Love in the Time of Cholera

by Gabriel García Márquez

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Love in the Time of Cholera is a celebration of life over death, love over despair, and health over sickness. It is the story of Florentino Ariza, who was rejected by Fermina Daza in his youth. He maintains a silent vigil of unrequited love for fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, until he meets Fermina again at her husband’s wake and renews his suit. The novel spans a period from the late 1870’s to the early 1930’s, and it is set in a South American community modeled after Cartagena, Colombia, and besieged by civil wars and plagues.

Florentino, an eighteen-year-old apprentice telegraph operator, sees thirteen-year old Fermina and falls madly in love. Fermina’s father finds out and sends his daughter on an extended trip to remove her from temptation. She returns years later, rejects Florentino, and accepts the proposal of a cultured physician and cholera specialist, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Although Florentino continues to love Fermina throughout the years, he also continues his own social relationships—engaging in 622 long-term liaisons, which he records in a series of notebooks—and becomes president of a riverboat company. Then Florentino learns that eighty-one-year-old Juvenal has died, falling off a ladder trying to capture a condescending, bilingual parrot. Although Love in the Time of Cholera does not have the extended fantasy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, touches of unexpected, delightful humor—like the parrot—abound. In the midst of careful detailing, it is almost as if García Márquez winks and turns his head to tell the reader a private joke.

When Florentino attends Juvenal’s wake at the Urbino home, Fermina orders him to leave. Undaunted, he launches a fervent, youthful courtship and eventually triumphs, consummating his passion on a riverboat during a trip on the Magdalena River. The ship is unable to dock because of an outbreak of cholera on board, and the crew and passengers are running low on supplies. Florentino is focused on life, not death. At the end of the novel, the captain asks Florentino how long he thinks they can keep going up and down the river, and Florentino responds, “Forever.”

This novel differs considerably from much of García Márquez’s previous fiction. It is a more precise and simple story, in contrast to his often complicated multiple narratives. Except for a brief section in the beginning, the plot proceeds chronologically. Although reality and fantasy intermingle, the fantastic in this novel is not as fantastic as in other works, and the line between the two is less blurred. Critics have suggested that Love in the Time of Cholera reads like a nineteenth century novel in the majestic narrative tradition.

García Márquez continues to address his enduring themes of love and destiny; this novel is an optimistic celebration of life. Evil and negativity are present, and this time his characteristic plague is cholera. In this novel, however, such situations make people want to live more, not less. García Márquez has explained that Fermina and Florentino’s romance—which is based on the relationship of his father and mother—was sparked by an image that he once saw: an elderly couple, very much in love, dancing on the deck of a ship. García Márquez told an interviewer that he could not have written Love in the Time of Cholera when he was younger because it includes points of view that he did not have in his youth. He continued, “I think that aging has made me realize that feelings and sentiments, what happens in the heart, are ultimately the most important.”

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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Dr. Juvenal Urbino has been called to the residence of his friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who had taken his own life the previous evening. From a letter that his friend left him, Urbino learns that Saint-Amour spent his final night with a female companion and that he was actually a fugitive who had indulged in cannibalism. Devastated by this knowledge, Urbino finds his whole day unsettled. Late that afternoon, he falls to his death while trying to retrieve his parrot from a tree. Dr. Urbino’s funeral takes place the next day, and after the funeral, and after years of waiting, one of the guests, Florentino Ariza, tells Dr. Urbino’s widow, Fermina Daza, that he loves her.

The relationship between Florentino and Fermina begins more than fifty years earlier, when Florentino, then working at a telegraph office, delivers a message to Lorenzo Daza at his home and immediately falls in love with Fermina, whom he sees in the sewing room. After this, Florentino sits daily on a bench in the park across from the Daza house, reading poetry but mostly waiting to see Fermina. After a brief correspondence between them, Fermina agrees to marry him and, after two years of secret courtship, they begin to plan the wedding.

When Fermina’s father discovers their plan, however, he takes his daughter to Valledupar, the home of his relatives, where she finds a sympathetic friend in her cousin Hildebranda Sanchez. With Hildebranda’s help, Fermina continues to correspond with Florentino over the telegraph. Lorenzo finally realizes that he cannot control his daughter and gives her her freedom. In the midst of preparing for her wedding, however, Fermina, in an abrupt about-face, calls off the engagement.

Eventually, Fermina meets Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a new doctor in the city who has just returned from his studies in Paris. He is committed to fighting cholera, and when Fermina is diagnosed as possibly having the disease, Urbino visits her house. Although he finds her in perfect health, he returns repeatedly to the Daza household to see her. Initially, Fermina resists the doctor’s suit, but her cousin Hildebranda finally persuades Fermina to marry Urbino.

When he learns that Fermina is to marry Dr. Urbino, Florentino is devastated, especially because he realizes that the two do not love each other. To escape this painful situation, Florentino takes a voyage down the Magdalena River. During the journey, he loses his virginity and realizes that sexual passion can temporarily block out his pain over losing Fermina. When he returns to the city, he has an affair with the Widow Nazaret, and after that he goes from one woman to another.

Florentino’s behavior at this point becomes enigmatic. On one hand, he decides to devote his life to winning back Fermina, and with this in mind he goes to work for his uncle Leo, president of the board of directors and manager of the River Company of the Caribbean, and advances steadily. On the other hand, to cope with having lost Fermina, Florentino becomes obsessed with other women.

At the same time, Fermina becomes disillusioned with her marriage. She sees that there is no passion between her and Urbino and that her husband falls far short of what a real man should be. Urbino is at heart a weak person whose social success depends largely on his family’s name. Moreover, Fermina discovers that her husband is having an affair with Barbara Lynch, the wife of a Presbyterian minister. Urbino’s full confession of the affair infuriates her, and she is further outraged when she learns that Juvenal has confessed his affair to the priest, whereas a real man—as she sees it—would have denied everything. She leaves her husband and lives for two years with her cousin Hildebranda, but when Juvenal finally comes for her she rejoices, for she sees this act as that of a real man.

After his uncle Leo’s retirement, Florentino becomes president of the board of directors and general manager of the navigation company. The promotion certainly elevates his social status, but it also frightens him because it means that he, like his uncle, must grow old and die. He therefore begins a final affair, this time with América Vicuña, a fourteen-year-old girl for whom he acts as guardian and who reminds him of Fermina.

This affair ends when Florentino hears the bells tolling the death of an important citizen in the city. He learns that Dr. Juvenal Urbino has died, and he tells Fermina that he still loves her and that she is the only woman he has ever loved. At first she maintains the distance that the years have put between them. Only when she loses her will to live does she allow Florentino back into her life, telling him that she wants to escape everything associated with her marriage. He arranges a boat trip for the two of them, which allows him to be alone with Fermina. On the journey, Fermina realizes that she loves Florentino. Florentino for his part not only sees his lifelong quest fulfilled but also overcomes his fear of mortality. He realizes that only through love has he been able to transcend the final obstacles that remained between him and Fermina—time and the inevitability of death.