Last Updated on September 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880
This novel is primarily a morality tale on the subject of gender, portraying the contrasting fates of two young Mexican women during a time of conflict and instability in the country. It might also be seen as contrasting two very different forms of masculinity: the flashy yet flawed and hollow masculinity of El Zarco, and the earthy, unimpressive masculinity of Nicolas, which ultimately proves to be of far greater substance and worth. The differing characters of the two female foils are implied at the beginning of the novel, where they are shown to be weaving flowers into chains. While Manuela weaves roses, a flower associated with passion and illicit love, her friend Pilar is weaving orange blossoms, the flower that Mexican society associates with marriage and the bounty and the stability it characterizes. While Manuela mocks her friend on the basis that her choice of flowers indicates her boring nature, an element of foreshadowing is present in that the pair are sitting in an orange grove, indicating that this world is one that favors Pilar’s nature over that of her friend. Manuela is open in her proclamations that she would sooner be with El Zarco, a notorious bandit in the area, than with Nicolas, a boring blacksmith whom her mother would prefer her to marry, but whom Pilar secretly loves.
Nicolas, who is condemned by Manuela due to his being of Native American descent, now enters the scene and warns the three women that El Zarco’s bandits have murdered some travelers near the village, at which Manuela’s mother decides to take her daughter to the safety of the capital. However, Manuela has no intention of leaving the area. She later secretly arranges with El Zarco (with whom she has actually been engaging in an illicit romance for some time) to kidnap her prior to her mother’s setting off. In a show of vanity meant to elicit a reader’s dislike, she then goes and admires her reflection in a pool of water.
When it becomes apparent, the next evening, that Manuela has left with El Zarco, Manuela’s mother enlists the help of Nicolas, and the pair goes and requests some local troops, who were initially sent to bring El Zarco to justice, to help them recover Manuela. The officer is portrayed as lazy and unprincipled, and he takes the opportunity afforded by Nicolas speaking in a disrespectful fashion to arrest him. However, the blacksmith, who is popular in his village, receives much public support, and a wealthy benefactor ensures that he is found not guilty of his “crime.” While Nicolas in prison, Pilar finds the courage to contradict her normally passive and gentle nature, taking the transgressive move of visiting him in prison and begging the guards for access to him. Hearing her sincerity, Nicolas decides that from now on, he loves Pilar, not Manuela.
Meanwhile, in the bandit’s hideout at Xochimancas, Manuela is having no fun at all, being now exposed to the realities of life on the wrong side of the law. El Zarco is not the kind and gallant man she had thought he might be, and her attraction for him, which had focused in particular on his enchanting blue eyes and the exciting sense of danger surrounding him, wavers in the face of his true nature. Even if he had been all that she hoped, this would have been more than balanced out by the squalor of her living situation and the sexual violence with which she is often threatened. These threats usually come from El Tigre, a friend of El Zarco’s, who seems to take a sadistic pleasure in intimidating and belittling the unfortunate Manuela.
El Zarco has made a powerful enemy: an aristocrat by the name of Sanchez, whose sense of civic duty and desire for stability in his region compel him to take up arms against the bandits. He has a particular problem with El Zarco, who has murdered multiple members of his family, and intends to bring about his demise personally. A skilled military tactician, Sanchez kills many of El Zarco’s people and captures the bandit, along with Manuela, though the pair are subsequently freed by more bandits.
The novel ends in a very sad fashion. The initially joyful wedding party of Pilar and Nicolas encounters Manuela on the road. Sanchez has recently recaptured El Zarco and El Tigre and intends to execute them both. Here Pilar, in her wedding coach with her friends around her, is portrayed as very much in a position of power, in contrast to her friend, who seems desperate and impoverished. Manuela has fallen a long way from the lofty place she occupied at the beginning of the novel. Manuela fluctuates between repentance and stubbornness, initially begging her former friend’s help but then insisting she would rather die with her lover. This she does, inexplicably, on the sight of El Zarco dangling from a tree. Previously, Sanchez had decided to give El Zarco a trial, but the time taken for this trial to happen had allowed the bandit’s allies to regroup and set him free. This time, Sanchez opts for execution without trial, an act he knows he can get away with thanks to his political connections.