The Dead Man (El Hombre Muerto) by Horacio Quiroga, 1926
THE DEAD MAN (El hombre muerto)
by Horacio Quiroga, 1926
"The Dead Man" ("El hombre muerto") by Horacio Quiroga first appeared in La Nación on 27 June 1920 and then in the collection Los desterrados in 1926. Dating from his pioneering period in Misiones, Argentina, "The Dead Man" reflects Quiroga's perennial preoccupation with death, nature, and the darker side of the frontier experience, and it offers a perfect illustration of his narrative technique. The plot may be summed up in three words: a man dies. While clearing weeds from his banana plantation, a farmer falls on his machete and takes approximately half an hour to die. The title of the story precludes any attempt to build suspense or supply a twist in the ending. Rather, it suggests that the outcome has been decided long in advance.
The short story is a particularly appropriate vehicle for Quiroga's choice of subject matter. Concentrated and intense, the short story singles out and focuses on a moment of crisis. Quiroga uses this medium to depict human beings in extreme situations. The struggle between humans and nature is a constant theme of the short story, and Quiroga's characters are engaged in a perpetual struggle with their environment. Occasionally they are successful ("The Incense Tree Roof," 1922); more often they are defeated ("The Son," 1935). Nature never appears as mere background in Quiroga's stories: the Paraná River, the jungle, the natural hazards of heat or flood—all are part of human existence, obstacles to be overcome, dangers to be conquered. There is no reward for the fight, the quality of an individual's life is in the struggle, and this alone is the meaning of existence.
Nature is mutely present throughout the story—the Paraná River "sleeping like a lake"—but capable of great damage should it awake—the midday sun so hot that the farmer's horse is covered in sweat, the virgin bush lying in wait beyond the fenced-off land. The wire fence, mentioned eight times in the text, is simultaneously a symbol of the man's unceasing attempts to keep nature at bay and of the futility of his efforts. We might compare this with "The Son," in which a young boy trips over a wire fence and blows his head off with a shotgun. It is almost as if nature were showing the pointlessness of a person's attempts to fence it off.
The dead man is never named. Quiroga always shows his protagonists in action, either carrying out a task or going on a difficult journey, and this man is defined by his work. He is first described as satisfied with the work he has completed so far; then, as he lies dying, he contemplates the results of "ten years in the woods": the fence he has put up, the grass he planted, the paddock it took him five consecutive months to clear, "the work of his own hands," the flood ditch, the banana grove—"work of his hands alone." From the outset he is linked to the tool that kills him: "the man and his machete had just finished clearing the fifth row of the banana grove," and "they still had two rows to clear." The machete is an extension of the farmer and an actor in the drama, while the man, who believes himself in control, becomes an object, or victim.
Short stories frequently depict a moment of revelation or an epiphany, and "The Dead Man" is no exception, presenting the protagonist's growing awareness that he is no longer in control, that his life is ended. From the initial mood of complacency, there is the realization that he is fatally wounded. This is immediately followed by his refusal to accept his predicament. As he lies on the ground, surrounded by his possessions, within earshot of his family, he is conscious of the normality of external events in contrast to the abnormality of his situation. His perspective changes, and he now perceives himself as a small figure lying on the grass, with the insignificance of his life and labors marked by the repetition of the adjective "trivial." There are no superfluous elements in a Quiroga short story. All the parts of the narrative work together to produce the single effect that he, like Edgar Allan Poe, sought to achieve. His style is economical and terse. None of the paragraphs is particularly long, and some are extremely short in order to make a specific point or create a contrast. The first paragraph sketches in as much background as the reader requires, with no lengthy preliminaries, merely setting the scene, while other details are inserted at later stages. The narrative fulfills two functions: it tells the reader about the last 10 years of the dying man's life, and it shows his growing awareness of the futility of those years. The story is narrated from an omniscient third-person point of view, interspersed with paragraphs containing either the narrator's philosophizing, marked by first-person plural verb forms, pronouns, and possessive adjectives, or the dying man's last conscious thoughts. Through the camera eye of the narrator, there is a slow-motion sequence of the fatal accident, a series of panning shots from the place where the man lies dying, and, finally, an overhead shot that shows the small, crumpled body of the dead farmer on the grass below.
The chronological time of the narrative is fairly short, half an hour at most, in contrast with the psychological time, much greater because of the digressions that represent the fluctuations of the man's consciousness and his growing awareness of precisely what has happened to him. The imperfect tense provides a backdrop, the preterit advances the action, and the present, present perfect, and future tenses denote his growing awareness. Deictics locate the action in time and space, reinforce the time scheme and point of view, and underline the helplessness of the man as he lies dying—he is surrounded by his possessions, but they cannot prevent his death. Adjectives are normally determinative in the more clinical third-person narrative stretches and qualifying in the subjective stream-of-consciousness paragraphs. Quiroga relies quite heavily on adverbs, not just for deixis but also to intensify, reinforce, and affirm emotional attitudes. Accumulation is an important device in his writing, either by repetition of certain key words, such as "wire fence," or by the triple structure of three adverbs, adjectives, or nouns placed together: "coldly, fatally and unavoidably." Irony is also a key factor in Quiroga's narrative. The man plans to enjoy a well-earned rest, but "rest" in the story becomes a euphemism for death. He takes great pride in his work and possessions, but in the end they kill him. Quiroga does not glorify his pioneer; for this man, as for so many others, the frontier becomes the final resting place. Human life and effort are presented as puny and ephemeral, and only the land achieves permanence and grandeur.
—Patricia Anne Odber de Baubeta