You know how no matter how crazy-sounding the events in this book get, we readers are never really carried along on the insanity train? That's largely due to García Márquez's tone. We feel like we are in safe, confident hands, like tourists being led through the special effects of a war movie. Sure, there are fireballs flying all around, but our guide knows how the contraptions are rigged and he projects his own confidence onto us.
We are never in danger of getting carried away by the grand passions and outsized emotions and obsessions of the characters. It makes for a singular reading experience – maybe a little like watching one of those old Jerry Springer TV shows, where nutcases are throwing chairs at each other, but we sit back and identify with the relaxed voice of the unconcerned host.
But is this kind of detachment a good thing? Let's take a case in point, the section near the beginning of the novel where José Arcadio (II) runs off with the gypsy caravan after Pilar Ternera tells him she's pregnant with his baby:
José Arcadio and the gypsy girl did not witness the decapitation. They went to her tent, where they kissed each other with a desperate anxiety while they took off their clothes. The gypsy girl […] was a languid little frog, with incipient breasts and legs so thin that they did not even match the size of José Arcadio's arms, but she had a decision and a warmth that compensated for her fragility. Nevertheless, José Arcadio could not respond to her because they were in a kind of public tent where the gypsies passed through with their circus things and did their business, and would even tarry by the bed for a game of dice. [… ] A gypsy woman with splendid flesh came in a short time after accompanied by a man… [she] looked at José Arcadio and examined his magnificent animal in repose with a kind of pathetic fervor.
"My boy," she exclaimed, "may God preserve you just as are."
José Arcadio's companion asked them to leave them alone. And the couple lay down on the ground, close to the bed. The passion of the others woke up José Arcadio's fervor. On the first contact the bones of the girl seemed to become disjointed with a disorderly crunch like the sound of a box of dominoes, and her skin broke out into a pale sweat and her eyes filled with tears as her whole body exhaled a lugubrious lament and a vague smell of mud. But she bore the impact with a firmness of character and a bravery that were admirable. José Arcadio felt himself lifted up into the air toward a state of seraphic inspiration […] It was Thursday. On Saturday night, José Arcadio wrapped a red cloth around his head and left with the gypsies. (2.35-37)
So what's happening here? We seem to get a very detailed, almost journalistic approach to describing events. Check out (1) how the language of zoological observation comes in (the girl is a "languid frog" and José Arcadio's penis is a "magnificent animal in repose"); (2) some of the clinical or medical-sounding appraisals (her legs are thinner than his arms, José Arcadio's biological response to the stimulus of hearing other people have sex), and (3) the way the scene is set with a kind of quick anthropological sketch (gypsies live in communal tents, where sleeping, gambling, and sex take place side by side).
These are all techniques to convey description in as neutral a way as possible. Notice, for example, how the tent itself is never described – maybe because any adjectives would give us a sense of poverty or squalor, which would convey judgment. It's less like we're in the tent with these people and more like we're watching them in a nature documentary.
So how are we to make sense of the ethics and morality of the situation? After all, what is being described is as follows: underage (potentially prepubescent) sex, public sex, and the decision of a teenager to run away from home. Are we meant to approve of this? Disapprove? Are we supposed to think all this is normal? Or that it somehow brands José Arcadio as a deviant?
We don't really get any indication of how we, the observers, are supposed to feel about this scene. The only feelings we get are from the point of view of José Arcadio: he is the one who finds the girl "admirable" even though she is so tiny and smells the sad (lugubrious) "mud-like" scent that comes from her.
So what do you think about this kind of detached narrator? Is he avoiding an unpleasant duty or trying to get readers to use their own ethics muscles for a change? Is this neutrality a positive, a negative, or both?
Before we plunge into defining magical realism, let's unpack those two terms. What comes to mind when you think "magical" as a genre of fiction? We immediately flash to The Lord of the Rings and all the fantasy wands-and-dragons stuff it inspired. You know, a full-on magical world, where nothing is like our own universe, and people thumb their noses at the laws of physics and biology because they can.
Now, when you think "realist" fiction, what pops into your head? Maybe something along the lines of Tolstoy's War and Peace or Eliot's Middlemarch. You know, where real people with real feelings and actions are described faithfully to show us what our world is really like. Really.
