Love in the Time of Cholera : Novel Summary:Section One
GarcÌa M·rquez, Gabriel. Love in the Time of Cholera. Trans. Edith Grossman. 1988. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Summary of Section One
In the port city (Cartagena) of a South American country (Colombia), Dr. Juvenal Urbino is called in by the police to investigate a suicide. The man who committed suicide is his friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour with whom he has played chess for years. The smell of bitter almonds confirms he died by gold cyanide vapors. The corpse is naked and the eyes open. The man had come to the city as a political refugee and walked on crutches. He was well known as a children’s photographer. Dr. Urbino is in his eighties but still dresses fastidiously in a linen suit with gold watch. The police assume the man had killed himself for love, but he had not. Urbino uses his authority with the police to have the burial happen that same day with discretion, telling the newspapers he died of natural causes. He calls his friend “An atheistic saint” (6). He observes the chessboard with an unfinished game that he must have been playing with someone the night before.
Urbino finds an envelope on Saint-Amour’s desk, a letter eleven pages long and begins to read it. He worries he will have to miss Pentecost Communion at church. The letter tells where to find enough money for the funeral. He decides he must notify the other Caribbean refugees in town and the chess partners who might want to attend the funeral. He has to finish before lunch because he has to go to the country house of his old student, Dr. L·cides Olivella, who is celebrating his silver anniversary as a doctor.
Dr. Urbino’s careful daily routine is elaborated, including his secret medications for his old age, his nap, and his continuing to call on patients because he refuses to retire. He is an expensive doctor and only treats aristocratic people in the District of the Viceroys. Urbino had become the protector of Saint-Amour because he was the best chess player in the city. They went to films together, without the doctor’s wife. Today the doctor’s schedule is thrown off as he follows directions in the letter to go to the old slave quarter of the city in his carriage. The letter had revealed secrets of Saint-Amour’s life that disturb Urbino.
Urbino goes to the door of one of the shabby houses and there meets a mulatta woman of forty, with a haughty manner and cruel eyes. He discovers this woman was the mistress of Saint-Amour and had been with him until the moment of his suicide. Out of love, she abided by his wish to die. They had gone to the cinema together on the last night but sat separately because theirs was a clandestine relationship. They met afterwards in his photographic lab where they began a chess game; then he dismissed her, and she knew why. He had vowed to commit suicide before Pentecost of his sixtieth year. The doctor reprimands her for not reporting him to the police, but she affirms she loved him too much. He was a lover of life but even makes his dog take the premeditated last journey with him. The dog was tied to the cot, but she had loosened the knot so he could escape. The dog did not desire to escape and died with his master. Urbino is shocked by all these details and the fact that the mistress had promised not to go to the funeral or to mourn.
On the way home, Urbino muses on the history of the city, the old slave quarter, and the sunken ships of Spanish treasure fabled to lie in the bay. His house is across the bay in the new section of La Manga. The house is described in detail with its mixture of European furniture and tropical wicker chairs. The library has 3,000 volumes bound in calfskin with Urbino’s initials on the spine. He comes home for a siesta but finds the maids in an uproar trying to catch the parrot, which had got loose. The parrot has lived in the house for twenty years and has been taught Latin and French by the doctor. He calls the fire department to catch the bird while he tells his wife about Saint-Amour’s death and letter. She has to help him dress for the luncheon because he can no longer dress himself. The narrator explains some of the trivial domestic battles they have endured together over the years, the battle of wills. They know how far they can push one another. Now he depends on her, and she dresses him like a baby.
Saint-Amour’s death has awakened Urbino’s own fear of death, particularly because of his friend’s deceptive life. Urbino feels this incident is changing him in some way, but his wife dismisses the man, who claimed to be a political refugee. Instead, from the letter, he was an escaped prisoner convicted of cannibalism.
The elaborate details of the luncheon they are going to at Dr. Olivella’s country home are described, with tables for 122 guests and a woodwind band. Dr. Urbino is the guest of honor. The people arrive in formal dress and jewels. Urbino sits next to the Archbishop, with his wife Fermina Daza watching over him to see he does not make mistakes. The guests ask Urbino the reason for Saint-Amour’s suicide, and he replies, “Gerontophobia” [fear of old age] (I. 37). Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino Daza, Fermina’s and Juvenal’s son, also a doctor, arrives with his wife and the dessert, which they bring through a rain storm.
