Doña Barbara

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Doña Barbara

by Rómulo Gallegos


A novel set in Venezuela around 1910; first published in Spanish in 1929, revised current edition published in Spanish in 1930, in English in 1931.


A young man educated in the city returns to his family’s rural estate where he struggles against the forces of barbarism.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

The acclaim that Rómulo Gallegos (1884-1969) received for his third novel, Doña Barbara, was so great that Venezuela’s ruling dictator, Juan Vicente Gomez, nominated the Caracas-born author to the nation’s senate. Gallegos, however, proudly declined the nomination and departed from Venezuela in self-imposed exile, for to him the Gomez regime was the incarnation of the forces of barbarism that beset Latin America, against which Doña Barbara railed. A leader in Venezuela’s Accion Democratica party, Gallegos supported, in both his political and literary work, the principles of democracy and social justice. His term as elected President of Venezuela in 1948, which lasted less than a year before he was ousted by a military coup, represented one of the few brief interludes of democracy in Venezuelan history.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Civilization and barbarism

Doña Barbara concerns the conflict between the forces of civilization and barbarism, a theme that permeates Latin American thought and literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First formulated by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his 1845 essay Facundo (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), the theme identifies the basic problem of Latin America as barbarism and its solution as civilization. While civilization, according to Sarmiento, emanated from Europe, Latin America was a barbarous land. This barbarism stemmed from the harsh Latin American landscape and its native people who, according to the racist views predominant among intellectuals of Sarmiento’s day, were savages incapable of rational thought and ruled by instinct. Because of these barbaric tendencies, Latin America was the scene of constant civil war, dictatorship, and rural backwardness. Gallegos’s portrayal of civilization and barbarism, however, is more complex than Sarmiento’s. He makes no simple identification of barbarism with Latin America and civilization with Europe and other foreign areas. In Doña Barbara, for example, the foreigner from the United States is suggestively named Mr. Danger, and the novel’s educated hero, Santos Luzardo, ultimately does not want to go to Europe to study. He would rather remain in the heart of Venezuela, although he recognizes that it still needs to be civilized. Doña Barbara herself is similarly complex, and is not merely a personification of barbarism. Although she wreaks blind vengeance on all who cross her, the novel makes it clear that her actions stem from a traumatic rape and that she does have redeeming qualities. Her daughter, furthermore, is portrayed as the hope of the future.

Order and chaos

In Latin America, independence from Spain was followed largely by anarchy, caudillismo (rule by strongmen), civil war, and dictatorship. Sarmiento blamed this fate on native barbarism, but other historians point to the failure of the Latin American colonies to build a solid political and economic base before breaking away from the Spanish Empire. In the early nineteenth century, Spain was suddenly and drastically shaken by the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. Its Latin American colonies, though relatively weak and disunited, seized the opportunity to claim independence before they had really attained a strong sense of nationhood. Revolutionary governments seized control in Venezuela and other areas of Latin America in 1810. But their control was tenuous. Having separated from the Spanish imperial government and lacking strong, central governments of their own, the new republics fell into chaos. Individuals could not rely upon the political and legal systems for justice, but had to seek it for themselves, since today’s judge or ruling regime might be overthrown tomorrow. A state of relative lawlessness resulted; basically, power could be seized by anyone strong enough to take it.

Between 1908 and 1935 Venezuela was ruled by the dictator Juan Vicente Gomez. Gomez is known for bringing “peace” to Venezuela by replacing a system of rule by regional caudillos with a centralized authoritarian government. Yet Gomez himself was, in a sense, the ultimate caudillo. Governing Venezuela as if it were his own personal estate, the dictator relied on cronies and relatives to administrate Venezuelan affairs and constantly rewrote the law to suit his will. Gomez had seized power from the previous dictator, Cipriano Castro, when the latter sailed for Europe to seek medical help, leaving his vice-president, Gomez, in charge. In exchange for the Buchanan Protocol, an agreement absolving U.S. companies from fines they owed to the Venezuelan government, the U.S. government supported Gomez by stationing warships off the South American coast. Their purpose was to prevent Castro from reentering the country.

Under Gomez, all dissent was brutally put down. Those who dared criticize the Gomez regime were swiftly imprisoned, tortured, executed, or exiled. The dictator paid a private secret police force to infiltrate organizations and institutions and to find dissenters. Despite his repressive policies, Gomez gained support among Venezuelan elites because he enriched them; the dictator created an environment favorable to foreign investors by removing all worry about labor strikes or other popular uprisings, and the local elite reaped some of the benefits.

