Love in the Time of Cholera : Essay Questions
1. How dangerous is cholera?
Cholera is an infectious disease of the small intestine caused by a bacterium, with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. The skin may become blue as the body becomes rapidly dehydrated. Antibiotics and rehydration of the body are the usual treatments. Unsanitary conditions for drinking water or food can cause an epidemic. Cholera is still a major cause of death in the world. The cholera outbreak in Haiti after a devastating earthquake (2010) is typical of what happens after the breakdown of sanitary conditions and availability of clean water after a disaster. When living conditions are poor and medical treatment unavailable, cholera is a disease with a high mortality rate, with sometimes 70 percent of cases ending in death.
In Love in the Time of Cholera, the disease is a constant worry with the unsanitary conditions in the tropical South American country, its stagnant water, and corpses infecting the water from violence, disease, and war. Dr. Juvenal Urbino dedicates his life to solving the problem and removing superstition about the disease. It is still believed in his hospital, for instance, that the disease can be prevented from spreading by anchoring the legs of patients’ beds in jars of water. His own father was also a doctor who died during a cholera epidemic in which a quarter of the population died in less than three months. Having studied medicine in Europe, Dr. Urbino comes home to begin public health measures such as the building of an aqueduct, a sewer system, and a covered public market place. He successfully stops isolated cases from becoming an epidemic through quarantines and is admitted to the order of the French Legion of Honour.
2. What is the historical background of the setting?
The novel is set between the late 1870s and the early 1930s in Colombia, South America, though the country is not named directly. The capital city is called Santa Fe (for Santa Fe de Bogot·), but the city where the action takes place is Cartagena, an old colonial port city on the Caribbean coast. The city is sixty miles southwest of the Magdalena river, the principal river of Colombia, where steamboats in Florentino Ariza’s River Company of the Caribbean take passengers through the canal from Cartagena to Calamar, and from Calamar northeast to Barranquilla.
The city was founded in 1533, becoming rich as a trade center within the Spanish empire, with the old families descended from these conquerors. The city once housed the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in South America. Its famous huge circling walls of defense are mentioned in the book, with the narrow streets and fortresses, and the old Cathedral. Cartagena was also a center for the slave trade. The city was taken by pirates in 1544, captured by England’s Francis Drake in 1585, and by the French in 1697. In 1811, it was the center of the first rebellion against Spain. At the time of the story, Cartagena is full of history but in a state of decay. Dr. Juvenal Urbino is ashamed when he returns from Europe to see the rotting animal carcasses in the port.
GarcÌa M·rquez frequently focuses on one particular historical period of Colombia—from independence to the first decades of the twentieth century. It is the hundred years of his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. SimÛn BolÌvar’s Venezuelan troops won the battle of Boyac· in Colombia in 1819, and independence was attained in 1824. BolÌvar (called the Liberator in the novel) united Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador in the Republic of Greater Colombia (1819–1830), but he lost Venezuela and Ecuador to separatists. Two political parties were formed that are mentioned in the novel: the Conservatives believed in a strong central government and a powerful church; the Liberals believed in a decentralized government, strong regional power, and a less influential role for the church.
Colombia’s history of extreme violence and constant civil war forms the background of the novel, though not the direct focus. When Fermina and Juvenal Urbino take a balloon ride to celebrate the year 1900, they look down on banana plantations strewn with the bodies of workers who have been executed. During the several river journeys in the story, dead bodies are always floating in the water from some military conflict. The narrator says: “in over half a century of independent life the nation had not had a single day of civil peace” (II. 73). In recent decades, Colombia has frequently been in the news with its violent drug wars.
3. Are the structure and style of the novel significant?
The novel is composed of six sections. The first describes the events of Juvenal Urbino's final day of life, and takes place around the year 1930. The remaining sections are a flashback to the histories of the three main characters, beginning from sixty years before, finally coming back to the moment of Juvenal Urbino’s death again in the fifth section, and in the sixth, reuniting Fermina and Florentino after his death to consummate their love. The author has commented that the structure tends towards symmetry, with two parallel parts (the Fermina-Juvenal love, and the Fermina-Florentino love). He suggests the center point of the axis is the moment when Florentino meets Fermina in a movie theater with her husband and realizes she is an old woman. The main rib of the love triangle holds the plot together, with one of the three main characters always the center of discussion, while the action meanders through many side stories and episodes. GarcÌa M·rquez’s style accommodates these off-beat directions, fantastic tales, and comments. At first it appears the love story is the foreground, and other details, such as the civil war and plague, and the stories of minor characters, are the background. In reality, there is no foreground and background, or subordination of topics. Everything is woven together with equal weight, giving the realism of the story a surrealistic feel.
“Magic realism” is the name given to the style, able to integrate elements that are supernatural, magic, or fantastic within a realistic framework. The supernormal is accepted as normal rather than a special event. By injecting this dimension into a realistic world the author can explore what is illogical or mysterious in life. The magic realism of this novel is less pronounced than in the author’s other works, but an example is when Fermina and Florentino see the ghost of a lover on the river during their honeymoon journey together. She waves to the people on the boat, and everyone views her without comment; she is part of the landscape like the trees and animals. More and more fantastic details are accumulated in the narrative without explanation. Each smaller exotic episode could be a full tale in itself.
