Juan José Arreola Arreola, Juan José (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Juan José Arreola 1918-

Mexican short story writer, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Arreola's career through 1994.

Arreola is considered one of Mexico's most important short story writers and is credited with dramatically influencing the direction of Mexican literature in the twentieth century. He is noted for his pioneering work in satire, surrealism, and absurdism, and for his break from the Mexican literary tradition of realism. While Arreola has incorporated the themes and styles of diverse types of literature into his works, he has also retained an element of regionalism, focusing on the experiences of average Mexicans. Arreola's narrative fiction and dramas have influenced Latin American writers since the 1950s, and he continues to nourish young writers with his writing workshops and his efforts to encourage the work of emerging authors.

Biographical Information

Arreola was the fourth of fourteen children born to a deeply religious family in Zapotlan el Grande (now Ciudad Guzman), in west central Mexico. As a child he demonstrated an excellent memory and an interest in literature, but his family's financial circumstances forced him to end his formal schooling at the age of twelve to become a bookbinder's apprentice. He worked a series of jobs in Zapotlan before moving to Mexico City, where he enrolled in the Instituto de Bellas Artes to study acting in 1939. He began to focus on his writing during this time and formed acquaintances with other young Mexican writers. He collaborated with Juan Rulfo, a noted Mexican writer, in the creation of the short-lived literary journal Pan in the early 1940s. In 1943 Arreola published his first nationally recognized story, “Hizo el bien mientras vivio.” His acting jobs provided him with an opportunity in 1945 to travel to France, where he was exposed to modern European literature and drama. Upon his return to Mexico, Arreola worked as an editor for the Fondo de Cultura Económica while continuing to write fiction. In 1949 he published his first collection of short stories, Varia invención. The work received little critical response; however, it was read by the literary circle of Mexico City and earned Arreola notice. In 1952 Arreola solidified his reputation as an emerging and important Mexican writer with the publication of Confabulario. The following year, Arreola's first play, La hora de todos. was produced. He has continued to write for the theater and has played an important role in Mexican television throughout his career.

Major Works

Arreola first garnered attention for his two short story collections, Varia invención and Confabulario. In these stories, Arreola tackles a broad range of themes and subjects from urban life to historic events. The mysterious and absurd nature of life and the human condition is a main concern in many of his stories. Themes emerging in these early works include man's preoccupation with science and technology, the hopelessness of love, the deceptive nature of women, and the loss of poetic sensitivity. His most famous story, published in Confabulario, “El guardagujas” (“The Switchman”), involves an encounter between a foreign traveler and a elderly, mysterious railroad man, who, through his ramblings, provides an allegory about life. The story features several elements characteristic of Arreola's unique writing style: absurdism; reliance on magical realism; artistic and playful manipulation of language and form; heavy reliance on satirical humor; and a dark world view. In 1958 Arreola published a collection of animal allegories entitled Punta de plata. Building on the ancient literary tradition of attributing human characteristics to animals, Arreola modernized the genre through his use of satire, cynicism, and absurdity. He published his only novel, La feria (The Fair), in 1963. The work consists of many vignettes and fragmented stories which together relate the life cycle of a Mexican village. Although Arreola has been known for his incorporation of international literary styles and subjects into his work, this novel focuses solely on regional Mexican culture. Attempting to address questions about form and deconstructionalism, Arreola published Palindroma in 1971; it consists of numerous intellectual puzzles and games that challenge the reader carefully to consider the nature of content and language.

Critical Reception

Arreola's first two collections of short stories have earned him considerable critical attention and praise throughout his career. Scholars credit Arreola with transforming the Mexican short story and introducing a new style and international literary elements to Mexican literature. Melvin Maddocks calls him “a brilliant, corrosive fabulist, very much of the modern mood.” Some critics, however, feel that Arreola's writing can be uneven and that not all of his works are noteworthy. Maddocks, for example, argues that Arreola's straight satire is not equal to his writings that focus on the innate contradictions of life in a more indirect manner. Initial critical reaction to Arreola's novel La feria was largely negative, and the illusive nature of this and his other works has sparked heated scholarly debate over the intended meanings of his allegories. Despite these critiques, commentators praise Arreola's introduction of absurdism and existentialism into the Mexican literary tradition, which had been largely limited to realism. Reviewers note Arreola's unique style, his playful and skillful use of language, his melding of international and historic subjects, and his satirical talents. In addition, Arreola has earned recognition for his work in influencing and encouraging other writers. Seymour Menton describes him as “a true man of the twentieth century, an eclectic who at will can draw upon the best of all who have preceded him in order to create truly masterful works of art which in turn will be seized upon by others.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Varia invención (short stories) 1949