During Gomez’s reign, Romulo Gallegos founded a weekly magazine called La Alborada (The Dawn), the title of which was meant to convey the image of emergence from the darkness of tyranny into a brighter future. In essays published in this periodical, Gallegos made a case for a greater respect for law and order, with more power exercised by the legislative and judiciary branches of government. At the time, Gomez was the law. He changed the national constitution so often that university students started referring to their constitutional law courses as “mythology.” Gallegos’s magazine lasted only three months, but in Doña Barbara he continued to stress the importance of a society based on law rather than force.

City and countryside

The forces of law and order held little sway on the llanos, the vast, almost treeless plains of the Venezuelan interior. Doña Barbara takes place on the llanos, which lie south of the coastal mountain ranges and north of the Orinoco River. Threading through the llanos is a network of rivers and streams that flood in the summer and dry up in the winter, making this region for the most part inhospitable to human settlement. Although the llanos comprises nearly one-third of Venezuela, it contains only about 10 percent of the nation’s population. The llanos has been cattle country since colonial times, and up until the early twentieth century, cattle ranches there were not fenced. Free to roam across property lines, the semi-wild herds were managed by llaneros, cattlemen whose main duty was to herd the cattle north to high ground during the flood season, and lead them back south toward the Orinoco River when the dry season began.

In the early twentieth century, land in the llanos, as in most of Latin America, was monopolized by a few wealthy owners of immense tracts. These latifundios, or immense tracts, led to the development of a rural society composed of two polarized classes: a very small elite of wealthy landowners, and masses of landless peasants dependent upon the elite for their subsistence. The peasant class of the llanos consisted mainly of pardos, mixed-race descendants of Native Americans, European settlers, and African slaves. As late as 1936 the illiteracy rate in this region was 71 percent.

The desolate, frontier nature of the llanos made these plains a haven for outlaws and for power-wielding strongmen. Hundreds of miles from the coastal city of Caracas, where the central government sat, the large landowners of the llanos were a law unto themselves. Meanwhile, outsiders regarded the region’s inhabitants as semi-savages “accustomed from youth to break wild horses, to fight with bulls, to swim the raging rivers and to conquer the alligator and the tiger in solitary combat” (Codazzi in Ewell, p. 16). In sum, in the early twentieth century the llanos was a region of wild nature, sparse population, pardos, and lawlessness. It therefore makes sense that in Doña Barbara the llanos is presented as the seat and the source of barbarism.

In contrast, the capital city of Caracas was the Venezuelan bastion of European culture and influence. A dictator from a previous era, Antonio Guzman Blanco, had spent much time in Paris, and attempted to remake Caracas in that city’s image. In Doña Barbara Santos Luzardo, the character who represents civilization, is educated in Caracas and attempts to bring the civilizing lessons he has learned in the capital to bear against the barbarism of the llanos. It is the area to which Santos Luazardo feels drawn despite its rusticity; he knows that the llanos is where he belongs.

Europe and America

Although the llanos region in particular was known for its pardo population, Venezuelans on the whole tended to be people of mixed racial heritage, combining elements from Europe, Africa, and America. European explorers and settlers began coming to Venezuela in the sixteenth century, bringing with them African slaves, which led to racially mixed unions. In general, South American attitudes toward interracial marriage and the offspring of such unions have been much more accepting than in the United States.

Nevertheless, racist attitudes that valued European heritage over non-European or mixed heritage were prevalent in Venezuela at the beginning of the twentieth century. Pardos and those of African descent could attain status equal to that of whites, but only if they had already attained exceptional power and wealth. At the time, “whitening” the population was the openly acknowledged aim of Venezuela’s elite. Its members sought to increase the numbers of European immigrants, while restricting the entry of non-Europeans into the nation. The belief of Venezuela’s elite was that the nation should Europeanize its population through race mixing.

In the minds of Venezuela’s leaders, Europe alone had attained the pinnacle of civilization and all non-European peoples were consequently less civilized, more “savage” or “barbaric.” The popular view that the Latin American countries had failed to achieve political stability and were instead wracked by violence and anarchy because of their large non-European and hence barbarous population, was articulated in 1919 by Venezuelan author Laureano Valle-nilla Lanz. In his Cesarismo democràtico (Democratic Caesarism), a justification of the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez, Lanz argued that the African, Indian, and mixed-blood portion of the populace was insufficiently civilized to be able to participate in or uphold a democracy. The only way in which Venezuela could progress under these circumstances was to be ruled by a dictator who would maintain order by force. Some-day,