The tone of the book is one of good humor, as the narrator conveys a deep understanding and sympathy for the characters. It is a satire on human folly, told with humane amusement and affection for the common needs and failings of people seeking love; at the same time, it creates an undercurrent of foreboding, with death casually mentioned on almost every page. The carnivalesque energy conveys an overall joy and affirmation, even in the time of cholera, death, war, and misfortune. The author warns not to take everything the narrator says too literally, for he is contradictory and playful, an “unreliable narrator,” with tongue in cheek sometimes, and other times, seriously criticizing social conditions.
4. What political issues does the novel raise?
The novel covers the period when the country is trying to shift into the modern world. The author shows the city, under the leadership of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, adopting a modern attitude, trying to keep up with Europe in terms of technology, science, and culture. Dr. Urbino constantly uses Paris as his standard and travels there to escape his own country. He is of the Liberal and progressive party, but GarcÌa M·rquez depicts the failure of the liberal dream of modernization. Science and capitalism cannot solve the country’s problems with its constant political instability, racial and class differences. GarcÌa M·rquez, who is a socialist, does not believe that the copying of European ideas is relevant to the unique situation of South America.
He also shows the inequality of the classes, with the elite and their rigid social codes, derived from Spanish colonial days. This is ironic, since the upper classes live in crumbling houses and are shown pawning their jewels with Florentino’s mother, Tr·nsito Ariza. Yet they will not admit people like Florentino Ariza into the Social Club because no matter how much money he has, he is an illegitimate son from a lower class. People of color are servants, mistresses, or the dead bodies in the street. Secretly, however, Dr. Urbino, Florentino Ariza, and Jeremiah de Saint-Amour rely on their intelligent mulatta mistresses and workers.
Urbino is a declared pacifist, yet everywhere there is constant civil war, with only brief pauses between conflicts. It is perhaps a more damning commentary on this situation that the narrator and the characters hardly comment on the violence, or react with surprise at seeing dead bodies everywhere. There is no angry political tone or detail about the wars. Urbino is ashamed of this situation and quietly escapes on trips abroad whenever he can.
The narrator comments on the environmental damage of constant war and the clear cutting of trees to fuel steam engines. When Florentino and Fermina pass through the canal in the 1930s on their way up the Magdalena river, Calamar has changed to a desolate town. They see the manatees are almost extinct, and parrots, alligators, monkeys, and villages are gone in “the vast silence of the ravaged land” (VI. 336). GarcÌa M·rquez has called this his most political novel. It depicts the exploitation and destruction of the New World by colonial mentality.
5. How does the book treat women?
The main characters are from the upper or middle classes, involved in their own worlds and tight-knit society. Meanwhile, GarcÌa M·rquez manages to show the teeming life in the margins: prostitutes, workers, mulattos from the slums, servants, and all sorts of women, who, whether upper class or no, are subjected to the Latin American tradition of machismo. There is perhaps symbolic significance to there being an insane asylum for women in the aristocratic District of the Viceroys, next to the Urbino home. Juvenal is disturbed by their screams, and one madwoman escapes after decapitating a guard to go to the Carnival. Fermina represents the pressures on upper class women of the time, who were not well educated, and did not have careers or lives of their own. They were subject to strict codes of behavior, though Fermina, like many women of her class, secretly smokes and drinks.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino courts Fermina Daza in the manner of a military siege. The independent Fermina is not impressed by his status and is openly rude to him. Urbino throws his weight around with the Catholic Church to pressure her. She rebels against the Church but finally gives in with reluctance to the marriage because she knows as a respectable woman she has few alternatives.
The Urbino-Daza marriage is thought of as ideal. The elites even forgive Fermina’s lower class background because she is a lady of style. Later the marriage is shown to be flawed. Urbino’s need for control overrides every other consideration. Fermina feels trapped within a life that is clearly Urbino’s more than hers: “She always felt her life had been lent to her by her husband” (IV.221). At the end of her life, she has paid her dues to society and runs off on the boat trip with Florentino, despite her daughter’s scandalized disapproval.
GarcÌa M·rquez does not portray women as victims, however. Though they do not have the social freedom of men, they are shown as strong, resourceful, and independent minded. Cousin Hildebranda and Fermina’s female cousins in the country teach her to be herself when she is growing up. Hildebranda runs her own ranch. Dr. Urbino’s mistress, Barbara Lynch, is a divorcee with a doctorate in theology. Leona Cassiani runs Florentino’s business for him. Widow Nazaret, his first lover, throws off her mourning and becomes “the only free woman in the province” (III. 150). Ausencia Santander had “the laughter of a free female.” (III.178). Even Florentino’s mother, a quadroon, becomes rich as a pawn broker and raises her son by herself.