The novel transports readers to a ghost town on the desert plains in Mexico, and there it weaves together tales of passion, loss, and revenge. The village of Comala is populated by the wandering souls of former inhabitants, individuals not yet pure enough to enter heaven. Like the character Juan Preciado, who travels to Comala and suddenly finds himself confused, as readers we are not sure about what we see, hear, or understand. But the novel is enigmatic for other reasons. Since publication in 1955, the novel has come to define a style of writing in Mexico.
Sparse language, echoes of orality, details heavy with meaning, and a fragmentary structure transformed the literary representation of rural life; instead of the social realism that had dominated in earlier decades, Rulfo created a quintessentially Mexican, modernist gothic.. The haunting effect of Pedro Paramo derives from the fitful story of Mexican modernity, a story that the novel tells in a way that more “objective” historical and sociological analyses cannot. As an aesthetic expression characterized by imaginative understanding, the novel explores Mexican social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The decadent remnants of a quasi-feudal social order, violent revolutions, and a dramatic exodus from the countryside to the city all gave rise to ghost towns across Mexico. Pedro Paramo tells the stories of three main characters: Juan Preciado, Pedro Paramo, and Susana San Juan. From the point of view of Juan Preciado, the novel is the story of a son’s search for identity and retribution. Juan’s mother, Dolores Preciado, was Pedro Paramo’s wife. Although he does not bear his father’s name, Juan is Pedro’s only legitimate son. Juan has returned to Comala to claim “[j]ust what’s ours,” as he had earlier promised his dying mother.
Juan Preciado guides readers into the ghost story as he encounters the lost souls of Comala, sees apparitions, hears voices, and eventually suspects that he too is dead. We see through Juan’s eyes and hear with his ears the voices of those buried in the cemetery, a reading experience that evokes the poetic obituaries of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915). Along with Juan Preciado, readers piece together these fragments of lives to construct an image of Comala and its demise. Interspersed among the fragments recounting Juan’s story are flashbacks to the biography of Pedro Paramo.
Pedro is the son of landowners who have seen better days. He also loves a young girl, Susana San Juan, with a desire that consumes his life into adulthood. “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there. ” —page 3 Although the story line in these biographical fragments follows a generally chronological order, the duration of time is strangely distorted; brief textual passages that may read like conversational exchanges sometimes condense large historical periods. Moreover, the third-person narrative voice oscillates between two discursive registers.
On the one hand, poetic passages of interior monologue capture Pedro’s love for Susana and his sensuality; on the other, more exterior descriptions and dialogues represent a domineering rancher determined to amass wealth and possessions. Within this alternation between the first- and third-person narrative voices, readers must listen for another voice and reconstruct a third story, that of Susana San Juan. We overhear bits of her tale through the ears of Juan Preciado, listening with him to the complaints that Susana—in her restless death—gives forth in the cemetery of Comala.
“I was thinking of you, Susana. Of the green hills. Of when we used to fly kits in the windy season. We could hear the sounds of life from the town below; we were high above on the hill, playing out string to the wind. ‘Help me Susana. ‘ And soft hands would tighten on mine. ‘Let out more string. ‘” —page 12 Poetic sections evoke her passion for another man, Florencio, and Pedro never becomes the object of Susana’s affection. Juan Preciado, Pedro Paramo, and Susana San Juan are all haunted by ghosts; in turn, they become ghosts who haunt the realities of others.
“They say that when people from there die and go to hell, they come back for a blanket. ” —page 6 Although as readers we have the sense of lives once lived by these characters, they emerge for us as phantasms, as partially known presences who are not immediately intelligible and who linger with inexplicable tenacity. Reading Pedro Paramo creates a transformative recognition of Mexico’s move toward modernity in the early twentieth century; more than the objective lessons learned from social and cultural history, as a novel, Pedro Paramo produces a structure of feeling for readers that immerses us through the experience of haunting.
As ghosts, Pedro, Susana, and Juan point outward to the social context of Mexico in the difficult movement toward modernization, toward social arrangements that never completely die as a newer social order is established. Pedro’s accumulation of land as a rancher harks back to the trends of capital accumulation during the benign dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911).
The Porfiriato strove to modernize the nation through the development of infrastructure and investment; it allowed for anomalies such as the creation of the Media Luna ranch and strong local power brokers such as Pedro Paramo who shared the interests of the elite and helped maintain a thinly veiled feudal social order. Within this context, Susana San Juan and other individuals murmur their complaints in ghostly whispers. Indeed, at one point, Rulfo planned to call the novel Los murmullos—the murmurs.
Speaking in the streets of Comala, overheard in dreams, and groaning in the cemetery, these spectral murmurs bespeak a reality hidden beneath the facade of Porfirian progress. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 gave expression to repressed peasants—the campesinos of rural Mexico—and put an end to the Porfiriato. Susana San Juan, in turn, reveals the repressed role of women in a patriarchal order. In this world women are chattel and ranch-owners can forcibly populate the countryside with bastard children by asserting feudal rights to the bodies of peasant women living on their lands.
Peasant revolutionaries and Susana San Juan as well are all manipulated by Pedro Paramo. He can force events to keep them all in the places where he would have them, but he cannot control their desires and their pleasures. The peasants celebrate festivals, and after the revolution they eventually rebel again by participating in the Cristero Revolt of 1926-1929. Susana suffers guilt and remembers pleasure in evocative passages that underscore her erotic ties to Florencio, a man unknown to others in the novel, perhaps a dead soldier from the revolution, the man Pedro would have had to be in order to have Susana’s love.
“The sky was crowded with fat, swollen stars. The moon had come out for a little while and then vanished. It was one of those sad moons that nobody looks at or even notices. It hung there for a little while, pale and disfigured, and then hid itself behind the mountains. ” -Juan Rulfo References Carol Clark D’Lugo, The Fragmented Novel in Mexico: The Politics of Form (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 70-81. Patrick Dove, “‘Exigele lo nuestro’: Deconstruction, Restitution and the Demand of Speech in Pedro Paramo,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 10. 1 (2001): 25-44,