The Burning Plain and Other Stories
El Llano En Llamas: A Burning Desire for Change and the Short Stories of Juan Rulfo
The Mexican Revolution was fought to bring about reform for the peasants in society; on the contrary, no agrarian reform occurred, and the people were left worse off than before the fighting began. Juan Rulfo wrote a collections of short stories titled The Burning Plain to paint a picture of the land once the fighting ceased. The president, Madero, had one post-revolutionary plan that included draining lake beds to get rid of salt in the soil. He would then implement a land reclamation process in which states distributed the land. This did not work because in the years that followed, no rain came and the land remained dry and not arable. People ended up worse than they had been before because of his plan and the unfortunate weather patterns of the time (Fitz). It can easily be said that “the fusion of human and environment as a metaphor for the characters’ fate or for their desired but unrealizable state” (Bell). The imagery hints at a deeper meaning; it serves as a way to depict the mood of the people as well.
A reoccurring theme in Rulfo’s stories is how the desolate landscape represents the feelings of hopelessness and despair among the people. In “Luvina”, the narrator tells his friend about a town for which the short story is named. It resides on a hill, bordered on all sides by steep gray cliffs. The sun rarely shines there and “the days are as cold as the night” (Rulfo 67). Cold and darkness are typically associated with doom and sadness. No plants or crops can grow among the rocks there because it rains so little, leaving a dry and depressing landscape behind with little hope to grow anything of sustenance. One quotation that speaks to the overall atmosphere of the town is when one man, a visitor of Luvina, claims “…you’ll never see a blue sky. The whole horizon is colorless…The whole ridge bald, without a single tree, without a single green thing for your eyes to rest on; everything enveloped in the ash-cloud of lime. You’ll see: those hills, their lights darkened as if they were dead, and Luvina at the very top, crowning it with its white houses as if it were the crown of a dead man…” (Rulfo 68). This paints a picture of a land that is uninhabitable. The very end of the passage, where he compares Luvina to the crown of a dead man, could be the authors way of saying that among all the dead landscape, where there are few signs of life, Luvina is the worst. At the end of the short story the narrator learns that the women of Luvina despise the government, which is why they do not ask for help. This symbolizes how post revolution, citizens have lost faith in their government and do not rely on it for anything.
In another short story, “The Them Not To Kill Me!”, the reason the main character is being tried and sentenced to death is because he killed another man. He killed the other man, Don Lupe, because Don Lupe would not let the main character’s cattle graze on his land. There was a drought that killed the grass and thus animals were dying off. This shows how bad things were post-Revolution and post-agrarian reform; the situation was bad enough that men were being killed just for the chance for animals to get good land (Rulfo, 61). In “The Plain in Flames,” the narrator describes how crops no longer grow in lands where they once had. He says “It was the time of year when corn is about to be harvested, and the cornfields looked dry and bent over because of the strong winds that blow in the Plain in Flames” (Rulfo 52). This is another example of how desolate things had become. The people had once relied on these crops to live but now they no longer have that source of income.
Juan Rulfo contributes to his depiction of Mexico through not only words but also photography, and the pictures certainly speak for themselves. He uses them as a lens into what life was like in a way that storytelling cannot fully explain. His artwork is simple and concise. As a Mexican citizen, he saw the unrest that was present both before and after the Revolution and thus captured the important symbols of the time period (Powell). In Figure 1, an untitled photograph, he shows a man wandering his land with his cattle. The cattle are thin and lack the muscle typically found in farm animals, signifying the starvation that plagued the land. The ground they walk over is dry and cracked; it is evident there is no food for the man, let alone for his animals too. In Figure 2, Dust to Dust, a similar theme exists. The plants growing in the photograph are thin and dry. This picture shows the lack of rainwater that followed the Revolution and the reason behind why the peasants were struggling so hard to survive. In Figure 3, Campesinas De Oaxaca, women are tending to their land. No plants or crops are growing there and it is relatively evident that none will. Their body language suggests that they are miserable and hopeless; their shoulders are hunched and their clothing is pulled tightly around them as they shield themselves from the camera. Their thin arms poke through their sleeves and show how malnourished they are becoming.
The overarching theme of these short stories and photos is that people fought and died in the Revolution with the intention of becoming free from an oppressive government. They wanted more opportunities and a better quality life; however, the opposite occurred. The landscape portrayed in these stories and photographs is barren and miserable. There are few signs of life because plants and crops cannot grow due to the weather. The sun does not shine, rains do not fall, and the winds constantly blows. More people will die because they will starve than died fighting the war. “The plants, crops, animals and man-made structures constitute an indiscriminate confluence of human and natural elements, signs of human activity—farming, agriculture and construction—that are in turn dependent on natural resources and submitted to natural processes” (Bell). The fact that they depend so much on animals and plants to survive, and have none, shows the reason behind their lack of hope. They were suddenly at a disadvantage economically (Fitz). The desolate landscape is representative of the mood of the people following the revolution: quite simply, they have no hope left in life.