Summary of Section Three
Dr. Juvenal Urbino is a desirable bachelor at the age of twenty-eight when he returns from Paris after completing medical studies. He is fastidious and liberal, with a controlling and reforming nature, bent on applying the latest scientific knowledge from Europe to his city. He can dance and play the piano; he is handsome and of the old aristocratic families. He falls, however, for a common woman, Fermina Daza, when he is summoned to attend her in an illness her father fears may be cholera.
After Paris, the young doctor is shocked to return home to South America, finding the bay full of floating dead animals. Everything is poor and ragged, and his friends insipid. The country is at civil war as usual. He tells his mother that one feels alive in Paris. By contrast, in his city he faces the terrible heat and open sewers, the poverty and violence. When he reaches his home in the prestigious District of the Viceroys, he cries. It is crumbling, and he can hear the screams of madwomen in the asylum next door. He feels the spirit of his dead father in the mansion. His father was an eminent doctor who died in the cholera epidemic six years before. His mother remains in eternal mourning, and his sisters “were fodder for the convent” (107).
Eventually he gives in, feeling that he is responsible for his homeland, and he begins his reform of the hospital and the city, though it is a fight to change old superstitions. His primary obsession is cholera and the sanitation system or lack thereof. The last cholera epidemic had killed a fourth of the people. His father locked himself in a hospital room when he found he was infected and wrote a farewell letter to his family. After all Juvenal Urbino’s reforms, the next cholera outbreak does not become an epidemic. From that time, he is a hero.
He is called on to attend the eighteen-year-old Fermina Daza who was thought to have cholera, but it turned out to be an intestinal infection. The case should have been closed after one visit, but the doctor returns to see how the patient is recovering. He sees her through the window painting a picture in oils and beckons to her. He takes her pulse through the open window. Afraid he is flirting with her, she slams the window shut. Lorenzo Daza summons the doctor for a drink, trying to keep him interested in his daughter. Urbino later has a piano placed in a wagon to play a serenade for Fermino outside her window. He begins a courtship that she stubbornly resists, though he sends many letters. She feels he is a cold person and is humiliated by his attention.
During the courtship, she receives an anonymous doll dressed in black. She sleeps with it at first until she has bad dreams. The doll seems to be growing. She fears it is an African spell. Urbino sends the nuns from her school to persuade her to marry him, but she does not like the hypocrisy of the nuns, who would not let her read love letters. Just then her cousin, Hildebranda S·nchez, comes for Christmas. They secretly smoke together, and this begins Fermina’s lifelong secret habit of smoking. Hildebranda is being sent from her family to break up her love for a married man. In revenge, she goes to the telegraph office and sees Florentino, getting his help with her love letters to her lover, without revealing who she is. She tells Fermina that Florentino “is ugly and sad, but he is all love” (129).
Hildebranda is struck by Fermina’s lonely and isolated life in the city. She only has the house to run, and the rest of the time she is bored. Her father goes to the Parish CafÈ to play games, but they hardly speak. One day he tells his daughter they are ruined, and she fears for her position in the world with no friends. Hildebranda coaxes Fermina into life, making her realize the whole town only exists with the associations that Florentino had made for her in their days of love. The two young women dress up for a photograph together and afterwards run into Dr. Urbino in his carriage, who gives them a ride home. He flirts with the girls, and Hildebranda is delighted, while Fermina is rude. She realizes however, that a long and uncertain life awaits her, so she writes a letter of acceptance to Urbino’s proposal of marriage.
Florentino is devastated when he finds out and weeps. His mother persuades his uncle, Leo XII Loayza, to find him a telegraph job far away, in a city that takes twenty days to reach by steamboat. As he leaves the city, he plays farewell music on his violin under Fermino’s window, the love waltz he composed for her. He takes one of his uncle’s riverboats, listlessly witnessing evidence of the civil war along the river. The captain forbids a favorite pastime, the shooting of alligators for recreation, for fear of military provocation. They pass a boat with the yellow cholera quarantine flag, and they are not permitted to leave the boat. They see green corpses in the river. He romanticizes Fermina and himself as star-crossed lovers, but one night a woman on the boat pulls him into her room, and takes his virginity. He never knows who it is but has a revelation that “his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion” (143).
