José Arcadio Buendía
The patriarch of the Buendía family, José Arcadio begins as an energetic and enterprising visionary who founds the town of Macondo and ends as a madman who has to be tied to a tree. Just like everything in this novel, it just goes from bad to worse.
You can get a pretty good sense of what kinds of things this novel is interested in – at least as far as people are concerned – just by taking a look at this guy. It's no accident that José Arcadio Buendía is a basically an amalgam of all the Buendía men who will come after him.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Much of the novel is fixated on the way time is circular, the way history repeats itself, and the way lost memories and knowledge cause the same mistakes to happen over and over again. On a small scale, that tendency to repeat without improving or learning is manifested again and again in José Arcadio Buendía.
Check out the way he responds to the various inventions that the gypsies bring to town. Regardless of what the thing is, and regardless of how impractical or silly it is, he wants to immediately weaponize whatever new technology he comes across. Over and over again, he tries to craft overly complex, useless weaponry, only to have every project fail.
Genius or Madman?
Sure, the weapon thing is small potatoes and really only takes up a few paragraphs of the novel. But the question we have to ask ourselves after finding this little pattern is this: does this circularity carry over into other parts of José Arcadio Buendía's life?
Shmoop will throw out one possibility that also points outward to some of the other themes of the novel. We know from the get-go that José Arcadio Buendía is powerful, manly, and super-dynamic. But his boundless energy is alternately focused on useful and totally wacko outlets.
First, he sets out to create a town from nothing, tirelessly setting up houses and streets and helping everyone else. But then he gets way into alchemy and gets it completely backward, turning actual gold into… well, a hot mess. Literally. Then he goes back to being important in town planning. Then he goes nuts again trying to get a photo of God. See the circularity?
Through these obsessive shifts we can ask another question: what is the value of exertion? Is there some inherent benefit to being energetic? Where do we draw the line between useful and useless activity?