Fermina intended her letter to Florentino to be full of rage; she could not have imagined he would think of it as a love letter. She is trying to assert herself again after a half century of servitude in marriage. She does not know who is more dead, her husband or herself. She makes a bonfire and burns everything that reminds her of her husband, deciding to go on with her life.
What blocks her is the phantom of Florentino, who, she thinks must surely hate her. She cannot believe the old man who accosted her at the funeral was the vulnerable boy who had loved her. Her husband’s death has somehow allowed the repressed memories of Florentino to surface.
The day after the funeral, Florentino takes AmÈrica to the ice cream shop, explaining that their relationship is changing. He is going to be her guardian, not her lover. He tells her that he is going to get married. After getting Fermina’s letter and reading every syllable many times for her hidden intentions, he decides he cannot quit the fight for her. He is inspired to write to her on a typewriter. He writes a six-page letter unlike his old letters. It is a rational letter, a new method of seduction. He does not refer to their love. He wants the letter to give her the courage to love again: “It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace” (293). He keeps sending letters rejoicing that they are not returned. He ignores AmÈrica, and she resents the change. He places her in the care of servants.
After six months, he has heard no reply. On the anniversary of Urbino’s death, Florentino attends the family mass for him and sees Fermina shining and alive. She greets him and thanks him for coming. She had received his letters and found in them a reason to go on living. They were a meditation on old age and life. She respects him as an inspired writer; the letters bring her calm.
Encouraged, he calls on her at her house. He begins to visit her on a regular basis, bringing a single white rose. When he attempts to move towards the topic of love, she thwarts him, yet he begins to feel part of the family when her son and his wife visit, and they play cards.
The son, Dr. Urbino Daza, asks to have lunch with Florentino at the Social Club. Florentino is nervous, because the Social Club does not admit people of illegitimate birth. He is not stopped, however, and Dr. Urbino Daza thanks Florentino for being his mother’s friend. Florentino is relieved and further encouraged.
Florentino twists his ankle and has to stay in bed. Leona and AmÈrica nurse him. He and Fermina speak by telephone and write letters. AmÈrica is falling behind in her studies because she is depressed by the changes with her guardian, but Florentino ignores this. Fermina begins to miss him. She likes him better now than in his romantic youth.
Meanwhile, a tabloid paper called Justice, publishes two stories attacking Fermina and her family. The first claims that Juvenal Urbino had an affair with her best friend Lucrecia, a falsehood that she believes because of the Barbara Lynch incident. The second article exposes her father as a criminal who counterfeited money and sold arms illegally. These articles break Fermina’s spirit, and she does not want to go on living. Florentino begins to visit her again, feeling that her anger at the world “had given her back the untamed character” of her youth (322).
At this time AmÈrica finds the letters of Fermina and Florentino and reads them. Fermina’s daughter Ofelia visits and is disturbed by Florentino’s attentions to her mother, saying that love at their age is “revolting” (323). Fermina throws her daughter out for saying evil things of Florentino. She stands up for herself saying, “They can all go to hell” (324). In this mood she accepts Florentino’s proposal of taking a pleasure cruise on the river. She books passage on the ship called New Fidelity. Fermina’s grown children are uncomfortable knowing Florentino will be on the ship too.
The two sit on her private deck to watch the river on a full moon. They hold hands. She sees Florentino as he is now, “old and lame, but real” (330). The next day, Florentino is dressed fashionably for a change. Captain Samaritano shows them around the ship, and they speak of the extinction of the animals on the river over the years, especially the manatees. Florentino kisses Fermina good night at her door, noticing she has the sour smell of old age, a “smell of human fermentation” that he also has (335).
In the middle of his newfound happiness, Florentino receives a telegram from Leona telling him of the suicide of AmÈrica after failing an exam. He knows that is not the real reason and tries to erase the anguish from his mind. On the river, they see corpses floating, and they are told the official story that these are accidental drowning victims. They see the land stripped by commerce and war.
Florentino and Fermina spend time in deck chairs holding hands. Finally, they are ready for the final step and make love, “when reason told them they had time only for death” (339). They both feel disappointed in the physical event, but they become closer. They are happy just being together: “For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death” (345).
On the return trip, Fermina is worried because she knows some of the passengers coming on board. Florentino comes up with the idea of hoisting the cholera flag to get rid of everyone, and the Captain agrees because he too has a sweetheart who comes on board. Now the two couples will have privacy on the return trip. No one bothers with a ship in quarantine. When they return to their city (Cartagena), they are refused entry to the port because of the cholera flag. Florentino says, “Let us keep going, going, going, back to La Dorada” (348). The ship turns around and goes back down the river.
Commentary on Section Six
This is a happy and sentimental ending, but the author is realistic about love in old age. He gives plenty of details about wrinkled skin and false teeth, yet the two experience peace and harmony together. Fermina is awakened to her old strong self, even though she feels some guilt about her husband. Before leaving on the trip she goes to the cemetery and explains to him about the voyage and says good-by, leaving the past to enter a new life. She appreciates Florentino’s skill in opening her to love once more.
One event that pushes her in the direction of going on the boat trip is a story in the newspaper about an old couple, murdered in a boat. It turned out they were secret lovers who were married to other people but who had taken a clandestine trip together for forty years. Fermina cries over this story, and it moves her. This is juxtaposed to the false story in Justice about her husband being lovers with her best friend, Lucrecia. She returns to the topic of the murdered couple on the voyage with Florentino, somehow identifying with them and their illicit but beautiful love. This story actually happened and the news article was one of the seeds GarcÌa M·rquez used for the novel. The old couple tragically killed while finding love amid violence symbolizes the theme of love in the time of cholera.
Another impetus for Fermina to rebel and go with Florentino are the newspaper articles in the tabloid, Justice. She and Dr. Juvenal Urbino had done everything possible to uphold their dignity and position in society, repressing their own needs for the sake of the public responsibility they carried. The newspaper demolishes that image built over a lifetime of sacrifice. Although Urbino did have an affair, they got the name wrong, and it destroys Fermina’s friendship with Lucrecia del Real, the accused woman. Her own father’s sordid past is also exposed, so her reputation is ruined. She feels at her age with everything honorable gone from her, there is nothing to lose. It is her last chance for happiness.