When Dr. Juvenal Urbino enters the house of his friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, he notices a bitter-almond smell and automatically associates it with unrequited love. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a refugee from the Antilles, committed suicide by inhaling gold cyanide, which produces the smell that Dr. Urbino notices. In the man’s dark bedroom, Dr. Urbino finds his friend’s dead body lying on his bed next to his dead dog. Dr. Urbino can immediately tell that Jeremiah is dead. He gently lifts the blanket that covers him and sees his friend’s naked, blue body, which seems to have aged 50 years, and his limp legs, which always forced him to use crutches. Dr. Urbino sighs that Jeremiah behaved foolishly, since the worst has already happened.
The fact that the novel opens on a crude scene of death, involving physical details about the corpse’s state, suggests that the themes of death and aging will be at the center of the novel. Before readers know anything about Dr. Urbino’s thoughts or life, they are forced—like Dr. Urbino—to confront the brutal fact of death and realize that everyone is mortal, even one’s closest friends. His lack of knowledge about Jeremiah’s motives also highlights that one never truly knows everything about the people around them, since people’s private thoughts are often out of reach.
An 81-year-old man and the most famous physician in the city, Dr. Urbino makes use of his authority, telling the police inspector and the medical intern present that an autopsy is not needed, since cyanide was undoubtedly the cause of death. Noticing the intern’s disappointment at not being able to inspect the body, Dr. Urbino says that he will soon find someone who has killed himself out of love. He then realizes that this is the first suicide by cyanide he has ever witnessed that was not caused by the troubles of love.
Dr. Urbino’s association of cyanide with unrequited love introduces the idea that passionate love can lead people to desperate behavior, if they become so desperate that they choose to commit suicide. This presents love—which will later be compared to cholera—as a potential illness, a phenomenon so intense that it can destroy the life of the person who experiences it.
Dr. Urbino, who is known to abide by civic rules, refuses to talk to the Archbishop so that Jeremiah might be buried in sacred religious ground. He counters the police inspector’s praise of Jeremiah by noting that, if Jeremiah was a saint, he could only be considered an “atheistic saint.” Confused by Jeremiah’s decision to kill himself for no reason he can yet perceive, Dr. Urbino examines his friend’s possessions, noticing an unfinished game of chess on his desk—one in which, very surprisingly, it can be seen that talented Jeremiah was going to be beaten in four moves by a chess master—and Dr. Urbino considers this a clue.
Dr. Urbino abides by religious rules and conventions, such as not burying non-believers or suicide victims in sacred ground. It is never clear why Jeremiah might be considered a “saint,” because few details are given about his personality and his life in the city, beyond his love for chess. However, in light of what Dr. Urbino later finds out about Jeremiah, the common acceptance that he is saintly suggests that it is possible for a person to behave in admirable ways in a given context while having behaved depravedly in another.
Dr. Urbino also notices an envelope on Jeremiah’s desk, addressed to Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He tears the envelope open and sees 11 sheets of paper, which he fervently reads. When he is done, he feels distraught, though he simply tells the inspector and young intern that the missive contains Jeremiah’s death wishes. Dr. Urbino then realizes that he is now bound to miss Pentecost Communion, which he has missed only two other times in his life. He concludes that God will understand. Dr. Urbino then plans to inform anyone who knew Jeremiah of his death. He aims to be done with such tasks in time to go to the luncheon that Dr. Lácides Olivella, one of his disciples, has organized.
Dr. Urbino’s shock at reading Jeremiah’s letter introduces the idea that, despite being his close friend, Dr. Urbino might not know much about Jeremiah’s life, and that there might be a gap between Jeremiah’s outward behavior and his inner thoughts or past life. Dr. Urbino’s commitment to religious traditions such as going to Mass highlights his appreciation of fixed schedules and following a determined routine (a quality that also comes forth in his capacity for taking charge of organizational details). The nature and extent of his faith, on the other hand, remains largely unknown.
Since the wild years of his youth, Dr. Urbino now follows a rigid routine and has acquired fame throughout the province for his medical capabilities. Dr. Urbino has always refused to prescribe medicine for old age, but in secret, he takes medicine to alleviate his own symptoms related to aging, such as vertigo and insomnia—“it [is] easier for him to bear other people’s pains than his own.” He even takes a medicine to alleviate his own fear of the negative effects of mixing too many different kinds of medicine.
In addition to Jeremiah’s secretive private life, Dr. Urbino’s actions highlight the divide between public statements and personal fears. It also suggests that, as a doctor, Dr. Urbino has failed to take elderly people’s fears and symptoms as seriously as he should have.
