The Old Gringo

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Originally published in Spanish in 1985 as El gringo viejo, Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo is a fascinating historical fiction which takes as its theme the deforming effect of borders, describing the mental and physical boundaries that both separate and join Mexican and North American cultures. As such, the novel addresses readers of both countries and asks them to ponder the question of personal and national identity that artificial borders have constructed for them. Fuentes has long been recognized as one of his country’s leading artists and thinkers. The success of his novels outside Mexico attests his ability to universalize the Mexican historical and cultural experience and thereby to challenge some of the basic assumptions about the exotic picturesqueness of Mexico and its people. In fact, the ironic tension between the stereotypes that foreigners, mostly North Americans, have of Mexico and the intimate rapport by which geography has bound the two countries is the thematic centerpiece of The Old Gringo.

Set in the northern Mexican desert in 1913, the novel is inspired by the rich folklore surrounding the disappearance of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, the “old gringo” of the title. At the age of seventy-one, Bierce, a reporter for the Hearst newspapers and a short-story writer known for his misanthropic views, sets out to join the rebel army of the legendary Pancho Villa. In real life, Bierce disappeared, never to be heard from again. Fuentes, inventing the details of Bierce’s travels, constructs his story through the flashback memories of an American schoolteacher, Harriet Winslow, whom Bierce meets when he joins one of the Villista armies headed by the peasant leader, Tomás Arroyo. The circumstances of Bierce’s death and Harriet’s reasons for pretending that he was her father (she had him buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery) make up the intricate weave of this many-layered historical fiction.

The novel’s twenty-three chapters blend violence and fast-paced action with a series of dramatic meditations by the three protagonists on national and personal destiny. The whole story, in turn, is expressed as Harriet’s memories of her encounters with Bierce and Arroyo. The first and last lines of the novel are the same: “Now she sits alone and remembers.” The sentence is also repeated at least a half dozen times within the intervening narration to remind the reader that all actions are essentially retrospective. Characteristic of Fuentes’ master design for the work, and not unlike his earlier novels, personal memory parallels and, in important ways, illuminates national history. For that reason, particular attention is paid to a series of historical details which suggest that the fortuitous pairing of Bierce with Harriet and the later triangular relationship that emerges between the two Americans and Arroyo are part of a larger historical allegory of national rather than simply individual fortunes and identities.

That chain of historical details includes the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Harriet’s father presumably died; the Mexican-American War of 1847, in which Bierce’s own father was a participant; and finally, the American Civil War, in which Bierce fought for the Union army. Through the accumulation of such background detail, Harriet and Bierce are gradually viewed as symbolic characters, expressing through the crises which have brought them to Mexico the deeper crisis which Fuentes suggests lurks in the American collective psyche.

Similarly, Arroyo is depicted as an amalgam of features that arises from Mexican and pre-Hispanic cultural myths. At points he is described as embodying and being trapped within the violent, destructive destiny of the Mexican revolution. At other points, the reader is brought to perceive a more arcane symbolism, as when his silent female companion, a woman named La Luna (the moon), is introduced into the story. The allusion here is to the son of the Nahuatl mother-goddess, Coatlicue, whose warrior son appears to be one of the mythic inspirations for Arroyo. Such touches clearly serve to free the novel’s action from a too-literal historical reading and move it into a more symbolic key.

Though the framing device of the flashback foregrounds Harriet’s position, the heart of the novel, as its title indicates, is the enigmatic figure of Bierce. In part, the logic of this detailed portrayal of Bierce is Fuentes’ fascination with the eccentric and embittered character of the real Ambrose Bierce; in part, it is to set in motion the intricate series of events which will transform Bierce’s final days from a mere footnote in history into a renewed vision of national cultural identity on both sides of the border.

The old gringo has come from San Francisco, a place which, perched on the coast, serves as a constant reminder to his countrymen that they have run out of frontiers and...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Before the Revolution
Long before the revolution, which serves as the context for this novel, Mexico was a country steeped in...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The action in The Old Gringo is structured within a framing device; that is, the main part of the novel is...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"Now she sits alone and remembers." This sentence, which also ends the novel, shows that the memories of Harriet Winslow form the substance...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Fuentes has been praised for the way he handled battle scenes in previous novels, the battle of Celaya, for example, in Where the Air Is...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Old Gringo analyzes the conflict between two cultures separated by a border established deep in the territory once claimed by...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1914: The assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, sets off a chain of political events that draws most...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Read Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is mentioned in this novel. What does that story...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Fuentes has his Ambrose Bierce writing, but if the real Bierce actually attempted an account of his impressions of Mexico and the Revolution,...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Most of Fuentes' novels show his intense interest in Mexico's past, especially in the Revolution. In Terra Nostra (1975), he explored...

(The entire section is 52 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Neither the acting nor the sets and costumes impressed critics in Luis Puenzo's film version of The Old Gringo (1989), Only Gregory...

(The entire section is 82 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Old Gringo was adapted for film and released by Columbia Pictures in 1989. The motion picture was directed by Luis Puenzo and...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Don Quixote, the book that the old gringo says he intends to read some time, was written by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Atlantic. CCLVI, December, 1985, p. 118.

Boldy, Steven. “Intertextuality in Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo.Romance Quarterly 39 (November, 1992): 489-500. An in-depth exploration of Fuentes’s novel that focuses on “the importing, translating, and transposing of foreign texts” into his work.

Booklist. LXXXII, November 1, 1985, p. 374.

Brown, Georgia. “A Woman’s Work.” The Village Voice (October 17, 1990): 90. Brown evaluates both the film adaptation and the novel, pointing out that even before the novel was published, Fuentes had...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Thomas R. Edwards, “Pathos and Power,” in The New York Review of Books, December 19, 1985.


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