One important aspect of any magical realist text (see "Genre" for a definition) is that the author recounts seemingly incredible events without sounding the least bit surprised, impressed, or spooked. It's essential that the author present these supernatural aspects of the story in a matter-of-fact way, like Gabo does here – otherwise it wouldn't be magical realism. It would be a ghost story.
So in Love in the Time of Cholera, when Fermina has visions of her dead husband or memories of things that happened before she was born, the tone is serious, but not spooky. Ghosts – and death in general – are just another part of life.
Another important aspect of the tone of this novel is that it's not judgmental or critical. After all, when you know someone as well as we come to know these characters, it's harder to criticize them. Fermina, Florentino, and Dr. Urbino are so complex – just like real people – that we can understand why they act the way they do, even when what they do seems wrong.
We at Shmoop tend to think that readers often have two different reactions to Gabo's tendency to suspend judgment of his characters. Either they're frustrated with him for failing to criticize their actions when they seem morally reprehensible or have disastrous consequences. Or they're impressed by his restraint in allowing us to reflect on the characters' actions and decide for ourselves how we want to feel about them. Our opinion has changed over time – what do you think?
Magical realism is a genre in which magical events occur alongside normal, everyday ones. In Love in the Time of Cholera, for example, Fermina might sense the flesh and blood presence of her dead husband – and then go about her day.
Visions, ghosts, parrots whose capacity for speech makes them eerily close to human – all of these things blend with more mundane occurrences in the book, creating a world in which the supernatural seems ordinary, and the ordinary seem...well, more magical.
While García Márquez's works are considered to be some of the preeminent examples of South American magical realism, we have to point out that the term itself is controversial. García Márquez says that he simply writes "the way my grandmother told stories." In other words, some of the things that seem magical from our cultural perspective might not have seemed all that extraordinary to García Márquez's Colombian grandmother. The worry is that when we call this novel "magical," we might be exoticizing it – taking it out of its cultural context and seeing it as foreign, incomprehensible, and therefore magical.
What a weird title. Love generally makes us think of sweet things like puppy dogs and rainbows, right? Not bacterial infections of the small intestine that lead to watery diarrhea and death. We at Shmoop can muster up a lot of enthusiasm for puppies. For gastrointestinal disease, not so much.
Things get even weirder when you consider that, in its original Spanish form, the title has a double meaning. The Spanish word cólera can refer to both the disease cholera, and also to extreme anger or rage. (It's related to the little-used English word choleric, which means wrathful.) The mashup of "love" and "anger" is a little less off-the-wall (after all, we do get pretty angry at the ones we love sometimes), but it's still surprising.
So what's going on here? Why the juxtaposition of these two terms, "love" and "cholera"? Is García Márquez trying to tell us that love is a disease? After all, love certainly causes a great deal of suffering in this novel, sometimes with physical manifestations. Case in point: Florentino Ariza, the most lovesick character in the entire book, vomits gardenias and suffers from chronic intestinal problems.
Of course, the title also contextualizes the love story for us. The lovers love in the midst of calamity – "cholera" alludes both to the plagues that ravage the countryside as well as to the violence of civil wars and unexplained massacres of plantation workers. If, as Florentino tells his septuagenarian (fun word for someone in her 70s) sweetheart, "Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity," then loving "in the time of cholera" is an act worthy of sainthood.
Think about any of the romantic comedies you've ever watched. From When Harry Met Sally to Say Anything to Love Actually, what's the Golden Rule that unites them all? The lovers get together at the end, and everyone's pretty happy about it. Hooray, time for a wedding!
So, when this romance winds up with the lovers getting together, why do we feel so creeped out? Well, consider the fact that in your typical romantic comedy, people don't die. That's a plot point that's usually reserved for tragedies. Yet here, the specter of death is everywhere. Did you notice that the lovers' voyage is taken on a boat that sails down a river of floating corpses? How about that, the entire time, Fermina is freaked out by the story she heard about an elderly couple of secret lovers (just like them!) who was murdered on vacation by their boatman? It kind of adds an element of suspense when, at the very end, Fermina shudders and thinks to herself that the Captain is their "destiny" (6.233).
Remember, this couple is old. When Florentino kisses Fermina for the first time, he's disgusted by the smell of her old, decaying flesh. At the novel's close, we are reminded how close these lovers are to death by the "wintry frost" on Fermina's eyelashes (6.236).