In 1929 Josef Rafael Pocaterra, a political prisoner during the Gomez dictatorship, published the book Gomez: The Shame of AmericaFragments from the Memoirs of a Citizen of Venezuela in the Days of Her Decadence, in which he recounts hfs prison experience:

Hunger, thirst, suffocation, the grillos [shackles], we were spared none of these horrors. In the middle of the night the prisoners would be driven from their cells into the middle of the court-yard. There they were beaten and, after having had cold water thrown over them—the poor creatures would be allowed to crawl back to their cells. During certain years there would be three or four deaths a day, deaths due to dropsy, arterio-sclerosis, dysentery, consumption and all the disorders of the digestive and nervous system brought on by the dampness, the lack of proper food, the ill-treatment, the nervous strain of nights spent awaiting tortures which one cannot even recall without feeling nauseated. Flies were thick. The dreadful silence that prevailed in this well of stone was only broken by equally dreadful noises, by shrieks and howls of revolt, by oaths and blasphemies. After each outburst silence would come back and the only sound would be the rattle of the ambulance going back and forth between the prison and the hospital, those twin open sores on the face of the city.

(Pocaterra, p. 151)

when the people had been sufficiently “whitened,” democracy would be possible. As is evident in Doña Barbara, Gallegos too was concerned with civilization. His novel’s message, though, was that the land needed a Venezuelan civilization; transplanting a European civilization simply would not do.

In Venezuelan literature of the early twentieth century, the mixed-race character who ultimately returns to an innate savagery is a common theme. Doña Barbara differs in that it takes into account the travesties visited upon the people of Venezuela and how these travesties encourage barbarism. The character Doña Barbara has been raped (as has, symbolically, the land of Venezuela), an experience that has incited her negative behavior. Nevertheless, the hero Santos Luzardo awakens in both her and her daughter instincts of civilization. Doña Barbara ultimately decides to leave the region, a humane, civilized action that she takes to benefit not herself but her daughter.

Race and the United States

In Civilization and Barbarism, Sarmiento looked upon the United States with envy. He admired its civilized achievements, viewing them as a direct result of the lack of racial mixing among European immigrants, native Indians, and African slaves. Venezuelans of the early twentieth century, on the other hand, were for the most part appalled by the racial segregation practiced in the United States. Moreover, they worried that U.S. imperialism, which had already affected Cuba and Puerto Rico, would extend to Venezuela. Venezuelans might then be subjected to U.S. racial standards and be judged inferior. Unlike the notion of race accepted in the United States, where one drop of African blood rendered one “black,” the Venezuelan concept of race, though still based on racist precepts, acknowledged many gradations. If one had any European blood, one was considered in some degree “white” and thus racially superior.

What was feared to be the typical U.S. attitude is reflected in the novel by the American character Senor Danger, who regards Venezuelans as “inferior because they did not have light hair and blue eyes” (Gallegos, Doña Barbara, p. 139).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Two men travel upstream on the Arauca River that flows through Venezuela’s llanos. One is the protagonist, Santos Luzardo, a well-dressed, aristocratic young man, on his way home to his ancestral country estate after a long absence spent in Caracas studying law. The other is a local man of “disturbing aspect,” Melquiades Gamarra, also known as “the Wizard” because of his supposed supernatural powers (Doña Barbara, p. 4). The juxtaposition of these characters is the first manifestation of the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism that runs through the novel.

These two characters, strangers seemingly thrown together by chance, have actually much to do with each other. Melquiades is chief henchman to Doña Barbara, a woman rancher known as a powerful and evil sorceress. Her ranch, which has been renamed El Miedo (fear), lies adjacent to the Luzardo family estate, called Altamira (high viewpoint), to which Santos is returning.

The lands of El Miedo and Altamira had once formed a single estate belonging to the Luzardo family until a brother and sister who inherited the property jointly decided to divide the land in two. The brother and sister soon began to dispute the vaguely defined boundary between their lands, and one day the brother killed the sister’s husband in a heated argument. Ever since, the two sides of the family—the Luzardos of Altamira and the Barqueros, who named their half of the estate La Barquerena—have been at war with each other. Santos Luzardo is the current heir to Altamira, while Lorenzo Barquero, Santos’s cousin, would be the current heir to La Barquerena had he not signed his land over to Doña Barbara. She proceeded to rename the place El Miedo.

Doña Barbara is a mestiza, a woman of mixed native and European ancestry. She grew up on a riverboat amidst a band of pirates, the captain of which she called “Daddy.” At the age of 15 Barbara fell in love with a young man named Has-drubal who joined the crew as cook. Hasdrubal was killed by order of the captain when he began to suspect Barbara’s feelings towards the young man. Soon thereafter, the band of pirates mutinied, slew the captain, and brutally gang-raped Barbara. She escaped with nothing but a deep hatred for and desire to avenge herself against all men. She fled to a Baniba Indian settlement where she sought and received instruction in magic, with particular emphasis on the use of aphrodisiacs and the evil eye.

