Confusion, the Critics, and the Ambiguities in
Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo

Ramón Paredes
(Contemporary Latin American Novel)


      Since its publication in 1955, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo has became one of the Latin American novels most read, most analized in magazines and newspapers, and most taught in schools in Latin American countries (Angel Rama, La Novela en América Latina: 270). In effect, with Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela and Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (1928), Pedro Páramo has become one of the Latin American novels with a longer biography.
      However, even though so many critics have analized the novel from almost every possible angle: semiotical (Martha Portal, Análisis Semiológico de Pedro Páramo; Iber H. Verdugo, Un Estudio de la Narrativa de Juan Rulfo); mythical (Hugo Rodríguez Alcalá, El Arte de Juan Rulfo; George Ronald Freeman, Paradise and Fall in Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo; Octavio Paz, Corrientes Alternas and in El Laberinto de la Soledad); symbolical (Nicolás Emilio Alvarez, Análisis Arquetípico, Mítico y Simbológico de Pedro Páramo), and even psychoanalytical, the novel continues being as obscure and ambiguous as it was thirty-two years ago. In fact, what has really happened is that some foreign critics, for example, unable to understand the coloquial, popular Spanish spoken in Mexico, have made the novel even more obscure and ambiguous.[1]
      In effect, there are still —as thirty-two years ago— major ambiguities in the novel which not even one critic has been able to explain, and which, when he has tried to do so, what he has really done is to make them more obscure and ambiguous. Thus, there are three major ambigities, which we consider fundamental to really undertand the novel, and on which the critics —in Latin American, and especially in the United States—, don't ever seem to agree:

1. Who is dead and who is alive in the novel?
2. Did Susan San Juan have an incestuous relantionship with her father?
3. Does Abundio also stab Damiana, at the end of the novel, when he stabs Don Pedro Páramo?


      As notices Paul B. Dixon (Reversible Readings: 63)[2], the first ambiguity that Pedro Páramo suggests, even in a first reading, is who is dead and who is alive in the novel? Even though most of the characters raise the question if he is alive or when did he die, the most noticed ambiguities are related to Juan Preciado, Abundio Martínez, Eduviges Dyada, and —in some degree—, Damiana Cisneros. Are they dead or alive? When did they die?

Juan Preciado
      According to most critics —including Paul B. Dixon (Readings: 65)[3]; Samuel O'Neill (“Pedro Páramo,” in Juan Rulfo’s Para Cuando yo me Ausente: 125); Luis Leal (“La Estructura de Pedro Páramo,” in Para Cuando: 258); and José Carlos González Boixo (in his notes to the Cátedras ediction of Pedro Páramo: 126), Juan Preciado is alive until he arrives in Comala, and dies two days later, after his encounter with Donis and his sister. “Juan is alive,” writes Dixon, “up until his suffocation.” Juan dies two days after he arrives in Comala, according to Leal. “Conviene dejar establecido,” writes Nicolás Emilo Alvarez, “que el personaje de Juan Preciado estaba vivo a su llegada a Comala” (Análisis Arquetípico: 19).
      Other critics, however, have a different theory. Octavio Paz, for example, believes that Juan Preciado was dead when he arrived in Comala (Corriente Alterna: 17). According to Nicolás Emilio Alvarez, Maria J. Embeita agrees with Paz (Análisis: 19). And he quotes Ricardo Estrada as writing in his article “Los Indicios de Pedro Páramo,” “¿Quién, quiénes están vivos en Comala..., en la Media Luna? Nadie” (Analisis: 20).
      Juan Rulfo himself appears to have given two different versions on Juan Preciado. In his notes to the Cátedra ediction of Pedro Páramo, José Carlos González Boixo cites an interview with Juan Rulfo. “Cuando (Juan Preciado) llega a Comala está vivo,” Rulfo supossely said to González Boixo. “Él muere allí” (González Boixo: 126). In other interview with Luis Leal, however, Rulfo is quoted saying, “Ya desde que Juan Preciado llega al pueblo (Comala) con el arriero está muerto” (Luis Leal, Juan Rulfo: 75).
      However, the text suggests us the opposite of this last version by Rulfo. In the first pages of the book, Juan Preciado usually makes or tries to make a clear distinction between life and dead. First, as notices Dixon, Abundio suggests to Juan Preciado to look for “doña Eduviges, si es que todavía vive” (Pedro Páramo: 15). When Juan Preciado tells Eduviges about Abundio, she’s isn’t sure he’s Abundio Martinez, because “Abundio ya murió” (Paramo: 15). Finally, if Dorotea, Donis and his sister —who, as far as we know, stayed always in Comala— bury Juan Preciado —who has never before been in Comala—, then he is alive when he arrives, and die of suffocation two days later.

