Themes and Meanings
This work is from Juan Rulfo’s 1950’s collection of short stories El llano en llamas, which presents scenes from life in rural Jalisco, Rulfo’s native region of Mexico. The collection has been translated by George D. Schade as The Burning Plain (1967). Many of its stories, like this one, involve family relationships in difficult situations. Rulfo himself was an orphan; his father was killed in the long years of the cristero revolts during the time of the Mexican Revolution and his mother died several years later. The theme of the search for the father, for family roots, and for personal or even national identity permeates Rulfo’s writings.
Both sons in this story, the colonel and Justino, feel a sense of family loyalty and duty. The colonel is seeking justice as well as revenge for his father’s murder. He does not attempt to face the guilty man directly, lest he feel some sense of compassion for him. Justino is hesitant, yet he tries to help his father. He seems to accept Juvencio’s admitted guilt, and he finally claims the body for burial. Although Justino had his father with him during his youth, he felt the fear of a life constantly in dread of his father’s potential capture and death. The colonel spent most of his life without a father; he came to be overwhelmed by the desire to see his father’s murderer punished, perhaps as much to avenge his own lost childhood as to avenge his father.
Juvencio tries to avoid death almost up to the very end, as he has all of his life. However, there is a certain inevitability and fatalism in his ultimate demise. He knows that his family suffered along with him all those years, but his primary thought is for self-preservation. The reader is left to ponder the limits of rights and responsibilities, of justice and revenge, of mercy and forgiveness. The story offers a strongly evoked regional setting, vividly described, which is elevated to a broader level by the sobering consideration of deep, universal themes.