Of Love and Other Demons

by Gabriel García Márquez
Start Free Trial

Of Love and Other Demons

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

Garcia Marquez’s OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS explores the boundaries between scientific reasoning, embodied in the practices of eighteenth century medicine, and the tenacious adherence to religious precepts, as wielded by Catholic Church authorities, when the strange behavior of a young girl bitten by a rabid dog is taken to indicate demonic possession by the diocesan bishop.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The enigmatic, illiterate Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles, neglected for twelve years by the Marquis de Casalduero, her withdrawn father, and Bernarda Cabrera, his drug-dependent wife, is reared among slaves until a fever that follows upon her dog bite consigns her to the care of the embittered Abbess of the Convent of Santa Clara. Cayetano Delaura, a young priest sent to exorcise the girl, instead falls madly in love with the entrancing creature whose hair has not been shorn since birth as a pledge to the Virgin for saving her life. Wherever Sierva Maria goes, reports of strange occurrences ensue, casting into doubt rational explanations for the events of the novel’s fictional world.

OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS, from its title forward, raises the possibility that demonic possession is simply another term for the travails of human emotion. The novel’s deft handling of alternative explanations for perceived phenomena and its subtle flirting with the thresholds between fact and fiction, art and life, further enhance the work’s atmosphere of destabilized rationality that ultimately renders any absolute, totalized interpretation impossible. For this reason, Garcia Marquez remains the undisputed king of the Magical Realism movement he helped popularize in the late 1960’s, blending superstitious beliefs with empirical methods to leave the reader grasping for a clear view of the workings of his narrative worlds.

Sources for Further Study

Americas. XLVII, January, 1995, p. 63.

The Economist. CCCXXXVI, July 8, 1995, p. 85.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 14, 1995, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLX, June 12, 1995, p. 836.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 28, 1995, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 27, 1995, p. 72.

Time. CXLV, May 22, 1995, p. 73.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 7, 1995, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, May 14, 1995, p. 3.

World Press Review. XLI, July, 1994, p. 48.

Of Love and Other Demons

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2097

For Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, existence is precarious from the very beginning. The only child of the funereal second Marquis de Casalduero, Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Dueñas, and his drug-dependent wife, Bernarda Cabrera, Sierva María is so puny at her premature birth that the African slave to whom she is later entrusted promises the Virgin Mary that if God permits her to live, the girl’s hair will not be cut until she marries. Abandoned thereafter to a half-savage upbringing while the listless marquis withdraws further from society, and his commoner wife finds solace in her fermented honey, cacao, and many lovers, Sierva María grows up a phantasmal and enigmatic creature, illiterate and prone to lying. On the fateful eve of her twelfth birthday, she is one of four people bitten by a dog later discovered to be rabid.

As terrible suffering and two deaths ensue among the other victims and news of his daughter’s possible infection reaches his ears, Don Ygnacio undergoes a change of heart, regretting his inexcusable neglect of Sierva María. He retrieves her to live in their decayed ancestral mansion and sets out to investigate optimal treatments for her. Returning horrified from the Amor de Dios Hospital, where a sufferer of the dog bite lies half-paralyzed and dying, Don Ygnacio encounters the blasphemous licentiate Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao, a doctor infamous for his unconventional ideas and remedies, whom he convinces to examine Sierva María. Abrenuncio’s prognosis is far from alarming: The girl is unlikely to contract rabies and should be made as happy as possible in her new home.

For a while, all goes well as father and daughter gradually forge a relationship and discover a shared interest in music. Eventually, however, Sierva María comes down with a strange fever and is subjected to the torturous medical remedies of her day. Abrenuncio counsels the marquis on the uncertainties inherent in science as well as faith, and the situation appears resolved until the bishop of the diocese, Don Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes, troubled by reports of the girl’s odd behavior, summons Don Ygnacio to his palace for a religious consultation.

