Every night, Braggioni waits for Laura in her house and sings to her “in a furry, mournful voice.” Laura tries to avoid going home at night, but even when she stays out late in the hopes of evading Braggioni, he’s always there waiting for her, guitar in hand.
Braggioni’s constant presence is a reminder that Laura’s time is not her own, nor does she have the run of her own house.
Tonight, Lupe, Laura’s “Indian maid,” warns her that Braggioni is waiting for her upstairs. Even though Laura is exhausted, she lets Braggioni sing to her. As usual, she asks him first if he has a new song to sing for her; if he says no, she asks him to sing the song that she knows to be his favorite. She also always offers him part of her dinner, but he always declines.
Braggioni and Laura have fallen into a routine where she feels she must tolerate him, placating him with requests for a song that she couldn’t care less about. By being forced the say the right thing, Laura is clearly compromised.
Braggioni launches into his song, which he sings abrasively off-key, but Laura “dares not smile” or laugh; she listens with “pitiless courtesy.” In fact, no one “dares to smile at [Braggioni]” because he’s so ruthless and mean. Braggioni is a deeply self-centered man who thinks himself extremely talented. He’s a political leader and a “skilled revolutionist” who has sustained injuries in warfare, and his followers grovel at his feet.
Unfortunately for Laura, Braggioni has recently set his sights on her, which puts her in a precarious position, as she “owes her comfortable situation and her salary to him.” When he’s in a good mood, he tells Laura that he will “forgive [her] for being a gringa. Gringita!” Whenever he says this, Laura wants nothing more than to slap him right across the face.
Laura is an exotic figure for Braggioni, being a young American woman in Mexico. Thus he has turned her into a kept woman who is permanently in his debt and must therefore resist the urge to express her true feelings.
Laura knows she must “resist tenaciously” Braggioni’s advances “without appearing to resist,” and she tries to not let herself think about what his intentions with her are. Braggioni has come to represent Laura’s “many disillusions”; to her, a powerful revolutionary leader should be energetic and fit, “a vessel of abstract virtues” and “heroic faith.” Everyone thinks Laura is full of romanticized ideas like these. And though she finds them cynical in return, they claim to simply have “a developed sense of reality.”
Laura acknowledges the gulf between what she expects of a revolutionary hero and Braggioni, and blames herself for her unrealistic expectations. Yet she still maintains her ideals, even in light of more cynical peers like Braggioni who essentially exploit her, seeing her only as a prize to be won. This puts Laura in a precarious position, as she must fend off Braggioni without offending him and risking her livelihood.
Although Laura is “determined not to surrender her will,” she grudgingly acknowledges Braggioni’s logic in contrast with her unrealistic expectations and nurses a sense of betrayal “by the disunion between her way of living and her feeling of what life should be.” Laura momentarily wishes to run out of the house, leaving Braggioni without his captive audience.
Laura has high expectations for life, though she suspects herself of naiveté. She wishes she could escape Braggioni, not just because he insists on lecturing her, but because she wishes to return to the innocence that she has known, a sense of justice that has nothing to do with somebody like Braggioni.
Instead, Laura continues to humor Braggioni with her knees clutched anxiously together. Laura wears a blue serge skirt and a collar that is inadvertently nun-like. However, she feels that what she really wears is “the uniform of an idea” and, unlike Braggioni, has “renounced vanities” like expensive clothing and cosmetics.
While Braggioni dresses himself in fine clothes, Laura wears plain, conservative garments and sees her political faith as her true “uniform.” She wants to be seen as a good socialist instead of simply a beauty. It’s also significant that Laura’s knees are clutched together, as she’s clearly not interested in Braggioni’s advances.
Laura was raised Roman Catholic and occasionally goes into one of the borough’s crumbing churches and says a Hail Mary with a gold rosary that she purchased in the city of Tehuantepec. She hides these visits from her comrades, whom she knows would “make a scandal of it.” In any case, her attempt to feel something is a failure, as she is too “encased” in her political training. She does, however, admire the lace-trimmed drawers of the doll-like saints that adorn the alter. Laura’s own “private heresy” is that, a lover of fine lace, she refuses to wear any made on machines. She knows this would rankle her fellow socialists because they treat the machine as “sacred” and believe that it “will be the salvation of the workers.” For this reason, Laura hoards homemade lace in the upper drawer of her wardrobe.
Laura’s peers reject Christianity, as they likely follow Marx in seeing religion as “the opiate of the masses.” But Laura’s Catholicism still lingers, and she struggles to resolve it with her political faith while hiding her visits to the church from the others. To the socialists, machines are holy because they are the tools of the working masses. Laura, however, insists on handmade lace, which she associates with the figures of the saints in the church. Her balancing act between religion and politics, machine labor and craftsmanship, is represented by her many lace collars, which she buries in her wardrobe, figuratively stuffing down her competing loyalties.
