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Esteban Trueba and his sister Férula are sitting in their run-down dining room, eating greasy soup and tasteless fish just like they do every Friday. Bo-ring.
Their mother, Doña Ester Trueba, doesn't eat with them because she's too old and crippled by arthritis. She spends all her time alternating between a chair in the living room and her bed. All she does is read about the lives of the Saints, and the only place she ever goes is to mass once a week.
Esteban announces that he's not returning to the mine. Férula insists that he work at something so they can afford their mother's many medicines.
Férula has a major martyr complex. She's turned down two marriage proposals in order to care for her mother, and gets a twisted pleasure out of suffering.
Now we get some back-story on the Trueba family: Férula was the one who raised her little brother when their mother became ill and their father died, leaving the family in poverty. Férula used to dote on and adore her little brother, until the day he realized she was an "ominous shadow in his life" and he began to move away from her (2.7).
Here we get a flashback to when Esteban was a little boy and had just received his first wages. Esteban has saved 50 centavos to fulfill his dream of having a Viennese coffee in the Hotel Francés. He gets up the nerve to enter the hotel and order, and is served a beautiful cup of Viennese coffee. As he stirs his coffee, the glass cracks and spills its contents all over his only suit. He's majorly frustrated, and, as usual, furious. His sister's response? Férula tells Esteban that God was punishing him for spending their mother's medicine money on something frivolous. And that's why Esteban and Férula aren't friends anymore.
Férula is jealous of Esteban's freedom and resents him for it. She even got a kick out of telling him that Rosa died.
So, back to the greasy soup and the tasteless fish. Esteban tells Férula he's not going back to the mine, and that he's thinking of going to Tres Marías in the country instead.
Férula thinks Esteban should sell Tres Marías because it's in ruins, but Esteban thinks land is the one thing you should never sell. So we gather that Tres Marías is the name of a property that the Trueba family owns.
Esteban says that he hates the city, he hates his family's house, and he's leaving.
Férula wishes she'd been born a man so she could leave too.
The brother and sister really don't like each other anymore.
Here we get a little bit more back-story on just how miserable the childhood of the Trueba children was: their mother, a member of the elite class, had fallen in love with a good-for-nothing immigrant who squandered her entire fortune before he died. Esteban and Férula grow up really, really poor.
Esteban leaves for the country two days later. He and Férula are relieved to say good-bye to one another.
Esteban rides in the first-class cabin on the train, and vows to never be poor again.
Esteban arrives in San Lucas, and the place is so empty it seems like a ghost town.
Eventually he tracks someone down to drive him to Tres Marías in a rickety cart.
The hacienda (a Spanish word for plantation or estate) is in ruins. The pastures and vineyards are completely overgrown and the house is full of garbage and rubble.
Esteban's arrival attracts the attention of the inhabitants of the property, who come out of their poor, dirty huts to stare at him. It's been fifteen years since they've seen an owner at Tres Marías. They are clearly very poor.
Esteban investigates the dilapidated house. It's a complete wreck.
Esteban thinks about turning around and just going home, but decides that the hard work of restoring the property is just what he needs to get over Rosa's death.
Esteban goes out to meet the peasants. There's only one man in the group – Pedro Segundo García. Pedro Segundo tells him all the other men have left.
Esteban tells his tenants, "The party's over. We're going to work" (2.49). He says that anyone who stays will have plenty to eat, but will have to work hard. Anyone who doesn't want to work should leave.
Pedro Segundo García says they'll stay – they have nowhere to go.
A little boy squats on the ground to defecate, and a dog runs up to sniff him. Gross, right? Esteban is disgusted, and orders that the child be taken away, the courtyard be hosed down, and the dog be killed. We get the feeling Esteban is here to lay down the law.
Now the narrative switches to Esteban's voice. Esteban starts off by asserting he was a good patrón (that's Spanish for "owner"), and that no one is going to convince him otherwise. Sounds a bit defensive, huh?
We realize that the events Esteban is narrating occur some time in the past, because he says he "can't go along with [his] granddaughter's story about class struggle" (2.53). So we know that, fifty years from now, Esteban has a granddaughter, and that she disagrees with his ideas about how to run an estate. Esteban thinks that the peasants on his land are better off under his patriarchal leadership and authority, but his granddaughter presumably has a different opinion.
Esteban starts telling us what happened when he first arrived at Tres Marías.
Esteban spends all his money and a lot of time and hard work fixing up the estate. He hires lots of men to help out, buys livestock, fixes up the house, and orders new furniture. Tres Marías begins to prosper, and Esteban feels that he's taking good care of his tenants.
Esteban enjoys living in the country, but his temper grows worse and he believes that he's becoming uncivilized by living so far away from the society of his peers.
Back to the third-person narrative.
