Robert K. Anderson (essay date spring 1985)
SOURCE: Anderson, Robert K. “Myth and Archetype in Recollections of Things to Come.” Studies in 20th Century Literature 9, no. 2 (spring 1985): 213-27.
[In the following essay, Anderson finds that the Mexican social landscape is secondary to larger existential issues in Garro's Recollections of Things to Come.]
Recollections of Things to Come (1963), Elena Garro's first published novel, vividly portrays life in a small Mexican town, Ixtepec, during the late 1920s. In part, it focuses upon a broad gamut of regional phenomena; yet, in the words of Emmanuel Carballo, “the social relations, economy, politics and religion” depicted therein merely “occupy a secondary position.”1 Essentially, although Garro presents significant “local” concerns in the novel, she also directs our attention toward existential realities. According to her, “the great writer will be the one who presents the Mexican as a universal being.”2 In Recollections of Things to Come she achieves this goal primarily through an incessant infusion of mythic and archetypal motifs—elements that constitute the cornerstone of this study.
The teller of the tale is a “pueblo-narrator,” a semi-personification of the town, which attempts to communicate its tragic history. The basis of the chronicle is a kaleidoscope of memories that appear unordered, “as water flows into water,”3 within a rock or scrying-stone, into which the narrator peers. The rock is located on a hill overlooking the town.4
These reminiscences transport us from one extreme of Ixtepec to another, providing a sketch of small-town Mexican life during the Cristero Rebellion.5 Consequently, we become acquainted with a wide variety of fictional yet credible characters. We overhear their customary chats regarding their social, political and economic woes and are even permitted to perceive their most intimate thoughts.
Continually ordering and interpreting past events, the “pueblo-narrator” concentrates on the brutal government-ordered occupation of Ixtepec by General Francisco Rosas and his soldiers, and its negative effect upon the town. This re-creation of the historical past captures the resultant fear and inertia that spread throughout the populace. In substance, as readers of Recollections of Things to Come, we witness a sweeping spectrum of local activities that constitute the “costumbrista” foundation upon which Garro establishes a universal structure.
As a backdrop for her account, Garro selects a virtual replica of the mythic underworld, or realm of the dead. The terror produced by Rosas' occupation (p. 230) causes the inhabitants to assume a life of estrangement and quietude (p. 208). They renounce hope (p. 111), embrace a “voluntary forgetfulness” (p. 112) and solemnly abjure living within the sight of the general's eyes (p. 264). In effect, they allow alien wills to govern their entire existence.
The result is a village that can be only characterized as a “circular hell” (p. 255), a “dead” community (p. 207) occupied by prisoners (pp. 26 and 230) and “opaque bodies” (p. 28), by the living dead, as it were:
All days seem like the same day, acts become the same act, and all persons are a single useless person. The world loses its variety, light is annihilated, and miracles are abolished. The inertia of those repeated days kept me quiet as I contemplated the vain flight of my hours and waited for the miracle that persisted in not happening. The future was the repetition of the past.
In such an environment, man finds himself bound to a preternatural destiny, to the iron laws of cyclical process. Hence, the novel's title: Recollections of Things to Come.6
Suddenly and unexpectedly, a foil to the passive Ixtepequeños, a dynamic stranger named Felipe Hurtado enters the moribund town. He and Julia Andrade, Rosas' mistress, presumably fall in love. As the jealous general prepares to lead the young man away to the site of his execution, “time [stops] dead” (p. 138). While the soldiers and the townspeople are for the moment magically reduced to “motionless figures in the streets and on the balconies” (p. 139), Felipe and Julia flee from the constraining circular hell epitomized by the community. Part I concludes as the two open this repressive circle and depart on horseback, never to return.
The second and last section of the novel centers on Rosas and Isabel Moncada, a solitary young woman deeply captivated by Felipe's personal qualities. The now lonely general continually punishes himself and the town for Julia's flight; Isabel, yearning to escape her unendurable solitude, decides to leave her family and live with Rosas.
The chronicle ends as both bemoan their fate. Repentant of his most recent blood-baths and conscious of his increasing alienation, Rosas wallows in anguish. After being disowned by her parents and aware that her brothers have been murdered by her new companion and his troops, Isabel is escorted by a “curandera” to the Sanctuary overlooking the town in order to be exorcised and freed from Rosas' power. There, as the novel concludes, she is transformed into a stone.
The binary framework of Recollections, which encourages comparison and contrast of the positive and negative denouements of the first and second parts, respectively, displays definite mythic underpinnings. In her avowed endeavor to universalize Ixtepec's panorama of passive futility, Garro blends myth and literature. Part I of the novel describes Julia's archetypal voyage through a labyrinth as she seeks deliverance from her negative environment. It also depicts her acceptance of the redemptive path offered by Felipe, a virtual incarnation of the archetypal messenger.7
Part II recounts Isabel's contrasting anti-heroic journey and her consequential petrification, which is reminiscent of several mythic figures who have chosen to decline the noble course of action. In order to enhance the reader's understanding of these mutually contradictory modes of existence and to augment the vital dramatic tension conveyed in both parts, the author also employs three major sets of mytho-poetic antitheses: translucence-opacity, centrifugence-centripetence, and fluidity-petrification. We will now examine each of the mythic components.