Dr. Urbino’s daily routine consists of teaching a class at the Medical School every morning before having breakfast and lunch at home. Then, he reads books that booksellers in Europe send him and goes to visit his patients at their homes. At his old age, Dr. Urbino knows that patients mostly call on him in desperate situations, but he considers this to be a form of specialization. Dr. Urbino trusts in his medical instinct and insists that most medicine is harmful, and that once death has arrived, all a doctor can do is alleviate the patient’s suffering. His wife, Fermina Daza, knows his unchanging schedule so well that she can send him a message at a particular place if need be.
Dr. Urbino’s regimented schedule suggests that his profession and social life reflect an essential aspect of his personality: his love of order and rationality. Although Dr. Urbino rejects all superstition in the medical field, it remains ambiguous whether his distaste for medicine derives from factual evidence or from his own (not necessarily rational) instinct. Despite Dr. Urbino’s apparent predictability, he will soon discover that he is not as reliable as he believes himself to be.
When Dr. Urbino was younger, he would spend time in the Parish Café after work to play chess. There, he met Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, to whom he soon became a protector, without inquiring what caused Jeremiah to become a refugee or to have crippled legs. He contributed financially to Jeremiah’s incipient career as a child photographer. Dr. Urbino did this because of his love for chess, a game in which Jeremiah was greatly superior. Jeremiah made Dr. Urbino progress and, over time, the two of them became good friends.
This description of Dr. Urbino and Jeremiah’s friendship suggests that, despite being long-lived, their relationship relied on an external activity—chess—more than deep understanding of each other’s life and feelings. Jeremiah’s crippled legs bring a first hint of doubt in his life story, as it is possible that Jeremiah suffered from an illness or, perhaps, that what happened to his legs involved human violence.
On his way home in a carriage, Dr. Urbino gives a quick glance to Jeremiah’s letter and tells the coachman to go to the old slave quarter. Returning to the letter, Dr. Urbino remains shocked by Jeremiah’s confessions but concludes that they reflect the folly of a man before death. Dr. Urbino almost never visits the old slave quarter. Inside his elaborate carriage, in which he still orders his coachman to wear a velvet uniform and a top hat—which some people consider cruel in Caribbean weather—Dr. Urbino observes the streets around him, near the evil-smelling marsh and slaughterhouse garbage. He is appalled to notice the fragile houses made of wooden boards and metal, the drunken noises wafting out from taverns on a Sunday, and the group of children running after the carriage.
Dr. Urbino’s social behavior is contradictory. Although he visibly finds the sight of poverty disturbing, he also insists on retaining aristocratic practices, such as dressing his coachman in a traditional way. This last detail is surprising, since in other aspects of his life Dr. Urbino does not seem to care about emphasizing his aristocratic background but, instead, as a doctor, takes pains to make the whole of society healthier and more modern. His shock at witnessing poverty highlights the strict divisions and inequality that separate social classes in the city.
When Dr. Urbino finally reaches his destination, he enters a decrepit house in which a biracial woman (referred to as a “mulatta”) opens the door. She invites him to sit down in her parlor, which reminds Dr. Urbino of a crowded antique shop in Montmartre. Dr. Urbino can tell from the woman’s grief-stricken attitude that he has nothing new to tell her: she already knows what happened to Jeremiah. The woman, Jeremiah’s lover, confirms that she was indeed with him before his death. Her words express warmth and gentleness that very closely resembled love.
“Mulatta” is a derogatory term for a woman of mixed race—in Spanish, it means “young mule.” Dr. Urbino’s thoughts about Paris contrast starkly with the environment he is in, since his experience of the world (having been able to travel to Europe) contrasts with the poverty of the country he is in. Although race is not extensively discussed in the novel, racial distinctions between people are usually mentioned in a way that suggests they are tied to class and social status. Dr. Urbino’s failure to describe the woman’s feelings as love (instead of as something that approximates love) introduces, for the first time in the novel, the question of what love truly is. It suggests that Dr. Urbino’s conception of love probably clashes with the woman’s.
Jeremiah and his lover had met in Port-au-Prince, and the woman later followed him to this city. Dr. Urbino does not understand why the two of them kept their relationship secret. Dr. Urbino had always assumed that Jeremiah’s disability affected his entire lower body and that he had no lover. She replies that it was Jeremiah’s wish, adding that secrecy made their relationship more intense—a model relationship, perhaps. Dr. Urbino is then astonished to realize from her narrative that she is the mysterious chess master whose moves he witnessed on Jeremiah’s desk. He blurts out a shocked compliment about it, but the woman replies that Jeremiah was already gloomily affected by the thought of his death and did not play with energy.