Back in the present, Braggioni’s song reaches its crescendo. The song’s lyrics are exceedingly melodramatic and recounts the life of a person who is lonely, orphaned, and friendless. While he sings, he balances his considerable paunch between his knees, sweats profusely, and “bulges” inside his flashy clothes, consisting of a purple tie encircled by a diamond loop, yellow shoes with leather thongs, and silk pantaloons. He also wears a silver-encrusted ammunition belt as a reminder of his status among the revolutionaries.
Braggioni’s song rings entirely false, as he is neither lonely nor friendless—the narrator has already pointed out that Braggioni has a whole slew of adoring followers, and will later reveal that he has an even more adoring follower in his doting wife. The content of the song is also at odds with his plump figure and his fine clothes. His ammunition belt further speaks to his hypocrisy, as it is worked in silver, implying that it is largely for show. Braggioni plays the part of the troubadour and revolutionary but is really just a power-hungry nuisance.
His song finished, Braggioni focuses his “yellow cat’s eyes” on Laura and boasts of his power, which he has used to feed his desire for “small luxuries” and “elegant refinements.” He makes Laura smell his handkerchief, rank with imported Jockey Club perfume from New York. But for all his show of wealth and contentment, Braggioni admits that he is “wounded by life.” He tells Laura that “everything turns to dust in the hand, to gall on the tongue” and laments that he is disappointed in all things, a sentiment that he says Laura will come to share. Braggioni sees himself as Laura’s mentor and predicts that Laura will one day look back and see how right he was.
Power is how Braggioni measures wealth, and by that standard he is rich. His comforts now are his “small luxuries” like fancy perfume and other goods that set him apart from the largely poor Mexicans whom he uses to consolidate his power. In this passage, Braggioni opens up and confesses his disillusioned philosophy and deep disappointment in human nature. Like Laura, he once held lofty sentiments, which he feels life stripped from him. He expects the same will come of Laura, and warns her that she, too, will wind up a crushed realist. While this may be well-intended advice, Braggioni’s predatory demeanor and “yellow cat’s eyes” suggest that he’s also trying to break down his victim.
Laura feels “chill[ed]” by Braggioni’s words and a nameless fear that she will suffer “violence, mutilation, a shocking death.” However, she reminds herself that her personal fate is nothing, and that she lives only as “testimony of a mental attitude,” though she resolves not to die in a meaningless manner like being hit by a car. She thinks that she’s as corrupt, in her own way, as Braggioni, but has nowhere to run to, as there is “no pleasure in remembering life before she came here,” nor does she feel like she can simply move to another country, now that all her commitments are in Mexico.
Laura is gripped by a nameless fear and remembers that she is at risk every day as a woman and could easily wind up killed. She wants her life, and death, to stand for something and resolves not to die dishonorably. She also reproaches herself for betraying the commitments that brought her to Mexico, where she is now essentially trapped. Her horror of Braggioni comes partly from seeing too much of herself in him.
Laura can no longer explain her devotion or true motives. She spends her days with “Indian children” at a school in the nearby borough of Xochimilco teaching elementary English. Her leisure time is spent engaging in revolutionary activities like visiting political prisoners who spend their days “counting cockroaches, repenting of their indiscretions, composing their memoirs” and “writing out manifestoes.” Laura smuggles food, money, and cigarettes into jail for them, and acts as courier for letters from their comrades on the outside. She also brings them narcotics, as many of them complain of sleeplessness. Laura is a comfort to these prisoners, and her poor Spanish amuses them. Even though they know they can depend on Laura to help them in small ways each day, they all wonder why Braggioni won’t come to their aid.
Laura wonders what all her efforts are for, as she hardly makes a difference teaching English to native children. Yet she continues to go through the motions, carrying out revolutionary errands for political prisoners, as well as simply keeping them company. She also brings them drugs, a detail that foreshadows a tragedy later in the story. However, all of Laura’s work with the imprisoned dissidents is nothing compared to what Braggioni could easily do by insisting on their release, once again highlighting Braggioni’s obsession with accruing power. They wait for Braggioni to come through for them, but he bides his time in order to bind them to him further.
Laura goes on smuggling letters from the Party’s headquarters to the fugitives who hide from firing squads in desolate conditions. Braggioni, however, is content to “let them sweat” and finds having them out of the way convenient. Laura does her best to warn these wanted men when the authorities are closing in, giving them money to flee to Vera Cruz.
