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Úrsula's capacity for work was the same as that of her husband. Active, small, severe, that woman of unbreakable nerves who at no moment in her life had been heard to sing seemed to be everywhere, from dawn until quite late at night, always pursued by the soft whispering of her stiff, starched petticoats. Thanks to her the floors of tamped earth, the unwhitewashed mud walls, the rustic, wooden furniture they had built themselves were always clean, and the old chests where they kept their clothes exhaled the warm smell of basil.
José Arcadio Buendía, who was the most enterprising man ever to be seen in the village, had set up the placement of the houses in such a way that from all of them one could reach the river and draw water with the same effort, and he had lined up the streets with such good sense that no house got more sun than another during the hot time of day. Within a few years Macondo was a village that was more orderly and hard-working than any known until then by its three hundred inhabitants. It was a truly happy village where no one was over thirty years of age and where no one had died. (1.12-13)
You know what strikes us reading the book this time around? (Shmoop reads books more than once. You should, too!) There's a lot of emphasis on just how hard it was to maintain a clean, smooth-running household back in the day. Housework is grueling, repetitive, and thankless. And as soon as anyone lets up even a tiny bit, the house is immediately overrun with dirt, pests, and chaos.
But the stubborn descendants of the twenty-one intrepid people who plowed through the mountains in search of the sea to the west avoided the reefs of the melodic mixup and the dancing went on until dawn. (4.3)
In the early days of the town, determination is a quality in such abundance that you even see it at parties. Here, when the pianola breaks, everyone is determined to have a good time. They just go on dancing to the weird non-music. Contrast this useful purposefulness to José Arcadio Buendía's ongoing mania for photographing God.
Pietro Crespi exhausted all manner of pleas. He went through incredible extremes of humiliation. He wept one whole afternoon in Úrsula's lap and she would have sold her soul in order to comfort him. On rainy nights he could be seen prowling about the house. […] He begged Amaranta's fiends, the ones who sewed with her on the porch, to try to persuade her. He neglected his business. He would spend the day in the rear of the store writing wild notes, which he would send to Amaranta with flower petals and dried butterflies, and which she would return unopened. He would shut himself up for hours on end to play the zither. One night he sang. Macondo woke up in a kind of angelic stupor that was caused by a zither that deserved more than this world and a voice that led one to believe that no other person on earth could feel such love. Pietro Crespi then saw the lights go on in every window in town except that of Amaranta. On November second, All Souls' Day, his brother opened the store and found all the lamps lighted, all the music boxes opened, and all the clocks striking an interminable hour, and in the midst of that mad concert he found Pietro Crespi at the desk in the rear with his wrists cut by a razor and his hands thrust into a basin of benzene. (6.10)
So is Pietro Crespi a quitter? Or is he the opposite, way too overly persevering?
As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. (7.38)
That's one determined stream of blood, no? This is another great example of how magical realism works. The initially creepy and horrifying image of the endlessly spreading blood gives way to an almost slapstick comedy effect. The blood becomes like an animated GPS system to find Úrsula. The supernatural and otherworldly is turned mundane and humorous.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía left his room in December and it was sufficient for him to look at the porch in order not to think about war again. With a vitality that seemed impossible at her age, Úrsula had rejuvenated the house again. "Now they're going to see who I am," she said when she saw that her son was going to live. "There won't be a better, more open house in all the world than this madhouse." She had it washed and painted, changed the furniture, restored the garden and planted new flowers, and opened doors and windows so that the dazzling light of summer would penetrate even into the bedrooms. She decreed an end to the numerous superimposed periods of mourning and she herself exchanged her rigorous old gowns for youthful clothing. […] One afternoon when she was trying to put the parlor in order, Úrsula asked for the help of the soldiers who were guarding the house. The young commander of the guard gave them permission. Little by little, Úrsula began assigning them new chores. She invited them to eat. Gave them clothing and shoes, and taught them how to read and write. (9.80)
There's a great moment in Tolstoy's War and Peace when soldiers in the middle of a two-day battle set up camp. They immediately make it homey and domestic, splitting up chores and trying to bring a little family atmosphere into their war lives. Tolstoy's point is that humans are humans wherever they happen to be, and humans thrive in domestic spaces. Here we have a related idea: that soldiers who've been fighting a long war will be able to put aside their warrior persona and readjust to regular life through chores and domestic obligations. For Úrsula, restoring the house is a way to combat old age and depression; for the soldiers, it's a way of hanging on to life and humanity.
When Úrsula realized that José Arcadio Segundo was a cockfight man and that Aureliano Segundo played the accordion at his concubine's noisy parties, she thought she would go mad with the combination. It was as if the defects of the family and none of the virtues had been concentrated in both. Then she decided that no one again would be called Aureliano or José Arcadio. Yet when Aureliano Segundo had his first son she did not dare go against his will.
"All right," Úrsula said, "but on one condition: I will bring him up."
Although she was already a hundred years old and on the point of going blind from cataracts, she still had her physical dynamism, her integrity of character, and her mental balance intact. No one would be better able than she to shape the virtuous man who would restore the prestige of the family, a man who would never have heard talk of war, fighting cocks, bad women, or wild undertakings, four calamities that, according to what Úrsula thought, had determined the downfall of the line. "This one will be a priest," she promised solemnly. "And if God gives me life he'll be Pope someday." (10.19-21)
Now that's dedication. A hundred years old and raising a small child – to be Pope? That's mad commitment to an ideal, right there. So why doesn't it work?