A logical point of departure for this study is Felipe, the archetypal messenger created in the image of Hermes, Thoth and the Holy Ghost, figures found in classical, Egyptian and Christian mythologies, respectively.8 According to a consensus of these and other legendary accounts, this type of mythic figure is “the ‘other,’ the ‘alien.’ … He is not of the world, … but he comes and is from elsewhere” (Eliade, p. 132). Moreover, he is given the sacred charge of descending to a region of anguish, silence, sleep, forgetfulness and darkness, of awakening its inhabitants and of encouraging them to raise their eyes toward the light (Eliade, pp. 129-30).
In Part I, Felipe's unexpected arrival is accompanied by a number of allusions aligning him with the universally recognizable essence of this archetypal hero. The most obvious of these is the following: “The stranger's unexpected presence broke the silence. He was the messenger” (p. 59). Moreover, his descent to the valley floor (pp. 3 and 111) takes him to the underworld setting for his calling, an inferno of “menacing darkness” (p. 18).
While the Ixtepequeños passively endure their self-imposed quiescence and opacity, this alien or “stranger” (pp. 33, 34, 35, 44, 48, 49 ff.)—an epithet designed and repeatedly employed to dissociate him from the townspeople and to reinforce the aforementioned parallel—is, from the very beginning, clearly defined as “a modern man, a man of action” (p. 3). He belongs to “that group of dynamic young men who are looking for employment—something brilliant, productive” (p. 69). His entrance into the town is particularly suggestive in that he refuses to look upon the everyday realities of Ixtepec's solitary, indifferent and inactive spectators. Instead, he symbolically directs his eyes toward “the roofs and the trees” (p. 34).9
He enters the town as though magically sensing the layout of the streets (p. 34). During his short but influential sojourn his supernatural aura is intensified as he makes already lit cigarettes appear in thin air by merely stretching out his arm (p. 35), steps on plants without leaving an imprint (p. 51), passes through a storm with a lamp still lit and his clothes and hair dry (p. 100) and accomplishes other similar feats. It is not surprising, then, that he is characterized as a “magician” (p. 143).
There is no denying that Elena Garro takes great care to specify and maintain a distinction between Felipe and the inferior townspeople, whose excess of inertia evokes within Felipe a great deal of anguish (p. 112). Unlike them, this mythic figure refuses to be corrupted by their “misfortune” (p. 59). On the contrary, his actions are responsible for some noteworthy (though temporary) changes in Ixtepec. Obviously, one of the most memorable of his contributions is the introduction of poetry (pp. 100-01) and “magic theater” (p. 112) which are capable of infusing “ilusión” (pp. 100 and 113),10 or hope, into the lives of his newly acquired friends. This “ilusión” opens the way for some of them to transcend temporarily their unhappy “enchantment” (p. 115) and the repressive circle in which they find themselves trapped.
Felipe's mission clearly consists of teaching the Ixtepequeños to renounce their self-imposed solitude and inertia and to embrace a dream. Only then can they develop into “something more than spectators of the violent life of the soldiers” (p. 116). His calling as a metamorphic agent is especially highlighted in his reaction to the word “metamorphosis”: Felipe's “face turned into the face of a ten-year old boy. … The word caused a carnival to light up in [his] eyes” (p. 56).
Julia similarly exudes a mythic aura. In her case, however, the supernatural quality is revealed through her luminosity and capacity to break through the bonds of a figurative centripetence, traits that will be detailed later. In essence, she exhibits vital, positive personal attributes that ultimately enable her to escape the penumbra of the townspeople. Like Felipe, Julia seems strikingly incongruous to them: “There had never been anyone like her in Ixtepec. Her manner, her way of talking, walking, and looking at men, everything about Julia was different” (p. 35).
Totally different in attitude from the Ixtepequeños, Julia shares Felipe's hope and dynamism. He is depicted as the “unexpected traveler” (p. 112); she is similarly portrayed as a voyager dedicated to transcending her blocked and petrified environment:
She walked on in bare feet, in the presence of a future that rose before her eyes like a white wall. Behind the wall was the story that had guided her as a child: “Once upon a time there was a talking bird, a singing fountain, and a tree that bore golden fruit.” Julia walked on in the certainty of finding it.
Julia's guiding light incorporates universal elements commonly associated with an odyssey. It is apparent that their inclusion in the novel is part of the author's deliberate and concerted effort to strengthen the work's mythic framework.
The fairy tale's major motifs—a talking bird, a fountain, and a tree—appear together in a number of folktales. Some of the Mexican versions highlighting these three thematic elements are: “The Singing Tree, the Speaking Bird and the Golden Water,”11 “The Talking Bird, the Singing Tree and the Water of Life,”12 “The Golden Fountain, the Speaking Bird and the Singing Tree,”13 “The Speaking Bird,”14 and “The Singing Tree.”15 All share the following underlying mythic features: 1) a protagonist's separation from a familiar environment; 2) a demanding journey (following a warning to the hero/heroine against distraction from the mission at hand, lest he/she be turned to stone), during which the traveler seeks the universally recognizable bird, fountain and tree; and 3) a transcendence, or successful return, to the original point of departure.
Julia's paradigm, then, is a fairy tale, and these are often narrative re-creations of the quest...
(The entire section is 5283 words.)