Guilt, Understanding, and Confession In Two Latin American Works

Table of Contents

  1. Body
  2. Works Consulted

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Two novelists that deal with the problems inherent in guilt and confession are Juan Rulfo (Pedro Pàramo) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). In Pedro Pàramo, a man travels to his dead mother’s hometown to meet his father, but discovers a ghost town populated only by dead people. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold a possibly innocent man is killed for the sake of “honor” while almost every person in the town knows, yet does nothing. Each work serves to demonstrate the relationship
between guilt, understanding, and confession.

The guilt of the townspeople can be seen blatantly in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. They become obsessed with the death of Santiago Nasar and their role in the tragedy. “For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety” (96). Everyone in the town knows of the plot to kill Nasar, but very few attempt to warn him before it is too late. The townspeople’s guilt leads them to commit odd acts; for instance, Hortensia Baute, “whose only participation was having seen two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hallucination that she fell into a penitential crisis, and one day, unable to stand it any longer, she ran out naked into the street” (97). Yet there are also those who seem to feel no emotional guilt concerning the crime, yet are the catalysts. Angela Vicario, the woman who causes Nasar to be killed, seems to feel no remorse. It is never clear in the novel whether she is telling the truth when she states Nasar had taken her virginity, even from her own statement of “He was my perpetrator” (100). It is also never clear whether her account of events is correct, including her decision to not fake her virginity, the resulting beating by her mother, and her life after the murder.

The desire for understanding in Chronicle of a Death Foretold is not the initial desire one may have to uncover the unknowns in Santiago Nasar’s death; the characters wish to understand their personal contributions and roles in his death. The narrator remarks that the townspeople desired to know “the place and mission assigned to us by fate” (96). Even the narrator, a journalist desiring to tell of Nasar’s death, does not truly attempt to shed light on the murder. He tries only to place the townspeople and himself in the places that “fate” wanted them during the murder. Very little, if anything, is revealed about the murder that was not already stated in the official report made by the investigating magistrate.

The confession and absolution aspect of this story comes mainly in the form of the many testimonies of the characters. Each character’s statement of their location and actions is an attempt to absolve them of guilt, which is the main reason for any confession. In striving to understand their place in the murder, they attempt to rid themselves of guilt by maintaining an attitude that any action to prevent Nasar’s murder would have been futile. The narrator states “But most of those who could have done something to prevent the crime and did not consoled themselves with the pretext that affairs of honor are sacred monopolies, giving access only to those who are part of the drama” (97).

It seems that for most of the townspeople, absolution is unattainable. This may be why they obsess about the past—because it contains the events they feel guilty about and is thus the only place they think there may be absolution, if only they could sort out the truth of their roles. Nasar’s mother’s endless guilt leads here to spend her last days in the same
hammock from which she saw him last, “trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many shattered shards” (6).

It is possible, however, that Pedro and Pablo Vicario, Nasar’s killers, receive absolution while in jail just after Nasar’s death. They refuse to give confession to a priest, but both become quite ill while in jail, sometime after which they are pardoned. From one perspective, their illnesses are symbolic of their sins and absolutions. The brother that hesitates the most about killing Nasar develops acute diarrhea, resulting in a constant releasing of his wastes, like a releasing of his sins, until an herbal remedy is applied by a local matriarch. He later marries and becomes a goldsmith. The brother that is initially the most forceful about killing Nasar becomes unable to release his wastes until the same remedy or granting of absolution, is applied, and later dies after having run off to join the army, “without love or job” (83). It seems that the people who commit the sins of commission in the novel are the ones finally absolved, while the townspeople, who are guilty of sins of omission, remain in limbo with their guilt.

Unlike in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, where most sins are those of omission, most the expressions of guilt in Pedro Pàramo derive from sins of commission. Donis’s sister, with whom Donis has an incestuous relationship, tells Juan Preciado of her shame and guilt concerning their relations. “‘Ever since then, I’ve been closed up here, because I’m afraid ot be seen. […] Look at my face!’ It was an ordinary face. […] ‘Don’t you see my sin? Don’t you see those purplish spots? Like impetigo? I’m covered with them. […]'”

One way Chronicle of a Death Foretold is similar to Pedro Pàramo in terms of guilt is that almost all of the occupants of the town are guilty and strive for absolution. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, everyone confesses to the journalist, while in Pedro Pàramo, with the exception of Juan Preciado and Miguel and Pedro Pàramo, everyone in the town confesses to a priest or to Juan Preciado.

There seem to be characters with false guilt in this novel, unlike Chronicle of a Death Foretold. When Dorotea goes to confession to Father Rentería and tells of a minor sin, he remarks, “‘That’s all you’ve ever done, Dorotea'” (74). His belittling of her confession and her subsequent return a mere two days later indicates that she may have a false sense of guilt over many of her actions.

The desire for understanding in Pedro Pàramo is found initially in Juan Preciado, the first narrator of the story, who sets out to meet his father, Pedro Pàramo, after his mother’s death. Despite the fact that his mother tells him to “Make him pay […] for all those years he put us out of his mind” (3), Juan seeks to understand what happened to both his mother and father, how their relationship began and ended, why his mother never moved back to Comala, and how and why Pedro Pàramo died. Unlike the narrator in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Juan actually seeks to learn of Pedro and his mother directly, not just his involvement in their lives.

Confession in Pedro Pàramo is similar to that of Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that in some cases there is major guilt and no confession, yet there is absolution, as with the Vicario brothers in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Miguel, having committed rape and murder, is the only character in the novel to truly receive absolution, albeit posthumously. Another similarity in confessions between the two works is the religious element. In both works, the church fails in its duties to provide absolution for its members, leaving them to confess to more secular members of society. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a bishop passes by the town without stopping to visit; without this support from the church, almost everyone seems to confess to the journalist. In Pedro Pàramo, people turn to Juan after the Church has abandoned then, and after, in fact, death has claimed them and the representatives of the Church have themselves fallen into sin.

The confessions in Pedro Pàramo are not based on the same motivations as those of the people in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, where everyone wished to explain away their actions. Although there is still a desire for pardon, the people of Comala have a different attitude; they seem to wish for the truth of a matter to be revealed for the sake of that truth more so than the townspeople in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Pedro Pàramo, by Juan Rulfo, demonstrate possible relationships between guilt, understanding, and confession in Latin American works.

Works Consulted

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Pàramo. Trans Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Grove Press, 1994.