I can’t think about this book without thinking about feminism and sexism and the trouble with traditional male-female relations. It’s like there are two books, the one the author intended you to read, and a second one that is far less cheerful.
I’ll talk about the excellence of the novel first–and this novel does have excellence. Garcia Marquez lavishes the reader with details of life in the unnamed Caribbean city in the latter part of the 19th (and the beginning of the 20th) century. The details are so sumptuous, from colorful parrots to the scent of muck in the harbor to the taste of poached fish and anisette, that I felt a though I could picture the city vividly, though I never quite figured out what country it was supposed to be in. The story is a little hard to follow, as it switches back and forth between the end of the doctor’s life and sixty years earlier, when he was a young man courting Fermina Daza.
There are three main characters in this book, Fermina Daza (the wooed woman) Doctor Urbano (her eventual husband) and Florentino Ariza, who adores Fermina from first sight. Florentino spies Fermina by accident when he’s delivering a telegraph. He contrives an affair by letter, which she eventually joins, but after several years of this, she eventually decides she doesn’t love him and that she’d rather marry Doctor Urbano. Florentino pines for her for decades, catching sight of her from time to time and keeping his love fires burning by screwing as many women as possible. When the doctor eventually dies, Florentino picks up where he left off and courts her again.
One of the things I like about this book is that it touches on almost every aspect of human life. We learn how Florentino’s mother uses her knack for discretion to run a profitable side business as a pawn broker to wealthy women. It talked about Fermina collecting animals until a dog went rabid and killed them all. It talks about how often Fermina masturbates and under what conditions. It talks about how the doctor’s stream of urine started out “like a stallion” and became weaker and weaker until he was forced to suffer the “indignity” of wiping the seat after himself. I found this both ribald and hilarious and oddly touching in a way. I even liked how Garcia-Marquez talked about how some people had no talent for “love” (he meant sex) and despite their number of partners, they never got any better. I admired the deftly done omniscient viewpoint that let me feel as though I were peering into all those lives, like sitting on God’s shoulder for 70 years in a country I’d never seen.
Taken at face value, this is a joyous uplifting book about true love overcoming all obstacles. I’m sure this is how it was meant to be taken. Florentino is the gallant suitor, winning Fermina over through persistence, persistence, and persistence. Also poetry, but mostly the first three. It’s also a story about married love, as you got the sense that Fermina and Doctor Urbano did love each other.
But there’s a second story overlaid on top of the first, which isn’t as joyous. When we first meet Fermina, she is owned by her horrible father. I say owned because that’s exactly what it is, ownership. Not only is she not allowed to leave, she’s not even allowed to have any feelings or desires other than what her father allows her to have. When she’s caught writing a love letter, as a punishment, her aunt Escolastica (who raised her, and was in essence the only mother Fermina had ever known) was sent away to die in parts unknown. This is thrown in and mentioned only casually once or twice, but I would think this would be a huge traumatic thing for anyone to go through. Imagine the woman who is essentially your mother and only friend in the world is sent off to (probably) die because you were caught writing a note in class. I couldn’t unforget this. I know this was supposed to be just no big deal, like seeing a dead dog in the street, but to me it was a horrible, horrible thing that colored the entire story for me, though not, apparently, for Fermina. Even her father’s in-laws, who were presumably also related to Escolastica, never cared about or tried to rectify her unjust exile. She’s a throwaway person, a redshirt, and we’re not supposed to care.
When Florentino first meets and begins to court Fermina, she is only 13. I don’t remember how far apart they were, but I’m going to say maybe 5 years. This novel solidified an opinion I was beginning to realize I had while listening to Lolita: I don’t like men who lust after girls. An adult man has no business courting a 13 year old girl. It kind of colored my opinion of Florentino. He’s set up as the hero, but to me he’s not a hero, he’s a pervert. All the women he slept with solidified my impression of him as a pervert. I imagine it was supposed to be demonstration of how Florentino was a real man, capable of great passion, but to me it showed him as a cad, a horndog who screwed anyone and anything without discrimination. Escolastica is only the first woman whose life is ruined by Florentino. Another woman is murdered by her husband because of something lewd Florentino wrote on her skin, and it’s a throwaway. Again, we’re not supposed to care. Another woman has all her possessions stolen while she’s screwing Florentino, to punish her for her infidelity, and we’re supposed to shrug and say she deserved it. He also sleeps with his ward (!) a girl he’d practically raised. After he dumps her, she goes from first to last in her class and then kills herself. So that was the fourth woman whose life was destroyed by Florentino’s “love.” Again, this poor girl is just another redshirt, dying because of the captain of love, and we’re not supposed to care, because it’s Florentino’s story.
We’re supposed to root for Florentino, and hope that he and Fermina finally get together, as they are “meant to.” I was glad when she dumped him. No one really cares what Fermina wants. Her only power is to say yes or no, to choose which man owns her, to choose who she waits on, sews the buttons for, takes care of. A wife in that time (and to some extent, in our own time) is merely first among servants, first among the things a man owns. When Fermino considers asking her hand the second time, it is her son he will ask it of, a fact which revolts me as deeply as slavery. The double standard rankled my feminist ire. Doctor Urbano cheats, and it’s considered natural and inevitable, but for Fermina to cheat is absolutely unthinkable. Florentino reflects on the happy widowhood he sees so often in the women he screws, how the further away they got into it, the more they liked not having to spend every waking moment putting another person’s needs ahead of their own. And yet, he can’t wait a single day to try to impinge upon this widowhood. He doesn’t care about her happiness, he just wants her.
Maybe the reader is meant to realize that it is Fermina’s virginal demeanor that Florentino wants, not her herself. It’s the fact that she’s cloistered and guarded that he cares about–presumably there were scads of other, age-appropriate women he could have courted. He seems to delight especially in cuckholding other men, and having sex with grotesquely inappropriate people (I’m still skeeved out by him screwing his underage ward. He and Humbert Humbert could compare notes.) Florentino doesn’t seem like Romeo so much as one of those creepy neckbeard stalkers who see a celebrity and decide they have some special connection. They build it up until reality cracks their little fantasy, and then they usually kill the woman they supposedly loved, for not being the woman they were pretending she was. Fermina’s fear of Florentino is justified. I don’t like the message that if a woman turns you down, stalk her and pine after her and pester her until you wear down her defenses. It didn’t seem like true love so much as Florentino deciding he wanted her, and being determined to get her just to make a point.
It’s a gloriously written novel of a time and place I know little about, and that I loved. If I could just see this as a love story, I would have liked it better. But it’s also the story of a woman who, despite her relative wealth and position and apparent maturity and competence and diligence, is never seen as more that a thing to be owned by the men who supposedly love her.