What is the significance of death and memory as themes in The Old Gringo?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Death is a powerful theme in Fuentes' work.  On one hand, Fuentes shows that death is a human construct in the modern setting.  With the advancement in both freedom and understanding in the modern setting, death is something that is created by the individual.  For example, Harriet confesses that she and her mother essentially lied about her father's death in order to gain the monetary benefit from the military. "We killed him, my mother and I,” she confesses, “in order to live.”  The ending of the novel in which the old gringo himself endures death is another human construct.  Pancho Villa orders the body exhumed and then shot again by Arroyo for the final kill shot, who in turn is killed by the Revolutionary forces.  Death is not natural in these conditions, but rather a force of human construction.  Fuentes' development of this theme in such a manner helps to bring out the ambiguity in the modern setting.

Interestingly enough, Fuentes injects himself into this thematic dialectic.  The exact manner of death for Ambrose Bierce, the old gringo himself, is not entirely clear.  Thus, Fuentes is able to create death as a human construct, like the characters about which he writes.  In this reconstructive notion of identity, one sees the power of the memory theme evident.  Memory is shown to be fluid, something far from absolute and dogmatic.  The fact that there is no exact recollection of Bierce's death is a reason by which Fuentes is able to reconstruct it.  Harriet's function of memory is both what keeps her father and the old gringo alive.  Fuentes notes that “She sits and remembers," as a telling notion of how memory operates as a way of life in the modern condition.  Both death and memory are thematic concepts that Fuentes shows as human constructs in modernity.

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