When Florentino Ariza sees Fermina Daza in the cathedral as a young pregnant wife, he vows to make something of himself to deserve her. He feels that Dr. Juvenal Urbino will die one day, and when that happens he wants to be ready. He goes to his Uncle Leo XII, President of the River Company of the Caribbean, and asks to start at the bottom of the company. Uncle Leo is eccentric and worked his way up from nothing to become an important man. He, like his brothers, is illegitimate, and all named after Catholic popes. Uncle Leo XII gives him a job as a clerk because of his love of writing, but Florentino writes even routine business letters with too much passion. He tries to master the objective business letter, but confesses that love is the only thing that interests him.
On his days off he goes to the Arcade of the Scribes and helps illiterate people with their love letters. He is so successful that he brings lovers together in marriage. Once he finds that two lovers are both employing him and that he is writing and answering his own letters. He is so happy with the results that he writes a book called Lovers’ Companion in three volumes with sample love letters, thinking always of Fermina.
In thirty years, Florentino occupies all the jobs in the company. Uncle Leo tells him tales of his father who was also a lover and poet. His father had written in a notebook: “The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love” (169). This could be Florentino’s motto.
Winning back Fermina is the sole purpose of Florentino’s life. His mother, now with a sizable income, retires from the pawn business, because she is losing her memory. Florentino’s experience with Widow Nazaret opens the door to street love, which he uses to cure his pain over Fermina. He calls them his night hunts. He hunts “like a chicken hawk” for the little birds (175) as soon as he leaves work. He picks up one-night stands but also has longer relationships. He likes to take women to a house at the foot of the lighthouse with waves breaking on the rocks, “where love was more intense because it seemed like a shipwreck” (175).
Ausencia Santander is a woman of fifty but teaches him a lot about love in the seven years he visits her house, as she performs a role reversal, taking the man’s part. She takes charge of lovemaking, and he is “no more than an instrument of pleasure” (178) to her. Next, Florentino discovers his trolley birds, picking out women for his lovers on his trolley rides to work. Once he picks a girl during Carnival, dancing with her, and thinking of taking her to the lighthouse. Fortunately he is saved from this decision when two guards from the insane asylum see her; she had escaped there after decapitating a guard.
It is also in the trolley that he meets Leona Cassiani, a black woman he takes to be a whore, but she turns out to be “the true woman of his life” (182) though they never make love. What she wants from Florentino is a job, and he gets it for her at the River Company. She begins to work her way up in the company because she has common sense and finds solutions to the company problems. She learns English and typing and becomes a Personal Assistant to Uncle Leo, and then, to Florentino. Secretly, she eventually runs the company, and not even Florentino guesses he takes orders from her. Her suggestions help him move up the ladder to the presidency of the company. She loves Florentino so much she clears the way for him. He is tempted to tell her his secret about Fermina, but he decides it is too sacred. He does not know that Dr. Urbino has found out about their love affair from cousin Hildebranda.
Dr. Urbino comes to the River Company office asking for contributions for an artistic event. Florentino feels inferior in his presence. Dr. Urbino mentions to Florentino that his wife is the soul of all his work: “Without her I would be nothing” (191). Florentino is shocked to find that Fermina’s husband loves her as much as he does. They are yoked together, “victims of the same fate” (191).
Florentino meets Sara Noriega at the Poetic Festival at which they both submit poems. They become lovers for several years. After they make love they write poetry together. He is very discrete about his lovers and never reveals his adventures, feeling he is the “eternal husband of Fermina Daza” (197). Fermina Daza presides over the Poetic Festival as a civic duty, and Florentino is surprised to see her as a mother, with a thicker waist and break in her voice. He sees their lives are passing by. He decides to break off his relationship with Sara and is always the one to end affairs first, out of pride.
Fermina Daza never doubts that her decision to reject Florentino and marry Juvenal Urbino was correct, even after Florentino’s rise in business. No one could ever remember Florentino, because, Fermina concludes, it is as though he is a shadow, not a person. Yet she endures guilt about him. Fermina loves neither of the two men at this point but feels that love is not what she needs most. She had married out of fear of opportunity slipping away. She has the worst time of her life living with her in-laws. Her husband does not defend her against his mother. She turns to her children for solace. She adjusts, however, to her new world as best she can, while keeping her private thoughts.
