Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

Rulfo underlines the philosophical significance of this story by using proper names to indicate symbolic significance. It is ironic that Tanilo’s last name is Santos, for he and his wife are anything but saints. Talpa is a fictional place-name and was chosen to emphasize the spiritual blindness of the characters in the story as talpa is the Latin word for the genus of the mole. The narrator and Natalia are therefore to be understood as comparable to moles because they hide from the sun. This symbolism is further underlined by the description of the pilgrims who accompany them into Talpa, who are described unflatteringly as a mass of writhing worms. Worms, like moles, travel underground, and both images are intended to underline the spiritual blindness of the pilgrims. These metaphors undercut the notion of transcendence normally associated with the idea of a spiritual pilgrimage.

Zenzontla is also a fictional place-name, but this name is sufficiently similar to tezontle, the name of a light and porous volcanic rock common in Mexico, to be understood as a subtle, glancing allusion. This fits in with the symbolism of the story because the earth on which Natalia and the narrator lie when they are committing adultery (which is even more heinous because it is incestuous as well) is hot, Natalia’s body is described as “heating up” when she comes near the narrator, and their bodies are described as like a fire. The story is about the ways in which an uncontrollable, volcanic passion erupts and destroys three people’s lives—Tanilo’s literally, and the narrator’s and Natalia’s metaphorically, because they are both lonely and guilt-ridden by the conclusion of the story.

The style used in Rulfo’s story is one of deliberate understatement characterized by flat descriptions. The scene in which Natalia and the narrator bury Tanilo’s body is a prime example. Natalia and the narrator are portrayed as simply digging a hole with their bare hands to a sufficient depth to prevent animals from getting to the body. It is difficult to imagine a more sparse description. Nothing is embellished, and there are no descriptive adjectives. Another hallmark of Rulfo’s style is that, in spite of the horror of the events depicted, the reader does not get a sense of what is going on inside the characters’ heads. The reader does not hear their anguished thoughts; rather their anguish is simply expressed in physical terms as air “smelling of death” or the heart feeling “squeezed.” The reader also learns that Natalia and the narrator are carrying an “enormous weight” on their shoulders. Psychological pain is typically expressed in physical terms. These two techniques—flat, unadorned descriptions and the translation of psychological emotions into physical metaphors—are the hallmarks of Rulfo’s literary style.

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