Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal themes of this novel are suggested in the character study: the nature of power, the persistence of feudal patterns, the implications of technology, the dignity of the individual and the family in the face of corruption, and the eternal effort to wrest from the thin soil a life of peace. In the opposing motif to these temporal concerns, Yáñez presents a mystical, spiritual backdrop against which to evaluate and criticize the insanity which is Mexico’s inheritance.

Ultimately, this novel’s impact rests on the moral view that Yáñez holds. His novel transcends its local limits and presents a universal statement about man, his relationship with God, and his ultimate personal responsibility. Certainly, Matiana, the blind seer, serves as one signpost in the connection of this local world to the larger, deeper one. The tragic tone is a second link. The innumerable folk sayings, related as they are to both the collective wisdom—achieved in the eternal crucible of experience—and their specific metaphorical relation to nature, represent the penultimate bridge. (One critic estimates that more than a third of the novel is composed of these sayings, substitutes for rational thinking and binding in their ritualistic observance by all the characters save Jacob Gallo, who cuts off his roots to this world as surely as he did when he changed his name. Intentionally or not, Yáñez ensured this novel’s place in history, for it will serve as a resource for historians and social critics who are seeking an account of a Mexico quickly disappearing.) The last relationship of this local story to the universal world is in the retelling of Old and New Testament patterns (that is, Cain and Abel, the return of the Prodigal Son) and in the naming of the different places in the region (such as Bethlehem, Babel, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Galilea). This powerful parallel is extended through the people’s response to the Church Calendar of Holy Days. Specifically, the novel is structurally divided by the fiesta celebration of the Easter reenactment, which falls roughly in the middle of the narrative and marks Miguel Arcángel/Jacob Gallo’s return to his homeland.