Lorenzo Barquero was the first victim of Doña Barbara’s vengeance. He had been a well-educated young man on the verge of a promising career and a happy marriage in Caracas when he suddenly underwent “a strange moral retrogression” and forsook everything to return to the llanos of his youth (Doña Barbara, p. 39). There he met Barbara who, desiring to destroy him, weakened and enslaved him with poisonous aphrodisiacs, and then convinced him to sign over the deed to La Barquerena. As soon as this was accomplished, Barbara evicted Lorenzo along with the child, Marisela, that the two had conceived together. Barbara refused to acknowledge this child as her daughter, for “a child in her womb was to her another victory for the male, a new injury undergone” (Doña Barbara, p. 40).

Barbara now spends her time stealing land and cattle from neighboring ranches, principally from Altamira. She bribes the local authorities to overlook or even aid her in her misdeeds, moving boundary lines and rebranding cattle with the El Miedo mark. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Barquero dwells with Marisela in the disputed palm grove that divides Altamira from El Miedo. The heir of the Barquero family spends his days in a drunken stupor in the wretched hut he shares with his daughter, who wears rags and lives like a wild animal.

The history of the Luzardo line has also been troubled. Santos’s father murdered his son, Santos’s brother Felix, over a political argument, buried the lance with which he had killed the young man in a wall of the house, and then sat staring at the wall wordlessly until he too died. Upon her husband’s death, Santos’s mother took Santos to Caracas, leaving Altamira in the hands of a string of more or less corrupt overseers. His mother now dead, and his studies in law at the university completed, Santos wishes to move to Europe where the ideal of civilization has been achieved. To raise money for this relocation he wants to sell Altamira, but no one will buy it because no one will have Doña Barbara as a neighbor. Finally, someone offers to buy the ranch, and Santos agrees to meet the prospective buyer at Altamira. As Santos returns to the llanos, his resolve to go to Europe begins to waver. He feels inspired to struggle against the “enemy,” whom he conceives of as Doña Barbara—a representative of the region’s tyrants—and the countryside itself in its harmfulness and its resistance to civilization. It is in this mood that Santos journeys up the Arauca River where we first meet him.

Upon reaching Altamira, Santos reacquaints himself with the handful of loyal peons who remain on the estate out of love for the Luzardo family. They waver between delight that a Luzardo has returned to set things right and fear that the civilized Santos is too much of a city slicker to meet the challenges of the llanos. Santos soon puts their fears to rest, however, by displaying the skills as a horseman and cattle wrangler that he learned as a boy, and by quickly putting the corrupt overseer, Balbino Paiba, in his place. Balbino, Doña Barbara’s current lover, has been enriching her and himself by transferring Altamira cattle to El Miedo and signing over lands to Barbara piecemeal as Santos’s representative. Santos bests Balbino verbally, and the overseer flees to El Miedo in shame. Meanwhile, Doña Barbara, who has heard about Santos through her minion Melquiades, is intrigued by the bold newcomer, yet confident she will defeat him.

Santos goes to the palm grove to visit Lorenzo Barquero and sees the wretched condition in which he and his daughter live. Particularly disturbing to Santos is the relationship between them and Senor Danger, an American national who lives on Doña Barbara’s land. Danger holds a measure of power over Barbara because he once witnessed a murder she committed. He manages to elude Barbara’s attempts to ensnare him in a sexual relationship, and generally holds himself aloof from the populace, whom he regards as racially inferior. Meanwhile, Danger spends his time appropriating the cattle that wander into his domain, and supplying the alcoholic Lorenzo Barquero with whisky. He has developed an interest in Marisela, who is 15 years old and very beautiful. Seeing this distressing situation, Santos insists that Lorenzo and Marisela forget old family rivalries and come to live at Altamira. There, Santos convinces Lorenzo to stop drinking and undertakes the education of Marisela in both manners and academics. She blossoms under his tutelage, yet there is one thing lacking in her makeup that Santos cannot teach her: “Marisela seemed to have the springs of tenderness sealed up in her heart” (Doña Barbara, p. 282).

