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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

The story opens at the moment of a fatally destructive earthquake, just as the young Spaniard Jeronimo Rugero is about to hang himself in prison. Jeronimo despairs at the fate of his beloved, Donna Josephe, who on this day is to be beheaded for having borne a child on the...

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The story opens at the moment of a fatally destructive earthquake, just as the young Spaniard Jeronimo Rugero is about to hang himself in prison. Jeronimo despairs at the fate of his beloved, Donna Josephe, who on this day is to be beheaded for having borne a child on the steps of the cathedral while she was a novice in the Carmelite convent. Her father had sent her to the convent on learning of her secret love for her tutor, Jeronimo. Later, Jeronimo managed to gain access to the convent garden, where their love was consummated.

On hearing the bells accompanying Josephe to her execution, Jeronimo tightens the rope that would tear him away from his wretched life, when suddenly the ground trembles under his feet. The earthquake destroys the major part of the city and rips apart the walls of the prison. Barely conscious, Jeronimo escapes through an opening between the fallen buildings and reaches the nearest gate to the city, where he is filled with feelings of ecstasy and thankfulness at his deliverance. However, depression soon overwhelms him again when he remembers Josephe. He searches for her in vain among the fleeing crowds, then at sundown discovers a distant, solitary valley. On reaching it, he catches sight of a young woman washing her child in a spring. It is Donna Josephe.

The earthquake miraculously rescued her as well, as the falling buildings scattered the gathered crowds and the procession of her executioners. She returned to the convent just in time to rescue her son from the flames engulfing it. Before leaving the city, she noticed that all the seats of power and authority had collapsed, including the prison. Believing Jeronimo dead, she sought out the isolated valley to pray for his soul.

Their first night back together is idyllic, as they exchange stories of their imprisonment, enjoy their incredible good fortune, and plan on departing for a new life in Spain. The next morning their reveries are interrupted by a young nobleman, Don Fernando Ormez, carrying his infant son. Because his wife is badly wounded, he asks Josephe to breast-feed his son. After initial hesitation at meeting someone familiar with her history, she agrees, whereupon Don Fernando invites the lovers to join him and his family for breakfast. Both are overwhelmed by the warm reception of their new friends and quickly forget the horrible events of the recent past. The human spirit appears rejuvenated, as the different social classes mingle easily with one another and everyone helps to ease the pain and deprivation of their neighbors.

Blinded by the general goodwill that they see all around them, Jeronimo and Josephe decide not to go to Spain but rather to become reconciled with those who had condemned them and their illicit love. Word spreads of a solemn thanksgiving mass in the Dominican church in Santiago. Despite the warnings of Don Fernando’s sister-in-law, Josephe insists on attending the mass and immediately sets off for the church with Jeronimo, the two infants, Don Fernando, and Donna Constanza, another sister-in-law.

In the crowded church, an elderly prelate begins a sermon of praise and thanksgiving, then quickly turns to condemning the city’s moral depravity and alludes to the scandalous event in the convent garden. Before Don Fernando and his party can escape from the church, voices call out that the godless couple are among them. Saved temporarily by Don Fernando’s presence of mind, the lovers slip out of the church, with Don Fernando, freshly armed with a naval officer’s sword, holding the two infants. No sooner, however, do they reach the square in front of the church than someone, who cries out that he is Jeronimo’s father, slays both Jeronimo and Donna Constanza, who was at Jeronimo’s side. Don Fernando manages to fend off the violent crowd, in particular a fanatic shoemaker, but Josephe sacrifices herself in order to save the children. The shoemaker than snatches away Don Fernando’s son, Juan, and ruthlessly smashes him against a church pillar.

Don Fernando does rescue Philip, the son of Jeronimo and Josephe, and later adopts him. When he compares Philip to his own son and thinks of how he acquired him, it seems to him almost “as if he had to rejoice.”

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