At first Esteban is totally exhausted by getting the estate fixed up, and doesn't have time to think about women. But that doesn't last long. After a few months, wet dreams are keeping him up at night. Sex is all he can think about, and he's not getting any. As you might imagine, this makes the man grumpy.
Esteban really wants to have sex, and he's the patrón. So what does he do? He rapes a fifteen-year-old peasant girl named Pancha García.
Esteban instructs the terrified and weeping Pancha to start working in the house the next day. She's a poor, defenseless peasant girl, and unfortunately doesn't have much choice but to do what he says.
Pancha starts working in the house, and Esteban's happy because she basically serves as his sex slave.
Esteban starts to take an interest in the lives of the peasants on his land, and finally realizes they're living in wretched conditions. He decides he needs to better protect his tenants and show them how to be civilized.
Esteban begins work on a bunch of projects to improve the property and to help his tenants, but his motives are suspect. For instance, he builds a school with the intention of teaching the peasants to read, write, and do simple arithmetic, but nothing beyond that – a greater education might fill their heads with ideas "unsuited to their station and condition" (2.70).
He also dreams of building a dining hall where all the children on the property could receive one hot meal per day. But does Esteban want to feed the little children out of the goodness of his heart? Or could it have something to do with the fact that he wants them to "grow up strong and healthy and be able to start work at a tender age" (2.70)?
Esteban builds a general store where his tenants can purchase goods with the vouchers they receive as wages.
Esteban buys a short-wave radio so he can follow the news of the war in Europe, which has no bearing on the lives of the peasant farmers. The only tenant to show an interest in the radio is Pedro Segundo García, the most intelligent of the peasants.
Pedro Segundo García fears, admires, and hates the new patrón. He's also Pancha García's brother.
Pancha García gets pregnant, and Esteban Trueba is repulsed. He's unable to think of her growing baby as his own child. Pancha goes back to live in her parents' house and Esteban finds a new peasant girl to fulfill his sexual needs.
Over the next ten years, Esteban rules Tres Marías with an iron fist. He improves the standard of living for his tenants, and the hacienda becomes very prosperous.
He also rapes every young girl on the property, as well as some from neighboring haciendas. No one can oppose him, because Esteban is the patrón. Esteban becomes famous for his violent anger and his cruelty. He fathers illegitimate offspring throughout the region, and the populace grows to hate him.
Pedro Segundo García and the local priest try to convince Esteban that he should treat his tenants with respect and dignity, but he won't listen – he thinks of himself as a father figure to the tenants, and argues that they would be living in squalor if it weren't for him. The idea of lightening their workload, paying their wages in money instead of in pink vouchers, or granting them more independence sounds to him like communism.
Esteban definitely doesn't think all men were created equal. The peasants are basically just a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing children in his opinion, and he's the only one with any work ethic or brains.
Esteban sends money and crates of food to his mother and his sister in the capital, but he never goes to visit them.
The patrón has no idea how many offspring he's sired, and doesn't feel that he owes them anything. He figures when he wants to have children he'll marry a woman of his own class, because the only kids that count for anything are the ones that carry his surname.
Esteban doesn't care much for the women's rights movement, either, especially because suffragettes like Nívea del Valle are campaigning to grant equal rights to all children, even bastards.
Here we get a little more historical context. The narrator doesn't say so explicitly, but from context clues we can determine that the setting is Chile during the 1920s. The political climate is changing, thanks in part to a wave of immigrants fleeing the destruction of World War I in Europe, bringing with them "subversive ideas." The economy isn't doing very well, and it's an election year. The rich cosmopolitan elite, however, continue to party, seemingly oblivious to everyone else's hardships.
In the countryside, Esteban Trueba meets with other landowners to discuss strategy for the upcoming Presidential elections. They party and end up going to the Red Lantern, a brothel in town.
Esteban's favorite prostitute at the Red Lantern is a woman named Tránsito Soto (whose name is Spanish for "dirty traffic").
Tránsito has a lot of ambition, and when Esteban offers to give her a present, she asks him to lend her 50 pesos to pay her way to the capital so she can become rich and famous. Tránsito Soto promises to pay Esteban back some day, with interest.
Esteban and the other patrones plan a huge barbeque for their tenants in order to convince them to vote for the conservative candidate. They promise that if the conservative candidate wins, the tenants will receive a bonus, but if he loses, they will lose their jobs. The landowners also rig the ballot boxes and bribe the police. Gee, we wonder who's going to win the election.
Esteban congratulates himself and his countrymen on living in a place where "the Conservative Party wins cleanly and openly," without picking up on the irony of that statement (2.92).
Esteban has a disturbing dream about Rosa in which she appears naked with a bundle in her arms. She hurls the bundle to the ground, and he picks it up – it's a baby girl without eyes who calls him Papa.
Esteban receives a letter from his sister, saying that their mother is dying.
Esteban puts Pedro Segundo in charge of Tres Marías and travels home to see his mother one last time.