Tell Them Not to Kill Me! ThemesThe three main themes in “Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” are family loyalty; duty, revenge, and justice; and compassion.
- Family loyalty: The colonel is determined to avenge the murder of his father. For Justino, loyalty to his father is at war with his own paternal responsibilities.
- Duty, revenge, and justice: Rulfo encourages the reader to consider the proper solution to a long-standing problem of justice evaded.
- Compassion: If he were to find the killer, the colonel reasons, he might be moved by compassion. In that regard, compassion is presented as an aspect of weakness.
Last Updated on September 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624
“Tell Them Not to Kill Me” discusses the complicated and often conflicting web of familial obligations through a lens of vengeance and long-awaited justice. After Don Lupe’s death, his children, now orphaned, were sent far away to live with distant relatives. His son, who goes unnamed, returns to avenge his father after he learns that the man responsible for Don Lupe’s horrible, extended death walked free. The bond between father and son was simultaneously broken and strengthened, and the colonel is determined to avenge the death of the man he never had the luxury to know.
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Juvencio, Don Lupe’s murderer, has a son of his own, Justino. His son parallels the colonel, though his loyalty to his father is far weaker. Caught between loyalty to his father and paternal responsibility for his own family, Justino is at odds with himself. Eventually, he chooses his family and abandons his father to his well-deserved punishment. Justino feels the pull of duty to his father, but he can also empathize with the fatherless upbringing of the colonel, of which his father had been the sole cause. Paradoxically, this empathy eats into his feelings for his father, as he can easily imagine what his children might experience if they were left fatherless.
Duty, Revenge, and Justice
At first, Juan Rulfo’s short story appears to be a straightforward tale of justice evaded and delivered. However, once the nature of justice clarifies—a firing squad that decimates the body of the guilty party with far more bullets than strictly necessary—readers must question the implication of the colonel’s justice, which doubles as vengeful punishment. Motivated by his obligation to avenge the father he was never allowed to know and his desire to uphold his position as an agent of justice, the colonel is motivated by an amalgam of long-held rage and civil necessity.
Duty—to his family and his position—drive him to seek revenge on a man who escaped punishment for a murder committed thirty-five years ago. Quickly, duty fades into the background, and the narrative appears to be one of revenge rather than fair justice. Rather than facing a trial or a fair sentence, Juvencio is left to “suffer,” waiting for his death in the blistering heat. The lines between duty and revenge blur, leading readers to Rulfo’s central question: what constitutes justice?
Though the pain and rage are evident in the colonel’s words, he tempers his anger with a brief moment of humanity. He does not leave the building to speak directly to or even look upon his father’s killer; instead, their sparse, disembodied exchange is the sole connection he makes with Juvencio. One might argue that the colonel made this choice to preserve his image of the murderer: rather than a feeble old man, pleading for his life, he is the storybook villain the colonel imagined as a child. To prove otherwise would shatter the colonel’s convictions and make revenge more difficult to enact.
Indeed, as Juvencio begs for mercy, the colonel relents slightly, asking his guards to “give [Juvencio] something to drink until he gets drunk so the shots won’t hurt him.” It is small mercy indeed, but it is a kindness nonetheless, won by Juvencio’s weakness and the colonel’s pitying sympathy. If the colonel saw the killer, he might be even more likely to be moved by compassion. In that regard, emotion is an aspect of weakness; rather than face the condemned man, he orders the firing squad to carry out Juvencio's execution. Yet Juvencio had not shown compassion for Don Lupe's family when he callously deprived them of their father, so, arguably, he does not deserve it now.