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It's a new century – hurray! – and the city celebrates with another series of public works projects organized by Dr. Urbino. The most memorable of these is the first journey in a hot air balloon.
Dr. Urbino and his wife are among the passengers who climb aboard the balloon, which is to deliver the first airmail to San Juan de la Ciénaga, a city to the northeast.
Asked to deliver his final words to the public, in case of a disaster, Dr. Urbino states that "the nineteenth century is passing for everyone except us" (5.2).
Florentino, lost in the crowd, agrees with Dr. Urbino, thinking especially that this is not a suitable journey for a woman, and particularly a woman as old as Fermina Daza. How 19th-century of him.
The balloon sails over the Great Swamp, and the passengers look down on the ruins of the colonial city Cartagena de Indias, which had been abandoned due to the cholera plague.
Next the balloon passengers get a bird's eye view of the lake dwellings of Trojas de Cataca. Children jump into the lake to recover the supplies that "the beautiful lady with the feathered hat" (presumably Fermina Daza) throws to them from the balloon.
The balloon later flies over an area of banana plantations that is strangely silent and still. The pilot notes that the people below seem dead, and another passenger remarks that a plague of cholera must be ravaging the villages of the Great Swamp. Dr. Urbino notes, though, that all of the dead bodies have a wound on the back of their neck.
Shortly afterwards, the balloon lands on a beach, where the citizens of San Juan de Ciénaga are waiting to welcome them.
Fermina wants to visit her hometown, but no one is allowed to go there because of plague.
The pilot is unable to make the balloon take off again, so the party is taken on muleback to a dock and they return home three days later.
Fermina has memories of passing through the city with her mother. Her father, when he was alive, had insisted she couldn't have remembered these things because they had happened before her birth. So Fermina seems to have a mystical connection to the area that has to do with her mother.
Back in their home city, Fermina participates in a cycling expedition sponsored by her husband. She, scandalously, wears trousers. Welcome to the 20th century.
Florentino pines some more for Fermina.
While eating his dinner alone one evening, Florentino glimpses in a large mirror the reflection of Fermina sitting at a table with her husband and two other couples. He watches her for two hours as she eats her dinner and later convinces the owner of the restaurant to sell him the mirror. Stalkerish, or sweet?
Everyone who's anyone attends the christening of the first freshwater vessel built at the local shipyards. Florentino, as first Vice President of the R.C.C., represents Uncle Leo XII.
It's like the Oscars. Suddenly, Fermina and her husband show up. Fermina's wearing gold high heels and fox fur, and everyone gets really excited. Imagine Angelina and Brad getting out of their limo and walking onto the red carpet.
Dr. Urbino and Fermina shake hands with all of the officials in the reception line. When it finally comes time for Fermina to greet Florentino, she hesitates for a moment. That's how he suspects that she still likes him.
Florentino gets excited about this prospect and begins to hang out around Fermina's house, hoping to see her.
Interlude: The narrator explains the setting for us and explains why it might be more difficult for Florentino to stalk Fermina unobserved this time around. Fermina's new neighborhood of La Manga is on an island, separated from the main city by a brick bridge. It houses the city's first electrical plant, an annoyance which the city's new rich must put up with until the boiler of the plant explodes in a bizarre accident. The houses aren't very conducive to illicit love affairs, being hidden behind leafy gardens and lacking the old-fashioned protruding balconies of the colonial buildings. (Read more about this in our discussion of the novel's "Setting.")
Florentino develops the habit of taking a carriage ride after work every day, passing by Fermina's house and hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He often sees her children or her husband, but in a year never once sees Fermina.
One rainy day, Florentino's carriage gets stuck in the mud in front of Fermina's house. Florentino panics, not wanting Fermina to see him soaking wet and standing in mud up to his knees. A servant from the Urbino household offers him an umbrella and lets him wait on the terrace, but Florentino is too embarrassed to enjoy his good fortune.
Florentino continues to stalk Fermina, hanging out outside the Cathedral where she and her family used to attend Mass. Unbeknownst to him, they now attend a newer, more fashionable church in their own neighborhood. When he finally realizes this, he starts attending the new church, but still doesn't see Fermina.
One Sunday, Florentino visits the cemetery adjacent to the new church and discovers Dr. Urbino's elaborate family tomb. Fermina's gravestone is already there, next to her husband's, with an epitaph that reads: "Together still in the peace of the Lord" (5.23).
Fermina doesn't attend any public ceremonies for the rest of the year. Rumors start to circulate that she is in Panama, hiding a terminal disease.
Florentino goes to the Parish Café in hopes of encountering Fermina's father, Lorenzo Daza, to inquire about her health. He learns that Lorenzo has died and resigns himself to never knowing the truth of Fermina's disappearance. He figures she is languishing in a hospital in Panama.
In actuality, Fermina is living on a ranch with her cousin Hildebranda Sánchez because of a marital dispute. She and her husband keep up a formal correspondence, but, though they're both sorry for the split, they can't figure out how to make up.