Fermina Daza’s father causes her embarrassment when the nature of his business comes to light. He has promoted illegal schemes under the protection of his son-in-law’s name. Urbino covers up the scandal but sends Lorenzo Daza away, and he dies soon after. The Urbinos are successful as a couple in the world, but Fermina had a battle on her hands after marriage, entering a higher level of society, as a mere commoner. She is equal to the challenge, however, knowing how to charm people. She is accepted in the highest circles, and they preside over the city as a brilliant couple, but Fermina is not happy. She escapes to the house her father left her to be alone with her memories whenever she can. One day she sees Florentino sitting in the park reading as he used to and thinks the vision is an omen of his death. She wonders whether she could have been happy with him. Finally Fermina confronts her husband about their unhappy life, and he liquidates his assets and takes Fermina and their young son to Europe to see if they can get back their love. They see Florentino on the docks as they leave in the boat. She notices his premature baldness.
Florentino is not having a good time during these years either. He is working hard, and his mother’s memory is gone. Another hardship is the love affair with Olimpia Zuleta, a married woman, whose husband cuts her throat when he finds out about the affair. Florentino hears about it from the newspaper and worries about the letters he had written her. His mother meanwhile in a mood of madness distributes all her fortune in gold and jewels to the neighborhood children just before she dies. He visits his mother’s and Olimpia’s graves in the Cholera Cemetery. Florentino goes through a midlife crisis when he begins to have bodily pains of aging and realizes his love with Fermina happened thirty years ago.
Fermina’s life has improved since moving away from her in-laws to her new house in La Manga. Her son is in medical school, and her daughter is growing up. She has won back her husband, she thinks, but he feels that she has given the best part of herself to the children and has to take what is left over. She feels as if she is his servant, living his life. Neither feels the other understands him/her. As old age sets in, however, they cling to one another: “It was the time when they loved each other best” (224).
Commentary on Section Four
This section shows the parallel lives of Florentino and Fermina as they go their separate ways, living their lives and looking for love and success. They keep track of one another, noting that life is passing, and that the other keeps looking older. Though Fermina says she is never sorry for her decision, she is very unhappy, feeling stifled in her society position. Whenever she hears about Florentino’s success, she is happy because it alleviates her guilt about him. In the beginning of her old age, Florentino becomes a “phantom of her nostalgia” (223), yet she thinks of him as a shadow rather than a person.
While Fermina lives in the public eye, Florentino does live in shadow, a marginal figure who frequents questionable places in the city, hiding his love affairs, some of which lead him in dangerous and sordid directions, such as his brush with the madwoman, and Olimpia’s murder. Her murder is not commented upon, but it is due to Florentino’s careless impetuosity in rushing into situations without thought. His writing gets him into trouble here through the love letters that he prays the husband will not find, and the sexy slogan he scribbled on Olimpia’s stomach with paint that betrays them. Since he visits her grave, one assumes he feels regret, yet he does not change his ways.
Florentino is associated with a certain wildness and spontaneity. Fermina misses this in her life with Urbino. Both husband and wife are bored and challenged to keep the marriage alive. They find out “nothing in this world was more difficult than love” (IV 223). Urbino knows about the early love affair between Florentino and Fermina and perhaps goes to the River Company office on purpose to intimidate Florentino, when he tells him he would be nothing without his wife. That is true, but probably something Urbino tells a rival rather than his wife.
Though the Urbinos preside over their city’s main events, they seem happiest in Europe. That is where they are freest from social conventions and where Fermina always gets pregnant. Juvenal Urbino at home is rigid and demanding and gets more so when he ages. In this section the author shows many aspects of love—physical and emotional, casual or committed, but the book seems particularly to celebrate love in old age when the upheavals are gone. The Urbinos are most in love right before he dies, experienced as a sort of affection, loyalty, need, and companionship that forgives all their trials in youth.
Florentino has some companionship with his lovers but not security, since he always makes sure to end the affair before he is dumped, so as not to repeat the pain of Fermina’s rejection. He also deals in clandestine loves, meaning he has to be vigilant and secretive. He feels the urge to unburden his heart to someone like Leona, who turns out to be the one woman in his life who asks nothing but quietly loves and supports him. It is she who makes it possible for him to reach his goal of being successful so he can meet Fermina on equal ground. She, it turns out, is the one who keeps the company going but gives the credit to Florentino.
As love’s passion is the theme in earlier sections, this section shows love’s purification of the heart. Florentino learns something from each of his lovers, and Fermina learns from the weight of one relationship carried through life.