Florentino Ariza is in the crowd watching the hot air balloon rise in the air holding Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife Fermina Daza on the occasion of the turn of the century (1900). They journey over the city and the mountains to another city to deliver the mail in an historic first. Below them they witness death and ruin in the country, through war and a cholera plague. Florentino sees her later in a cycling exhibition riding a velocipede in a pair of trousers. Each time he sees Fermina, he sees her aging.
One night at a restaurant, he sees Fermina through a mirror looking young again in the light. He forced the owner to sell him the mirror as though it still carried her image. Every time he sees her she is with her husband. Urbino sometimes shakes Florentino’s hand, but Fermina is always formal. He sees that they live in two different worlds, and that she wants to keep it that way. She looks like a queen. He begins to fantasize that her indifference hides love and once again haunts the vicinity of her house.
He sees the Urbino family go to church, but Fermina Daza is not with them. He does not see her in public any more and hears rumors that she may be sick in some foreign hospital. She had been seen in a black veil leaving the city. He cannot find out the reason.
Fermina is alive and well at her cousin Hildebranda’s ranch in the country. She had quietly left her husband with no public scandal at a ripe period in their marriage when they had thought themselves safe from misfortune. She told her children she needed a change of scenery for a few months, but she herself felt she would not return. She maintains a formal correspondence with her husband about the children, but two years go by, and neither husband nor wife knows how to mend the breach between them. The Archbishop comes to visit her and asks to hear her confession. She refuses, saying she has nothing to repent of.
Urbino thinks it is because of his wife’s sense of smell they are separated. She has the habit of sniffing all the clothing in the family. He thinks she has some supernatural power, especially since she has been able to penetrate the upper class without any clash: “she had made her way through coral reefs as sharp as knives” (237). When she smells his suit one day it has a new odor. She knows all the odors of his activities, and this is new and cannot be identified. She is too proud to spy on her husband, but one day she goes into his office to search his list of house calls. She cannot find anything. At night she awakens to see a vision of her husband staring at her in hatred in the dark. A number of events startle her, such as her husband’s not taking Communion. He is evasive about it, but it means he consents to being in a state of mortal sin. She is suffering and decides to confront her husband. She simply tells him to look at her. He asks what is going on, and she says he knows better than she does.
At that moment, he knows the game is up. It is a relief to him that his wife has discovered his affair with Barbara Lynch, a tall elegant mulatta. She is a patient, and he falls for her immediately when he sees her in the hospital. He goes to her address in his carriage after his house calls. She invites him in for coffee. She is Barbara Lynch, Doctor of Theology, daughter of a black Protestant minister, a twenty-eight-year-old divorcee. Urbino is enchanted with her beauty and perfect health, the smell found in his clothes. His life becomes hell as he hides his affair from the world. He does not even enjoy sex with her, “as if he had made absolute love on the dividing line between life and death” (246).
He is fifty-eight and “mad with terror” at the symptoms of aging (247). Finally, in the middle of the night, Fermina awakens him and asks who “she” is. He confesses everything. She is humiliated, and by the end of the week is gone. He decides not to see Miss Lynch anymore. He goes to confession. He is heartbroken at giving her up.
Urbino thinks his wife will return when her rage ends, but she thinks it will never end. In the town of her youth where she thought she would be nostalgic, she is shocked to find ruin and disease, dead bodies everywhere. She covers her mouth with her veil as protection from cholera. When she sees her cousin Hildebranda, it is like looking in a mirror: she is fat and old, but “she was still the same person inside her ruined body” (253). After two years, Dr. Urbino comes to get his wife, and she is full of joy to return home, but she is determined to make him pay for “the bitter suffering that had ended her life” (254).
When she returns, she goes to the movies with her husband, where Florentino is also sitting with Leona Cassiani, his assistant. He is full of joy at being so near his beloved Fermina for so long in the dark, but when he stands afterwards and looks at her, he is flabbergasted at her appearance. She is another person, old, without light in her eyes. Finally, he knows he will have to renounce his hope of her. He goes home with Leona and makes a pass at the woman who has been at his side for so many years, but she stops him, saying: “you are not the man I am looking for” (258). He is grateful for her strength and their remaining friends, but he feels alone.