When you mash these two genres together, you end up with the sparkly gem that is magical realism. To get a sense of what's different about it, let's take an example from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Remember that terrible rainstorm in the middle of the novel, right after the banana company massacre? When it rains, nonstop, every single day, for five years straight? Obviously the five-year rainstorm is totally fantastical, since it can't happen in real life without breaking the laws of meteorology.
In a purely magical book, how would this rain be dealt with? The characters would probably have to fight back against it with magic, possibly setting out on a quest to seek some magical restorative item. When the reverse magic was finally activated, the rain would most likely have had no particular effect – magic tends to be easily undone.
But check out how this novel treats the results of the rainstorm. We get exactly what would happen to a real place if it were under that much water for that long. The characters are wet and don't want to go outside. They have no idea what to do to get food, since no crops are growing and all the animals are dying from hunger. The buildings, roads, and everything manmade is completely destroyed. The magic is treated as just a straight-up fact of life. That's the combination of magic and reality that defines this genre and makes it awesome.
Historic changes have always given rise to new literary genres. In the eighteenth century, with the rise of democracy, fiction began to concern itself with regular people rather than just noble or royal characters. In the nineteenth century, the steady rise of industrial production and scientific inquiry resulted in the new genres of the detective story and science fiction. In any case, magical realism is no different. You might say that there was a sudden mid-century sense that reason had stopped functioning and that the world was brutally chaotic and random. (The two World Wars might have something to do with this.)
Is there a similar transformation taking place today? Is the non-linear, hyperlinked nature of the Internet being reflected in the kinds of fiction we produce? Or is there an opposite reaction to reach back to an older, more ordered kind of narrative as a way to get away from this aspect of modern life? Can you think of some examples?
If this thing isn't a family drama, we don't know what is. Seriously, could this family be any more dysfunctional and self-destructive? They'd have to be just full-on hacking each other up with machetes or something to top the kinds of damage they inflict on each other and themselves in this novel. And that wouldn't really be such a great book, would it?
The novel chronicles several generations of a family, from its hopeful and optimistic rise to the depressing and mostly self-inflicted fall that the family suffers as each successive generation descends further and further into selfish and narcissistic behavior. We see the qualities of parents reflected in their children, usually twisted into increasingly demented versions of those traits. When new people come into the family, instead of injecting new blood and ideas into the mix, they are infected by the insanity that reins over the house.
Finally, of course, the novel is a tragedy. In the strictest, most formal sense of this word as a literary term, everyone who appears in the novel comes to a terrible, grisly end, usually as a result of their own correctible flaws. By the last page, every character we have met is dead.
The novel is also a tragedy in the looser definition of the word, in that it's one long account of wasted potential. As we watch the way the energetic and purposeful ambitions of each family member morph into useless, repetitive, and usually meaningless activity, we can't help but feel sad for the loss of human power that the book describes.
On the surface, the title – One Hundred Years of Solitude – seems pretty clear. The novel is set in the fictional town of Macondo, a place that's totally isolated from the rest of Colombia by swamps, mountains, and jungles. Eventually technology reaches even this tiny place, but it takes a while: one hundred years, give or take a few.
But that's just the surface, and we here at Shmoop always come armed with shovels. Check out how García Márquez chooses the word "solitude" rather than "isolation" or "remoteness." They all kind of mean the same thing, but when you think "solitude" you think of one person, not a whole town. So the title can also be read as an armchair diagnosis of many of the members of the Buendía family, who all kind of exist together but are emotionally disconnected.
A little more digging and we can think about the timeframe of the title. Why a century? Well, it's a nice round number, and it highlights the huge transformation Colombia went through from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Check out the "Setting" section for more on this.
The ending of this novel kind of feels like one of those snake-eating-its-own-tail symbols. (Fun fact: that symbol is called an ouroboros). Think about it: what's the most annoying thing about coming to the end of a book? If you're like us, it's that you've invested all this emotional energy into these characters, and suddenly they're gone. After getting all caught up in their personalities, stories, and feelings, you're just cut off, cold turkey.
Novelists have all kinds of ways of dealing with the ending problem. There's the time-tested trick of the epilogue that sums up the rest of the main characters' lives. Check out pretty much any Dickens novel, for an example of the mega-happy summary, or the final Harry Potter book. The idea is that readers will rest easy knowing that, after all that commotion (spoiler alert!) Harry and Ginny go on to make beautiful red-headed babies together. Mystery novels do a version of this when they reveal the criminal, the details of the crime, and the punishment. Then there's the Shakespearean trick of tying up loose ends by offing all the main characters. (Think of the bloody ending of Hamlet, which ends with five corpses on the stage, neatly resolving the plot.) A more recent move is to just let things end in midair – sometimes even in mid-sentence, like in Kafka's The Castle.