Abundio Martínez
       Some critics (Readings: 71-72) have suggested that there are two Abundios in the novel: the first being the Abundio that brings Juan Preciado to Comala, and the second being Abundio Martínez, the one who stabs Don Pedro Páramo. According to Dixon, “we are encouraged to make a distinction (between the first and the sec ond Abundio) on the basic of deafness or hardness of hearing” (Readings: 72). However, if we believe in Dixon's theory, then we've to conclude that Abundio Martínez —the one who kills Don Pedro Páramo— is not Pedro’s son. In any case, we think that there more evidences that there’s only one Abundio than there’s to suggest the existence of two Abundios.
      According to our theory, when Juan Preciado meets Abundio in his way to Comala, Abundio is already dead, therefore Abundio —now being dead— is able to hear. In his chapter on Juan Rulfo, in Los Nuestros, Luis Harss writes, “muertos... están todos los habitantes del lugar (Cómala), incluso el [Abundio] mismo” (Para Cuando: 95). In his essay “A traves de la Ventana de la Sepultura: Juan Rulfo,” published in his book La Narrativa de Juan Rulfo: Interpretaciones Criticas, Joseph Sommers writes, “Abundio... muere después de haber matado a su padre, porque es su espíritu el que guía Juan hacia Comala” (La Narrativa: 160).

Eduviges Dyada
      Probably because Juan Preciado is a direct narrator in the novel, the ambiguity of him being dead or alive at certain point has been noticed for almost every critic who has written on the book. With Eduviges, however, it’s not that easy: one can talk about her being dead at certain points because of only two fragments which, somehow, have some contradictions between themselves.
      In effect, the issue is not if Eduviges is dead when Juan Preciado arrives in Comala: every critic agrees that she is dead. The issue raised by José Carlos González Boixo is that there some contradictions between two fragments. It’s clear that from the beginning, when Eduviges —now dead— tells Juan Preciado about the dead of Miguel Páramo, that night —the night that Miguel Páramo dies—, she is alive. However, adds González Boixo, the fragment 16 (where Father Renteria rescriminates himself for “selling” out to Pedro Páramo and not “save” Eduviges —who has committed suicide—) begins with “Había estrellas fugaces” (Pedro Páramo: 34). The fragment 15 —in which several men converse during the night of Miguel Páramo’s burial— is linked to fragment 16 with the words, “Había estrellas fugaces” (Pedro Páramo: 33). That’s, somehow Father Renteria rembers Eduviges’s suicide the same night that Miguel Páramo was buried.
      Some critics —including Paul B. Dixon (Readings: 72-76) and González Boixo— associate small details in each different fragment to order the book in a cronological order. Without or knowing Dixon and González Boixo’s study, most of the readers also made the same kind of association. When one does so, moreover, one has to conclude that there’s a contradiction in Rulfo's text (and we are not saying that there cannot be contradictions in a text), or the critics have not told us the truth: since the “estrellas fugaces” appear in the night of Miguel Páramo’s burial and since it’s the same night that Father Rentería remembers Eduviges’s suicide, then she is dead when she faces Miguel Páramo. Rentería remembers Eduviges’s suicide, then she is dead when she faces Miguel Páramo.

