This is about the experience of women with romantic love in fiction, beginning with the heroine of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I will try to balance what I call their experience with the choices of the author. They are one in the same, but how I speak of them changes the way we see the characters. I can write about the women of Love in the Time of Cholera as independent entities or as creations of an author-god, in this case Márquez. There are many, many women in this book but I will focus on one here, our primary heroine, Fermina Daza.
Love in the Time of Cholera is a slow revelation. It rolls on with rich detail of life around the turn of the century in Colombia, inserting liveliness into even mundane settings, but also tempering the most typically dramatic aspects like love and death. Haunting details are told so plainly. Florentino Ariza’s passion for Fermina Daza while at once melodramatic becomes familiar. She is as strongly a supporting aspect of his character as she is her own person. His passion and her memory of her own passion are a line that tethers them.
Fermina Daza’s life also tapers off into a long plateau of ambivalence. Márquez does not moralize her existence. She is a collection of all her aspects, jumbled together. Her adolescent infatuation, the end of her passion, the introduction of Urbino, who will become her husband, their life together, and his death. Márquez holds close to the nuances of real life, but this is terribly frustrating sometimes. In books, I like to grasp something whole. I like to the see the point which we are approaching on the horizon. Like humanity in general, Fermina Daza is not a point to be made.
As for Fermina Daza’s experience of love, it is always qualified by duty. When she was a child, it is to the school for girls under the watch of the nuns. She also must remain sexually inexperienced to fulfill the job of marrying well. When she is grown, her duty is running the household, birthing a family, and being the mate of one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in town.
Fermina Daza’s return to her childhood love Florentino Ariza is as near to a closed circle as we get. It is not until she is old that she, the driving force of her, becomes more apparent. When the old lovebirds sit alone in the suite on the riverboat, gazing at the ruined landscape, her bare needs are communicated. She wishes things to be simple: to have two dresses and no responsibilities. She’s not romanticizing poverty, but the lack of ceremony that wealth required.
Her love for Florentino Ariza in the twilight of her life is a quiet one. It is beyond the noise of adolescence and the noise of expectation. It is beyond the death of her husband. It is beyond several truths that seemed utterly apparent, including that she would never love Florentino Ariza.
But despite this triumph of freedom at the end, Fermina Daza is still devoted to the world which restricts her. Back when her husband Juvenal Urbino has an affair (and when she believes she has another affair) it seems that it is not just an emotional betrayal, but one that violates her sense of propriety related to her duty that she has worked so hard to conform to. Juvenal Urbino’s affair with Miss Barbara Lynch is deepened by Miss Lynch’s racial and cultural otherness. Fermina Daza is disgusted by this breach of propriety within the hierarchy she works so hard to maintain. Sitting on the riverboat with Florentino is an easing of her duties of conformity; not because she is not in control, but because she is out of sight, she is not bald and exposed at the summit of their society.
The variety of affairs that Juvenal Urbino and Florentino Ariza have are curious explorations of sex and love. What I find most peculiar about this whole work was the conflation of those words. “Love” seemed to be always present in sexual interaction. Indeed, whole roomfuls of interesting relationships and interactions blossom from these affairs. There are some striking divergences from this, especially during the instances of sexual assault in the novel, though these are not directly a part of Fermina Daza’s life.
And Fermina Daza’s experience of love herself is not just wrapped up in the sexual, but in the sensual. Despite the mechanized nature of her existence, and the constant demand of her husband to give, orchestrate, maintain, and present, Fermina Daza receives as well. Sensuality is an absorption and reaction.
Her olfactory experience is one of the most powerful. The smells of her life coalesce around its events: the almond trees, of the woman her husband has sex with, of the river as she vacations with Florentino Ariza. These smells are memories, disruptions, and possibilities of love.
Her sensuality and sexuality also intermingle in her initial encounters with Juvenal Urbino. He is at first her doctor and then her lover, seeing her naked in two different but overlapping ways. It makes sense, though, that sensuality is markedly removed from the disease of the title. When she ages, despites her anxiety with her oldness, she is still firm in an infirm world. She has access and mobility. She may step over the dead on the street. Even when her husband dies so absurdly, she remains. Her tale is one of a carefully carved space, like the riverboat pretending to be quarantined for cholera. But within her world, within the perfumed, stilted world, she created some love.