clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Great Media: Love in the Time of Cholera



Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a Nobel Prize-winning author from Columbia.  He was born in 1927 and is still with us today.  This book, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, is his best and most famous work.  It's a novel that lends itself to a number of different interpretations, and I'll give you mine after going over the basic plot.


The story opens with a young man, Florentino Ariza, who is deeply, madly in love with a young woman, Fermina Daza in late 19th Century Columbia.  Florentino is a likable guy who you want to root for.  He is a romantic, full of adventure, who adores Fermina utterly.

After briefly flirting with Florentino, Fermina decides that Florentino is too naive for her.  Her father also forbids her to continue seeing Florentino, as he thinks Fermina has better prospects.  She ends up marrying a somewhat older physician, Juvenal Urbino, who is an intelligent man, dedicated to fighting cholera and helping others.  In a lesser, cliched work, Juvenal would have been some kind of villain, but in a Nobel Prize winning work, he is not.  He is not perfect, but he is generally decent, provides Fermina a good life, and makes a good living doing honorable work.

Florentino, having lost the love of his life, commits to a life of bachelorhood, waiting for Juvenal to die so he can win Fermina back.  Decades later, Juvenal finally passes away.  Fermina and Florentino are both rather elderly, but true to his plan, Florentino pursues Fermina once again and this time wins her.  

In the decades between Fermina's rejection of Florentino and her ultimate acceptance of him in their later years, Florentino has changed.  The ultimate romantic Florentino has given way to a philandering Florentino who runs around with married women, resulting in one of his lovers being murdered by her husband while he escapes.  He has a sexual relationship with a very young girl named America who has been sent in trust to be raised by him, who he then abandons to pursue Fermina, leading to her suicide, to which he is indifferent.

Like I said, there are lots of interpretations of this novel.  I choose to interpret it by viewing Florentino as a sinister figure.  I don't believe he ever really loved Fermina.  As a teenager, he loved an image of Fermina, and image of his own invention.  He never really knew her, but he worshipped her in a way only a naive person can.  To use a feminist term, he put Fermina on a pedestal.

That's the naive Florentino, which never really went away.  Or did it?  Did he continue to worship Fermina?  Or did he come to see her as a prize to win?  I think by the end of the novel, Fermina is a prize to win.  He's also ruined a lot of lives in getting to her, including the life of his young ward who he exploits and then discards.

The title of the book refers to the disease cholera, a deadly and frightening disease, but the Spanish word colera also refers to intense and negative emotion.  Garcia Marquez intends both meanings here.  It is a story about "love" during a time of disease, but also during a time of intense and often destructive emotions.

The novel is beautifully written, and I think that contributes to people's interpretation of this as a sweet love story.  Garcia Marquez never tells us precisely how we are supposed to feel about Florentino or Fermina, and early in the story Florentino is certainly likable, and we feel sorry for him that he has placed all his hopes in a girl who does not live up to his lofty expectations.  His early actions are in fact the actions of a sweet, lovesick teenager, but he grows sinister when he never quite outgrows that adolescent phase and his worshipping of her and pursuit of her become, in my eyes, unseemly.

His other actions during his bachelorhood are similarly unseemly, and grow worse by the decade.  He continues to passively pursue Fermina despite her more or less happy marriage.  He witnesses the death of his lover at the hands of her husband and doesn't really feel any guilt over it, only relief that he wasn't caught with her, and vague remorse that she is dead (as opposed to guilt over his actions which contributed to her death).  His relationship with his young ward is indefensible, and anyone who wants to argue that Florentino is a sympathetic character must figure out how to explain this relationship and his callous response to her calls for help and her death.

It's truly a great work, and I recommend it for anyone with any kind of a taste for literature.  It is not a particularly difficult work, and can be enjoyed on a number of levels.