Furthermore, the love between Florentino and Fermina is made tragic because it came at the cost of América Vicuña's suicide. Though Florentino attempts to disavow any responsibility for the young girl's death and to continue with his love affair as though nothing had happened, we're disturbed by the knowledge that it was his intervention in América's life that led to her suicide. We mean, come on! He carries on a sexual relationship with his fourteen-year-old relative and then dumps her for another woman. He was her guardian, for Pete's sake! It's hard to feel warmly towards our hero at this point.
At the novel's close, we're left with a bunch of questions. Are the lovers completely delusional? Are they foolish for ignoring death's approach and the tragedy and violence that surrounds them? Are they selfish for ignoring their responsibilities to others? Or is love greater and nobler when it endures in calamity, as Florentino tells his beloved? Are the lovers to be admired for shaking off society's shackles and stubbornly persisting in the face of so many hardships? Could the answer to all of these questions be "yes"?
García Márquez's descriptions of the setting paints the picture of a complex and colorful city. The setting not only provides a lot of clues about the characters' personalities, interests, and social status (see our discussion of "Homes" under "Character Clues"), but also indicates a particular geographical significance to the story.
The main setting, a city on the banks of the Magdalena River on the Caribbean coast, bears a lot of resemblance to Cartagena, Colombia. Isn't it curious, therefore, that the author never refers to the city by name, but only by the elliptical reference "The City of the Viceroys" – especially when neighboring towns in northeast Colombia, like San Juan de la Ciénaga, are mentioned by name? Descriptions of the ecological decline of the countryside, as well as brief references to civil wars and social violence, suggest that the setting is more than just tangential to the love story presented here. Does the withholding of the city's proper name indicate that the human foibles described in this novel are somehow universal? Or does the social and political context of Colombia make Love in the Time of Cholera a particularly regional story? This, we think, would make a killer paper topic.
Aside from the discussion of different residential neighborhoods, a lot of urban spaces are presented in the book, including the Arcade of Scribes (a less-than-reputable market), a café where men meet to play chess, a transient hotel, the docks of the River Company of the Caribbean, and several cemeteries.
Think about the kinds of spaces that each character inhabits – is it any wonder that, though they are both prominent men in the city, Dr. Urbino and Florentino rarely meet? In what spaces do characters from different social backgrounds come together? It's obvious that Dr. Urbino has a great love for his city and a passion for improving it. Why does Florentino love the city, and how do his movements through the city reflect that love?
Transient spaces are very important in the novel, and a lot of the action of the plot takes place in these liminal zones (that's a fancy way of saying places that people pass through). Think about the significant events that take place in carriages and on riverboats. These tend to serve as places where people make connections or communicate with one another. Dr. Urbino's carriage ride with Hildebranda and Fermina is instrumental in leading to his marriage; their honeymoon cruise across the Atlantic is where they first get to know each other and make love; Florentino loses his virginity on a river cruise, and also makes a commitment never to leave Fermina. Since these spaces of travel are so linked to communication, is it any wonder that Florentino is both a telegraph operator and the director of a riverboat company?
The words I am about to express:
They now have their own crowned goddess.
– Leandro Díaz
This epigraph does just what a good epigraph should do. It makes us say, "Huh? What the heck does this epigraph mean?"
No, seriously. You've probably never heard of Leandro Díaz (we hadn't, when we first picked up this novel). The quote probably doesn't sound very familiar – who is this crowned goddess, anyway? It seems we might need a little outside information to decipher the meaning of this quote. Never fear! We have the power of the Internet at our fingertips.
Thanks to the magic of online search engines, we know that Leandro Díaz is a famous composer of vallenato, a genre of music that originated in the city of Valledupar in northeastern Colombia (coincidentally, the same region that serves as the setting for the novel). Vallenato got its start when cattle-farming minstrels used song as a means of transmitting news and stories from town to town.
That explains why these lines sound so sing-song-y. It also sets the tone for the story we're about to read: "The words I am about to express" is a good introduction, don't you think? It makes us want to sit back, relax, and get ready to listen to the minstrel's ballad. As you read, you'll notice that Florentino refers to the object of his adoration, Fermina, as a "crowned goddess" several times, and even composes a special waltz just for her with that title.