Dr. Urbino blames the two-year separation on his wife's habit of smelling the family's clothes to see if they needed to be laundered. In this way, Fermina smelled an unfamiliar scent on her husband's clothing one day and learned that he was having an affair with another woman.
Fermina snoops in her husband's office to try to discover the identity of the mystery woman among his notes. She notices strange changes in her husband's behavior, including his refusal to take Communion, a thing he had not failed to do since his first Communion at the age of eight.
One afternoon on the terrace, Fermina confronts her husband. Dr. Urbino realizes with relief that his wife has discovered the secret of Miss Barbara Lynch.
Dr. Urbino had met Miss Barbara Lynch four months earlier at hospital, where she was a patient. The doctor memorizes her name and address and passes by her house that afternoon. Miss Barbara Lynch invites the doctor to have a cup of coffee with her and he accepts.
Miss Barbara Lynch, divorcée and Doctor of Theology, lives with her father, a black Protestant minister who evangelizes to the poor villages in the swamp. Doctor Urbino promises to return the next day to give her a more thorough check-up, if you know what we mean…
The next day, Dr. Urbino palpates Miss Barbara's internal organs. Yes, García Márquez actually uses that phrase.
The two continue with their clandestine affair, hoping not to get caught by Miss Barbara's father, the schoolchildren across the street, or Dr. Urbino's coachman. They always make love in a hurry, without taking off their clothes. It's ultimately not very satisfying for anybody.
Dr. Urbino starts to suffer from hypochondria. He decides that what he needs in order to feel better is for someone to understand him. He opens up to his wife.
Back to the day that Fermina confronts her husband about the affair: he doesn't respond and goes back to his reading. She finishes her sewing and goes to prepare dinner. Dr. Urbino decides not to go see Miss Lynch that day and instead goes to confession. He never sees Miss Barbara Lynch again.
That night, Dr. Urbino confesses everything to his wife. She is most angry about the fact that he had told his confessor the truth before he had told her. Fermina is certain that the gossip will spread all over town.
For Fermina, the most humiliating part of the affair is the fact that Miss Barbara Lynch is a mulatta, a woman of mixed black and white descent. In her fury, Fermina reveals racist prejudices that, though unsurprising for a person of her class and background and time period, are nonetheless offensive.
Fermina and Dr. Urbino make arrangements for Fermina to go stay with her cousin. Dr. Urbino is certain that his wife will return as soon as her rage has abated, but Fermina is certain that her rage will never end.
Fermina enjoys her trip back to her hometown, but can't find her old family house. The place has changed a lot. For one thing, there are dead bodies everywhere, showing signs of cholera.
Fermina makes a trip to the old plantation of San Pedro Alejandrino to visit the place where the Liberator, one of the founding fathers of the nation, had died. Fermina is so depressed by the inglorious conditions of his death, and by the changes that have occurred in the villages she knew as a child, that she covers her face with her mantilla so she can remember the area as it once had been.
Fermina is shocked when she sees her cousin, Hildebranda, and realizes that they've both gotten old. Fermina only leaves the ranch to go to Mass on Sundays with the grandchildren of her old friends.
After two years of country living, Dr. Juvenal Urbino decides to come to the ranch for his wife. Fermina is in the kitchen preparing eggplant when he arrives. She's overjoyed that he has come, but is determined to make him suffer.
Back in the city, Florentino Ariza is at the movies one day with Leona Cassiani, when he hears the voice of his beloved, Fermina, coming from the seat directly behind his. He thanks God that she is alive and has returned to the city. When the movie ends, he realizes he has never been so close to her for so long. At the film's end, when the two couples stand up to greet each other, Florentino is shocked by how the past two years have aged Fermina.
As Fermina and her husband leave the theater, Florentino is disturbed to see that she is very feeble and must lean on Dr. Urbino's arm. She stumbles at the door.
Invigorated by his meeting with Fermina, Florentino walks Leona Cassiani home. When they get there, he invites himself in for a brandy and tries to make a move on her. Leona rebuffs his advances, explaining that he's not the man she's been waiting for.
The man Leona has been waiting for is actually an anonymous brute who raped her on a jetty when she was a young girl. Leona has been looking for him ever since.
At this point, Florentino's only 56, but by the standards of the day, he's an old man. He spends a lot of time worrying about his mortality. This goes on for several pages.
When he begins to lose his hair, Florentino tries every anti-baldness remedy he can, but nothing works. He even tries wearing a wig for a while, but doesn't feel comfortable wearing a dead man's hair.
Along with his hair, Florentino also loses his teeth. Suffering from toothaches, Florentino goes to see a dentist, who decides to take out all of Florentino's teeth in order to prevent future infection. Florentino doesn't object, because he thinks that having false teeth will be more hygienic and attractive.
Florentino's Uncle Leo XII advises the dentist on the production of Florentino's new false teeth, having lost a couple of pairs himself over the rail of a riverboat.
