Themes and Meanings
This story expresses in realistic images the philosophical notion of being cut off from God. Juan Rulfo lived through a period of great social unrest in Mexico. When Plutarco Elías Calles came to power as president of Mexico in 1925, he continued the social reforms of his predecessor, General Alvaro Obregón, distributing land to the landless and restoring communal holdings to villages, but he also, more controversially, initiated some vigorously anticlerical measures. He challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s control over the national educational system and reclaimed vast tracts of land from the church for his land reform program. In retaliation, the church closed all the churches in Mexico and whipped up support for the Cristeros Rebellion. The common people began an armed struggle against the government’s anticlerical policies that lasted from 1926 until 1929, and Rulfo, as an impressionable young boy, witnessed the horrors of the war, especially as it lay waste to the rural areas of Jalisco in western Mexico. Some of the despair of this period filtered into his literary work. The collection of short stories from which “Talpa” is taken, The Burning Plain, and Other Stories (1967), indeed, depicts violence in the countryside of Jalisco as well as the moral stagnation of the people who live there. Though not overtly evoked in these stories, the Cristero Rebellion acts as a backdrop, underpinning a world that has been cut off from God.
The world portrayed in “Talpa” is weighed down by the heaviness of sin without any hope of forgiveness. It is no coincidence that the journey that Tanilo, Natalia, and the narrator make takes place between mid-February and mid-March, at about the time of Lent in the Christian calendar. The physical and mental pain that Tanilo experiences when trying to walk to the shrine in Talpa, as well as the wounds on his skin, suggests that Rulfo is deliberately drawing a parallel between Tanilo and Christ’s Passion. In Rulfo’s novelistic world, however, there are the tribulations of Lent but not the resurrection. At the climactic point of the story, Tanilo simply dies and is unceremoniously laid to earth.