Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Born in Uruguay, author Horacio Quiroga often used neighboring Argentina as the setting for his stories. During his own lifetime, he had experienced several family tragedies through accidental shootings and suicides. He was familiar with the dangers of the rugged jungle life in parts of South America. There was a constant threat of sudden, unexpected menace; people were often in the face of an unrelenting and inhospitable natural world, beset by wild animals, insects, disease, accident, and madness. Death could come at any time. This story is a fine example of that recurring theme.

“El hombre muerto” (“The Dead Man”) first appeared in the daily La Nación in 1920; six years later it was published in the collection Los desterrados (1926), which was translated by J. David Danielson and Elsa Gambarini as The Exiles, and Other Stories in 1987. “The Dead Man” has been included in many Spanish and English anthologies and is considered one of Quiroga’s best stories.

The themes of danger and sudden death are found in many of Quiroga’s stories. Concerning “The Dead Man,” the reader knows the outcome almost from the very beginning. The protagonist’s gradual awareness of his own condition is presented in such a powerful, compelling manner, however, that the reader’s interest is maintained. There is a fatalistic, inexorable progression toward death. The end is inescapable, although it may come so suddenly and unexpectedly that the effect is stunning: A single momentary act of carelessness, an accidental lapse in concentration can lead to fatal, ultimate consequences, for anyone, at any time.

In a struggle to tame the wilderness, human beings may think that progress has been made. However, nature may erupt suddenly and violently, causing untold destruction. Likewise, in the course of an ordinary day, a man may die accidentally. Nature does not change or react to that particular person’s individual tragedy, at least if the story is told by a realistic rather than a romantic writer.