Sierva María may be possessed by demons, the bishop affirms, and in spite of her father’s doubts ought to be transferred to the Convent of Santa Clara for immediate spiritual attention. At the convent, the silent, long-haired girl is at first ignored or treated as an oddity by the nuns and novices under the direction of the embittered Abbess Josefa Miranda, whose long-standing grudge against the Holy Office predisposes her to dislike to Sierva María. The girl’s virtual imprisonment coincides with more violent, inexplicable behavior, and when rumors of peculiar occurrences at the convent reach the bishop, he appoints Father Cayetano Delaura to exorcise Sierva María of demonic possession. Delaura, an aspirant to the post of Vatican librarian, declares his reluctance to undertake a task for which he considers himself unqualified. The bishop, however, insists on his participation and dispatches him to the convent.

An avid reader of books both ecclesiastical and forbidden, Delaura is skeptical about the Holy Office’s conclusions concerning demonic possession. In treating the captivating Sierva María, he relies principally on smuggled pastries, consoling blandishments, and quotations from the Spanish Renaissance sonnet writer Garcilaso de la Vega. The young priest is moved to see her strapped down inhumanly in her own filth; with the help of Martina Laborde, her cellblock companion, he slowly manages to win her confidence. The arrival of a new viceroy, Don Rodrigo de Buen Lozano, who declares an era of renovation, prompts a more gentle handling of the supposedly possessed girl, whose beauty affects him as much as it has Delaura.

When the bishop finally orders Delaura to carry out the exorcism, the wavering priest, fighting his own demons, pays a surreptitious visit to the apostate Abrenuncio to confer on his crisis of conscience. Later in her cell, Delaura informs Sierva María that her father wishes to see her; she reacts frantically, spitting repeatedly in his face. This so excites Delaura sexually that the bishop discovers his acolyte flagellating himself to be rid of his own “possession.”

Despite being condemned to serving at the Amor de Dios Hospital for lepers as penance for his temptations, Delaura secretly visits Sierva María nightly in her convent cell, sneaking through a hidden sewer entrance left from the days of the convent’s battle with the Holy Office. Martina Laborde’s untimely escape, however, leads to the discovery and closing of this breach and thus to the cessation of the marriage-minded couple’s nocturnal encounters of poetry and cakes. The bishop’s hastened attempt at exorcism ends inconclusively in a sudden asthma attack; a second attempt by the priest of the town’s slave neighborhood, Father Tomás de Aquino de Narváez, ends equally suspiciously in his unexplained drowning. Finally, emaciated and weakened after five sessions with the bishop and shorn of the flowing hair that had been consecrated to the Virgin Mary, Sierva María dies of love, dreaming of snow and once again sprouting the enthralling locks that symbolized her elfin volatility.

Gabriel García Márquez’s deft ability to suggest, but never to insist exclusively upon, supernatural causality behind the observable events of Of Love and Other Demons reaffirms his position as the leading practitioner of the Magical Realism he popularized with Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) and later with such notable short stories as “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” (1968; “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” 1972) and “La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada” (1972; “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother,” 1978). In Edith Grossman’s stellar translation from the Spanish, the novel’s atmosphere pulsates with otherworldly uncertainty and ambiguity, which perfectly complements the work’s central, unresolvable tension between religious and empirical explanations of the natural world as embodied in the baffling case of the ill-starred Sierva María.

Delaura’s realization that love, and not demonic possession, may be the foulest fiend of all not only displays one of the novel’s abiding conceits but also demonstrates García Márquez’s specialized, figurative use of language, which from the title forward heralds the work’s sustained ambivalences and ultimately renders impossible an absolute, unified interpretation. Many of the novel’s metaphysical elements, for example, are introduced through the rhetorical tropes of simile and metaphor, as when the bishop compares ideas to angels or Delaura comes into view with the speed of a genie emerging from a bottle. The frequent use of the verbs “seem” and “appear” also permits Of Love and Other Demons to straddle the line between the knowable and the imperceptible, while still other strange occurrences may be imputed to exaggeration, as in Delaura’s memory of a possessed woman in Burgos who defecated continually until her cell overflowed with excrement.