Laura helps wanted men escape the firing squads and makes sure they have enough cash to make it to the relative safety of Vera Cruz. This is in contrast to Braggioni, who shrugs off their needs and plays his cards carefully to ensure he remains in control while having to do very little.
The Polish and Roumanian agitators attempt to feed each other misinformation through Laura, though Braggioni is content to have both in his power and plays them off one another. Both flirt shamelessly with Laura and each believes that Laura favors them over the other. Laura goes about her errands to the bafflement of the locals, who find her beautiful and cannot understand what she is doing in Mexico.
The ridiculous agitators spend more time trying to outsmart one another rather than opposing the state apparatus, further depicting the Mexican political scene as corrupt and focused on power. Each man thinks he is more clever than the other, and both flirt with Laura, with whom they imagine a connection. That Braggioni gamely manipulates both men again points to his moral depravity and obsession with gaining power. Laura, meanwhile, continues to be seen as woman first and person second, as the idea of a woman of abiding political commitment is unheard of for the locals.
Among those who fall for Laura is a young captain who served in Zapata’s army. One day, the captain attempts to gallantly help Laura off her horse, but he only succeeds in scaring off her steed and his own. Later he writes her a letter professing his love, and Laura thinks to herself that she ought to send him “a box of colored crayons.”
Emiliano Zapata Salazar was a hero of the Mexican Revolution, meaning that the young captain in this passage has considerable prestige. However, he proves foolish and vain, attempting to help Laura off her horse, something she can do quite well herself, only to embarrass himself. When he writes Laura professing his love, she thinks of sending him crayons because, to her, he is little more than a child.
A “shock-haired” young minstrel sings outside of Laura’s house every night. Lupe tells Laura that he happens to be an organizer of the Typographers’ Union, and that it is custom to fling the flowers of the Judas tree at a suitor so that he will relent. She does so, but instead he follows her everywhere until she becomes accustomed to his presence, as he is only “observing a convention with all propriety, as though it were founded on a law of nature […].” He leaves poems for her, and Laura tells herself that throwing the flower was a mistake, though she refuses to regret it outright and resolves to become stoic in the face of the unnamable disaster that she senses is coming for her.
Laura embraces local custom in throwing the Judas blossoms at the minstrel, but only winds up encouraging him—like Braggioni, the minstrel won’t take Laura’s polite and indirect “no” for an answer. She chastises herself for partaking in superstition, another betrayal symbolized by the Judas tree from which Christ’s betrayer, Judas Iscariot, is said to have hung himself. Still, Laura adjusts to the near-constant presence of the minstrel and the poems he writes her and tries to keep her composure, much as she does with Braggioni.
Laura “is not at home in the world” and lives in fear, not knowing what waits for her behind the doors she knocks on in the course of her activities. The word “No” is the “holy talismanic word which does not suffer her to be led into evil,” as she turns down the advances of the men she encounters. Braggioni, though, continues to try and impress her. He considers himself “a judge of women” and speculates about Laura’s “notorious virginity.” He then sings to her of a girl with dark eyes, though Laura’s eyes are green. She waits until the inevitable moment when Braggioni will attempt to seduce her, with her “No” at the ready.
Laura’s circumstances are increasingly claustrophobic. She sees danger lurking all around her, her only defense being the word “No,” which has come to seem to her a kind of holy incantation. She says “No” to the men who proposition her and “No” to Braggioni, who, like the minstrel, is undeterred. Instead, he asserts himself as an authority on feminine beauty and all but harasses Laura outright. He continues to sing ballads, hoping to woo the virginal Laura, while she waits for the inevitable moment when she turns him down and he finally relents for the night and goes home.
Braggioni exists in the guise of “a good revolutionary and professional lover of humanity” and recalls for Laura’s benefit his youth, when the girls called him Delgadito and he was a “scrawny” poet dreaming of the revolution. Now he is a power broker and “leader of men” who gives small coins to the needy in order to make them dependent on his generosity. In private, thinks them “lazy,” “treacherous,” and “stupid.” He goes on to recall when love of a woman led him to try and drown himself, a rejection he has taken out on all women since and confesses that "One woman is really as good as another for me, in the dark."
Braggioni remembers his youth, when he was scrawny and romantic, an object of desire for the women of his neighborhood possessed of revolutionary notions. This is a sharp contrast to his embittered sensibility as an adult. Delgadito, or “skinny man,” is now a hypocritical and bloated politician who hates peasants and only gives them coins in order to make them dependent on him. Braggioni also demonstrates his blatant misogyny in this passage, as he blames all women for his wounded pride and sees them as interchangeable sex objects.
Laura’s thoughts turn to Braggioni’s wife, who campaigns for the women who work in the cigarette factories, walks in picket lines, and speaks at meetings. Still, Laura’s desire for total freedom is alien to Mrs. Braggioni, whose “sense of reality is beyond criticism” and who never fails to take Braggioni back. He enjoys his power over her and says that if she ever disobeyed him, he would “lock her up.”