The woman’s association of romantic fulfillment with secrecy suggests that social codes and public behavior can be harmful to the true expression of people’s feelings and happiness. The woman’s talent for chess also challenges what Dr. Urbino considers to be good chess players: members of his circle—who are usually upper-class and male. Jeremiah’s anguish about dying gives his death a human element that the description of his corpse previously lacked. It suggests that, even if he committed suicide, he was not necessarily unafraid of death.
After the chess game, Jeremiah wanted to write a letter to the man he admired the most in his life and his closest friend, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, even though they were only linked by a mutual passion for chess. To Urbino’s consternation that Jeremiah’s lover knew of Jeremiah’s intentions, the woman replies that she would never have reported Jeremiah, out of love for him. She explains that Jeremiah planned to commit suicide at age 60 in order to avoid growing old, although this decision brought him despair. When Dr. Urbino mentions the dog, the woman says that she did not tie the dog as Jeremiah had instructed, but that the dog had clearly died anyway, because he did not want to run away.
The woman’s respect for Jeremiah’s decision suggests that she places his desires before her own emotions, such as sadness and grief. In this sense, it reflects the woman’s courage and respect for her lover’s individuality, beyond any notion about religious or ethical prohibitions of suicide. The anecdote about the dog highlights the animal’s devotion. It also replicates traditional tragic love stories, in which two people tied by love and faithfulness choose to die together rather than live apart.
Jeremiah had told his lover to remember him with a rose. The woman recalls that, the night before, she laid on Jeremiah’s bed during the long hours in which he wrote his difficult letter. Then, she made coffee and cut the rose that she now wears. Dr. Urbino is repulsed by her attitude, which he considers too indulgent and passive toward grief, utterly devoid of principles. The woman concludes that she will not go to Jeremiah’s funeral, according to his instructions, and will keep on living without respecting the local custom of staying inside the house. Instead, she will remain happy in this neighborhood, which she calls the “death trap of the poor.”
Dr. Urbino’s failure to understand what he considers to be the woman’s outlandish behavior highlights his strict adherence to social norms, which condition the ways in which people are supposed to mourn. By contrast, the woman follows no greater rule than her lover’s instructions. This suggests that she has placed individual preferences before collective obligations. The value of each mode of belief depends on one’s understanding of ethics and social norms. The woman’s capacity to remain happy in what she recognizes as dangerous, unsanitary conditions highlights her strength and resistance.
Dr. Juvenal reflects on this description on his way home, recalling the seedy neighborhood and its chaotic atmosphere, in which some of its oldest inhabitants still bear the mark of being branded as slaves. He notes that people in this neighborhood take part in wild, alcohol-fueled parties, which inject the old city with chaos, foul smells, and “new life.” Since the country’s independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery, old families and their houses have decayed in silence. Women hide their faces to protect themselves from the sun or whenever they go to mass. People take part in boring love affairs, devoid of passion. Overall, life in the city is pestilent; smells rise from the swamps and the streets, bringing death.
Dr. Urbino’s reflection of the history and social environment of the city highlights his social consciousness and his awareness of inequality. Although he recognizes past oppression and the difficult conditions that the poor live in, he also seems fascinated by their capacity to make the best of life and, unlike the rigid norms of entrenched aristocratic families, to celebrate life fully, in all of its chaos and pleasure. Despite abiding by societal conventions, Dr. Urbino seems to long for a more carefree life, one in which passions might express themselves fully—an attitude that Florentino Ariza later exemplifies.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino realizes that the colonial city is far from his idealized memory of it, which sustained him in Paris. He recalls that in the 18th century, the city was a bustling center of commerce, thanks to the slave trade, as well as the residence of the Viceroys of Granada. In its heyday, the city once saw a ship leave the bay with a cargo full of precious stones, which an English ship attacked. According to legend, the ship sunk near the port with its treasures.
The city’s story is one of oppression, because of colonial rule and slavery. This has created the deeply unequal society that Dr. Urbino lives in, in which aristocratic families have benefited from extensive privileges while the rest of society has largely remained poor. The story of the sunken ship highlights the exploitation that colonial powers inflicted on local lands, from which they took precious materials. It also later highlights Florentino Ariza’s romantic nature, inclined to believe in such stories.