The dental surgery happens at around the time that Florentino's mother dies. With the house empty, Florentino considers using it for his trysts, but decides that, since the house had been built for Fermina, he doesn't want to sully it with other loves. Instead, he uses his office at the R.C.C.
Uncle Leo XII walks in on Florentino during one of his lovemaking sessions at the office and responds only with, "You screw just like your dad!" Later he orders a series of workmen to outfit the office with everything necessary for a discreet rendezvous: bolts on the door, a ceiling fan, and a large couch. Unbeknownst to Florentino, his motivation in doing so is to encourage his heterosexual love affairs – Uncle Leo XII had heard the rumors that his potential successor might prefer to have affairs with men, and this bothered him (5.120).
Uncle Leo XII is a family man who had planned to appoint one of five children as heir to his corporate empire, but the four sons had died and the daughter had "no river vocation whatsoever" (5.121).
Approaching the age of 100, Uncle Leo XII is forced into retirement and Florentino begins to take over his duties. Florentino accompanies Uncle Leo XII to a country retreat, where Uncle Leo XII begins to prepare him to take over the company.
Uncle Leo XII talks to Florentino about politics, which bore Florentino to tears. When it comes to discussing company policy, though, Florentino is on the ball and ready to debate.
Florentino and Uncle Leo XII argue over whether or not to renounce the company's legal monopoly on riverboat navigation. Uncle Leo XII can't bear to let go of a privilege that he and his brothers had worked so hard to attain, while Florentino sees a voluntary renunciation as the only way to progress. Eventually, Uncle Leo XII concedes, on the condition that it not happen before his death.
As he approaches death, Uncle Leo XII expresses his wish that Florentino marry, but doesn't insist.
At the age of 92, Uncle Leo XII acknowledges Florentino as his heir and retires.
At the party that Leona Cassiani gives for him that night, Florentino remembers his countless lovers, both dead and alive, and wants to be with all of them.
Florentino thinks over a long list of lovers, including many we've heard of and some we haven't: Rosalba; the Widow Nazaret; a handful of other widows; a cello player named Ángeles Alfaro who makes Florentino realize that you can be in love with more than one person at once; a famous courtesan named Andrea Varón; and Sara Noriega, the only woman who had ever made him feel bitter.
After assuming the position of President of the R.C.C., Florentino ceases to take on new lovers and only continues to see the ones he has already established. He continues visiting them until he loses interest, or until they die.
By the time Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, Florentino has only one lover left. Her name is América Vicuña and she's only fourteen years old.
América is from a small fishing village and, at the age of twelve, she is sent by her family to the big city to study. Florentino, her blood relative, is also her guardian.
When Florentino first sets eyes on América, even though she's only twelve, he knows that they will be lovers. Though she is very similar to Florentino's memory of Fermina Daza as a young schoolgirl, he doesn't see her as a replacement for his first love. He spends a year winning her trust before leading her "toward his secret slaughterhouse," as García Márquez puts it (5.139).
Because of the difference in their ages, along with their family kinship, no one suspects anything unusual in the relationship between the grandfatherly Florentino and the young schoolgirl.
The two are in bed together on Pentecost Sunday when they hear the bells of the Cathedral. América suggests they are tolling because of the holiday, but Florentino knows they are only rung in mourning for very important and wealthy personages.
The bells remind Florentino of his promise to attend the funeral of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, so he helps América to dress and allows her to help him. In this respect their routine is like that of an old married couple.
The pair make their way to Florentino's car and Florentino asks the driver "for whom the bells [toll]." The driver tells Florentino that the famous doctor has died. When Florentino hears about the circumstances of the doctor's death, he doesn't believe it – how could the most illustrious doctor in the city have died by falling from a mango tree in which he was trying to catch a parrot?
Florentino realizes that the bells could have just as well been tolling for him, and he is terrified.
América sees that Florentino is frightened, and asks what the matter is. Florentino responds that he "would need another fifty years to tell [her] about it" (5.155).
Florentino leaves the girl at school and promises that he would come back for her the next Saturday. Then he goes to the house of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The house is crowded with people, but Florentino manages to make his way to the bedroom, where he sees Fermina sitting dejectedly at the side of her husband's corpse.
Florentino takes the death of the doctor as evidence that fate is on his side, and this gives him the courage to once again proclaim his love and fidelity to Fermina Daza. Though he feels badly about upsetting Fermina, he feels that he had had no choice. The way he sees it, this night "had been forever inscribed in both their destinies" (5.158).
For two weeks, Florentino is ill and sleepless with anticipation. By Friday of the second week, Florentino is convinced that nothing will happen and that his life has been in vain. He has a moment when he feels that this is the end and that he cannot go on.
On Monday, however, Florentino discovers a rain-soaked letter floating in a puddle inside the entrance to his house. He recognizes the handwriting, smells the faint scent of gardenias, and knows it's the letter he's been waiting for for over half a century.