But even Shakespeare or Kafka couldn't resist hinting at a future. At the very end of Hamlet, Fortinbras steps up from the sidelines as the probable new king. And even Kafka's half-finished sentence suggests that there's more to come. One Hundred Years of Solitude takes this feeling and turns it completely on its head.
How does the novel end? Basically, every single character we have been introduced to is dead or gone. Of the last generation of Buendías, one is murdered by a gang of oversexed teenagers, another hemorrhages to death after childbirth, and a third is killed by a hurricane. When we do get that most universal symbol of the future – a baby, born right at the end of the novel to the last two Buendías – it's abandoned and eaten by fire ants.
Okay so maybe the Buendías are doomed, but what about the rest of the people we've met? There's a whole town outside their crazy family, right? Not so much. The novel's final move is to destroy the whole town by a hurricane, leaving a completely flat, empty space with no sign that there was ever anything there. García Márquez basically takes a giant eraser and wipes the whole slate clean. Nothing in the world of the novel will continue to exist once we've finished reading it. (That means no sequel, sorry.)
So what do you think about this way of wrapping things up? Does it provide some of the same satisfaction that neat endings of fairy tales or mystery novels do? Is it depressing to experience this level of closure? Shocking?
García Márquez isn't writing a literal history of Colombia, but the events of the book mirror actual history fairly closely. So it helps to know the basics about what was going on at the time.
After the Bolivarian revolution of the 1810s (named after its leader, Simon Bolivar), the Spanish colonies in Latin America were liberated, and the northern part of South America became a giant quasi-country that was trying to figure out how to be an independent state. By the 1850s, pieces of it had splintered off to become Venezuela and Ecuador, and we ended up with what today we know and love as Colombia.
A lot more internal squabbling followed, which led to full-out war. The last part of the 19th century was basically one long civil war, with just a few pockets of peace breaking out now and again. Mainly, the issues were between Conservatives (which believed in more religion, less sex, more social repression, less welfare state) and the Liberals (no church in government, socialism and progressive values for all). In the book, this all matches up pretty neatly with Colonel Aureliano Buendía's radicalization and revolutions.
This ongoing conflict died down a bit under the influence of the good ol' US of A, which flooded Colombia with money in the early 1910s and 1920s to create the Panama Canal in the service of American trade interests. This flood of money ripped off another chunk of Colombia: a piece that became Panama.
But US government money wasn't the main problem. The main problem was the United Fruit Company, which piggy-backed onto the US government's involvement to start a kind of corporate colony for growing bananas. They weren't technically in control of the government, but when a large corporation spends a ton of money in a relatively poor country, guess what – it gets a lot of influence with the local officials.
So yeah, long story short, there really was a banana worker strike, and there really were about 2,000 peaceful strikers exterminated by Colombian army soldiers. It's not really clear how much collusion there was between the army and the United Fruit Company (you can probably imagine that no one was too psyched to take responsibility for that particular event), but there was obviously some. Obviously, García Márquez recreates all of this history through the eyes of José Arcadio Segundo, who survives the massacre.
After the United Fruit Company packed up and went home, the civil wars flared up again. This time, although the fight was basically the same – Liberals vs. Conservatives – the weapon of choice was assassination. In a period of about twenty years, about 200,000 people were assassinated. There's no exact recreation of this in the novel, but we get some hints in the way the seventeen Aurelianos are hunted down and assassinated. Also key to understanding this history is the book's idea that the civil wars will never stop unless someone has the good sense to remember the past.
The Buendías are wildly numerous and reproductive. We watch them emerge from seemingly the dawn of time itself, and their shared experiences manage to cover pretty much every major historical event in the history of Colombia after it gained independence from Spain. The family we come to know as individuals can be taken as symbols of a whole culture and country.
Why would García Márquez transform his characters into an allegory of Colombia? Well, it might help to take a broader view of the novel's context. García Márquez was one of a small group of writers from all over the world (also including Italo Calvino in Italy, Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, and Mikhail Bulgakov in Russia, to name a few) who felt that realism was just not up to conveying the total insanity of the middle of the twentieth century.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, they created a new genre, magical realism. The main way this genre works is by keeping the narrative realistic while at the same time having characters or events break the physical rules of our actual universe. And while these rules are being broken, the characters react as though nothing were out of the ordinary. (Check out "Writing Style" for more on this.)