Florentino Ariza is also fearful of old age. He is fifty-six but has always looked like an old man. His greatest hell has been fighting baldness. He has tried pomades and having haircuts when the moon is in the first quarter. After six years and 172 baldness remedies, he decides to shave his head and accept baldness totally. He also has false teeth. This has not stopped his escapades with women. He uses the company offices at night until found out by Uncle Leo XII who remarks: “You screw just like your dad!” (265). His uncle is old and bequeaths the River Company to Florentino.
In his old age and loneliness, Florentino misses all his lovers and wishes he could be with them all, feeling that “one can be in love with several people at the same time . . . and not betray any of them” (270). Yet he knows that Fermina Daza is irreplaceable.
On the day that Juvenal Urbino dies, Florentino has only one lover left, a fourteen-year-old girl, a relative entrusted to him while she attended a nearby school. Her name is AmÈrica VicuÒa. He had spent a year winning her confidence, and as she matured, he harvested her flowering to both their satisfactions. She gets top grades in school after that.
They had just made love on Pentecost Sunday when the funeral bells rang for Dr. Urbino. Florentino is seized with terror when he hears the bell knowing it could have been for him. He goes immediately to the house of the Urbinos and makes himself useful during the funeral. After Fermina’s second rejection, however, he is in despair, thinking his life has been in vain. After two weeks of suffering, he finds a letter waiting for him at home and knows at once it is from Fermina, for which he has been waiting for half a century.
Commentary on Section Five
This section records the midlife crises of the three main characters and their descent into old age. The lack of sexual desirability seems to be the threshold none of them wants to step over. The men fight this moment by taking lovers. This is nothing new for Florentino, but Dr. Urbino seems to step out of his rigid conventional character as he falls for Barbara Lynch, a voluptuous mulatta. Urbino and Florentino fear the signs of age and count them secretly, trying to stave them off with numerous remedies. Fermina, on the other hand, takes refuge in nostalgia, trying to spend time in places she was once happy, such as her father’s house where she met Florentino, or in her mother’s hometown. She is disillusioned with the decay of these places and her inability to maintain her nostalgia. She does notice that her cousin Hildebranda, though fat and old, is the same person inside, but she is not, as Florentino can see. The suffering over her husband’s mistress has killed off her joy. Eventually, Urbino and his wife are reconciled, clinging to one another as they march towards the grave, feeling they are each other’s best friend, having survived the marital wars together, each knowing the worst of the other.
Florentino decides when he sees how old and “dead” Fermina already is, that his plan has been defeated. He makes a move for Leona, a woman who is his friend and partner, but she knows it will not work to become lovers. They must remain friends. He is glad at her wisdom, for it would have ruined their relationship.
His last fling and bid for youth is the fourteen-year-old AmÈrica VicuÒa. This particular episode has disgusted most critics who otherwise might feel sympathy for Florentino. He seems to be a bit selfish and inconsiderate about his affairs, but then, Urbino’s affair with Barbara Lynch clearly makes the author’s point about the total irrationality of love. It strikes as suddenly as cholera and with as deadly results sometimes. Urbino is a rational man with everything to lose, yet he cannot help himself. Florentino revels in AmÈrica’s youth and sensuality, and they are as cozy as a married couple, according to his viewpoint. But all is for his convenience.
He might have seen there was no way out of that relationship but tragedy. Though this is now the twentieth century, about 1930, a woman in that society was not marriageable unless a virgin. He is ruining her life. He is only aware of their spontaneous pleasure, but she is a young girl without the street savvy of the widows and tough women he has known. She takes it all quite seriously and without his casual point of view.
In fact, one of the important points to consider about the narrative is that the narrator shifts his evaluation of things according to the character’s viewpoint at the moment. The narrator, mirroring Florentino’s awareness, finds that the old man and young girl are “in full agreement” (272). It becomes clear later that we have only been given his experience. Her version is only told in her suicide.
Similarly, the narrator withholds vital information about the Urbino marriage in the first section. The reader is told that they have had a harmonious marriage with only minor squabbles about the soap in the bathroom. The Barbara Lynch affair and the two years of separation in which Fermina loses her joy in life are only revealed in this later section. That is the missing context for those many battles of will over the bathroom soap. It is clear from this section why Dr. Urbino is careful of going over the line and making Fermina angry, and why he sometimes placates her by taking the blame.