The Underdogs Themes
The main themes in The Underdogs are survival, ignorance, and brutality.
- Survival: Demetrio Macías and the other soldiers of the peasant class caught up in the Mexican Revolution fight, kill, and loot in order to survive.
- Ignorance: Demetrio is illiterate, and he and his men are often unaware of why they are fighting; they simply follow orders from leaders they never meet, relying on the greater awareness of the world held by men like Cervantes.
- Brutality: Acts of wartime brutality are committed by both revolutionaries and federal soldiers and are especially evident in the actions of Towhead Margarito and War Paint.
Contrary to the fatalistic nature of most of the characters in The Underdogs is the instinct of survival which the characters pursue first and foremost. Demetrio flees his home in order to survive; he fights in order to survive. If he and his men do not kill the enemy, the enemy will kill them. This “shoot or be shot” attitude persists until the increased acts of random violence suggest that maybe other factors are at play. But the men’s increased violence is simply an offshoot of the need to survive. When the stakes are life and death, nothing else really matters, and in this context the rapes, the torture, and the destruction of property can be easily understood. The men kill because it is better to be predator than prey. The only goal is to survive. There is no difference between accidentally shooting someone and intentionally pulling the trigger. Someone dies and someone lives. If the men can then sleep in better beds, eat better food, and drink more alcohol, why not?These comforts only insulate the instinct to survive. For Demetrio and his men there is no varied, complicated list of consequences and no real indication of what will happen if they win or lose. There is only one consequence: death. They view everything around them with animal eyes. For Luis Cervantes, survival means a bit more: wealth, recognition, and power. These goals are as important to Cervantes as staying alive is to the peasant revolutionaries.
The theme of ignorance can be seen on several levels. The inability to know or reluctance to know shapes every character. From faulty intelligence and illiteracy, to a general unawareness of the world, Demetrio and his men rarely know what is going on. They know that men dressed in a certain way should be shot, but outside of this singular clarity, there is little illumination. When Demetrio is shot, the men defer to Venancio, a barber known in his town as the witch doctor. Venancio is the man who knows the most, but in truth, Venancio knows very little. When Luis Cervantes, a trained medical student, enters the town, Venancio cannot help being impressed with the young man’s knowledge. Cervantes’s knowledge and speeches soon win over the peasants. They are not ignorant enough to be afraid of knowledge, but they admit to not really comprehending what Cervantes is talking about most of the time. Yet when Cervantes suggests they meet up with General Natera, the men agree. When they are told by more important, more intelligent men to keep on fighting, the peasants keep on fighting, while Cervantes eventually takes off to the United States. But throughout his time with Demetrio, Cervantes is also ignorant. He is aware of a great deal, but he is not aware of the intricacies above him. Initially he spouts the beliefs of a moral man, but he betrays these earlier admissions when he begins to pillage and plunder alongside the peasants, who now seem to be controlling his actions. As the war continues, the larger picture grows harder and harder to see. Throughout the novel, the men constantly profess their lack of knowledge and understanding of the cogs and gears driving them forward.
In The Underdogs Azuela mostly points out the negative aspects of human...
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