Why does it make sense to write about the twentieth century by having crazily disruptive, irrational things intersect with normal life? There are many who point to a sudden mid-century sense that reason had stopped functioning and that the world was brutally chaotic and random. (Hint: those two World Wars might have something to do with this.)
In the novel, we are watching the formation of a town. Unless you're playing SimCity or Monopoly, this is probably one of the more boring geopolitical processes to observe. So to spice up our fun quotient, the town becomes almost another character in the book – changing, growing, and eventually dying alongside the humans who live inside it.
Think about the progression. We begin with the first settlement, which is described in language borrowed from the Book of Genesis in the Bible – particularly the part where Adam gets to walk around the Garden of Eden and name all the stuff he sees.
Then we get the introduction of technology, which is brought to Macondo by the traveling pack of gypsies, who are just as happy to demonstrate magnets and astrolabes as they are flying carpets and alchemy kits. (Some of these things work and some don't).
Quickly following that is the intrusion of the federal government, in the form of Don Apolinar Moscote, the mayor, and eventually, actual armed troops.
And finally, the last ingredient in the mix is a multinational corporation, the banana company, which spends enough money to get a lot of clout in the Macondo but isn't above a nefarious stratagem or two.
Combine, mix, and stir, and you've got yourself a temporarily prosperous city. So what happens to make it all fall apart? How would Macondo be different if it had never grown as big as it gets? Which of the elements we just mentioned is the most dangerous or damaging?
There's actually a pretty long tradition of books featuring houses with imaginary rooms, imaginary libraries, or collections of imaginary objects. For imaginary rooms, check out the various versions of the Bluebeard story, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, and Kafka's The Castle. For imaginary libraries or books, there's Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Rabelais's Gargantua and Pentagruel, and G.R.R. Martin's newest entry in his Song of Ice and Fire series.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude the Buendía house expands outward without ever giving us a very good sense of how big it is, what it looks like, or what its layout might be. How close are Rebeca and José Arcadio (II)'s bedrooms, for example? Does everyone sleep in his own room or do people share bedrooms? Is there only that one bathroom where the tile can be peeled away enough to sneak in from the outside? We really never know what the house is like.
Inside the house is the very mysterious room where Melquíades died and some essence of him was preserved. To some people the room seems immaculate; to others it's a centuries-old mess; and to some extra-special people, Melquíades himself can appear there to share his wisdom and knowledge.
We have a whole library of the writings Melquíades left behind, sealed in some kind of multiple encoding – coded lines of Spanish put out of order, somehow translated or transliterated into Sanskrit, and then written on crumbling manuscripts that fall apart when touched.
Basically, there's a lot going on in this house, and there's no way to figure it all out.
This isn't such a tough read, truth be told. The language and setting are modern, so you don't have to shift your perspective to get into a historical mindset. The main difficulty is the fact that so many of the characters have the same names. There's a very good reason for this: George Santayana said that people who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But when you've got three Aureliano's running around, things can get confusing. By and large, though, García Márquez is very clear about who is who, and most characters get nicknames that stick with them throughout the novel. You also get a handy family tree to refer back to when the going gets tough.
Reading this book is sometimes a little bit like being sung to sleep by a soft lullaby, or lying on a raft and softly rocking on small waves. García Márquez has a lilting style, with long and very descriptive sentences that seem to go on forever. Within each sentence, he plays with mood, verb tense, and piles on adjective after adjective, all to keep up the back-and-forth motion of smooth and flowing words.
