GarcÌa M·rquez returns over and over to the central idea that it is passion that rules life rather than order and authority. The passion of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza is finally consummated after fifty years, nine months and four days, when they are both over seventy years old. Fermina Daza is Florentino’s ideal of perfection. He sees her once, when she is thirteen and he is eighteen; a single glance, and he falls in love for the rest of his life. He courts her for two years with forbidden letters until Fermina agrees to marry him. When they are forced apart, the distraught Florentino waits fifty years for her husband, Dr. Urbino, to die, meanwhile, having over six hundred sexual encounters and recording them in several volumes. This love story is fantastic, humorous, and serious at the same time. Florentino keeps trying to live out the romances he has read. He is an expert at love letters, like Cyrano de Bergerac, writing them for other lovers as well as himself.
GarcÌa M·rquez shows that love is a rebellion or disruption of society’s rules, yet it seems that almost everyone in every class of society is found engaged in both sanctified and illicit love affairs, even the straight-laced Dr. Urbino. Love gives life its juice and meaning. The author celebrates all sorts of love, without privileging any particular kind. He calls the brothel, “a museum of love,” where the clients leave behind their belongings (II. 78). Married love has its own special flavor. Although Fermina has been unhappy in her marriage, she wishes that as her husband dies, he would know how much she had loved him. She wishes they could start over again and say what has been left unsaid.
For the aging Florentino and Urbino, the illicit love affair is a way to defeat boredom and midlife crisis: “he [Florentino] convinced her that one comes into the world with a predetermined allotment of lays, and whoever does not use them . . . loses them forever” (III. 151). The physical lovemaking of the two elderly lovers, Fermina and Florentino, is described at the end of the book, in both touching and anti-romantic detail. It seems a lot like true love, full of peace and acceptance: “It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love” (VI. 345.) With this affirmation the novel ends: “it is life, more than death, than has no limits” (348).
Death, Decay, and Aging
Other themes undercut the romanticism and sentimentality of the book, for it is also a meditation on old age, death, and human memory. When Dr. Juvenal Urbino finds his friend de Saint-Amour has committed suicide at the age of sixty, he attributes it to “Gerontophobia,” (I. 37) the fear of old age. He understands this well for at eighty-one, he cannot dress himself without his wife’s help and is losing his memory. The reader witnesses the aging process of the characters, seeing them first as young vibrant people, and finally in their decay. A humorous passage describes Florentino’s fight against baldness, and Fermina warns Florentino off when he approaches her for a kiss in their seventies, saying that she has the sour smell of an old woman. When the aged Fermina and Florentino finally touch each other’s hands, they both realize at first that “the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching. In the next moment, however, they were” (VI. 329). Fermina’s “ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s” (VI. 339). Fermina’s children are disgusted by the idea of their mother having a love affair at her age, but she rebelliously refuses to give in to their social ideas of family honor. Her son expresses the sentiment to Florentino that the world would be better off without old people because it could progress more rapidly.
The city is also in decay. It is a stagnant tropical port at the turn of the century, with its crumbling old monuments that look back to colonial times. Urbino reflects on “the city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps” (I. 16). The country seems to be dying too, “[bleeding] to death in an endless civil war” (I. 44).
The constant image of death gives the narrative an apocalyptic tone underneath the romance. There is death from cholera, death from war, death from old age, suicide, and revenge. Dead bodies of animals and people float in the river and bay: “a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul” (I. 17). Death is tragic, and it is absurd, illustrated by the black humor of Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s death from climbing a ladder to catch his favorite parrot and falling. Urbino dies without the benefit of the last rites and in “terror of not finding God in the darkness of death” (I. 41).
Fermina Daza defies her father, the convent school, and social expectations by receiving the courtship of Florentino Ariza, her social inferior. Succumbing to his romantic letters and the charm of his storytelling about their love, she is ready to give up everything. She herself becomes the main obstacle to this romance when she suddenly sees him in public, looking very ugly and plain: “she felt the abyss of disenchantment” (II. 102). Disillusioned with Florentino, she finally gives in to the handsome aristocratic Dr. Urbino, though he is much less interesting.
Other disillusionments are scattered throughout the narrative, showing that life never quite meets one’s expectations. Florentino Ariza’s gullibility is illustrated when he believes he has located the spot where a Spanish galleon was sunk in the Caribbean just off the Colombian coast with gold and treasure. Ariza employs Euclides, a twelve-year-old boy, to dive for the treasure. The boy apparently finds the ship and begins to return with bits of jewelry supposedly from the wreck. Ariza is about to finance a major operation when his mother sees that the jewelry is fake and that Ariza has been duped by the boy. He believed the treasure would give him the means to marry Fermina.
The novel thus warns against naivetÈ. For instance, it is only after Saint-Amour’s death that Dr. Urbino discovers from his final letter that his friend was not the pure man he thought him. He pretended to be a refugee, but he has escaped prison for murder and cannibalism. Urbino tells his wife what he hates most is that his friend deceived him, yet he does the same to his own wife.
Fermina Daza is disillusioned in her marriage; first, by never becoming who she dreamed of being when young. Secondly, she goes through a major period of disillusionment when she discovers her husband’s affair with Barbara Lynch. She escapes to the town of her mother’s family to find the comfort she felt there in childhood, but the town has decayed, and she is disillusioned once more, because she cannot even hold on to nostalgia. When she returns to her husband two years later, there is no light in her eyes, and she is an old woman with a sharp temper.
Paradoxically, fidelity is paired with infidelity as part of human nature. Florentino is faithful to Fermina in a strange way, by having hundreds of affairs while waiting for her, but never losing his focus on her as his one true love. After the funeral of her husband, he approaches her too soon, telling her once again of his “vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love” (I. 50).
Once in the half century of waiting for her, he happens to see Fermina’s reflection in a restaurant mirror, and he persuades the proprietor to sell him the mirror so that he can take it home with him to keep the memory of her image there. Florentino also notes the many ways that his own lovers are faithful to him, not sexually, but affectionately. For instance, the widow Prudencia Pitre has wanted to marry him for years, but keeps it to herself. Her door is always open to Florentino, even when he shows up at 3:00 a.m. when he cannot sleep.
His assistant, Leona, loves Florentino but shows it, not through lovemaking, but by secretly running his company for him and giving him the credit. It is her support that makes him into a successful executive of the River Company of the Caribbean.
After Urbino’s death, Florentino finally persuades Fermina to take a voyage with him up the Magdalena River on a boat named New Fidelity. This symbolizes the renewal of their faithfulness to one another. Florentino fulfills his uncle’s wisdom “that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves” (IV. 165). Florentino and Fermina demonstrate faith in one another and in life by allowing themselves to give in to love, even though death is not far off.