Mario Vargas Llosa’s short story ‘ ‘The Challenge” is a seemingly straightforward story about a fight between two men, Justo and the Gimp. Although Vargas Llosa tells the reader little about them and thus does not fully develop any of the characters, he provides enough information about some of the characters to allow the reader to make assumptions and draw conclusions. Vargas Llosa relies more on irony than descriptive narrative to reveal the character known as the Gimp, and in doing so the author also portrays valuable lessons about judging a person. According to William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature, irony refers to ‘ ‘the recognition of a reality different from appearance.” In characterizing the Gimp, Vargas Llosa leads the reader to make certain assumptions about him based on his appearance and public demeanor, but then he shows that these assumptions do not comprise a true picture of the Gimp.
The Gimp’s appearance is not heroic or inspiring. He is described as a man who is taller than most, with a lame left leg. This information tells the reader that the Gimp also moves somewhat clumsily, probably swaying back and forth a bit when he walks. In many situations, this would be the type of man the reader would expect to be the follower, not the leader, in his social group, especially a group that emphasizes fighting and dominating others. His nickname is an outward acknowledgement by the public that he is lame, and his acceptance of this nickname reflects the character’s acceptance of his physical limitations. In fact, Vargas Llosa never gives the Gimp’s real name. In addition, his rough features and hard appearance give him a menacing, unapproachable quality. Together, these physical qualities suggest a person who is not a stereotypically strong, bold hero. His emergence as a leader respected by his peers is ironic, then, because all outward clues suggest a completely different social standing.
Despite his lame leg, the Gimp is the winner of the fight with Justo. Moreover, he wins by respecting the rules of the fight, when such a character might be expected to cheat. Too often, writers portray characters who appear as though they may have bad characteristics and then have the characters’ actions validate this appearance. In ‘ ‘The Challenge,” however, the Gimp not only adheres to rules of fairness, he also displays compassion when he is winning the fight. He pleads with Julian and Leonidas to make Justo surrender the fight, presumably so the Gimp does not have to kill him. This casts doubt on Moses’ earlier comments to Julian that the Gimp was talking tough the night before about how he would “cut [Justo] up into little pieces.” Even if the Gimp did make such comments, the truth about his character is revealed more honestly in his actions during the fight. It is ironic that the Gimp tries to spare Justo’s life in a fair fight because the Gimp is presented as a tough, relentless fighting machine. In reality, he possesses at least some degree of compassion. When the fight ends with Justo’s death, the Gimp does not brag to his friends or his enemies, he simply walks quietly away. This is the last time the reader sees the Gimp, and it shows him as the unlikely victor in a physically demanding forum. Although the reader is led to take Justo’s side in the story, it is difficult to hate the Gimp for killing him.
Another way in which Vargas Llosa uses irony in portraying the Gimp is in the pig imagery that describes him. First, the reader learns that there is a rumor that the Gimp’s lame foot carries a large scar (shaped like a cross) from a pig bite he received many years ago. Although nobody has ever seen this scar, the rumor persists. During the fight, it is dark, but Julian imagines ‘ ‘the Gimp sweating, his mouth shut, his little pig eyes aflame and blazing behind his eyelids, his skin throbbing, the wings of his flattened nose and the slit of his mouth shaken by an unconceivable quivering …”
This language clearly casts the Gimp in the image of a pig; more specifically of a pig fearing for his life. This imagery is significant because it likens the Gimp to an animal that is typically slaughtered. The men are fighting with knives, which is the instrument commonly used to slaughter pigs. That the rumored scar on his foot is in the shape of a cross suggests that the expected slaughter (of the pig) will be sacrificial, as the cross symbolizes the Christian belief in Jesus’ willingness to be sacrificed on the cross. Although the setting of this story is never given, it is probably Peru, since much of Vargas Llosa’s work is set in his native land. If it is not Peru, it is another Latin American country, as evident in the characters’ names, which means that Roman Catholicism is the prevailing religious belief. This is significant because the cross—in the form of the crucifix, a cross bearing Jesus’ body—is quite common among Catholics. The pig imagery associated with the Gimp creates tension and confusion about what sort of person the Gimp is. Is he a lowly pig to be slaughtered and therefore a villain? Or is he a sacrificial figure meant to die for the good of others and therefore a heroic figure? Either way, the pig imagery seems to foreshadow the Gimp’s death.
This expectation of the Gimp’s death sets up another of Vargas Llosa’s uses of irony, because whether the Gimp is villainous or heroic, he wins the fight by killing his opponent. He is the one who takes a life with his knife rather than being slaughtered with a knife like a pig. Among Vargas Llosa’s works, the theme of the powerless attaining power (often through force or violence) presents itself time and again. If the Gimp is supposed to be understood as unsympathetic livestock, his victory demonstrates that, sometimes, unlikely people ultimately gain power. On the other hand, if the Gimp is to be understood as a noble sacrifice, his use of force and violence in the fight takes away his opportunity to fulfill his destiny. If that is the case, then another of Vargas Llosa’s themes—the folly of abused power— is depicted. Clearly,’ ‘The Challenge” is a complex story in which characterization and themes emerge from the tension created by irony.
The irony used in portraying the Gimp demonstrates that truth is found in action and that it is dangerous to make snap judgments of people based on their appearance. The reader’s opinion of the Gimp has likely changed somewhat from the beginning of the story, because his actions demonstrate an opposing, though equally valid, reality about his character. Beyond the Gimp’s nickname, physical appearance, and associations with the pig, there is something admirable in his character. He is brave, skilled, and compassionate. These qualities are revealed to the reader not through the narrator’s comments, even though he and the Gimp were once friends, but through the Gimp’s actions.
Vargas Llosa empowers his readers to make decisions about what sort of person the Gimp may or may not be. Regardless of readers’ conclusions, the truth about who he is has little to do with what the Gimp says or what is said about him but instead is found in his actions. This is an important message of’ ‘The Challenge.” What the Gimp appears to be, he is not. He seems to be weakened, slow, and inhuman, yet the fight shows that he is strong, capable, and compassionate yet determined to preserve his honor and his life. On the outside, the Gimp looks like he might be a bad person but after all, he turns out to be rather heroic. In creating a character who is easy to misjudge and difficult to admire even at the end (he wins the fight by killing Justo, the narrator’s friend), Vargas Llosa teaches a lesson about impressions and patience in understanding another person. The author’s use of irony catches the reader off guard and forces him or her to consider complex questions about the Gimp and, by extension, about other people and situations. By showing the reader who the Gimp is, instead of simply telling, Vargas Llosa places demands on the reader that lead to a greater understanding of the Gimp in the end.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Mario Vargas Llosa – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “The Challenge,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.