Well, that's how the English translation reads, at least. It's obviously supposed to be as faithful and exact a translation of the Spanish as possible, but still, languages are not completely equivalent and – unless we read Spanish – we have no way of knowing exactly how the original sounds. But still, check out this description of the first time that guy who kills himself over Remedios the Beauty meets her:
Úrsula, who shuddered at the disquieting beauty of her great-granddaughter [Remedios the Beauty] had succeeded in keeping her off the streets unless it was to go to mass with Amaranta, but she made her cover her face with a black shawl. The most impious men, those who would disguise themselves as priests to say sacrilegious masses in Catarino's store, would go to church with an aim to see, if only for an instant, the face of Remedios the Beauty, whose legendary good looks were spoken of with alarming excitement throughout the swamp. It was a long time before they were able to do so, and it would have been better for them if they never had, because most of them never recovered their peaceful habits of sleep. The man who made it possible, a foreigner, lost his serenity forever, became involved in the sloughs of abjection and misery, and years later was cut to pieces by a train after he had fallen asleep on the tracks. From the moment he was seen in the church, wearing a green velvet suit and an embroidered vest, no one doubted that he came from far away, perhaps from some distant city outside of the country. Attracted by the magical fascination of Remedios the Beauty. […]
[After] he was seen in the church everybody took it for granted that a silent and tense duel had been established between him and Remedios the Beauty, a secret pact, an irrevocable challenge that would end not only in love but also in death. On the sixth Sunday the gentleman appeared with a yellow rose in his hand. He heard mass standing, as he always did, and at the end he stepped in front of Remedios the Beauty and offered her the solitary rose. She took it with a natural gesture, as if she had been prepared for that homage, and then she uncovered her face and gave her thanks with a smile. That was all she did. Not only for the gentleman, but for all the men who had the unfortunate privilege of seeing her, that was an eternal instant. (9.31-32)
Right off the bat, we can see the shifting back and forth in time. This is being narrated from the future, when the events described have already happened. But then by bringing in Úrsula's concerns, the story reaches back into the past (Úrsula has always worried about Remedios' beauty). The story then flashes forward to an alternate future – a future in which no one sees her face and all those dudes won't end up losing sleep over it. Finally, it projects out into the future of the plot itself, revealing what ends up happening to the foreign guy (a gruesome train-track death).
Now check out the extreme specificity of the descriptions we get. We see exactly what everyone is wearing (Remedios' black shawl, the foreigner's suit, the guys making fun of Catholicism at the local brothel), the exact movements the characters make (Remedios' "natural gesture" and her smiling instead of saying thanks out loud, the foreigner standing rather than sitting during mass and the way he steps out in front of Remedios instead of catching up to her to give her the rose), the precise timing of the events (he gives her the rose on "the sixth Sunday", not just a few weeks later). All of this helps elevate what would seem to be a pretty trivial moment – a guy gives a girl a flower and she smiles – to an event that all of space-time has been building up to since the dawn of time. Pretty cool, right?
There's a long tradition of books within books – novels that feature a character writing a long work as part of the plot, or even novels that are set up as if they are the work of one of the characters within the text. Many first-person books have been packaged as if their author is merely editing some manuscript she ran across somewhere – like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. As for characters writing along as the reader reads through the book, there's Nabokov's Lolita, which is being written by Humbert Humbert as we are reading it, and Douglas Adams's A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which keeps being updated as the novel goes on.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, it turns out that Melquíades' writings are basically the very novel we're reading. And, we might actually be reading Melquíades' writings alongside the last surviving Buendía, Aureliano (II). Head rush alert.
One of the most important themes of the novel is the way personal history and political history are constantly repeating themselves. Or if not exactly repeating, then at least "rhyming" with itself, as our old friend Mark Twain put it. One clever way García Márquez gets this across is to continuously recycle a handful of names for many, many characters down through many generations.
At one point, Úrsula suggests that all the men named José Arcadio are brawny, while all the Aurelianos are brainy, but this is kind of beside the point (and not even particularly true). More interesting is not just the repetition of the names but how fated and completely inescapable these names seem to be.
Several times in the novel, characters want to break the naming traditions but are entirely unable to or are prevented from doing so. Amaranta Úrsula wants to name her baby Rodrigo only to be outvoted by Aureliano (II) who names him Aureliano (III). Fernanda actually names her daughter Renata only to have everyone call her Meme, a diminutive of Remedios. And Meme refuses to name her child anything at all, only to have him called Aureliano (II) in honor of the family. All these characters are fated to share the same names and fated to lead horrible, doomed lives. Yikes, that's depressing.
Amaranta wears a black bandage around her hand for her whole life. What does it represent? Actually, the bandage's symbolism changes throughout Amaranta's life.
She first puts it on after she drives Pietro Crespi to suicide and burns her hand on the stove as penance. So at first, the bandage seems to stand for her remorse about her actions.
But as she continues through life, never taking it off, the bandage starts to become a kind of misplaced armband – you know, the kind members of political youth movements strap on to show how committed they are to some cause. In her case, it's a commitment to virginity and obstinacy in the face of Colonel Gerineldo Márquez trying to date her.
