The Dualistic Nature of the Main Characters in Mario Vargas Llosa's novel “The City and the Dogs”

DOI:  10.55804/jtsu-1987-8583-15-9

The plot of “The City and the Dogs" is guided by the dualism that the title itself depicts, which is enhanced by a system of parallels and contrasts. Using the example of the Leoncio Prado military school, the reader discovers a greater and more bitter reality, which is the reality of Mario Vargas Llosa’s country, Peru, at that time. Two parallel worlds (the school and the city) are evoked by Dante in the novel. Like Dante's characters, the meeting of M.V. Llosa's characters is not forced, but accidental. M.V. Llosa, like Dante in his “Divine Comedy”, describes the actions of characters in hell more than those in a paradise [Martos, 2012]. „Creo que las experiencias traumáticas son mucho más fecundas para un escritor, por lo menos para un escritor moderno, que las experiencias felices. Las experiencias que para mí son más fecundas desde el punto de vista literario tienen que ver con conflictos, traumas, con momentos difíciles, con algún tipo de frustración o desgarramiento; o también de gran exaltación. No son hechos convencionales, esos hechos que no dejan mayor huella en la memoria; son hechos más bien conflictivos y muchas veces traumáticos“ [Llosa, 2015].

The two centres of the novel - the school and the city - function as the microcosmos and the macro cosmos. These are two parallel worlds that simultaneously complement and oppose each other. The school is a metaphor for the city, in particular Lima, where people from all social classes, races and backgrounds gather. The school is dominated by military discipline, the same hypocritical, macho, and hierarchical world that dominates the city. At the same time, the opposition between the school and the city is an innate condition of the novel. The only way to escape from the violent world at school is to go to the city. The main purpose of cadets living in a violent school environment is to gain the right to walk around the city because, unlike the school, they do not have to be abusive in the city [Payne, 1991]. The parallel worlds of the school and the city define the dualistic nature of the novel’s main characters. Closed space is a metaphor for school imprisonment, hellish life, and the open space of the city is a metaphor for freedom. If school is associated with coercion, aggression, violence and punishment and the cadets there are violent, depraved creatures, the city is a means of fulfilling their desires, interacting with friends and family, meeting a loved one, having fun and living a free life where we see the friendly, humane, kind nature of the characters.

Certain episodes of the novel reflect the personal lives of the characters, outside of school or before school, to give the reader a better understanding of the inner world of each of them. The characters are different people in the city and college. For cadets, school is the present and adolescence, and the city is childhood, past and future. Living in a hypocritical school environment forces them to present themselves as different, violent people. This dual nature of the main characters is also mentioned in the Sartrian epigraph of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel: „Kean: Jugamos a ser heroes porque somos indignos y a ser santos porque somos pecadores...“ [Llosa, 1989:4]. Almost every character has a nickname, which again indicates their double life.

Alberto Fernandez, nicknamed the "Poet", has a dual identity. Inside the college, he is an insensitive, rude and quarrelsome teenager, while outside the college he is gentle. He presents himself as a rude and cold person, while in reality, he is sensitive and nostalgic. His inner world is revealed only in the relationship with the “Slave”. It is unknown to the reader whether his phrases are sincere or are said to gain influence. His character is characterized by ambiguity. Some of Alberto Fernandez’ behaviours are unreasonable or unpredictable which is explained by his attempts to adapt to the environment of his school: „Yo me hago el loco, quiero decir el pendejo. Eso también sirve, para que no te dominen“ [Llosa, 1989: 10].

The Poet is a lonely character. He is affected, on the one hand, by the violent system of the school and, on the other hand, by the “circle” to which he does not belong. He has no morals different from his own emotions and instincts. Alberto obeys not his college but his instinctual morality. He is a mediator between the reader and the novel, as most of the work is his narrative. Alberto is the only character the reader can identify with from the beginning.