The twisting complexity of this book's plot makes it challenging enough to be plenty interesting. Events don't unfold linearly, so it can be a little tough to keep them straight. As well, characters constantly seem to be changing their minds or revising their opinions on things. So don't worry if you get a little confused. Just sit back and see where the novel takes you.
You may have noticed that the plot of this story doesn't progress in a linear fashion. In fact, García Márquez starts us off pretty near the end of our protagonists' lives, and then spends most of the book filling us in on the backstory. We're left with the feeling that this is all being narrated from some distant point in the future, by someone who keeps getting sidetracked, getting ahead of himself, or remembering an important bit that he left out a few chapters back. The result is a style that's circular, often repetitive, and complex – yet told with such humor and richness of detail that we don't mind hearing any of it out of order or more than once.
The narrator's tendency to get ahead of himself also often leaves us with a sense of foreboding, especially because most of the things that he hints will happen in the future involve death and destruction. He's always sneaking little phrases in, like "until the day of his death" (3.56), that remind us not only that the characters are mortal, but that he knows the exact circumstances of how they'll meet their end. If we pay attention, he'll tell us all about it.
García Márquez's use of imagery and symbolism isn't all that straightforward, but it sure is interesting. Keep in mind that there may be more than one reading of much of the novel's imagery – this author is never going to come right out and say "cholera = love!" He's a lot more subtle than that. Rather than imply a direct symbolic correlation, the imagery acts to open up a discussion. Instead of saying "cholera is like love," for example, García Márquez seems to be asking us, "How is cholera like love?" The ball is in your court, so tell us what you think.
Jeremiah de Saint-Amour's dog, who dies loyally alongside her master, is but the first of many animals that we come across in this novel. Other than the birds (we discuss those in a separate category), we also encounter Fermina's zoo, slaughtered by a rabid German mastiff; a lucky tortoise, considered lucky, we presume, because it survived the massacre; and some unfortunate mules who perish along with their riders on a treacherous journey to the country. These beasts are loyal, lucky, violent, vicious, and victimized – but are they really so different than people? What separates the "scoundrel" of a parrot, who speaks several languages and carries on logical conversations with Dr. Urbino, from human beings? Don't humans and animals ultimately share the same fate?
Are we the only ones who feel a bit nervous about birds after reading this book? After all, here they pretty much always seem to appear when someone is about to die. There's the parrot in Chapter 1, for starters, who lures Dr. Urbino up a tree and to his death. Then there are the perfumed crows in Fermina's childhood home – stinky, morbid creatures who trip the young Dr. Urbino up and cause him to miss an urgent house call, resulting in a man's death. These morbid associations lend a worrisome tone to the descriptions of Florentino's hunt for sexual partners as "hawking" for "frightened little birds." Our fears are founded when Florentino's affair with a "pigeon fancier" (carried out primarily through messages delivered by carrier pigeon) results in the woman's murder.
When "cholera" is in the title of the novel, you figure it's got to be pretty important. As it turns out, it is. Cholera breaks out all over the place in this novel. It's a periodic threat, a cause for exodus (Fermina's family moves to the city while fleeing a cholera epidemic), a cause of death (Dr. Urbino's father dies of cholera), and a constant fear. As such, it motivates a lot of the novel's action.
More than that, cholera is always being associated with love, and not just in the title. As we discover when Florentino falls ill time and time again due to pains of the heart, the "symptoms of love are the same as those of cholera" (2.25). If cholera can be interpreted as a symbol of love in the novel, what does it say about the characters that Dr. Urbino's relationship with the disease is one of purposeful and systematic eradication, while Florentino's is one of suffering?
Our narrator doesn't just jump back and forth between different characters, but also back and forth in time. He (we're calling the narrator a 'he' in this case because the author is a man...you can call it a 'she' if you want to) knows what's going on inside people's heads, as well as what's going on historically and what will happen in the future. Heck, he basically knows everything, which is why we say he's omniscient.
Love in the Time of Cholera is, in a weird way, kind of a whacked-out version of a quest story. The problem is, we're not really sure if we can get behind the hero's journey. Let us explain.
Consider this: Florentino falls in love with Fermina Daza at first sight. He knows, no matter the obstacles, that he has to marry her, or life will be intolerable. In fact, he seems to have some sort of preternatural assurance that the two of them are destined to be together.