Cinco cuentos (short stories) 1951

Confabulario (short stories) 1952

La hora de todos: Juguete cómico en un acto (drama) 1953

Punta de plata (short stories) 1958; also published as Bestiario, 1958

*Confabulario total, 1941–1961 (short stories) 1962

La feria [The Fair] (novel) 1963

Palindroma (short stories and drama) 1971

Inventario (essays) 1976

Confabulario personal (short stories) 1979

*Includes Varia invención, Confabulario, and Bestiario; English translation published as Confabulario and Other Inventions in 1964.

Melvin Maddocks (review date 16 July 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mexican Fabulist at Play,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1964, p. 5.

[In the following review, Maddocks argues that while Arreola's satire is clever, the author is at his best when he grapples with the inherent contradictions of life.]

The fable is the most charming form that moralizers have invented. Aesop—nourished by experience, stuffed with prudence, paunchy from common sense—would be quite intolerable in any other literary shape.

The fable is for extremists: for those, like Aesop, who are very sure of what they believe—and for those who are very unsure. In this century writers as different as Thurber and Kafka have...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Donald A. Yates (review date 1 August 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Caught in Our Logical Absurdities,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 31, August 1, 1964, p. 32.

[Yates is an American educator, editor, translator, and critic, specializing in Spanish literature. In the following review, he appraises the English translation of Arreola's Confabulario total, noting that the work satirizes “man and his entanglements with logical absurdities.”]

In 1962, Juan José Arreola published in Mexico City his Confabulario total. It was, in a sense, his “Collected Works,” since it brought together most of his short stories, including some of the earliest, which date back to 1941; his latest short sketches or...

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Kessel Schwartz (essay date 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The New Novel, IV: Juan José Arreola,” in A New History of Spanish American Fiction, Volume II, University of Miami Press, 1971, pp. 292–95.

[Schwartz is an American educator, editor, and critic who has written extensively on Spanish literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses Arreola's focus on morality, absurdity, and irrationality in his short stories and his novel, The Fair.]

Juan José Arreola, the fourth of fourteen children, was unable to attend school. He undertook a variety of physical and intellectual positions in a bank, on a newspaper, and in the theater, partly through the efforts of Louis Jouvet who met him in Mexico and took him to...

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Theda M. Herz (essay date Spring 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Continuity in Evolution: Juan José Arreola as Dramatist,” in Latin American Theatre Review, Spring, 1975, pp. 15–24.

[In the following essay, Herz traces Arreola's contributions to the dramatic form.]

Despite his renown as a writer of fiction, Juan José Arreola's predilection for the theatre spans a period of approximately forty years. He first studied drama with Rodolfo Usigli and Xavier Villaurrutia, performing as an actor under the latter's direction. From 1945 to 1946 he held a scholarship which permitted him to travel to Paris where he acted in the Comédie Française. During this formative period, he came under the influence of two...

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Ross Larson (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Expressionism,” in Fantasy and Imagination in the Mexican Narrative, Arizona State University, 1977, pp. 77–88.

[In the following excerpt, Larson discusses several of Arreola's short stories, describing them as efforts to expose “the moral conscience of the individual.”]

Perhaps the most obvious features of Arreola's stories are their stylistic elegance and the extravagance of their action, either of which would be enough to set them apart from the course of the Mexican narrative so long subject to evaluation according to ethical and not aesthetic criteria. Socialist realism values content above form, and encourages direct expression of an impersonal...