The formation of Jaguar’s character living in the Bellavista district is due to the influence of the social environment. Jaguar's character is temperamental, flexible and brave. Through his “circle”, he fights violence and injustice, but his struggle is also violent. The main goal of Jaguar at the school is defence. His advantage is his agility and pushy nature. Violent Jaguar is a role model for all cadets in the school, including the Poet: „Me estoy riendo como el Jaguar. ¿Por qué lo imitan todos?” [Llosa, 1989:10].

In the first part of the work, Jaguar is a distinctive but secondary character that the reader always sees from the outside and from afar as a horrible, violent man with unbridled cruelty and evil nature [Cercas, 2012], but at the same time, he is the anonymous voice of the novel that tells his love story towards Teresa from the beginning, which is much stronger than the love of Slave or the Poet.

Ricardo Arana, Slave raised in luxury, is a passive character not skilled at fighting, which leads to his constant harassment and humiliation by the cadets. Obedient, Slave is always a victim. The weak, non-violent nature of Ricardo Arana leaves a “non-masculine” impression on cadets, especially on Jaguar, and causes disgust: „Me das asco. No tienes dignidad ni nada. Eres un esclavo“ [Llosa, 1989:26]. Slave is the only one who fails to adapt to the school environment.

Slave, the victim of domestic violence tells his story through an “internal monologue”. He is the most tragic character in the novel. He was deprived of the right to choose by his family, and the opportunity to reveal his identity - by the college. The school offers him only to take part in violence, which is completely foreign to him. Slave is the only alien and inactive character among the other cadets of the school, moreover, he is a man fighting for love, which he eventually sacrifices himself for. From the very beginning of the book, his feelings and secret love for Teresa are obvious.

Lieutenant Gamboa is the person responsible for the education and conduct of the cadets in the novel. He is part of the school's violent system. Lieutenant Gamboa's goal is to raise a worthy soldier based on strict military discipline. Distinguished by his bravery and fighting history, Gamboa evokes admiration and respect among the cadets. Gamboa, for Jaguar, is the authority:„Gamboa es el más fregado de los oficiales, pero el único que es justo“ [Llosa, 1989:161].

Lieutenant Gamboa's main purpose is to follow the rules of the school, however, at the end of the work, it becomes clear that the prestige and image of the military institution are much more important than the observance of the regulations. He faces a dilemma: to follow the rules or to disobey his superiors, break the rules and abandon his main principle - discipline. In both cases, Gamboa betrays the institution, but only in the first case does he endanger it, so he chooses the second. Gamboa gives up his professional aspirations and moves to Puno, one of the provinces of Peru. Gamboa is the purest and most disappointed hero of the novel. His character expresses the author's main message that in a corrupt society the individual's authentic success lies in failure, however, his fight against the injustice and his attempt to change the violent environment for the better, equals the victory.

The protagonist of the novel is, first, Slave, then Alberto, and finally, it turns out that the real hero is Jaguar. The main turning point in the novel is the change of Jaguar’s character. If at the beginning of the work the reader has a negative attitude towards him, at the end of the novel they admire him. Despite their different morals and fighting ability, all the main characters of the novel can be victims and, at the same time, heroes. Each of them carries both negative and positive qualities. Although the protagonists of the novel are deprived of the right to choose their place in society, the author gives them a moral choice.


The first part of the novel describes a crime committed in a military academy with disciplined training. We also get to know the characters and their living environment, the social classes of the characters, the families, their memories and the social role. Most of the characters in the first part of the novel evoke negative feelings in the reader. M.V. Llosa portrays the characters, in accordance with their living environment, as violent, depraved, unjust creatures.

Part I


Table 1



Negative Perception

Positive Perception


Tries to win the heart of his friend’s love

Talented, skilled, dreamy, sensitive, is not evil, can be a good friend


Criminal, thief, murderer, avenger, oppressor, abuser

Hates betrayal


Unable to fight, adapting to the position of the oppressed, telling on a classmate out of personal interest






Sensitive, alienated, in love

Lieutenant Gamboa

Participates in a violent and immoral upbringing system established in a military academy

Earns the respect of cadets

The second part of the novel describes the knot developed after the crime - namely, the murder of  Slave. The author emphasizes the indifference shown by school management, avoiding liability, and attempting to cover up the crime. The crime changes the characters of the novel. That is why they reveal unexpected behaviors and actions for the reader, which are influenced by the events that took place after the tragedy. 

