Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
The Argentine poet, short-story writer, and novelist Ricardo Güiraldes was born in Buenos Aires in 1886 to a landowning family. He lived his first years in France, returned there often, and died in Paris in 1927. Although he traveled abroad frequently, Güiraldes loved his country, especially the pampa, the fertile plains in the province of Buenos Aires, where his family owned a ranch called La Porteña. As a young boy, he spent summers at the ranch among the gauchos, the Argentine cowboys. He learned about gaucho life and folklore from Don Segundo Ramirez, the man immortalized in Don Segundo Sombra, the novel for which Güiraldes received the National Prize for Literature in 1926.
The novel is based on the author’s recollections of his early life on the pampa. Influenced by works such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the regional and poetic narrative illustrates the experience of growing up in the countryside, having the ideal gaucho as a mentor and role model. Don Segundo Sombra symbolizes the pampa and its inhabitants and represents the gaucho culture as it once existed, before the invasion of economic and industrial progress in the early twentieth century. Often compared to El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620), the novel’s gaucho of mythical presence is the last representative of a special kind of life that was disappearing like a shadow but leaving its essence and spirit, becoming more a legend than a way of life.
The coming-of-age story, with the typical structure of a bildungsroman, is told by Fabio through recollections and memories. The twenty-seven chapters may be divided into three parts of nine chapters each. As the reader follows the narrator and protagonist Fabio in his journey toward adulthood, he or she stops with him several times so that he may retrace his steps mentally, in flashbacks. At first, when Fabio is about fourteen years old, one discovers that he considers himself an illegitimate orphan whose unhappy and purposeless life is changed drastically by the arrival of Don Segundo Sombra. Fabio sees his destiny in a nomadic free life, hoping to become a real gaucho. In the second part, Fabio reviews the five years spent learning gaucho skills and overcoming physical and spiritual tests. In the third part, the reader sees him returning to his town of origin, ready to take over his new position as a ranch owner upon the news of his legitimate right to the possessions of his father, who recognizes him as his heir before dying. In the last three chapters, he recalls the departure of Don Segundo, after reviewing his life as a landowner.
The image of Don Segundo is seen through Fabio’s eyes. He admires legendary gauchos and transfers his images of them to his mentor, who becomes a hero and father figure for him. Fabio is the protagonist, but Don Segundo is the main character of his recollections. He embodies the virtues of the gaucho Fabio wants to become: laconic, serene, proud, stoic, and respectful of others, prizing freedom above all else. In the journey through the pampa, a delinquent, lazy orphan grows up to be an honest, hardworking member of society. His love of unconditional freedom must be given up in order to fulfill his true destiny. At the end of the novel, Fabio learns to accept his fate, having finally found his destiny after traveling physically and mentally in search of his true identity. Don Segundo has taught him to be tough and stoic, fearless and brave, ready to face challenges. With him, Fabio has explored moral and physical attributes that are desirable in a man and has learned the benefits of loyalty, courtesy, understanding, and friendship. Fabio’s moments of recollection take place by a stream, a river, and a pond, indicating with the imagery of water the three different stages in the life of Fabio as he moves through this journey of learning. Each kind of water symbolizes life as a current, small at first, gaining strength later, and finally reaching stability as Fabio returns to his origins.
The three moments of recollection—at departure time, during the journey, and at the return—seem to coincide with three figures: Don Segundo, Fabio, and Raucho. Don Segundo represents the past, Fabio the present, and Raucho, Don Leandro Galván’s son, the ideal future into which the present is changing. Fabio must learn from the past and accept the future for survival. The novel offers a lesson for the young people of Argentina. Güiraldes uses Don Segundo, the essence and spirit of an authentic Argentina, as a symbol to guide the country into the future. He wants to rescue and keep alive the soul of the nation. Don Segundo becomes the personification of tradition as a guiding light.
The pampa provides a stage and a space for Fabio’s adventures as a gaucho. The interaction of nature and man provokes emotions that Fabio, the artist as a young man, observes and interprets poetically. The plot is subordinated to the description of nature and rural activities. Lights and colors are captured with impressionistic techniques. The inclusion of songs, traditional stories, proverbs, and colloquial expressions provides realistic authenticity. Even the most realistic scenes, however, are re-created with poetic imagery, characterizing Güiraldes’s work as a lyrical novel with striking images.
Don Segundo Sombra, the allegorical farewell to a disappearing national figure and to the literary genre of the gaucho novel, is a classic example of the novela de la tierra, or regional novel, also called criollista, written in the 1920’s in Latin America. The incorporation of the pampa, a regional landscape, into fiction expresses the search for authenticity, breaking with traditional models and establishing the foundation of the contemporary Latin American narrative.