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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

In this work, Fuentes presents an extended character study of Jaime Ceballos, an adolescent attempting to rebel against the hypocritical society in which his family lives. In the long run, he accepts his fate as a bourgeois and conforms to the wishes of his family.

The setting of the novel...

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In this work, Fuentes presents an extended character study of Jaime Ceballos, an adolescent attempting to rebel against the hypocritical society in which his family lives. In the long run, he accepts his fate as a bourgeois and conforms to the wishes of his family.

The setting of the novel is Guanajuato, Mexico, a provincial city in which every citizen is “a practiced, talented, certified hypocrite.” Jaime’s family lives in the social mainstream of this city of “pure compromise,” where appearance and conformity govern the actions of all good people. Soon after Jaime’s birth, his father, Rodolfo Ceballos, is relegated to a secondary position in the family household. The house is now run by Jaime’s aunt, Asunción Ceballos de Balcárcel, and her husband, Jorge Balcárcel, who have recently returned from England, where they had sought haven from the perils of the Mexican Revolution. Jaime’s mother, Adelina López de Ceballos, has been banished by Asunción, who considered her brother’s wife socially inferior, unfit to bear the Ceballos name. Also important in Asunción’s decision to remove Adelina is Asunción’s sterile husband’s inability to provide her with a child of her own. With Adelina gone and Rodolfo supplanted as head of the family, Asunción and Jorge see the young boy as “moral raw material.”

Though Jaime is reared to be a dutiful child in the calm and ordered household, he feels lonely and isolated. He finds solace in reading and religion, at one point even wanting to become a priest. When this idea is quickly snuffed out by his uncle, Jaime’s withdrawal into himself is assured. He turns to masturbation. Profoundly dissatisfied with the world that surrounds him, and wishing to commune with Christ, whom he believes will not abandon him, he masturbates at the feet of the bloodstained image of the Savior during Holy Week. Soon afterward, he comes across Ezequiel Zuno, a rebel miner on the run and hiding out on the Ceballos family property. Unlike Jaime’s posturing uncle Jorge, Ezequiel is a man of action. Jaime befriends the fugitive and promises to help him. When Ezequiel is taken away by the police, who have been called by Jaime’s uncle, the boy takes the guilt for Ezequiel’s betrayal upon himself.

Jaime’s only true friend is Juan Manuel Lorenzo, an intelligent Indian boy with whom he holds lengthy conversations. Because of Juan Manuel’s social status, Jaime’s family disapproves of the friendship, but Jaime, partly as a subconscious act of rebellion, continues to associate with the boy. On one occasion, Jaime accompanies Juan Manuel to a working-class bar, where he sees his real mother for the first time. Though Jaime realizes that the woman is his mother, he does not approach her and identify himself as her son; instead, he leaves, consciously rejecting her in much the same way that his family had rejected her years earlier.

The guilt Jaime continues to feel for the betrayal of Ezequiel and the guilt he now feels for his family’s treatment of his mother cause him to become a martyr. As a result, he goes into the mountains to flagellate himself as punishment for what the others have done. Later, silently blaming his father for abandoning his mother, Jaime cannot bring himself to respond to Rodolfo’s quiet pleas for his son’s love, as the elder Ceballos realizes that he is dying. After Rodolfo’s funeral, Jaime visits a brothel, where, much to his delight, he sees his self-righteous uncle Jorge, who is supposed to be attending a business meeting.

Later, during a visit with Father Obregón, the priest castigates Jaime for loving only himself, for being too proud to approach either of his parents to express his love for them, even if such an expression would have been a lie. Rejecting the advice of Father Obregón, Jaime attempts to speak directly with Christ. When the Savior’s voice begins to fade, Jaime, tired of fighting a losing battle, makes the decision to give in, to bow to the pressures of society and conform in order to find peace and happiness. He marks this inner change with the unmeditated but ritualistic killing of his Aunt Asunción’s cat. With this sudden act of cruelty, Jaime exorcises his past and clears his moral slate for the future, a future in which he will deny truth, choose the convenient path, “be one in the crowd,” and “live with a good conscience.”

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