More uncanny phenomena may be attributed to the stylized narrative technique of limited or biased point of view. That the mad former object of Don Ygnacio’s affections, Dulce Olivia, spreads rumors of Sierva María’s bearing Delaura’s two-headed child can reasonably be put down to her jealousy as a woman scorned. Bernarda’s belief that Sierva María can suddenly appear without a sound similarly has tangible roots in the mother’s fear and loathing of her only child. While quite a few sisters at the convent, too, claim that Sierva María can make herself invisible, it is far more likely that they simply negligently overlook her. At one point, the abbess goes so far as to complain to the bishop that since the girl’s arrival, pigs have spoken and a goat has given birth to triplets. Abrenuncio’s near brush with the stake for having purportedly resurrected a dead man is similarly motivated by calumnious tongues: Only his patient’s claim before an Inquisition tribunal that he never lost consciousness, even while in his shroud, saves this Portuguese Jew from death for heresy.

The reader must be willing to accept a fair amount of coincidence, too, to ward off the easy lure of supernatural explanations that lurk behind the improbability of the novel’s unaccountable happenings. While Father Tomás de Aquino’s unresolved drowning, for example, has an earlier analogue in Bernarda’s finding Sierva María’s doll floating in a water jar “murdered,” no evidence exists to substantiate Satanic involvement in either event. Yet what rational explanation exists for the sudden, simultaneous deaths of all the convent’s macaws during Sierva María’s stay? Of Love and Other Demons presents such conundrums on page after page, urging the reader to incorporate events that range from an ill-omened eclipse that partially blinds Delaura, to rabid mountain monkeys’ assault on a cathedral, to the changing color of holy water into a coherent totality that resists a complete favoring of the methods of either reason or faith. The death by lightning of Don Ygnacio’s first wife, Doña Olalla de Mendoza, admits at least three possible explanations and is yet another instance of the work’s persistent ambiguity.

To cloud even further the process of determining fact from fiction within its narrative world, Of Love and Other Demons introduces alternative realms of being—the landscape of dreams and the canvas of portraiture—where conventions of the irrational and the subconscious color all attempts at exposition. Is it pure coincidence that Sierva María and Delaura both dream of her eating grapes while watching snow fall outside a window, or are the would-be lovers so inextricably linked in their passion that they share mental processes? On a similar note, should the girl’s assertion that a painting depicting her subduing demons is an absolute likeness be read as the product of a literal, perverse, or possessed mind?

These obfuscating shifts over planes of existence continue with the eerie mingling of art and life that, on still another level, threatens to undermine the stability of any one textual interpretation. Besides the novel’s use of the actual sonnets of Garcilaso de la Vega, of whom Delaura claims his father is a direct descendant, the reader learns that Doña Olalla was once a music student of Scarlatti Domenico, whose name is a playful transposition of the name of the famous eighteenth century composer.

It is the short italicized preface to the novel, however, that best displays this blending of competing narrative worlds that serves as an apt counterpoint to the collision of empiricism and religious dogma that runs throughout explanations of the action of the work. In this brief account of how he purportedly came to write Of Love and Other Demons, García Márquez describes his early days as a journalist and an assignment he received to cover the disinterment of the crypts beneath the same Convent of Santa Clara that appears in the novel. There, he noted some surprising irregularities: The convent provided the final resting place for the bodies of the bishop and abbess. Don Ygnacio was missing from his tomb, presumably because his remains were discovered, as chapter five recounts, two years after he was eaten by turkey buzzards on an isolated road where he died after a final conversation with Bernarda.

The most peculiar find of all, though, spilled forth from one of the crypts on the high altar: twenty-two meters of coppery hair connected to the skull of a young girl, which had apparently continued to grow after her death. The sight of her bones prompts García Márquez to recall his grandmother’s recounting of the legend of a twelve-year-old marquise who had died of rabies but whom the people of the Caribbean continued to venerate for her miracles. Thus, the close of Of Love and Other Demons brings the reader full circle to its beginning, but without offering a less puzzling or enigmatic account of the novel’s transcendental world.

Sources for Further Study

Americas. XLVII, January, 1995, p. 63.

The Economist. CCCXXXVI, July 8, 1995, p. 85.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 14, 1995, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLX, June 12, 1995, p. 836.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 28, 1995, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 27, 1995, p. 72.

Time. CXLV, May 22, 1995, p. 73.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 7, 1995, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, May 14, 1995, p. 3.

World Press Review. XLI, July, 1994, p. 48.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access