The rumor that [Colonel Aureliano Buendía] did not want to hear anything about the situation in the country because he was growing rich in his workshop made Úrsula laugh when it reached her ears. With her terrible practical sense she could not understand the colonel's business as he exchanged little fishes for gold coins and then converted the coins into little fishes, and so on, with the result that he had to work all the harder with the more he sold in order to satisfy an exasperating vicious circle. Actually, what interested him was not the business but the work. He needed so much concentration to link scales, fit minute rubies into the eyes, laminate gills, and put on fins that there was not the smallest empty moment left for him to fill with his disillusionment of the war. So absorbing was the attention required by the delicacy of his artistry that in a short time he had aged more than during all the years of the war, and his position had twisted his spine and the close work had used up his eyesight, but the implacable concentration awarded him with a peace of the spirit. (10.36)
There's an interesting distinction here between "work" and "business." "Business" implies a forward progress. You make fish to earn a profit, ostensibly to spend in some other aspect of life. But "work" is more like what we've seen with housework: repetitive, demanding, and without much forward progress beyond the immediate accomplishment of the task at hand. "Business" is linear, a straight line, while "work" goes on and on in a circular cycle.
[W]hen [Meme] sat down at the clavichord she became a different girl, one whose unforeseen maturity gave her the air of an adult. That was how she had always been. She really did not have any definite vocation, but she had earned the highest grades by means of an inflexible discipline simply in order not to annoy her mother. They could have imposed on her an apprenticeship in any other field and the results would have been the same. […] During the graduation ceremonies she had the impression that the parchment with Gothic letters and illuminated capitals was freeing her from a compromise that she had accepted not so much out of obedience as out of convenience, [but] her mother still invited to the house every newcomer whom she thought capable of appreciating her daughter's virtues. Only after the death of Amaranta, when the family shut itself up again in a period of mourning, was Meme able to lock the clavichord and forget the key in some dresser drawer without Fernanda's being annoyed on finding out when and through whose fault it had been lost. Meme bore up under the exhibitions with the same stoicism that she had dedicated to her apprenticeship. It was the price of her freedom. (14.2)
Think about this passage the next time you don't feel like practicing your musical instrument. Maybe it will buy you some freedom in the rest of your life!
Fernanda's indignation also grew, until her eventual protests, her infrequent outbursts came forth in an uncontained, unchained torrent that began one morning like the monotonous drone of a guitar and as the day advanced rose in pitch, richer and more splendid. [Aureliano Segundo] did not interrupt her until late in the afternoon, when he could no longer bear the echo of the bass drum that was tormenting his head. […]
Then Aureliano Segundo lost control. He stood up unhurriedly, as if he only intended to stretch, and with a perfectly regulated and methodical fury he grabbed the pots with the begonias one after the other, those with the ferns, the oregano, and one after the other he smashed them onto the floor. Fernanda was frightened because until then she had really not had a clear indication of the tremendous inner force of her singsong, but it was too late for any attempt at rectification. Intoxicated by the uncontained torrent of relief, Aureliano Segundo broke the glass on the china closet and piece by piece, without hurrying, he took out the chinaware and shattered it on the floor. Systematically, serenely, in the same parsimonious way in which he had papered the house with banknotes, he then set about smashing the Bohemian crystal ware against the walls, the hand-painted vases, the pictures of maidens in flower-laden boats, the mirrors in their gilded frames, everything that was breakable, from parlor to pantry, and he finished with the large earthen jar in the kitchen, which exploded in the middle of the courtyard with a hollow boom. (16.14,18)
So what do we make of this scene of methodical, determined, calm ranting, followed by similarly methodical and calm destruction? Are these two people engaged in an argument with each other? With themselves? With life? Why does neither of them stop?
For Santa Sofía de la Piedad the reduction in the number of inhabitants of the house should have meant the rest she deserved after more than half a century of work. Never a lament had been heard from that stealthy, impenetrable woman […] who dedicated a whole life of solitude and diligence to the rearing of children although she could barely remember whether they were her children or grandchildren. [Santa Sofía de la Piedad] liked to stay in the corners, without a pause, without a complaint, keeping clean and in order the immense house that she had lived in ever since adolescence […]. But when Úrsula died the superhuman diligence of Santa Sofía de la Piedad, her tremendous capacity for work, began to fall apart. […] With neither the time nor the resources to halt the challenge of nature, Santa Sofía de la Piedad spent the day in bedrooms driving out the lizards who would return at night. [ . . . ] Santa Sofía de la Piedad continued struggling alone, fighting the weeds to stop them from getting into the kitchen, pulling from the walls the tassels of spider webs which were rebuilt in a few hours, scraping off the termites. But when she saw that Melquíades' room was also dusty and filled with cobwebs even though she swept and dusted three times a day, and that in spite of her furious cleaning it was threatened by the debris and the air of misery that had been foreseen only by Colonel Aureliano Buendía and the young officer, she realized that she was defeated. Then she put on her worn Sunday dress, some old shoes of Úrsula's, and a pair of cotton stockings that Amaranta Úrsula had given her. […]
[Aureliano (II)] saw her cross the courtyard with her bundle of clothing, dragging her feet and bent over by her years, and he saw her reach her hand through an opening in the main door and replace the bar after she had gone out. Nothing was ever heard of her again. (18.6,8)
Here's another account of the struggle to singlehandedly maintain a huge household in the middle of a jungle. Check out the persistence on both sides. On the one hand, Santa Sofía de la Piedad is fighting off lizards, spiders, termites, and weeds. On the other hand, Mother Nature is giving as good as she's getting. Sweeping and dusting three times a day sounds pretty hard to maintain if you ask us.
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