      Even though, as we have seen, there are many ambiguities in Pedro Páramo and even tough we have seen the critics haven’t helped us to understand them, the ambiguity that have brought more studies and more contradictions is probably the relantionship —or the possible “incestuous relantionship”— of Susana San Juan with her father, Bartolomé.
      In Dixon’s study, he cites two examples to prove the probably incest: a) When Fulgor Seldano tells Pedro Páramo that Bartolomé has returned to Comala, Don Pedro asks him: “—Han venido los dos?/—Si, el y su mujer. ¿Pero cómo lo sabe?/—¿No será su hija?/—Pues por el modo como la trata más bien parece su mujer” (Pedro Páramo: 85). And b) The conversation between Susana San Juan and her father. “—De manera que estás dispuesta a acostarste con él. /—Sí, Bartolomé./—¿No sabes que es casado y que ha tenido infinidad de mujeres?/—Sí, Bartolomé./—No me digas Bartolomé. ¡Soy to padre!” (Pedro Páramo: 88).
      “Susana’s calling her father by his first name,” writes Dixon, “might suggest more of a husband-wife relantionship than a father-daughter one” (Readings: 68). To support Dixon’s point, we may add that the fact that Susana calls her father “papá” in the mine shaft, when she was a little girl. “—No veo nada, papá./—Busca bien, Susana. Haz por encontrar algo.../—No veo nada, papá” (Pedro Páramo: 94). In that case, only an incest» could explain Susana’s changes from calling her father Bartolomé” rather than “Papá.”
      However, if we take those two examples cited by Dixon (examples which are usually used by critics to make the same point), then we also have to conclude that there’s a sexual relantionship between, a) Susana and Father Rentería, and b) Susana and her maid, Justina. In fact, in the novel itself, there are more suggestions of a sexual relantionship between Susana and Father Rentería, and between Susana and Justina, than between Susana and her father Bartolomé.
      For example, between Susana and Father Rentería. In page 96, Susana asks Father Rentería, “—¿Eres , padre?/—Soy tu padre, hija mía.” First, it’s most usually that a daughter or son tutear his or her father than the same person would a priest. Secondly, the same respect exists from priest to believer: a priest does not tutea a believer. However, that is not the best example. We could think of the last two visits that Father Rentería paid to Susan. Even though Susana is “crazy,” it’s strange how easy she feels being naked in front of Father Rentería, and how easy he watches her naked. And especially, how he has his mouth “casi pegada a la oreja de ella... [while he] encajaba secretamente cada una de sus palabras... ‘Tengo la boca llena de ti, de tu boca. Tus labios apretados, duros como si mordieran oprimiendo mis labios’” (Pedro Páramo: 117-118). Finally, the relantionship between Susana and Justina is even more obscure. In page 92, Susana reproches Justina and Justina says, “—Cuando venga Pedro Páramo le diré que ya no aguanto. Le diré que me voy. No faltara gente buena que me de trabajo. No todos son maniáticos como tú.” And Susana replies, “No te irás de aquí... No te irás a ninguna parte porque nunca encontraras quien te quiera como yo.” Justina “le mordía las piernas. La entretenía dándole de mamar sus senos, que no tenían nada, que eran de juguete. ‘Juega—le decía—, juega con este juguetito tuyo” (Pedro Páramo: 92-93). Later, Susana calls Justina “en la medianoche,” and then “Se recostó sobre su pecho, abrazándola” (Pedro Páramo: 93).

      The visit that Abundio Martínez pays to La Media Luna at the end of the novel is probably the text less clear in the book, and it’s probably the most controversial —among critics.
      According to most of the critics who have written on the book or on Juan Rulfo (Luis Leal, Luis Harss, Joseph Sommers, Luis Mario Schneider, Luis Ortega Galindo, Felipe Garrido, Jorge Ruffinelli, Manuel Duran, and many others read for this paper), Pedro Páramo is stabbed, at the end of the novel, by Don Pedro’s son, Abundio Martínez. For example, Joseph Sommers writes, in his article “A traves de la Ventana de la Sepultura: Juan Rulfo,” that “Abundio muere después de haber matado a su padre (Pedro Páramo)” (La Narrativa de Juan Rulfo: 161).
      However, there are two or three critics who argue that Abundio Martínez stabs Don Pedro Páramo and he also stabs Damiana Cisneros. “Surely he (Abundio) has stabbed someone,” writes Paul B. Dixon. “But there are apparently two persons he might have stabbed. Abundio is obviously distraught by Damiana’s yells... Suddenly her shouting stops, she drops to the ground and has been carried into the house. Abundio might well have stabbed Damiana” (Reading: 73). In his notes to the Cátedra edition of Pedro Páramo, José Carlos González Boixo writes that “Leyendo atentamente el texto [‘Damiana Cisneros dejó de gritar. Deshizo su cruz. Ahora se habla caldo y abría la boca como si bostezara./ Los hombres que hablan venido la levantaron del suelo y la llevaron al interior de la casa./ —¿No le ha pasado nada a usted, patrón? —preguntaron./ Apareció la cara de Pedro Páramo, que sólo movió la cabeza./ Desarmaron a Abundio, que aún tenía el cuchillo lleno de sangre en la mano.’] se observa que Abundio ha matado también a Damiana. Sólo así se explica que le quiten el cuchillo, lleno de sangre, y que, al mismo tiempo, pregunten a Pedro Páramo, si le ha ocurrido algo” (González Boixo: 193). When, in the last two dialogues of the novel, first Damiana asks Don Pedro about bringing him lunch, he answers, “Voy para allá. Ya voy,” “Damiana, ya muerta, le invita, simbólicamente, a acompañarle al mundo de los muertos” (González Boixo: 195). (In support of González Boixo’s point, we might consider Luis Leal’s article, “La Estructura de ‘Pedro Páramo’,” in Juan Rulfo’s Para Cuando yo me Ausente. “Y resulta que Juan (Preciado) se muere entre fantasmas, ya que Damiana también está muerta” (Para Cuando: 259.)
      However, the most stranger criticism, it appears, is Samuel O’Neill’s essay, “Pedro Páramo,” published in Homenaje a Juan Rulfo (New York: Las Américas, )974, pp. 285-322), and later selected by Rulfo himself in Para cuando yo me ausente. First, when Mr. O’Neill mentions Abundio Martínez, he adds, “a­sesino de Damiana” (Para Cuando: 107). Later, refering to the last fragment of the novel, he writes, “no nos damos cuenta de que (Abundio) ha matado a Damiana sino muchas líneas más adelante, cuando Abundio es desarmado” (Para Cuando: 124). And he casually mentions that “ un (sic) crítico (Mariana French’s article in Revista de la Universidad de México, XV (July 1961), p. 21) estima aún Abundio mató a Pedro Páramo, además de Damiana, aunque este hecho no se clarifica nunca en el episodio del ataque” (Para Cuando: 124). Finally, he concludes that “Abundio aparece al comienzo de la novela y también termina la novela como el asesino de Damiana y talvez de Pedro Páramo” (Para Cuando: 138)