The Urbinos leave so Juvenal can get a nap before the funeral, but they arrive home to find chaos. The fire department has destroyed their home trying to get the parrot but failed. The parrot suddenly flies around speaking to Urbino, and he begins to chase it out to the patio, where the bird perches in the tree, egging him on with witty phrases. As he climbs a ladder to catch the parrot, the ladder slips and Urbino falls to his death. He realizes he is dying without Communion or saying good-by, on Pentecost Sunday. Fermina Daza hears the shrieks of the servants and runs to the patio. Urbino stays alive long enough to look at her and say: “Only God knows how much I loved you” (I. 43).
A quick review of the doctor’s life shows him to be a famous city leader, responsible for stopping the last cholera epidemic. Fermina Daza takes command through the funeral service and three days of public mourning. At the funeral open house, one of Fermina Daza’s suitors from her youth, Florentino Ariza, approaches her and declares his undying love for her, even though he is seventy-six, and she is seventy-two. In anger she throws him out and goes to her room to weep and pray for death. Instead, she dreams of Florentino Ariza.
Commentary on Section One
The three main characters are introduced: Dr. Juvenal Urbino; his wife, Fermina Daza; and the suitor of her youth, Florentino Ariza. The story depicts an unusual love triangle, beginning and ending in the old age of the three, with the middle sections telling of their youth and maturity. Both men love Fermina, and she loves both, one at a time.
Urbino’s character is the focus in this section. He is a notable public figure, now in decline in his eighties. He is a creature of habit with a rigid life, fearful of old age and death. He hides the medicines he takes to keep going, but his wife knows how helpless he is because she has to dress him. He understands why his friend Jeremiah commits suicide at sixty to avoid the ignominy of the old age he himself is experiencing. Though he attends every church service, he still has doubts about whether he will find God after death.
Urbino lives the life of the old privileged families of the city, sheltered from the lives of the poor. When he has to visit the old slave quarter, he recollects that the wealth of the town is due to its being an old slave trading center. The poor have houses made of boards with metal roofs, while the wealthy live in palatial homes. The poor district is described as a “death trap” with the open sewers and swamps (16). The poor drink home-brewed alcohol, dance and make love in the streets, and fight. By contrast, the old families live in “honorable decadence” (17), pawning their jewels, sleeping in the afternoons, and they have “slow and difficult” love affairs (17).
GarcÌa M·rquez’s storytelling is at its fantastic best in this section describing the last day of Urbino’s life. The man has led an exemplary public life as a patron of the arts and a health reformer, yet his absurd death falling from a ladder to the insults of a parrot, a scene captured for all time by a famous painter, displayed in public as his memorial, is both humorous and ironic. Urbino is sympathetic, but his rigid way of controlling his life and the lives of others is foiled by death that comes without dignity and makes no distinction between a criminal like Saint-Amour and a city aristocrat like Urbino. The humor and punch line of the parrot as the cause of his death is built up slowly with details that seem like digressions. We learn the history of animals in the Urbino household, how Fermina loved animals and filled the house with them until a dog became rabid and tore all the other animals to shreds. Urbino exiled all animals except the parrot that he could teach to speak all sorts of sophisticated phrases, astounding his guests. Even the detail of the fire department coming in to destroy the house with hoses and chopping down the tree with machetes to get the parrot is connected to Urbino’s illustrious career, for it was he who founded the fire department, a progressive touch for the city.
At the luncheon, we learn of the two opposing political parties in the civil wars, the Conservatives (the Archbishop) and the Liberals (Dr. Urbino), though the luncheon demonstrates that what is really important to the upper classes is heritage and not politics. They are the elite. Urbino has done only two things outside his class. He has married beneath him (Fermina Daza) and has built a house in the newer district of La Manga, abandoning his family’s mansion in the Viceroy District, because it was next door to an insane asylum. Symbolizing the decline of the aristocracy, the Urbino line is dying out because the son, Marco Aurelia, has no children, and the daughter, Ofelia, has no son.
The outrageous affront of Florentino Ariza declaring his love to the widow during the funeral is a bridge to the next section, going back to the youth of Florentino and Fermina.