apart?
Comala, as Juan finds it, is a dead town where ghosts wander. It is explained to him very early that sometimes these souls can move on when they have wandered long enough. Further, he discovers that they are compelled to tell their life stories incessantly, in effect reliving their own sins and misfortunes over and over again. Lastly, it sits in a hot, stifling valley, which makes it seem otherworldly. The sense of an afterlife suggests that Comala has metaphoric value, and the fact that these souls seem to be stuck until they are let loose falls in line with the Catholic idea of purgatory, a type of "waiting room" for sinners not base enough for hell nor virtuous enough for heaven. Further, the deep Catholic guilt in Comala, where people believe they must purchase forgiveness from a priest if they are going to heaven, helps to support the idea that they are stuck there for unforgiven sins. The interpretation falls apart somewhat because of Rulfo's interest in specific geography. The fact that Comala subscribes to realistic geography, and is sketched with such specificity to the past, makes it somewhat difficult to think of it solely in metaphoric terms.
Analyze Juan's journey through the novel. In what ways does it compare to a 'typical' narrative? In what ways is it different?
A typical journey in a novel – especially one with epic overtones like this one – involves a hero who must brave challenges in pursuit of a goal. He confronts obstacles, overcomes them, and ultimately succeeds or fails to win his goal, learning about himself in the process. In Pedro Páramo, Juan certainly has a journey, and at the beginning, it seems fairly conventional. He is a young man who wants to learn about his father. However, as he persists, we realize that Juan's journey is not forward, but rather backwards, into himself and his past. As he gets further involved in this journey, he only moves further into the past, and discovers the complicated web of relationships that defined his mother's homeland. So pervasive does this internal journey become that he is overcome by it and dies himself, in effect becoming another voice doomed to repeat his story over and over again. The novel certainly has a compelling thrust, but it is not a dramatic one (i.e., will he succeed or fail?) but rather an internal and philosophical one (what will he learn as he continues to look back?).
In what ways is Pedro Páramo based in reality? Use historical examples to explain the world Rulfo is creating.
One of the most fascinating elements of this ethereal novel is the way Rulfo grounds the work in historical and geographical detail. Early on, we realize that there is a supernatural, otherworldly force at work, but the novel never transcends its location. Comala must confront the economic reality of a quasi-feudal system in which a landowner sustains the poverty of the countryside through his monopoly of ownership. Even at their least grounded, the ghosts are haunted by the effects of real world poverty on the lives they have left behind. Further, some of the elements that enforce the themes through metaphor – like incest – are nevertheless presented with real psychological weight, such as in the case of Donis's sister, who is realistically ruined by her brother's cruelty. Lastly, the revolutions of Mexico help to explain not only the novel's final pages but also Rulfo's impulse in writing the work. As described in the section on The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Cristero War of 1926-1929, the revolutions effectively changed rural Mexico, leading to an urban migration and a death of the old world systems. In attempting to remember these, Rulfo explores both the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia for the past. The way Mexico changed helps to explain not only the destitute nature of Comala in a real-world (not purely metaphorical) sense, but also the fact that Pedro was going to pass away whether Abundio killed him or not, because a long-unchanging world was soon to find its end.
Analyze the treatment of women in Comala. How does the treatment of women complement the novel's primary themes?
One of the many static systems in Comala is the patriarchy. Women are consistently treated like objects, not only as commodities to be flaunted but also as means of sexual fulfillment. Obviously, the most egregious offenders are Pedro and Miguel, but the oppression is far more pervasive. The lack of financial options explains why Donis's sister or Susana would have no outlet to escape the incestuous situations they find themselves in. However, there is an interesting counterpoint in the fact that almost all of the voices Juan confronts are those of women. This could suggest that, as the most oppressed class, women continue to be punished in the afterlife for having borne so much of their society's guilt. However, it could also be seen as a testament to their strength, their ability to continue confronting their unhappiness in hope of a release from the purgatory of Comala. All of these questions of guilt and restitution are related to us by women, whereas men like Pedro simply disregard such concerns.
How does religion influence the world of Comala? In what ways is it a benefit? In what ways is it a detriment?
The Catholicism in Comala is pervasive, mostly in terms of the atonement it requires for sins. Almost everyone believes that they must be forgiven their sins if they will be happy in the afterlife, which offers them a glimmer of hope in the midst of their stifled, brutal world. However, the reality of religion (as personified by Father Rentería) proves doubly oppressive, as he falls into a system of greed rather than grace. Those who cannot afford forgiveness are out of luck, and their beliefs seem to be part of what damns them to the purgatory they inhabit. The fact that Father Rentería is himself a damned, miserable character who cannot be forgiven makes the situation even worse; when he cannot obtain absolution from the priest in Contla, he takes it out on others. The characters who eschew these belief systems – mainly Susana – are able to maintain an aura of contentment even while acknowledging that the world is oppressive. Because she refuses to submit wholly to guilt, she is even capable of breaking her coffin in the afterlife. She does not live mired in sadness but rather retreats to a deeper world inside herself, which has no need for the hypocrisy of institutionalized Catholicism in rural Mexico.