      As we have seen, through the years, the critics —who are suppossed to help the reader to understand the text—, haven’t helped the reader to understand Juan Rulfo’s book. On the contrary, what they have done is make the obscure more obscure and make the ambiguos even more ambiguos: they have, we could say, made the text even more complicated what it really was. It is almost safe to assume that, sometimes, some foreign critics—unable or with difficulties understanding the language in which a text was written-­ speculate to explain some thing that doesn’t need an explaination? In O’Neill’s case, one can’t even think of words to describe it: Because, how could one forget or ignore Pedro Páramo’s body dando un golpe seco contra la tierra” and “desmoronando como si fuera un montón de piedras”?


[1] The three best examples are found in Paul B. Dixon’s “Three Versions of Pedro Páramo,” in his book Reversible Readings: Ambiguities in Four Moderm Latin American Novels; in Luis Ortega Galindo’s Expresión y Sentido de Juan Rulfo; and George Ronald Freeman’s “La Caída de la Gracia: Clave de Arquetípica de Pedro Páramo.”
      For example, in Dixon’s case, he cites the mine shaft where Susana is sent down by her father Bartolomé to find gold. According to Dixon, “Entonces ella no supo de ella, sino muchos días después...” (Pedro Páramo: 95), ella stands for the calavera, when in reality, ella refers to Susana who passes away. In other instance, at the end of the novel, when Abundio Martínez stabs Don Pedro and Damiana cries, “¡Están matando a Don Pedro!” (Pedro Páramo: 127), Dixon suggests that there might be more than one (Abundio) killing Don Pedro. “Why would Damiana say ‘están’ if she were refering to Abundio alone?” (Readings: 73) asks Dixon. If Dixon knew the coloquial, indígena, popular Spanish spoken in Mexico, he would know how often the people use the inde­finido “ellos.” (See Gordon Brotherson’s article in Juan Rulfo’s Para cuando yo me ausente: 212).
      In Ortega’s case, the confusion is even worse. For he’s from Spain, he’s unable to understand the coloquial Spanish spoken in Mexico. Thus, he makes an issue of, “Vine a Comala porque me dijeron que aquí vive mi padre, un tal Pedro Páramo. Mi madre me lo dijo” (Pedro Páramo: 7); “—No lo conozco—le dije—. Sólo sé que se llama Pedro Páramo./—¡Ah! Vaya./—Si, así me dijeron que se llamaba” (Pedro Páramo: 9); “—¿Y a qué va usted a Comala, si es que se puede saber? —oí que me preguntaban./—Voy a ver a mi padre —contesté./—Ah —dijo él” (Pedro Páramo: 8); “¡Despierta!, le dicen./ Reconoce el sonido de la voz. Trata de adivinar quién es” (Pedro Páramo: 27); and finally, “¡Despiértate!, vuelven a decir. La voz sacude...” (Pedro Páramo: 27). In those cases, it’s evident that Juan Rulfo was trying to keep as close as he could to the coloquial Spanish spoken in Mexico —and even other Latin American countries.
      The same confusion is evident with the text refering to Donis and his sister. Ortega Galindo (Expresion: 204-206) and George Ronald Freeman (La Narrativa de Juan Rulfo: 68) make a mystery of “No hablaría si no me acordara al ver a ése re­bulléndose, de lo que me sucedió a mí la primera vez que me hiciste. Y cómo me dolió y de lo mucho que me arrepentí de eso” (Pedro Páramo: 52). They are unable to understand that that is the way that most Mexicans speak when they talk about a sexual act.
      The end of misunderstanding, however, is found in Galindo and Freeman when they take what Donis’s sister tells Juan Preciado, “Yo sé tan poco de la gente. Nunca salgo. Aquí donde me ve, aquí he estado sempiternamente. Bueno no tan siempre. Sólo desde que él me hizo su mujer,” and make theories about Genesis, the Bible, symbolism. For a Mexican —and even for a Latin American, sometimess—,such analysis couldn’t be more silly: that belongs to the popular Spanish spoken in Mexico.
      Finally, both Ortega and Freeman are unable to undern­tand what the bishop means when he tells Donis’s sister, “¡Apártense!” For Ortega Galindo (Expresión: 206), it means “get out of my way.” To Freeman, it means “el castigo dado a Dan.” For us, however, it’s so simple: the bishop just suggests her “Don’t live together”—that is, apártense.