This novel is committed to the idea of fate. The way the writing weaves back and forth in time and events are constantly foreshadowed reinforces the idea that everything that happens is meant to happen.
This is a pretty cool way of avoiding the feeling that the author is forcing the reader's hand. Think about it: usually when you meet a new character in a book, that person is going to become an important part of the plot. In this novel, however, the author's hand is superseded by the much heavier hand of fate, which creates a nifty little blind for the author to hide behind.
The indelible Ash Wednesday markings on the foreheads of the 17 Aurelianos that Colonel Aureliano Buendía fathers during the wars are part of the way this insistence on fate works. If you've never seen an Ash Wednesday mark, it's basically a small cross of soot in the middle of the forehead. But you know else these crosses immediately start to look like as soon as we realize they aren't washable? The cross-hairs of a gun sight or a target. These boys are literally walking around with targets on their heads, and each of them is gunned down by a bullet shot into exactly that spot.
Throughout the novel, the Buendía family lives under the warning/curse of Úrsula's mother: that a baby born from incest will have the tail of a pig. For a while, this seems like a merely metaphorical threat. We see the Buendía family becoming more and more degenerate with each passing generation, and we think about the pig-tailed baby phenomenon as just a pithy turn of phrase to describe how inwardly focused and generally not-quite-right-in-the-head these people are.
But lo and behold, the prediction actually comes true when the last Buendía, born from yet another episode of incest, really does have the tail of a pig. By this time, we've reached modernity, so the parents think a small operation will correct the problem. But of course the curse is real, and the baby is the indicator that the Buendía family has become rotten to the core. So the child comes to the horrific end of being eaten alive by ants. And with that, the family is wiped away completely.
A recurring image in the novel is the way humans, who have the ability to use their energy and life force to create and be productive, often choose instead to waste it on useless and obsessive activity. Before the war, Colonel Aureliano Buendía works as a successful goldsmith, making tiny decorative fish out of gold to help contribute to household expenses. After the war, the gold fish become a pointless way of passing time. He forges fish after fish, then melts them all down to start all over again, repeating this loop until he dies. Useless and obsessive, indeed.
Most fiction takes one of two approaches to ghosts. There's the terror approach (think The Ring), in which evil spirits from beyond freak people out and generally try to kill and destroy the living. And then there's the more romantic or nostalgic approach that grew out of the Spiritualism movement in nineteenth-century England. This is the kind of ghost we see in movies like Ghost or The Sixth Sense, where the ghosts are reminders of loved ones and generally need the living to help them move on from our world to the afterlife.
So what about the ghosts in One Hundred Years of Solitude? Again, the novel breaks with expectations. The ghost of Prudencio Aguilar isn't out to hurt anyone (except maybe to guilt-trip them a little). At the same time, he has nowhere to move on to – quite the opposite, since he has spent years trying to track down the living Buendías that he knows. If anything, this ghost isn't about the past, but the future, hanging around so he can eventually take José Buendía back with him to the afterlife. So what do we do with a ghost who is so different from what we've come to expect our undead to be? Is this just another instance of magical realism?
Another recurring theme in the novel is the collection or presentation of knowledge. At the beginning we have the gypsies with their carnival of wares. Later, during the forgetting disease, José Buendía invents the memory machine to contain the whole of human knowledge. There's the Catalonian bookstore where the young Aureliano Babilonia goes to hang out with his friends. And of course, most centrally of all, there's the room that contains the mystical writings of Melquíades, written in such a complex series of overlapping codes that they remain undecipherable until Aureliano Babilonia translates them – thus unlocking his own death.
It turns out that Melquíades wasn't just writing down spells or history; he was basically recording life in the town of Macondo, from beginning to end. Not only that, but we learn that the episodes of life are written so that they seem to all be happening at the same time.
What do we make of this mystical book of fate? Is it part of the theme of the lack of free will that runs through the novel? Are we meant to think of forbidden knowledge or harmful knowledge when we think about these parchments?
Let's take a cold, hard look at exactly what kinds of things the novel's narrator is describing. There's a woman who keeps her grandson completely imprisoned in her house. There's a man who allows his daughter to be taken away and locked up in a convent for the crime of having a boyfriend. There's a guy who is slaughtered by a bunch of orgy-loving kids he befriends. And there's a whole truckload of incest and pedophilia thrown in for good measure.
