Doña Bárbara

by Rómulo Gallegos

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

Doña Bárbara is the novel of the llanos, the tropical grassland bordering the Orinoco River in the center of Venezuela, a republic almost as large as America’s Southwest. The llanos had once supplied the cavalry that filled General Simon Bolívar’s revolutionary army’s ranks, giving it victory over Spain’s Royalist armies during Venezuela’s war of independence from Spain. Next to the geography itself, the ranchwoman Doña Bárbara, who symbolizes barbarism, is the most clearly etched character, for she is a wild, dreadful, beautiful half-breed from beyond the remotest tributaries of the Orinoco. Her very name reeks of barbarism. Opposite her is Santos Luzardo, who symbolizes the civilizing energy that is trying to penetrate the llanos’s savagery and tame it.

Rómulo Gallegos uses symbols for barbarism, such as the great tolvaneras, or whirlwinds, that periodically flay the llanos. There are also rampaging herds of horses and steers; a midnight-black stallion as savage as Satan before Santos tames him; the power of flowing rivers and currents; a fire that scorches the plains and leaves a swath of blackened embers behind; and, evoking the violent spirit of the llanos, the llanero horsemen who threaten to destroy any tendrils of civilization that come within reach. Gallegos describes the area’s beauties—the flowers, sunset tints, breezes, white clouds, rains, and pink herons—but ever lurking in the background is the malaria that earlier had nearly depopulated the llanos and had caused the region’s inexorable decline.

To some extent, Gallegos uses standard characterizations, but he gives sensitive depictions of the llanero, or cowboy; the boatmen of the Arauca River; the typical military officials and ranch owners; and the itinerant and sometimes rascally Syrian peddlers. Some of Gallegos’s sociological types are presented as clearly as if they inhabited an animated museum. Possibly his only near caricature is Señor Danger, a one-dimensional villain intended to represent the Yankee rascal of so many Spanish American novels.

Gallegos develops his plot logically. The book combines interesting subject matter and the author’s knowledge of Venezuela to produce a near masterpiece. Gallegos does not exaggerate the human cruelty, his realism is convincing, and there are few distortions. The author did not, however, provide an in-depth study of the range of the llanos’s society, and the novel is thus limited at times by an unconscious social prejudice and a certain superficiality. Nevertheless, most of the characters do come alive in the book and are not likely to be forgotten by the reader, for they develop and change subtly but gradually.

The basic themes of Doña Bárbara are universal ones. Civilization against barbarism is as dominant a theme here as in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo (1845), the masterpiece of Argentine literature. Also present are such opposing forces as humans against nature, female against male, cruelty against kindness, justice against oppression, and freedom against bureaucracy.

Doña Bárbara is rich in Venezuelan expressions, idioms, and flavor of speech. Gallegos’s style moves effortlessly, without excess words or structural disorganization. Doña Bárbara, like other Venezuelan novels, exposes and spotlights national ills. Reform was aided by such writings but was still slow, even after Gallegos himself became president. The author was apparently not strong enough or perhaps lacked enough political acumen to accomplish what was accomplished in the nineteenth century by Argentina’s two literary presidents, Bartolome Mitre and Domingo Sarmiento, who were men of action as well as of the pen.

Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara nevertheless, represents a fine example of that important feature of Venezuelan and Latin American progress—the novel. The broadest and least restricted literary form, mirroring as it does society’s ills, the novel is a supple tool in the hands of reformers such as Rómulo Gallegos, who are brave enough to risk political persecution for their writings.

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