Ernesto begins his road trip through South America as a bourgeois medical student seeking an adventure before resuming his studies; he finishes it as a budding revolutionary with a growing awareness of the faults of the social and political systems within which he lives. As the memoir progresses, Ernesto shifts from narrating personal escapades in a lighthearted manner to conducting serious class and cultural analysis based on his observations and experiences. Alberto also matures significantly, but for him this means growing into the role of middle class doctor he always expected to assume eventually; moreover, he never quite abandons the mischievous spirit that dominates him at the beginning. For Ernesto, growing up is a much more dramatic process. He shifts from an inward to an outward focus on life, and he distances himself from his class origins and the future expectations he had at the beginning of the book.
At the beginning of the memoir, Ernesto is a pleasure traveler bent on squeezing every ounce of adventure and novelty out of his summer road trip. The narrative opens with an image of Ernesto drinking mate with his friends and discussing “this bitch of a life”—typically youthful student behavior. Looking back, Ernesto notes that even as he an Alberto decide to make the trip, “the enormity of our endeavor,” with all its future significance, “escaped us in those moments.” Instead, the two men focus on “the dust of the road ahead and ourselves on the bike,” clearly envisioning the trip as an adventure centered around their personal gratification. Alberto has an enormous supply of ingenious and sometimes unscrupulous ploys to convince others to foot the bill for their food and shelter. While Ernesto usually plays second fiddle in these charades, he devotes significant space to relating them and does so with mirth and appreciation, showing how much he admires his friend’s behavior. Although Ernesto has a girlfriend, Chichina, whom he visits before he sets off, he recounts with delight an episode at a Chilean dance in which he meets a woman who is “hot and clearly in the mood” and subsequently fights with her husband, as a result of which Alberto berates Ernesto for alienating their supply of free drinks. Through his heavy focus on these kinds of escapades, Ernesto depicts himself at the outset as a youthful and somewhat thoughtless protagonist.
As the trip progresses Ernesto and Alberto mature significantly, but in different ways. Ernesto shifts from being interested in only those who have food or wine to offer to being intrigued by and involved in the lives of many different kinds of people, such as the inhabitants of the leper colonies and the poor people to whom he provides healthcare. By the time he reaches his final destinations, Ernesto is totally focused on visiting museums, seeking out older men as mentors, and analyzing the history and culture of the cities he sees. This serious behavior, compared to his propensity for carousing earlier in the book, demonstrates an increased maturity and corresponding shift in values. His narrative style also shifts, transforming from a series of somewhat disconnected travel notes to a series of observations of class conditions that build off each other and focus comparatively little on his personal life.
Alberto also matures, transforming from a student pretending to be a doctor to a man ready to dedicate his career to treating leprosy. However, he matures along the conventional middle-class trajectory of committing to a profession. Ernesto, who says he doesn’t know how long he’ll be interested in leprosy, even as he investigates it seriously, is clearly seeking some way to grow up without choosing a bourgeois career path.
By the narrative’s end, Ernesto diverges completely from Alberto’s path, shedding his middle-class trappings and declaring his intent to become an activist and a political leader. Although he feels Alberto’s absence “sharply” when the two friends part ways, solitude allows him to focus even more on abstract concepts and distance himself from the bourgeois pleasure-seeking which characterized their earlier experiences and which Alberto spearheaded. Ernesto announces this parting in two brusque sentences, giving little explanation, but the reader can deduce that they’re no longer the compatible traveling companions they were at the beginning, given Ernesto’s increasingly abstract and radical state of mind versus Alberto’s stolid practicality. In the final chapter, Ernesto meets an enigmatic stranger who makes a revelatory speech about the terrible necessity of revolution, prompting Ernesto to declare his own commitment to “take my bloodstained weapon” and fight on behalf of the “triumphant proletariat.” The heightened, graphic language of this last paragraph, in which Ernesto’s conception of his future is totally centered on revolutionary struggle, shows how much his sense of direction in life has changed since the inception of the trip.
It’s easy for students of history to forget that Che Guevara wasn’t always a revolutionary leader but, in fact, started out as a quotidian middle-class student. The Motorcycle Diaries shows how a young, smart, and inquisitive protagonist can react to his experiences by synthesizing revolutionary ideas. By depicting his own development next to Alberto’s very different path, Ernesto shows both his unremarkable origins and the extraordinary process and results of his growing up.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in The Motorcycle Diaries
In nine months of a man's life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup—in total accord with the state of his stomach.
The enormity of our endeavor escaped us in those moments; all we could see was the dust on the road ahead and ourselves on the bike, devouring kilometers in our flight northward.
I remember the day my friend the sea came to my defense…The beach was deserted and a cold onshore wind was blowing. My head rested in the lap tying me to this land, lulled by everything around. The entire universe drifted rhythmically by, obeying the impulses of my inner voice…And then, for the last time, I heard the ocean’s warning.
I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel, or perhaps it's better to say that traveling is our destiny, because Alberto feels the same.
A feeling of profound unease came over me; I felt that I was incapable of feeling anything. I began to feel afraid for myself and started a tearful letter, but I couldn't write, it was hopeless to try. In the half-light that surrounded us, phantoms swirled around and around but "she" wouldn't appear. I still believed I loved her until this moment, when I realized I felt nothing.
[We were] no longer a pair of more or less likable vagrants with a bike in tow; no, we were now "The Experts," and we were treated accordingly.
It was our last day as "motorized bums"; the next stage seemed set to be more difficult, as "bums without wheels."
To a certain extent we had been knights of the road; we belonged to that long-standing "wandering aristocracy" and had calling cards with our impeccable and impressive titles. No longer. Now we were just two hitchhikers with backpacks, and with all the grime of the road stuck to our overalls, shadows of our former selves.
Even today, when the bestial rage of the conquering rabble can be seen in each of the acts designed to eternalize the conquest, and the Inca caste has long since vanished as a dominant power, their stone blocks stand enigmatically, impervious to the ravages of time.
Afterwards some of [the patients] came to say goodbye to us personally and in more than one case tears were shed as they thanked us for the little bit of life we'd given them. We shook their hands, accepted their gifts, and sat with them listening to football on the radio. If there's anything that will make us seriously dedicate ourselves to leprosy, it will be the affection shown to us by all the sick we've met along the way.
We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a United Latin America.
I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon and, consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls into my hands.