To get a sense of the way this narrator works, let just say for a minute that this book was written in, say, the nineteenth century. Supposing half this stuff even made it into print, what would we get in terms of the narrator's involvement? Most likely a huge lecture about how horrible these people are. That's if the author were going for a Dickensian or Eliot-like sort of flair. Or maybe we'd see lots of quips about the downfall of society in general and these characters in particular, and how some of their desires might make us think twice about our own. That would be a lighter, satiric touch, a la Thackeray or Trollope.
What we most certainly wouldn't get in a nineteenth-century novel is a narrator who just sits back, tells what happens, and doesn't seem to have an opinion on the events one way or the other. And that's exactly what we've got here: a lot of beautiful descriptions of who and what, and almost no sense of how or why. Things happen because they do. People act the way they act because they do. The narrator just sits back, records the whole thing, and doesn't ever break that neutral poker face.
This narrator would be considered omniscient from a purely formal point of view. Why? Because he has access to all the characters' thoughts. A completely objective narrator would sound like a police report, with very little ability to describe the characters' personalities or feelings. So even though the narrator strictly avoids taking a hand in the narrative, he does tell us about the inner lives of the people in the story.
Partly in response to their family's objections to cousins getting married, and partly to flee a pesky ghost, José Arcadio Buendía, his wife Úrsula, and a bunch of friends set off to found a new town, Macondo.
The Buendía family is important in the town, and soon enough, Macondo is large enough to need some way of contacting the outside world. After Úrsula finds a route to neighboring towns, Macondoans are forced to the live with the consequences: government intervention and the arrival of many new, non-idealistic people.
Seeing that the government is corrupt, Colonel Aureliano Buendía sets off to wage war against the Conservatives in power. The civil war is useless and endless. Eventually he gives up the fight and signs a humiliating peace agreement with his enemies.
A banana company comes to Macondo. At first it seems to create a lot of prosperity, but it's actually abusing and taking advantage of its workers. When they strike, they are viciously gunned down. Macondo, meanwhile, thinks that none of this ever happened. As it forgets its past, it doesn't seem to have much of a future.
Every character we meet in the novel is killed or dies in some grotesque way, ending with the last Buendía – a baby with a pig's tail who is eaten by fire ants. The town itself is annihilated by a hurricane.
Hey, hey, the gang's all here and we're going to start a new city where everyone will always be happy forever! We'll call it Macondo and it'll be fresh and clean and have none of the hang-ups and craziness of the place we left behind! Oh, but we'll also have no contact with the outside world.
Macondo reaches out to the outside world, and the outside world reaches back. Now there's mail delivery and a new mayor, who brings with him death, disease, and an influx of people who haven't come because of some idealistic dream, but for more earthy and practical reasons. This can't end well.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía goes off to fight the system, even as the system slowly absorbs and corrupts him. Back in Macondo, a new crop of Buendías have lost the dreams and hopes of their parents and are starting to focus their energies on selfish obsessions. None of this is helping.
The banana company creates prosperity for a while, until its workers strike for better employment conditions and are mercilessly gunned down. This scene of massacre is so awful and poignant that it definitely serves as the climax. As weird and terrible as the rest of the book's events are, this one takes the cake. Macondo, meanwhile, is in denial that any of this has happened.
Um, no. In fact, quite the opposite. Each successive generation of Buendías only repeats its parents' mistakes, with incest, sexual obsession, laziness, and a general incuriosity about the past dominating their personalities. Macondo goes through a destructive flood, loses many of its citizens, and is generally written off as a provincial backwater. Still, we hold out hope, wondering if maybe something will change.
No, she won't. Instead, she comes back, ditches her husband, sinks into weird incest with her nephew Aureliano (II), and ends up giving birth to the deformed baby predicted at the beginning of the novel. This is the beginning of the end, and definitively answers our question from the suspense description.
Just like it sounds, everyone dies and Macondo is wiped off the face of the earth by a hurricane.
There is hope and optimism as the new town of Macondo is founded on principles of equality and fairness.
Macondo is caught in the middle of two national incidents of extreme violence. First, the corrupt actions of the government and the violent response of the opposition spark a civil war that lasts for years. Then the colonial influence of the banana company results in a massacre of 3,000 striking workers.
Macondoans sink further and further into degradation, sexual predation, private obsessions, and general backwardness. Finally, all die and the town is erased by a hurricane.