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Floyd Merrell (essay date September 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Los de Abajo, La feria, and the Notion of Space-time Categories in the Narrative Text,” in Hispanofila, September, 1983, pp. 77–91.

[In the following essay, Merrell compares Azulea’s Los de abajo and La feria, discussing how both works relate to each other in terms of space and time.]

The objectives set forth in this paper include: (1) a brief inquiry into the notion of a priori formal and esthetic categories, (2) an analysis of Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo and Juan José Arreola's La feria based on considerations of space and time as conditioning factors governing the generation of prose literature,...

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Yulan M. Washburn (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Juan José Arreola, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 33–35.

[In the following excerpt, Washburn discusses Arreola's Palindroma, observing that its contents are presented with a bluntness and cynicism that departs from the author's earlier style.]

In 1971 [Arreola] published his first completely new title in several years, Palindroma [Palindrome]. In general Palindrome is similar to Arreola's previous books: there is the same distinctive style, the same variety of subject matter and form, and—despite Arreola's good intentions in his 1966 prologue—a preponderance of works outrageously scoring the man-woman relationship. There are...

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Paula R. Heusinkveld (essay date February-May 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Juan José Arreola: Allegorist in an Age of Uncertainty,” in Chasqui, Vol. XIII, Nos. 2–3, February-May, 1984, pp. 33–43.

[In the following excerpt, Heusinkveld examines Arreola's “El guardagujas,” “Autrui,” and “El mapa de objetos perdidos” as modern, existential allegories.]

In this century we have seen radical changes in the genres of literature. The Theater of the Absurd breaks theatrical conventions, and the New Novel differs radically from the traditional novel. This article considers a contemporary Mexican writer whose brief prose fiction, like much literature of this century, defies easy classification. The artistic purpose of Juan...

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Theda M. Herz (essay date May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Artistic Iconoclasm in Mexico: Countertexts of Arreola, Agustín, Avilés and Hiriart,” in Chasqui, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, May, 1989, pp. 17–25.

[In the following essay, Herz considers Arreola's influence on Mexican writers José Agustín, René Avilés Fabila, and Hugo Hiriart.]

A la virtut presente, mester de clerecía, y a la belleza toda, mester de juglaría. El tiempo es poco y pasa, y a la receta mía sigamos con mesteres, ca son de arreolería.

Jorge Arturo Ojeda, Mester

In 1963, Luis Leal proclaimed that “el desarrollo del cuento mexicano contemporáneo puede dividirse...

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Carol Clark D'Lugo (essay date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arreola's La feria: The Author and the Reader in the Text,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 33, No. 1, September, 1989, pp. 57–67.

[In the following essay, D'Lugo discusses the fragmented nature of La feria, its regionalistic aspects, and its universal appeal.]

Juan José Arreola's La feria is a unique blending of regionalism and universality, to the detriment of neither. Its regionalism is most evident in the content: an array of Mexican characters particular to Arreola's native Ciudad Guzmán, formerly Zapotlán el Grande; language replete with mexicanismos so crucial to the text that the translator for the English edition could not...

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Stamos Metzidakis (essay date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Poetic to Prosaic Animal Portraits: Arreola's ‘El Elefante,’” in Romantic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 473–82.

[In the following excerpt, Metzidakis, a professor at Washington University, argues that Arreola's story “El Elefante,” while being built on the foundation of past bestiary poems, constitutes a marked transformation of the genre.]

What shall generally concern me here is the genre known as the “bestiary.” As a codified genre, the bestiary has existed since its first “official” appearance in Le Roman de Renart in 12th-century France. It has taken on many different forms and can be traced to many different...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Burt, John R. “This Is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola's Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source.” Hispania 71, No. 4 (December 1988): 806–11.

Burt examines how Arreola uses the image of the railroad both literally and allegorically in “El guardagujas.”

Menton, Seymour. “Juan José Arreola and the Twentieth Century Short Story.” Hispania XLII, No. 3 (September 1959): 295–308.

Menton, a professor at the University of Kansas and a friend of Arreola's, explores the links between Arreola's work and world literature.

Washburn, Yulan M. “An Ancient Mold for...

(The entire section is 165 words.)