Symbolism in ‘Three Dirges’

Subject: Culture
Pages: 4
Word count: 1011
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The Three Dirges, a story set in Guatemala narrates the horror and terror wreaked by the militia on the hapless native Indians. The story starts with Don Lázaro, the Mayor who is summoned by the Colonel and warned that the villagers must kill the five catechists who are teaching the natives to read and write, something that the army captain does not want (Connelly). Lernoux supports the story by stating that the militia was very cruel and believed in mass killings of the natives. The narrative shows that the incident narrated by Connelly is based on facts (Lernoux). Connelly has made use of stark symbols and creates a vivid image of the narration, the characters, and the helplessness of the people. This paper discusses and analyses the use of symbols and imagery.

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The author introduces the village as a quiet place, like a wrinkled quilt that covered sharp ravines and the use of words conjured an idyllic resting place where the aldea or hamlet rested in peace and tranquility. The author uses milpa, to indicate that the place symbolizes an agricultural community who were not expected to be the target of the militia. “, the highland aldea slumbered in the final moments of a long night…..” A rooster crowed in a corner of some milpa..”(Connelly 2).

Peace is shattered by “an Indian skyrocket streaked into the sky ..”(3). This rocket is symbolic of the upheaval and disruption that would run through the village. The rocket leaves a trail of pale orange and yellow flames that further create imagery of the fire and misery that the villagers would face (Connelly). An image of helplessness is created when Don Lázaro meets the Colonel Lazaro is a peaceful man by profession, with weather hat, leathery face, and “his tussled, raven hair glinting in the sunlight flooding the room through the open doorway behind him” (5). These words must be read along with the body language where Lázaro stands stoically before the Colonel who waves and points a freshly pointed yellow pencil. The pencil in the hand symbolizes the control that the Colonel has over the native. It appears that the native is but a plaything, a helpless soul who can be made to carry out the master’s commands. However, Lazaro is not submissive and is not willing to yield (Connelly 6). The relation between the two is symbolized further when a soldier with an assault rifle pulls out a chair and places it near the door. The Colonel twirls the pencil and stands before the native, asking him firmly to sit down, expecting immediate compliance and obedience (Connelly 11). A symbolic unwilling relation, , is established between the tyrant Colonel and Lázaro.

Freedom or rather breaking to freedom is symbolized by the pigeons. When the bell in the mission rings out, a flock of pigeons fly out, symbolizing the elusive freedom that the natives want. Another symbolism that creates images of freedom is seen in the flock of birds that swoop out from the field and roost in the pines. The author creates images and symbols of elusive freedom from persecution in the form of these free birds (Connelly 8).

Strong symbolism is seen when a religious procession appears mourning and heading towards a cemetery. The village is in mourning, terror struck “…somewhere deep within the soul of the village, a woman’s anguish pierced the still, early morning, followed by yet a duet of wails, and then a full chorus of cries …” (13). The twelve cofrades carry holy religious objects, and an image comes to mind that the helpless priests appear to use these religious objects of the Patron saint to ward off and warn the militia.

When the Colonel directly asks Lázaro about the catechists, the native is scared and this is symbolized by the trembling hands and his inability to face the commander. The catechists are depicted as youths, with ill fitting clothes. When Lázaro informs the natives about the orders to kill the boy, he narrates the order with tremendous emotion, when he chokes on his words and struggles to frame the words that spoke of an unspeakable crime. It appears that he is blaming himself for the death sentence announced by the Colonel (21). The words used create images of vivid savagery that the militia would mete out. He says “If those subversives aren’t dead by sunrise tomorrow morning, my troops will ….. kill every living thing …..they will do the same thing to ….every other subversive town in Sololá!” (23).

The missing Padre is a source of intense concern. The author appears to create a symbolic link with the padre who stands for counsel and hope. In his absence, the natives have to take the harsh decision themselves. The five boys are ready to give up their lives to save the lives of others. The narration when the boys become martyrs is very symbolically narrated. “…screeches of sharpened steel on steel sent trembles … [thuck!] . . [thuck!] . . . . . . . [thuck!] . . . .[thuck!] (39). The author notes that even the birds ceased to sing and women sought comfort against the breasts of their men folk. The ending para is very poignant of the tragedy “…flinging the drifts of clouds and the souls of five young men high into the pines.” (42). The wailing women and their lamentations echo across the valley that was described as idyllic at the beginning of the story and that now hears the screams and sorrow of the people.

To conclude, the author has used a number of symbols to create an image of helpless people who are terrorized by the brutal militia. The use of metaphors, objects, feelings, sorrow, are wonderfully brought in the narration. The author has managed to convey the helplessness and despair of the people, and their inability to resist and gain freedom. The narration has also brought to light the ruthlessness of the militia and the torment they caused to the natives.

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  1. Connelly, Marshall. “Three Dirges in Requiem Guatemala“. Print
  2. Lernoux, Penny. “People of God.” Viking. 1989. Print
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