Meanwhile, Santos has resolved to fence his land since “through that the civilizing of the plain would begin” (Doña Barbara, p. 137). He sends word to Barbara and Danger announcing his intentions and asking that they participate in a roundup to make sure everyone’s cattle ends up on the correct side of the fence. Barbara refuses and Danger produces a document, signed by one of Altamira’s corrupt overseers, that requires the pass between Danger’s land and Altamira to remain unfenced. Barbara and Santos meet for the first time at the local magistrate’s office. Santos demands that she and Danger obey the law or he will take them before a tribunal. Barbara is quite impressed by Santos’s courage, eloquence, and appearance. He produces in her “a feeling of respect she had never felt before” and she submits to Santos’s demand (Doña Barbara, p. 179). Later, at the roundup, she is impressed by his strength and skill with a lasso. She begins to fall in love with him, an emotion she has not experienced since the death of Hasdrubal.

As a token of her admiration, Barbara offers to give Santos back all the lands she has taken from him. She even tells him, “If I had, during my life, met men like you, my story would have been a different one” (Doña Barbara, p. 227). In other words, the presence of an authentic civilizing force can help change the ways of the most “barbaric” of characters. Santos admires Barbara’s beauty and looks upon this unusual woman with “intellectual curiosity,” yet he feels a deep aversion toward her, “not because she was his enemy, but because of something much more intimate and profound” (Doña Barbara, pp. 227, 210). Barbara disgusts Santos because of what she represents: barbarism. He asks Barbara to give La Barquerena to her daughter. The mention of Marisela rouses jealousy in Barbara, who insinuates that Santos is sleeping with the girl. Santos leaves El Miedo in a rage and all agreements between him and Doña Barbara are null and void.

In order to raise money to buy fencing supplies, Santos sends two peons to the market to sell heron feathers that have been gathered at Altamira. Balbino Paiba, acting on his own accord, kills the peons and steals the feathers. He does not dare tell Barbara of his deed, for she has changed as a result of her love for Santos and would never countenance this crime. Santos, however, is certain the crime is the work of Doña Barbara and goes to the magistrate to demand justice. When it is not forthcoming, he takes the matter into his own hands, thus abandoning legal avenues and going against his own code of civilized conduct. “I’m being driven to violence, and I’m accepting the direction,” he observes (Doña Barbara, p. 346). Santos abducts a pair of Barbara’s henchmen, the Mondragon brothers, and turns them over to the authorities as the peons’ murderers. Barbara, who suspects Balbino’s guilt, sends word to Santos to come to a specified, desolate place alone at moonrise if he wants to learn something about the murder. She then sends Melquiades to meet Santos and bring him to her “alive or dead” (Doña Barbara, p. 346). Doña Barbara herself does not understand the object she has in view with these so-called Inscrutable Designs (the name of the chapter in which these plans unfold); she merely acts on instinct.

Pajarote, one of Santos’s most loyal peons, follows Santos to the designated spot, where the two wait in hiding. When Melquiades arrives, he is startled by Santos riding out from the hiding place. Assuming that Barbara has betrayed him and sent him here to die, Melquiades draws his gun, but Santos fires before Melquiades can and the latter falls dead from his horse. Santos is utterly demoralized by the realization that he has killed a man, and gives himself up as lost to barbarism. In a state of shock, Santos returns Melquiades’s corpse to Doña Barbara. “I knew you’d bring him,” Barbara lies, only now interpreting her heretofore “inscrutable” actions as part of a well-formed plan to rid herself of one of the criminals in her service (Doña Barbara, p. 401).

Meanwhile, Marisela is nursing her father, who has fallen back into heavy drinking. Through the civilizing instruction of Santos and an awakening love for him, Marisela has finally discovered the tenderness within her, and with it a sense of daughterly duty. She resolves to take her father to San Fernando, a nearby town where she believes he can be cured of his drinking problem. To this end, Marisela sends a demand to Doña Barbara that she give her enough money to go away and never come back. Still jealous, Barbara sends the money to get the girl out of the way, but as Marisela prepares to depart, her father becomes very ill and dies. Seeing lights burning in the palm grove, Santos goes to investigate and finds Marisela sitting with the corpse. In despair, Santos tells Marisela of how he slew Melquiades. From the details of his story, Marisela realizes that it isn’t possible that Santos killed Melquiades, but that Pajarote must have fired the fatal shot. Santos is greatly relieved that he is innocent, but what really saves him is Marisela’s demonstration of tenderness towards him and her father, and his realization that this new-found compassion is at least in part his work.