Part II

Table 2


Negative Perception

Positive Perception


Tells on Jaguar

Fights for justice, is affected by his conscience, in order to “correct the crime” he apologizes, on the one hand, to Slave and Jaguar, on the other.


Continues violence

Forgives Poet for his betrayal, does not rat out a real traitor after being accused of betrayal by "circle"

Lieutenant Gamboa

In order to maintain the prestige of the school, he prefers silence and stops fighting

Fights for justice and even opposes a corrupt military system

In the epilogue, new details about the characters become known to the reader. More precisely, the identity of the culprit and the final fate of the main characters after graduating from Leoncio Prado Military School. The choices made by the characters give the reader a final idea of each character.


Table 3


Negative Perception

Positive Perception


Ambitious, puts class prejudices above love, becomes a member of the community of which he was a victim




Is a doomed, poor, orphaned child, repents and confesses to crime, ends a violent, criminal life, starts a family with his loved one, and continues to live an honest life

Lieutenant Gamboa


Chooses the morals that his dream military career is sacrificed for, moves away from a prestigious military institution, and chooses a solitary, peaceful life

The analysis of the main characters of the novel “The City and the Dogs” revealed the characteristics of their dualistic nature. It is obvious that only at the end of the novel does the reader learn which “self" this or that character develops, positive or negative. The choice that determines the future life of each character shows the true face of their personality. At the end of the novel, Alberto no longer has the moral fluctuations and artistic inclinations that distinguished him during his school years [Kristal, 2012]. The novel develops the idea that the school is a microcosmos of a dictatorial regime and hinders the free development of cadets, although the main focus is on the after-school life and on the role the school environment played in the lives of the main characters. In the case of Poet, no radical change is observed. He is determined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a member of a  machoistic society the victim of which he falls.  Slave who has lost or never had morals [Cueto, 2012] is a victim of his own weakness - his life ends fatally. Slave is the only character who adapts to fate and does not attempt to change reality. The paradox of human nature is best revealed in Jaguar. At the end of the book, we learn that even a person who is abusive, oppressive and criminal can feel great love. Jaguar’s choice makes him the main character of the novel, he tries to forget about his criminal past and chooses a quiet life with a loved one. As for Lieutenant Gamboa, he is a character who stands guard over order, discipline and morality, he is a hero who fails in the face of a corrupt system, yet his choice, to stand on the side of justice, makes him a winner. Gamboa in the novel embodies a worthy failure - he fails, but his failure is a triumph. Alberto is his counter-figure - he achieves triumph, but in reality, his triumph is a failure. If revealing Jaguar’s past and subsequent choices evoke noble feelings in the reader, Alberto’s final transformation is a transformation from an indifferent individual to an immoral one and explains the main theme of the novel: the triumph of a corrupt institution that promotes a society with unhealthy morals.


Cercas J.
Cercas J., La Pregunta de Vargas Llosa,
Cueto A.
Cueto A., „La Ciudad y Los Perros“: El Itinerario Moral, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Kristal E.
Kristal E., Refundiciones Literarias y Biográficas en La Ciudad y Los Perros,
Llosa M. V. Cruz. J.
Interview of Juan Cruz with M. V. Llosa, Mario Vargas Llosa: “No tengo talento natural. Me cues-ta escribir”, El País
Llosa V.M.
Llosa V.M., „La ciudad y los perros“, Biblioteca de bolsillo
Martos M.
Martos M., La Ciudad y Los Perros: Áspera Belleza,
Payne J. A.
Payne J.A., Anima Rejection and Systemic Violence in "La ciudad y los perros", JSTOR