Juan Rulfo World Literature Analysis - Essay

Juan Rulfo World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

From the time of Spanish colonialism until the present day, Mexico has been forced to deal with issues of social justice. Class struggles between large landowners and native Indian farmers over land ownership were the basis for revolutions in 1810, 1855, and 1910 and continue to be an issue of contention in Mexico. In the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican novelists such as Mariano Azuela and Martín Luis Guzmán highlighted these questions of social injustice and turned the novel into an instrument of social reform. Out of this background, in the 1940’s and 1950’s other Mexican writers used these social concerns as an implied background for their stories and turned their attentions to the individual stories of people affected by these conditions. Juan Rulfo is one of these writers.

Standing at the forefront of both modernism and Magical Realism, Rulfo pioneered a new style of writing that turned the microscope on the everyday harsh realities of individuals. Both in his choice of subject and in his choices of style and narrative structure, Rulfo turned away from the explicit goals of social realism and turned toward the expression of a more interior reality conditioned by the harsh strictures of life, the torments of memory, and an everyday existence shaped by the concrete realities of the present and the myths and religious beliefs of the past.

Rulfo’s style and narrative structure in his two major works, The Burning Plain and Pedro Páramo, are striking. As in modernist poetry, his prose strips away nonessentials and relies upon dialogue and stunning visual imagery. In Pedro Páramo’s memories of his youth, the drops of rain moisten the roof tiles, shake the branches of the pomegranate tree, and awaken his memories of his love, Susana San Juan. In the short story “Nos han dado la tierra” (“They Gave Us the Land”), the men walk like insects across the parched and cracked land, featureless in the dust, almost becoming part of the dry landscape.

The most unusual feature of Rulfo’s brief novel Pedro Páramo is the use of disrupted narrative. The story begins in a fairly straightforward manner but rapidly becomes a series of brief vignettes that shift rapidly and often with little explicit transition to a series of stories spanning three generations of the town of Comala. Shadowy characters come and go, and sometimes the reader hears only voices. The reader eventually learns that all of the characters in the novel are dead, even the narrator Juan Preciado. The technique is reminiscent of other modernist works, such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or the novels of William Faulkner.

Rulfo is often credited with being a forerunner of the technique known as Magical Realism, a technique most associated with Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Magical Realism introduces surreal elements of fantasy in startling juxtaposition with realistic narrative. This technique in Rulfo, however, underscores the reality of the unreal in the minds of Rulfo’s characters. Miracles, myth, memory, and imagination are as real in the lives of Rulfo’s characters as are eating lunch or drawing water from the well. Partly this reflects the importance of ancient myth as a vital part of the lives of contemporary Mexican Indians, and partly it reflects the strong tradition of Catholicism. Even though religion is often a negative and corrupting influence in Rulfo’s work (witness the ineffectual and corrupt priest Father Rentería in Pedro Páramo), its traditions form an integral part of the lives of the people.

The lives of the characters in Rulfo’s works are circumscribed by violence, poverty, death, and an unforgiving landscape. His characters struggle to survive, but they have little optimism. Women are subject to sexual predation and a lack of opportunity and power. Men are apt to become murderers or the victims of murderers and live lives where no amount of hard work can cause crops to spring from infertile soil or the rain to fall. One of Rulfo’s particular concerns is the relationship between fathers and sons. The premise of Pedro Páramo is Juan Preciado’s search for his father. Not only does he wish to meet his father, but he wishes to be acknowledged by him, to be validated. In Pedro Páramo he finds only a failed and corrupt father. Father Rentería, the spiritual father of Comala, also fails as a father, succumbing to the corruption of Pedro Páramo and failing to be absolved by the priest of the neighboring village. Rulfo’s bleak, fatalistic, yet visually stunning portraits of the lives of the Mexican Indians of the inhospitable plains of central Mexico have made his work influential among other Latin American authors and, in translation, for readers throughout the world.

The Burning Plain, and Other Stories

First published: El llano en llamas, y otros cuentros, 1953, revised 1970 and 1980 (English translation, 1967)

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(The entire section is 2053 words.)