At El Miedo, Doña Barbara has turned over a new leaf; she will no longer thwart Santos in any way. After receiving testimony of Balbino’s crime, Barbara orders her peons to take their guns and prevent the murderer from absconding with the stolen feathers. In the ensuing struggle Balbino is killed. Barbara takes the feathers to the market on Santos’s behalf, and restores to him all the misappropriated lands. When she hears, however, that Marisela and Santos are to marry, her jealousy reasserts itself and she takes her pistol to Altamira. There she sees Santos and Marisela through a window and takes aim at Marisela’s heart, but as she continues to gaze upon this scene of domestic bliss her feelings change. She remembers Hasdrubal, and in Marisela sees herself as a young girl. “May he make you happy,” she says, before she turns and walks away (Doña Barbara, p. 435). Barbara disappears, leaving only a document in which she acknowledges Marisela as her sole heir. Some believe Doña Barbara has killed herself, but others say she just slipped away, and plies the Orinoco and its mysterious tributaries on a riverboat. In the marriage of Santos and Marisela, the divided lands of the Luzardo family are rejoined, and when the fences go up, Senor Danger leaves in defeat.

The barbaric: women, nature, and the supernatural

In Doña Barbara barbarism is clearly part of the titular character, a woman whose name is very close to the Spanish word for barbarism, barbarie. Civilization, on the other hand, is represented by Santos Luzardo—luz being Spanish for “light”;ardo, for “I burn.” The characterization of civilization and barbarism as male and female respectively is in keeping with historical traditions.

In Latin American tradition, barbarism has been identified with the American land and the people native to it, in whom instinct is presumed to prevail over rationality. Barbarism equals nature. The symbolic equation between women and nature has deep roots in Western culture—consider “Mother Nature” and characterizations of women as intuitive and irrational. Hence, within the civilization/barbarism dichotomy, women are clearly on the side of barbarism. Men, as the representatives of culture, which was for a long time considered to be the concern exclusively of males, are on the side of civilization.

In Doña Barbara Santos is a man educated in Caracas, the most civilized place in Venezuela, while Barbara is constantly identified with the countryside. Her soul is “wild and uncouth as the Plain,” while her combination of sensuality and hatred for men is likened to the mingling of the Orinoco and Guainia rivers (Doña Barbara, p. 227). Her daughter, Marisela, is “open as the prairie” and seems “the spirit of the plain, of its ingenuous, restless soul, wild as the paraguatan flower that perfumes the thicket” (Doña Barbara, pp. 185, 297). Both women are also compared to animals of the llanos. In the chapter entitled “The Trainers,” the education of Marisela parallels the breaking and training of the filly Catira, and when Doña Barbara falls in love with Santos “she felt she wanted to belong to him, although it had to be as one of his cattle, with the Altamira sign burned on their sides” (Doña Barbara, p. 220).


“We must kill the centaur inside every one of us Plains-men” (Doña Barbara, p. 115). When Lorenzo Barquero speaks of the “centaur,” he refers to the llanero who spends his life in the saddle and becomes a creature that is half-man/half-horse, referring to the barbarity that this figure represents, Centaurs are creatures of Greek mythology who have the torsos of men and the lower bodies of horses. They are notorious for violent, unruly, and lewd behavior. Though they live in their own land, centaurs make incursions into the lands of men, often in order to abduct and ravish women. Although Lorenzo sees this same sort of bestial wildness in the cattlemen of the plain and wants to destroy it in the name of civilization, there is a positive side to this monster.

Gallegos acknowledged the positive side of barbarism in an earlier novel, The Last Solar, when he wrote of “a plant which, deformed by culture, returns to the jungle to recover the vigor of its original savage state” (Gallegos in Ruffinelli, p. 604). In Doña Barbara Santos is likened to “a tuft of grass from the plains forced to languish in a flowerpot/and he observes that, “after all … barbarism has its enchantment, is something beautiful and worth the trouble of living, in its fullness and intolerance of all limitation” (Doña Barbara, pp. 24, 289), Going beyond the bounds of barbarism is portrayed as tantalizing and perhaps even necessary. Not until Santos comes into contact with the barbarism of the llanos is he energized to shake off his malaise and pursue justice there, and not until he reconnects with his rough-and-ready centaurish side—wrangling cattle from horseback and confronting his enemies on their own barbaric terms—can he accomplish his goals.

The relation between civilization and barbarism is, according to the views of those who see the world in these terms, meant to be one of domination. Santos Luzardo looks forward to a time when “the Plain and barbarism will be conquered and retreat” (Doña Barbara, p. 138). Just as civilization ought to hold the forces of barbarism in check, so should (to extend the logic of this view) reason control the instincts, people control the land, those of European ancestry control non-Europeans, and men control women.