OK, so Florentino's "journey" to true-love-wedded-bliss with Fermina Daza doesn't involve very much actual journeying. In fact, it's sort of the anti-journey, since it involves Florentino staying in one place for a really long time, as she marries Dr. Urbino and Florentino waits for the man to kick the bucket. Florentino resolves that "never again would he abandon the city of Fermina Daza" (3.134). Think of Florentino's journey as a temporal one – all he has to do is wait for her husband to die.
After more than fifty years, Dr. Urbino finally dies, and Florentino is free to remind Fermina Daza of his undying devotion to her. Unfortunately, this does not go over as well as he had hoped. Fermina is outraged and kicks him out of her house.
Still, Florentino doesn't give up. He buys a typewriter, learns to type, and then spends a year writing letters to Fermina about his philosophy of love. Eventually, he manages to get her to agree to take a river cruise with him.
On the boat, Florentino finally gets the girl. Though the atrocities of real life – including a society that does not approve of their relationship, Fermina's attachment to her dead former husband, and the suicide of Florentino's teenaged former lover – threaten to intrude on their romantic bliss, Florentino manages to persuade Fermina to sail up and down the river with him forever.
Florentino is majorly crushing on the young and gorgeous Fermina Daza, and he's succeeds in getting her to agree to marry him...eventually. We hate to say it, though, but he seems to like her a little more than she likes him.
Oh, snap! Not only does Fermina totally dump Florentino, but then she marries some other guy. Her new husband, Dr. Urbino, is cute, successful, and wildly popular, to make matters worse. Florentino resolves to wait until the doctor dies so that he and Fermina can be together.
Even though he's promised to always be true to Fermina Daza, Florentino doesn't see why he shouldn't enjoy himself while waiting for Fermina's husband to die. His affairs start to have some dark consequences, however – one woman is robbed while she's making love to him; another is murdered by her jealous husband.
Florentino's grand gesture on the night of Dr. Urbino's death doesn't go so well. Fermina angrily casts him out of the house and basically wishes him dead. Ouch.
Even though Fermina is super-angry with Florentino, he clings to the hope that she might forgive him. He writes her tons of letters, and she doesn't send them back – so that's progress, right?
Fermina does eventually forgive Florentino, and the two grow to be friends and, eventually, lovers. They take a sort of macabre honeymoon together on a riverboat that sails down a river of floating corpses. Florentino finds out that the last of his lovers, the teenage América Vicuña, has killed herself because of his abandonment of her.
Faced with the terrible prospect of returning to reality, Florentino convinces Fermina to cast off all of their wordly obligations and continue sailing up and down the river forever.
Fermina and Florentino fall in love and carry on an illicit correspondence behind her father's back. Lorenzo finds out and takes Fermina away from the city so that she'll forget about Florentino, but they persist in communicating and make plans to marry as soon as she gets back. When she sees Florentino again, however, she realizes she doesn't love him and calls off the wedding. A wealthy, young doctor named Juvenal Urbino courts Fermina, and she ends up marrying him. They go on a honeymoon to Europe and start a family. Florentino, meanwhile, vows never to leave the city of Fermina Daza and to work to become worthy of her.
Fermina and Dr. Juvenal Urbino enjoy a happy marriage, for the most part, though they do have their share of marital conflicts. In the meantime, Florentino has a series of love affairs, all the while maintaining his devotion to Fermina Daza. He begins an affair with a teenage girl that he has promised to chaperone while she lives in the city. He worries about getting old and fears that either he or Fermina might die before Dr. Urbino does, thus preventing them from the happy reunion that he feels is inevitable. Finally, Dr. Urbino does die, but when Florentino professes his undying love to Fermina, she angrily kicks him out of her house.
Florentino changes his approach and writes Fermina a series of letters in a more impersonal and philosophical tone. She appreciates them, and eventually the two become friends. Florentino and Fermina manage to overcome the scruples of her children and take a riverboat cruise together. Though the countryside has been reduced to a wasteland and cholera and political violence have wiped out the coastal villages, the couple's love buzz is impervious to the morbidity of their surroundings. They're wrapped up in a love cocoon. Florentino even suppresses the knowledge that his teenage lover has committed suicide, and that it's probably his fault. When the cruise comes to an end, the couple chooses to continue sailing up and down the river "forever," rather than go back to their former lives in the city and the "horror of real life."