Considered Venezuela’s “national novel,” Doña Bárbara vividly depicts the classic struggle between civilization and nature. Its author, Rómulo Gallegos (1884–1969), was an important statesman, educator, and public figure during the first half of the 20th century, and his political service to his country rivals his literary contributions for their significance in Venezuela’s early development. Doña Bárbara is Gallego’s most widely read and translated work, and its title character one of the most memorable and polemic figures in Latin American literature.
The novel is set in Venezuela’s llanos (plains), and its protagonists personify its archetypal clash: Doña Bárbara symbolizes—as her name suggests—the “barbaric,” wild, untamed countryside; her nemesis, the citified Santos Luzardo, represents the forces of progress and civilization. The narrative unfolds as Santos returns to the plains to reclaim his family’s ranch that has been appropriated by Doña Bárbara, who controls the latifundio (large landholding) like a feudal lord. The title character is described as a “strong woman,” a “man eater,” and a “sorceress,” in contrast to Santos (whose name literally means “saints” in Spanish). The latter character clashes with Doña Bárbara, whose wild ways have broken down the boundaries between their properties and allowed her animals to run roughshod over neighboring lands. Luzardo engages in a legal battle with Bárbara and “civilizes” the ranch by branding cattle, erecting fences, and enforcing contracts to protect his holdings. At the same time, he seduces her daughter, Marisela, who had been living in the wild, unwashed and uneducated. He takes her to live in the ranch house, where he sets out to domesticate her through the teaching of language, manners, and city ways.
Doña Bárbara is one of Latin America’s most important works of the region’s postindependence period. As a creative force whose writing was inextricably tied to his politics, Gallegos advocated for “civilizing” the Venezuelans of the plains and bringing to them the urban sophistication of turn-of-the-century Europe. Like other writers and statesmen of the times, most notably the Argentine Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Gallegos believed that his nation’s successful future depended upon its ability to modernize and formally educate its population, and to “tame” the nature that surrounded him. His role model was the “mature” continent of Europe, which had much to teach the young nations of the Americas, and his message in the novel clearly points to that end. Thus, as Melvin S. Arrington, Jr., articulates, the novel manifests the basic dichotomy of civilization versus barbarism “in a series of dueling oppositions: urban versus rural, European (i.e., white) versus mestizo, rational thought versus superstition, progress versus tradition.” Santos Luzardo—symbolizing civilization—wins the hand of Doña Bárbara’s daughter in addition to recovering his property, and the “wild” woman of the plains is forced to admit defeat.
Although Gallegos grew up primarily in Caracas and spent little time in the countryside, his depiction of rural Venezuela is both poetic and realistic. He captures life on the plains vividly, painting accurate portraits of the novel’s colorful characters. His description of the Altamira hacienda, or ranch, in its state of disrepair, lawlessness, and deterioration, reflects the work’s portrayal of its untamed inhabitants. The original Spanish version captures the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the region, and the novel has been well translated to retain its unique vernacular.
Doña Bárbara was first published in Spain, during one of Gallegos’s periods of exile there. Although the Spanish public received the work enthusiastically—it was named Book of the Month in September 1929—the author revised the novel substantially and released a second edition in 1930. This rewriting included the addition of 15 chapters and more than 20,000 words, converting it into the text’s current form. The widely disseminated book was made into a popular film in 1943, with one of Mexico’s best-known actresses, María Félix, playing the protagonist. Doña Bárbara has been translated into at least eight languages and forms part of the essential canon of Latin American literature.
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