Not only does the novel align women with nature, it also aligns them with what lies beyond nature—the supernatural. “Civilized” society’s conception of the supernatural at the time was largely a product of the philosophy of positivism, which taught that anything beyond the scope of scientific investigation does not exist. Positivism regarded the supernatural as imaginative error made mostly by primitive, uneducated people—people whose innate barbarism had not been civilized. This philosophy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries influenced Gallegos’s novel, which portrays Barbara’s supernatural powers as a deceptive trick played on the superstitious, albeit one that she herself comes to believe. Barbara’s “knowledge” of magic comes from the Baniba Indians, a “barbaric” native source, and Barbara succumbs to superstition because she is an irrational being whose “skill lay solely in the ability to derive the best immediate profit from the chance results of her impulses” (Doña Barbara, p. 163). In short, the novel presents the supernatural, Doña Barbara’s power, and hence the power of barbarism, as sham. One has only to shine the light of reason upon it, and it vanishes, just as Doña Barbara disappears into the landscape at the end of the novel.

Sources and literary context

Doña Barbara is one of the three classic novelas de la tierra, or Latin American “novels of the land” that were written in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The novela de la tierra (also known as the novela cnollista, novela telúrica, and the Regionalist novel) represented a turning away from European models towards cultural forms that were rooted in the American landscape and experience. There are three classic examples of this genre, each in a different geographic area:Doña Barbara (set in the Venezuelan llanos);Don Segundo Sombra by Ricardo Güiraldes (in the Argentine pampas, or grasslands); and La voragine (The Vortex) by Jose Eustasio Rivera (in the Columbian selva, or jungle). These novels are an expression of a unique cultural identity conceived as arising in part from the unique Latin American landscape. As the horrors of World War I disillusioned those who looked toward Europe for inspiration, the artistic movement of primitivism inspired a belief that fresh vitality lay in the artistic expression of the “primitive” inhabitants of non-European lands. Latin American authors like Gallegos were stimulated by these trends to formulate a distinctly American art form.

Gallegos wrote his first draft of Doña Barbara after a brief visit to the llanos in 1927. He based almost all the characters in the novel (with the notable exception of Santos Luzardo) on people of the La Candeleria region where he had stayed for a mere four days. Some characters, like the peon Antonio Sandoval, were based on people Gallegos actually met, while others, like Doña Barbara and Marisela, were inspired by people of whom he had only heard. The model for Doña Barbara was Francisca Vasquez, also known as Doña Pancha, a woman rancher with a legendary reputation as a skilled llanero and a fierce disputer of property boundaries. Doña Pancha had a daughter and died some years before Gallegos heard her story. There were in fact two families with the names Barqueros and Luzardos engaged in a blood feud. The region had also produced a young man from a fine family who traveled to Caracas, earned a law degree, and returned to run his ranch and help “civilize” the region. After a few successful years, he inexplicably drank himself into an awful state. His traits inspired two characters in the novel—the upstanding Santos Luzardo and the drunken Lorenzo Barquero.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Oil and nationalism

In 1930, the year Doña Barbara was published, Venezuela paid off its entire national debt with revenues from oil. Over the course of the 27-year dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez, Venezuela metamorphosed from an impoverished, primarily agricultural country to the world’s greatest exporter, and second greatest producer, of petroleum. Most Venezuelans, however, did not share in the benefits of the oil boom. Three foreign companies (Dutch Shell, Gulf, and Standard Oil) controlled 98 percent of Venezuelan oil. Rights to the oil were sold to these companies by the Gomez regime, and much of the profits from these sales went to strengthen the dictator’s army and repressive police force, and to personally enrich Gomez and his friends and relatives. Some of the oil wealth, however, did flow into the populace where it helped to create a middle class. The advent of this middle class reduced the degree of barbarism, as the novel defines it. Middle-class Venezuelans had money enough to educate themselves, and were well-traveled and well-read, qualities associated with civilization in Doña Barbara.

The middle class also took an interest in their national history and culture from a global point of view, contributing to a growing wave of nationalism in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the foreign oil companies operated with little concern for the Venezuelan environment, despoiling the countryside and encroaching on the hunting grounds of indigenous inhabitants of the Lake Maracaibo region. Foreigners who came to work in the Venezuelan oil fields received preferential treatment compared to their Venezuelan co-workers, and foreign attitudes toward the native peoples were openly contemptuous. “It is impossible to expect the native mind to conform to the accepted method of living in highly developed countries after centuries of dirt and unsanitary living,” wrote William T. Wallace, vice-president of the Venezuelan branch of Gulf Oil in a memo recommending that the company not provide housing for its Venezuelan workers (Wallace in Ewell, p. 64). Such condescension added insult to economic and environmental injuries, and helped foment a new movement against the Gomez dictatorship.

