Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318
The novel is set in a Mexican village around the time of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The author emphasizes the village’s religious conservatism as he presents the villagers’ social and political reasons to join the revolution.
As it opens late one night, numerous characters are in different situations. Don Timoteo Limón is an elderly man who feels guilty over killing a man in self-defense years earlier. His son, Damián, is living in the United States trying to become wealthy. Elsewhere, Mercedes Toledo is thinking about a letter she received from Julián, which has caused her considering retreating into a convent. In a different house, Micaela Rodriguez has just returned from Mexico City. Fed up with the small-minded villagers, she contemplates scandalizing proper unmarried women in the village by dressing provocatively and then moving to the city.
During Lent, a group of men attend a religious retreat conducted by two parish priests, Dionisio Martínez and Reyes. These men are trying to reconcile conflicts, some of which go back generations. Timoteo is among them. The priests try to get them to talk through their differences but also frighten them with stories about the devil.
Father Dionisio has two wards: his nieces María and Marta. Although Marta is pious, he is having little success sheltering the free-spirited María, whom he forbids to associate with Mercedes.
Damián returns from the United States, not only still poor but also bitter over being mistreated there. After an argument about his inheritance, his father has a fatal heart attack. Damián has an affair with Micaela that goes badly; he kills her but receives a light sentence and escapes to join the revolution. María’s sympathy for him leads the others to ostracize her, and she also runs away to join the revolution. The author resolves several other loose ends of the minor characters’ lives as well.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
Don Timoteo Limón is finishing his personal devotions when he becomes aware that a dog is howling continuously and that he forgot to pray to several saints. Terrorized by the plaintive sound of the dog, which recalls to him the tragedy of his young daughter Rosalía, Don Timoteo has visions of past events. One such event that makes him feel guilty is his killing a man in self-defense. The officials exonerated him, but the image of the dead man’s face still haunts him. He then links the dog’s howling to the fate of his son Damián, who went to the United States to seek his fortune. Soon after going to bed, Don Timoteo Limón is disturbed by his visualizations of desirable women and finally gets up to sprinkle holy water over his pillow, sheets, and windows. He concludes that his evil thoughts result from superstitions concerning the dog’s howling and decides to attend a religious retreat.
The same night Mercedes Toledo is unable to sleep after receiving Julián’s letter. As does Don Timoteo Limón, Mercedes wrestles with horrifying thoughts and contemplates taking refuge in a religious institution. Later that night upon her return from Mexico City, Micaela Rodríguez is restless because of visions of a happy, modern life away from her small hometown. She resolves to scandalize the Daughters of Mary, an organization for unmarried maidens with strict rules, in the following manner: first, arousing envy with her pretty clothes; second, conversing about the interesting life outside the village; and, third, stealing the attractive men away from the maidens. Her plan involves scandalous conduct, and Micaela thinks she will be hated and therefore will have to leave the stagnant, hypocritical people of the village. She is pleased.
At the men’s retreat, the principal parish priest, Dionisio Martínez, meets with Father Reyes and five other priests; they hear confessions and meditate on sin, death, judgment, hell, the Lord’s Passion, and the parable of the prodigal son. Although Don Timoteo Limón and other villagers feel uneasy because they find themselves standing next to their enemies, Father Reyes uses tact to quell the bitter feelings. The priests frighten the men by talking about the terrible assaults of the devil and end the retreat by depicting the impending days of sadness.
Don Dionisio is caring for his orphaned nieces, María and Marta, as well as for the bell ringer, Gabriel. The priest quits his subscription to a magazine because it stimulates María’s interest in travel; he forbids her to read geography books or to visit Micaela Rodríguez since she dresses indecently and converses inappropriately after her trip to Mexico City. Marta loves children and wants to adopt Leonardo’s child Martinita after the death of her mother. Marta shows her devotion to her religious beliefs and demonstrates her ability to give helpful advice, but she expresses thoughts and feelings that she cannot understand. Gabriel becomes infatuated with the widow Victoria. As a result of his confused emotions, he rings the church bells excessively and later leaves the village.
Luis Gonzaga Pérez returns from the seminary with strict moral standards and projects that must be implemented on a timetable. Holy Week brings him great joy. His change from a fearful to a happy personality is shown by his desire to create great harmonies, to paint impressive murals, or to compose a poem that will become recognized in world literature. He becomes angered when Father Martínez will not allow him to carry the canopy in the procession. Pérez flees to the mountains as he feels mystical rapture increasing on Good Friday. The hot sun beating down upon his head, he contorts his face to drive away evil thoughts but, overwhelmed with despair, loses consciousness. Shortly thereafter, Pérez’s mind becomes permanently impaired.
Father Islas is the chaplain of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. He advocates the traditional beliefs of the Catholic Church, using the idea of the purity of the maidens in order to discourage the young women from marrying. In spite of his unhealthy appearance, Islas commands the maidens’ loyalty, gaining authority through various superstitious devices: amazing examples of prophecy and healing, levitation, trances, and the multiplication of food. The maidens esteem Father Islas as a saint beyond reproach. However, after collapsing from an attack of epilepsy, he leaves the priesthood, disillusioning his parishioners. The highly qualified Don Dionisio is then appointed head priest.
Damián Limón returns home and is castigated for having gone to such a sinful place where Mexicans are mistreated. After precipitating his father’s heart attack over a dispute about his inheritance, Damián murders Micaela after an illicit love affair. The light sentence given to him by a corrupt political boss enables him to join the revolutionaries at the end. After learning that Gabriel declared his love for her because of Victoria, who also encouraged him to study music, María chooses to seek love. Condemned by the villagers for protecting the killer Damián, she decides to join the revolutionary army. Lucas Macías, the chronicler, links the appearance of Halley’s Comet with the coming of Francisco Madero, the man who is to provide leadership against the tyranny of Porfirio Díaz.