Florentino goes through fits of agony on Fermina’s wedding day, wallowing in the imagined minute-by-minute awareness of the ritual, only to discover later he had the time wrong. He decides, however, that he will continue to live in the city where she resides, and so he takes the boat back home again. Once home, he grows a mustache and carries out the idea of substituting other loves for Fermina’s. His mother helps him along by sending the Widow Nazaret to his room, a twenty-eight-year old independent woman who takes control of him in bed. They are happy but never bother to speak of love. He uses this incident to launch his profligate life, being able to spot the women in a crowd who will fall for him. He uses his image as the poor whipped dog or street beggar to get favors without attachments. He records every one of his 622 liaisons in his 25 notebooks, named Women. Florentino believes he is over Fermina until he sees her two years later at church on her husband’s arm. She is confident, rich, and six months pregnant. He feels inferior.
Fermina had feared her wedding night, but Juvenal Urbino wisely goes slowly and makes friends with her, delaying the first time until she is ready. She is not a passive wife. Their best time together is the first two honeymoon years they spend in Paris, “sharing power in bed” (160). They come back as sophisticated leaders to their city.
Commentary on Section Three
The author shows humorously that no matter how tragic a love affair may seem at the time, life goes on, even for the melodramatic Florentino who manages to amuse himself in other directions. Fermina’s resistance to the advances of both men stems from her independent nature. She is joyous and fearless around Hildebranda and her cousins in the country and does not want the restricted role of a wife. She likes managing things by herself because she is very capable. There is a rebellious streak in her, as when she defies the nuns who try to persuade her to marry Urbino. She sees their hypocrisy, and when they threaten to send the Archbishop to persuade her, she says, “Let him come” (127). All the power of authority, of the church, of Urbino, or her father cannot make her give in to a suitor. Why does she acquiesce? Hildabranda makes her realize how isolated and friendless she is. She has no security or future, and her father finally gives her the reason for marriage: economics. He may be faking it that he is ruined, but she does not know what he does for a living. She needs to find a place in the world, and for respectable women in her culture, there were two ways forward after adolescence, marriage or the convent. She knows her days are numbered in her father’s house.
Both Florentino and Fermina find, as the song goes, that “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Florentino learns tolerance, wisdom, and many affectionate lessons from all his women. Fermina begins her marriage with the same free and girlish whimsy that makes her attractive to men. Fermina and Juvenal Urbino were not in love when they married, but they fall in love for a short while in Europe. She lets her husband know she likes sex and the joys of Paris. An ominous note is sounded, however, in the incident where they see Oscar Wilde in a Paris bookshop, and she tries to cross the street excitedly to get him to autograph her glove. Urbino is mortified at her lack of restrained manners, inborn in the ladies of his class. Fermina is confident in her frank approach to strangers who always adore her and do what she wants. When she returns home to South America, pregnant and living with her patrician in-laws in their decaying family mansion, her freedom will be a thing of the past.
Another foreshadowing comes with the story of the Widow Nazaret, who talks about her dead husband, but who throws off her mourning clothes as soon as she takes Florentino for a lover. She concludes about her marriage: “I am happy because only now do I know for certain where he is when he is not at home” (150).
Though the romantic comedy of the novel is charming and catches the reader’s full attention, the author fills the margins of the action with glimpses of suffering, violence, war, disease, injustice, and death that give the novel its focus of “love in the time of cholera,” or love on the background of the horrors of the human condition. GarcÌa M·rquez does not comment directly on these horrors but places them in ironic juxtaposition to the surface story. In this characteristic of the magical realism style of writing that GarcÌa M·rquez is famous for, these almost surrealistic details mirror the collective subconscious, like the many dreams of the characters mirror the individual dramas. Fermina has a Freudian dream, for instance, of Dr. Urbino forcing a tongue depressor down her throat. She bites it in half and gives him the smaller piece. This describes the hidden core of their marital battles to come, though to the public eye, they will always be the perfect couple.