Urban unrest

In 1928 students at the Central University in Caracas protested against Gomez, whom they saw as an unjust dictator and the tool by which foreign powers controlled Venezuela’s economy. Gomez promptly had the protest leaders arrested, thereby sparking a much larger student strike throughout the nation. Working-class Venezuelans rallied to support the students, and even some young army officers joined their cause. Different segments of the society banded together for a common purpose, just as in Doña Barbara the peons make common cause with Santos Luzardo to battle the forces of barbarism.

In other ways, the situation at the time of the novel’s writing contrasts sharply with the time in which it is set. History around 1930 portrays Caracas (represented by Gomez) and foreigners (the oil companies) as promoting discord rather than civilization in Venezuelan society. During the 1928 strike angry crowds filled the streets of Caracas; Gomez’s troops responded with gunfire. Gomez then closed the universities and forced the students to work building roads. Those who had participated in the agitation came to be known as “the generation of 1928,” and many, like Romulo Gallegos, fled the country. In 1931 Gallegos went into self-imposed exile rather than accept (or decline) the post of senator offered him by an admiring Gomez as a reward for his literary success with Doña Barbara.

In 1935 the reign of Gomez would end when the dictator died of illness at the age of 79. Gomez’s passing left a political vacuum; his tyrannical regime, which remained in power, had silenced political debate and driven future leaders into exile. The response to Gomez’s death was riots, arson, and looting in the streets and on the oil fields. Order was soon restored, however, by Gomez’s Minister of War, Eleazar Lopez Contreras, who adopted a new, more just constitution to placate the angry population, and offered all exiles a general amnesty. The generation of 1928 came home and formed a variety of leftist political parties, chief among them Accion Democratica (AD). One of AD’s founding members was Gallegos, who returned to Venezuela in 1936 and began a political career that would result in his election to the presidency in 1947, giving him the opportunity almost two decades after the publication of Doña Barbara to put some of his ideas into political action. The experience would prove to be less than happy—a conservative backlash resulted in a military takeover in 1948.


When Gallegos published the first edition of Doña Barbara in 1929, the novel was a great success. It was named best novel of the month in Spanish by a literary jury, and the Cuban critic Jorge Manach pronounced it to be the long-awaited Great American Novel. The author, however, was not so pleased with his creation and extensively revised the novel before issuing a second edition in 1930. This revised edition is the novel as we have it today, and is generally conceded to be far superior to its forerunner. Doña Barbara is widely considered the best and most important of the novelas de la tierra, as well as its author’s most significant work.

After bemoaning the fact that, at the time, the United States often ignored the literature of Latin America, a 1931 reviewer of the English translation gives the novel a warm welcome. “The characters and circumstances … go to make up a plot as delicate and credible and psychologically convincing as it is absorbing” (Marsh, p. 7). The review does find fault with the character of Doña Barbara, crediting the novel for its attention to her past but complaining that her “subsequent career is not sufficiently developed”; still, the review praises the novel as a satisfying love story and a landmark work of fiction—“Now for the first time we have a picture of a new and exotic frontier life” (Marsh, p. 7).

Although Doña Barbara maintains an undisputed place in Latin American literature, assessment of its merits has undergone a shift in time. Mid-to late twentieth century reviewers sometimes criticize its use of symbolism and commentary as heavy-handed. Yet the novel continues to receive praise for its engaging narrative style and lyrical language. Twenty-five years after it appeared, reviewers were still pointing to the successful balance of elements that made Doña Barbara “both realistic and poetic” (Liscano, p. 41).

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Ewell, Judith. Venezuela: A CenturyofChange. London: C. Hurst & Company, 1984.

Gallegos, Rómulo. Doña Barbara. Trans. Robert Malloy. New York: Peter Smith, 1948.

Hellinger, Daniel C. Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Liscano, Juan. “’Doña Barbara,’ Novel Extraordinary.” Americas 6, no. 11 (November 1954): 40-42.

Marsh, Fred T. “Life on the Plains of Venezuela.” The New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1931, 7.

Masiello, Francine. “Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s.” In Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America: Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

McBeth, B. S. Juan Vicente Gomez and the Oil Companies in Venezuela, 1908-1935. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Pocaterra, Josef Rafael. Gomez: The Shame of AmericaFragments From the Memoirs of a Citizen of the Republic of Venezuela in the Days of Her Decadence. Paris: Andre Delpeuch, 1929.

Ruffinelli, Jorge. “Romulo Gallegos.” In Latin American Writers. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.

Wright, Winthrop R. Cafe con leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

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