Critical Overview

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The Underdogs is considered the most influential novel of the Mexican Revolution. It is a classic story in this genre. Originally published in an El Paso newspaper in 1915, The Underdogs became one of the most critically acclaimed novels of Spanish American literature by 1950.

Azuela’s structure for the novel implies his own journey through the Revolution. Its promise was strong and its ending quite weak. Part I includes twenty-one chapters, Part II has fourteen chapters; and Part III has just seven chapters. He provides a beautifully developed story about the Mexican Revolution and leaves conclusions about the revolution suspended for the reader.

Carlos Fuentes, one of the Mexico's best-known novelists, compares The Underdogs to great epic poems. The storyline includes great heroic characters and heart-breaking tragedy and death. The great and idealistic revolutionary ideas fall into lawlessness and banality. This theme is repeated in world literature from the great Greek epic poems through the novels of the French and Russian Revolutions. Azuela’s novel, however, lacks the philosophy to support the revolutionary cause. Luis Cervantes is one of the only characters who embodies a sense of the ideas behind the revolution. Demetrio is an epic character in his great heroism and yet he lacks any political ambition. He fights for the peasants, but he does not have a strategy to meet his goals. When he learns about the need to vote for the next president, Demetrio explains that he has no political aspirations. He cannot read. He simply wants to go home. In this way, he is like Odysseus in his longing for home but he lacks the great victories to satisfy any sense of purpose or legacy from his work.

Other critics note how Azuela’s writing recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy. The final lines of the book may suggest Demetrio’s ascent into Heaven. Is he a hero? At other points, Demetrio seems to be descending into hell such as when he shoots an innocent man.

It is realism that most characterizes Azuela’s writing. His unflattering portraits of the revolutionaries do not garner any pride for Mexicans or Mexican writers. Azuela was unapologetic about this approach. At a lecture he once said, “I  have been accused of not having understood the Revolution; of seeing the trees but not the forest. True, I never could glorify the scoundrels or sing the praises of their swindles.” Azuela’s position is fiercely independent. As a man who joined the revolution, escaped its vices, and then returned to Mexico to serve the poor, he operated without disillusion. He frankly described the violence, poverty, sex, and brutality of the revolutionaries and the Federales. He experienced this first-hand. Yet, he presents no broad portraits of the leaders of the historical revolution, only brush strokes. The reader does not receive a Napoleonic description of Villa, Carranza, Obregón, or Zapata. These people are in the periphery. They never appear in the novel. Azuela describes Natera, Demetrio’s general and commander, but he is out of reach for readers. He is “above” Demetrio and remains above the reader. Azuela focuses on the individual peasant in the face of such upheaval. In this treatment, he brings the characters to a realistic level that can be heard, seen, and even smelled. His use of symbolism reflects the influences of Greek, Roman, and Germanic mythology. He presents a far-away place, but one that is very much home for him.

It is this honest and unflinching approach to the revolution that has secured him a place in the canon of world literature.

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Critical Evaluation