Braggioni’s wife is a fascinating, if minor, character who commits to progressive causes much like Laura, but is too much of a realist to believe that she can ever be as free as Laura yearns to be. She accepts her second-class status as a woman and yields to Braggioni who clearly torments her and jokes menacingly of the consequences if she fails to please him. Laura sees Braggioni’s wife’s situation as her potential fate should she continue to fall under Braggioni’s power.
Something is bothering Laura tonight, as she has just come from the prison. Braggioni tells her that there are two parades due to come from opposite sides of the city, one of the Catholics and one of the socialists honoring their martyrs. Braggioni displays his ammunition belt again and appears to welcome the violence he predicts. He recalls the past, when he dreamed of destroying the city if it opposed General Ortiz, “but it fell into his hands like an overripe pear.” Laura retorts, telling him to go “kill somebody in Morelia, and you will be happier.”
The conflict between religion and politics is perhaps most tangible in Braggioni’s relation of the two parades headed for collision. Braggioni expects and even welcomes violence, despite the fact that the marching socialists and the Catholics are suggestively positioned as essentially two sides of the same coin. By flaunting his gun belt, Braggioni again pretends to be a hero, and even recalls his service for future Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio during the Revolution. (Ortiz’s presidency will be a disappointment as, following the assassination of reformist president Álvaro Obregón, he will be little more than a puppet.) Laura uncharacteristically challenges Braggioni to put his money where his mouth is and kill someone in the embattled city of Morelia, where clashes between local farmers, rebels, and the army are common. However, she may mean the comment sarcastically, implying that Braggioni is still behaving like the revolution is still at its peak and he is still a soldier rather than a corrupt oaf full of empty threats and false promises.
Laura tells Braggioni what’s been on her mind: the death of a prisoner named Eugenio, who took all the pills Laura brought him at once, rather than wait for Braggioni to get him out of jail. Braggioni calls him a “fool” and says they are “well rid of him.” His mood soured, Braggioni finally leaves. With Braggioni gone—at least for the time being—Laura finally feels free. Although she wants to take advantage of this moment of freedom and “run while there is time, “she does not go.”
Laura’s culpability in Eugenio’s death haunts her. This passage reveals that Eugenio took his own life rather than wait for Braggioni to get him out of prison. Braggioni’s callousness in calling Eugenio a fool further depresses Laura, who is left alone with her guilt after Braggioni finally leaves. Braggioni is here contrasted not only with Laura, who is in the figurative trenches of the revolution, but with the martyred Eugenio who suffered for his beliefs.
Meanwhile, Braggioni goes home to the long-suffering Mrs. Braggioni, who calls her husband “my angel” and begins to wash his feet. He makes a show of asking for her forgiveness, breaking into tears himself. She continues to cry and asks her husband for forgiveness. “This time,” Mr. Braggioni feels “refreshed by the solemn, endless rain of [his wife’s] tears.”
In a scene reminiscent of Mary Magdalene’s washing of Christ’s feet, Mrs. Braggioni likewise washes her husband’s feet as a way to humble herself before him. Braggioni weeps before his long-suffering wife, a theatrical scene of making-up that is implied to be nothing more than routine because of the phrase “this time.” In this way, Braggioni’s wife continues to exist as subordinate to the unfaithful and emotionally manipulative Braggioni. Perhaps because he has just had a particularly frustrating interaction with Laura, who refuses to be subservient to him, Braggioni “this time” takes great pleasure in his wife’s penitent, submissive tears and feels reinvigorated.
Laura goes to sleep and dreams of a ghostly Eugenio, who calls her a murderer and tries to take her hand to lead her to death, which is “a long way off.” He then bids her eat the blossoms of the Judas tree. When she does so, he calls her a murderer and cannibal and tells her, “This is my body and my blood.” Laura cries out, “No!” in her sleep and wakes trembling, afraid to go back to sleep.
In the story’s final scene, Laura’s twin belief systems—Catholicism and socialism—are united in her dream of Eugenio and the Judas blossoms. In another echo of Christ, Eugenio tells Laura that by eating the blossoms, she has consumed his body and blood. This is a reference to the Eucharist, wherein Catholic belief holds that wine and bread are transformed into the blood and body of Christ through a process called transubstantiation. Eugenio blames Laura for his death and tries to take her hand and lead her to the death that she has been dreading. When she awakens with her usual cry of “No!” she fears going back to sleep, just as she fears that she can never go home again or escape the circumstances that restrict her freedom and bind her to her thankless, empty existence in Mexico.