The Decapitated Chicken (La Gallina Degollada) by Horacio Quiroga, 1917
THE DECAPITATED CHICKEN (La gallina degollada)
by Horacio Quiroga, 1917
"The Decapitated Chicken" ("La gallina degollada") was first published on 10 July 1909 in Caras y Caretas, then in the collection Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte in 1917. It offers one of the clearest examples of Horacio Quiroga's fascination with madness and the macabre, and his debt to Edgar Allan Poe and the other masters he lists in his "Decálogo del perfecto cuentista" (meaning "Ten Commandments for the Perfect Short Story Writer"), Chekhov and Maupassant. The story contains the three elements of the title of the collection: love, madness, and death. A couple, deeply in love, marry and have children. Their four sons all sicken and are reduced to a state of idiocy because of congenital disease. They later have a daughter who is healthy and normal, but this child is butchered by her four brothers.
The narrator focuses on a particular moment in time, the day before the tragedy occurs. He sets the scene briefly but with precise detail (the ages, physical and mental condition of the children, and the state of their parents' marriage) and then steps back in time to fill out additional background, all of which is intended to prepare the reader for the eventual outcome of the tale. There is then a shift to the present time of the narrative, with a relentless progression towards the ghastly climax.
The story is not just about madness and violent death; it chronicles the breakdown of a relationship through the loss of respect, affection, and hope. Clinical description ("Their tongues protruded from between their lips; their eyes were dull; their mouths hung open as they turned their heads") alternates with more subjective matter marked by qualificative adjectives ("pro-found despair"), rhetorical questions, and exclamations intended to convey the parents' fears and anguish. ("So it was their blood, their love, that was cursed! Especially their love!") With the birth of their first son all their hopes seem to have been fulfilled. At the age of 20 months, though, the child is overtaken by illness and is damaged to the point of imbecility. The doctor attributes the illness and its effects to hereditary disease, which the reader may deduce to be syphilis. At the same time the child's mother is showing the first signs of consumption. The couple feel guilty and bereft but place their hopes in a second child. At 18 months this son also suffers convulsions and is left an idiot. When the couple try again, Berta gives birth to twins with exactly the same result. The young parents love their subnormal offspring and care for them as best they can. After three years, however, they begin to long for another child to make up for the four "beasts" they have already produced.
Because Berta does not conceive right away they become bitter and resentful, no longer supporting one another but making veiled accusations about who is to blame for the children's illness. Husband and wife eventually become reconciled, though, and have another child, this time a daughter. By now they have shifted from "great compassion for their four sons" to overt hostility, demonstrated by the increasingly strong language used to describe the boys—"monsters," "four poor beasts"—and the fact that they are kept in the yard. On her fourth birthday little Bertita falls ill, having eaten a surfeit of sweets; in contrast with her brothers she is spoiled and overindulged. The parents have a violent argument in which the accusations are no longer veiled. Berta openly blames Mazzini's father for the children's idiocy, and he blames her consumption. The little girl recovers from her indigestion, but on the next day Berta coughs up blood. One horror has receded, but now another threatens their happiness. The couple decide to go out for the day with Bertita. During the morning the four sons see the maid killing a chicken and are fascinated by the sight of blood draining from the bird's neck. In the afternoon Bertita escapes from her parents and wanders into the yard. Her brothers seize her, carry her off into the kitchen, "parting her curls as if they were feathers." The parents hear her screaming for help but arrive to find the kitchen floor covered in blood.
Quiroga makes use of foreshadowing and irony. The relevance of the title is not immediately apparent, but it does presage a violent death, as do the descriptions of the boys' animal behavior, particularly when they see the chicken slaughtered. Nor does the fact that Berta coughs up blood portend a happy ending. The irony lies in the fact that the couple's only healthy child dies at the hands of her brothers on the very day when they have cause for celebration: Bertita has come through her illness unscathed. There is also a kind of reverse symbolism. Light and sunshine normally represent positive qualities, virtues, but here the sun becomes a symbol of the boys' bestiality, and the day of the tragedy is splendid and sunny.
It is possible that some of the inspiration for "The Decapitated Chicken" came from Joseph Conrad's short story "The Idiots," first published in 1898. In the Conrad tale a couple have four idiot children (twin boys, another boy, then a girl), the wife kills her husband because he tries to force her to have another child, then commits suicide by leaping from a cliff. Both tales depict growing hopelessness and the breakdown of a once happy marriage. Like Conrad's idiots Quiroga's "monsters" are never given names or any individualizing characteristic: they function as a collective, almost a herd. In Quiroga there are eight references to animal qualities: they live in the "deepest animality," make mooing noises, and all their feelings and responses are "bestial." In Conrad's tale the children are described as "worse than animals who know the hand that feeds them." Both sets of parents grow to detest their children, keeping them out of sight as far as possible. Religious themes run through both stories. In Conrad the anticlerical Jean-Pierre seeks a solution to his problems in religion. When neither solution nor solace are forthcoming, he turns against the church with renewed anger. In "The Decapitated Chicken" Mazzini and Berta try to "redeem once and for all the sanctity of their tenderness" and are desperate for the "redemption of the four animals born to them." In both stories there are hints of the biblical idea that the sins of the father are visited on the children and their children's children. In Quiroga there are comments such as "paying for the excesses of their grandfathers," "the terrifying line of descent," "rotten progeny." In "The Idiots" Susan's father was "'deranged in his head' for a few years before he died," and Susan's mother "now began to suspect her daughter was going mad." "The Decapitated Chicken" illustrates how Quiroga's essential themes and narrative technique work together to produce the greatest possible effect—in this case, one of horror and repulsion. Disaster is inevitable; all that remains to be revealed is the unfolding of the tragedy.
—Patricia Anne Odber de Baubeta