Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
Gabriel García Márquez is one of the most important Latin American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. His novels and stories are distinguished by a vivacity of style that clearly sets them apart from the pessimism often associated with early twentieth century Western literature, yet his characters’ acute sensitivity to the passage of time clearly shows the influence of one of the greatest twentieth century American writers, William Faulkner.
García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera can, in fact, be viewed as a novel both of tradition and of its own time. It offers a traditional love story focusing on two lovers who overcome many obstacles before they are united. Beyond that, however, the novel addresses the question of time and the related fear of death in a universe in which God’s existence no longer seems assured. Love in the Time of Cholera represents the author’s response to the notion that death is inescapable and final. García Márquez uses a framed plot, the interweaving narratives of Florentino and Fermina, and symbolism to assert that passionate love can transcend time and death.
The frame story emphasizes the seeming inescapability of death. García Márquez begins the novel with the death of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who has committed suicide at the age of sixty because he can no longer fully enjoy human passion. García Márquez next presents the death of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who proclaims his passion for Fermina at the moment of his death. After that, the narrative moves back in time to the stories of Florentino and Fermina. Only toward the end of the novel does García Márquez return to the deaths of Saint-Amour and Urbino, both of which in turn remind the now-elderly Florentino of his own inescapable death. With this frame, García Márquez establishes a tension between death and love and suggests that there is no escape from death.
Throughout the novel, constant references to cholera remind the characters as well as the reader of death. Regardless of Urbino’s efforts to find a cure for cholera, the disease remains a fatal presence. Further, in an interesting bit of symbolism, when Dr. Urbino and his wife Fermina celebrate the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth by riding in a hot-air balloon, they see below them the bodies of people who have been killed in the latest political uprising. The message is clear: Death is ever-present and inescapable.
The interweaving of the narratives of the two lovers, however, reminds the readers that passionate love is not merely a constant in this novel but also the only thing that allows the two main characters to transcend death. Florentino’s passionate love for Fermina sustains him through a series of sexual encounters that he uses to cope with the pain of having been rejected by her; likewise, Fermina’s love for Florentino, although she does not admit to it until old age, sustains her through the years of marriage to Urbino, who falls far short of being the man she had hoped he would be. Following the funeral of her husband, Fermina spends the night in bed unable to think about anyone but Florentino. Clearly, though she may have denied it to herself, she has loved Florentino since the moment of their separation. The fact, too, that the lovers’ narrative continues beyond the deaths of Urbino and Saint-Amour—and that their romance is renewed—actually constitutes a journey beyond death that corresponds to Florentino and Fermina’s final cruise down the Magdalena River, when Florentino does transcend his own mortality. Love is the constant that García Márquez uses to oppose that other constant, death.
García Márquez also uses symbolism to suggest the power of human passion over death. For instance, the smell of almonds, referred to in the opening line of the novel, is always associated with unrequited love and, throughout the novel, emphasizes the enduring presence of love in the midst of death. Although he may have indulged in cannibalism—symbolizing utter human depravity—Saint-Amour (“saint of love”) is redeemed because he has lived and died for love. Indeed, in this novel, passionate love is sacred. Emphasizing this association, García Márquez often links love with the Holy Spirit: Romantic passion is as holy as God’s love for humanity. It is therefore significant that the deaths of Saint-Amour and Urbino occur on Pentecost Sunday, the Christian holiday commemorating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. During his boat trip down the Magdalena River (water traditionally being associated with life and renewal), Florentino’s moment of transcendence is related to the “grace of the Holy Spirit.” In an almost mystical moment in the final page of the novel, giving the captain of the riverboat the impression that “life, more than death, has no limits,” Florentino and Fermina seem to have stepped beyond mortality. A masterpiece of Western literature, Love in the Time of Cholera is a romance that goes beyond a simple love story to assert, through plot, character, and symbol, that life need not be limited by death.