[2] Even though we will usually quote Paul B. Dixon’s essay, we think it’s needed to explain that we don’t trust his essay. The fact that he doubts Florencio’s existence, that he’s unable to establish the differences (which are in the novel) among Florencio, Bartolomé San Juan and Don Pedro Páramo, that he is unable to really understand the coloquial, popular Spanish spoken in Mexico, are enough evidences to disqualify his study. However, to establish the critics’ different in relation to some ambiguities in the novel, we decided to use his essay.

[3] However, Dixon points out that if Eduviges and Abundio are dead when Juan Preciado meets them (theory, according to the critics, easy to prove), then Juan Preciado is dead when he arrives in Comala (Readings: 65-66).

Works Cited

Alvarez, Nicolás Emilio. Análisis Arquetípico, Mítico y Simbológico de Pedro Páramo. (Miami: Ediciones Univer­sal, 1983.

Dixon, Paul B. Reversible Readings: Ambiguity in Four Moderm Latin American Novels. (Alabama: The University of Alaba­ma Press, 1985.

Freeman, George Ronald. “La caída de la gracia: clave arque­típica de Pedro Páramo”, en La Narrativa de Juan Rulfo. (México: Sept/Setentas, 1974, pp. 117-140.)

González Boixo, José Carlos. Notes e Introducción to the Cátedra edition of Pedro Páramo. (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1983.)

Harss, Luis. “Juan Rulfo, o la pena sin nombre”, en Los Nuestros. (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1966.)

— — —  “Juan Rulfo, o la pena sin nombre”, en Juan Rulfo’s Para cuando yo me ausente. (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1983.

Leal, Luis. “La estructura de Pedro Páramo” en Juan Rulfo’s Para cuando yo me ausente. (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1983.)

— — — . Juan Rulfo. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.)

Ortega Galindo, Luis. Expresión y Sentido de Juan Rulfo. (Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, S.A., 1984.)

Paz, Octavio. Corriente Alterna. (México: Siglo XXI, 1967.)

— — —  El Laberinto de la Soledad. (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 5ª edición, 1967.

Portal, Martha. Análisis Semiológico de “Pedro Páramo.” (Madrid: Narcea, S.A., 1981.)

Rama, Angel. La Novela en América Latina. (“Panoramas: 1920-­1980”). (Colombia: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1982.)

Rodríguez Alcalá, Hugo. El Arte de Juan Rulfo. (México: Instituto de Bellas Artes, 1965.)

Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, Novena Edición, 1968.)

— — —  Para cuando yo me ausente. (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1982.)

Sommers, Joseph. “A traves de la ventana de la Sepultura: Juan Rulfo” in La Narrativa de Juan Rulfo. Interpreta­ciones críticas, ant., intr. and notes by Joseph Sommers. (Mexico: Sep/Setentas, 1974, pp. 141-166.)

— — — Yáñez, Rulfo, Fuentes: la novela mexicana moderna. (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1969.)

Verdugo, Iber H. Un Estudio de la Narrativa de Juan Rulfo. (México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1982.)

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