Dr. Urbino’s house is an ancient, large, and cool house, decorated in accordance with European taste. Its beauty and efficiency makes it obvious that the woman in charge of it, Fermina Daza, is highly competent. Of all the rooms in the house, Dr. Urbino’s library is the most magnificent. In general, the pleasant atmosphere in this house—which keeps its inhabitants cool and away from the sun—convinces onlookers that the couple living in it must be a happy one.
People’s assumption that material comfort translates to marital happiness is superficial and wrong, since it later becomes apparent that Fermina and her husband are not as happy as they seem. The association of Fermina with the beauty of the house also highlights the rigid social norm according to which women’s role is to take care of the house.
After Dr. Urbino’s morning visits, he returns home to rest before the luncheon organized by Dr. Lácides Olivella. There, Dr. Urbino sees the household staff trying to catch the household parrot, which has escaped to the highest branches of the mango tree. Dr. Urbino has taught the parrot, who’s lived with them for 20 years, French and Latin. The parrot often imitates the French songs he hears Urbino play, as well as the servants’ laugh when they hear him singing in a foreign language. This parrot has grown so famous that visitors from abroad come to the house to hear him. Once, though, when the president arrived, the parrot refused to sing, which made Dr. Urbino feel humiliated.
The parrot provides a lighthearted, humorous anecdote in the story. In contrast to the poverty and oppression visible in the city, he is a ridiculous, unpredictable presence, capable of making people laugh. The parrot’s refusal to sing for the president makes this political visit ridiculous. It highlights the absurdity of certain presidential activities and suggests that the intelligent parrot might have been expressing his dismissal of politics—or might have misbehaved simply to annoy his owner.
Despite his parrot’s exploits, Dr. Urbino hates animals. It is Fermina Daza, his 72-year-old wife, who adores them and has adopted various animals over the years—dogs, cats, a monkey, and more—until she filled the house with animals. Although Dr. Urbino, busy with work, was not much involved in the life of the house, he imagined at the time that, surrounded by so many animals, his wife must be incredibly happy. However, one day a German mastiff with rabies attacked and killed all the animals in the house, leaving a blood bath. After that incident, Dr. Urbino told his wife that he would accept nothing that does not speak in their house. Fermina Daza applied these words slyly and ultimately bought a royal parrot.
Once again, Dr. Urbino—like the rest of society—uses external factors such as the presence of animals in the house as proof of his wife’s happiness. This suggests that he does not actually know how his wife feels, since he relies on circumstantial evidence (instead of actual communication) to evaluate the status of his marriage. The violent massacre that ensues is a brutal, symbolic reminder that this happiness might be more fragile than it seems—and that the pleasant atmosphere in the house could go up in flames from one moment to the next.
Dr. Urbino accepted Fermina’s trick and now finds the parrot’s progress exciting. The parrot occasionally pronounces sentences that he must have heard sailors utter. Once, he saved the family by imitating the loud barking of a dog to scare thieves away. Since then, Dr. Urbino has been taking care of him, though he and Fermina made sure to clip the parrot’s wings after he tried to escape. The parrot has escaped again this morning, though. After three hours of trying to cajole him into coming down, Dr. Urbino resolves to call the fire department, which he founded himself, creating a corps of professional firemen to handle accidents.
Fermina’s literal application of her husband’s words highlights her intelligence, since she found a loophole in his statement which allowed her to see her own desire fulfilled. This emphasizes her stubbornness and her independent spirit, which keeps her from accepting that her role is simply to follow orders. The parrot’s stubbornness suggests that, despite the impression of intimacy between Dr. Urbino and him, he enjoys disobeying and annoying the people who take care of him.
In the meantime, Fermina Daza dresses elegantly for the luncheon. Although her loose dress and high-heeled shoes may seem inappropriate for her age, the outfit fits the shape of her body perfectly. At the age of 72, Fermina appreciates the fact that corsets and other constraining articles of clothing are going out of fashion, because it allows her to feel that her body is free.
Fermina’s freedom in dressing highlights the fact that there is no age limit to one’s desire to express one’s beauty and sensuality. Fermina’s desire for her body to feel free mirrors her larger desire for freedom in her life—freedom from servitude in the household and from the difficulties of marriage.
For many years now, Fermina has dressed Dr. Urbino—at first out of love and later out of necessity. The two of them have been married for 50 years and cannot imagine a life without each other. However, although they have developed a mutually dependent partnership over the years, they’ve never dared ask each other whether this partnership is based on love or on mere habit. Fermina has seen her husband’s memory and physical shape decline over the years, and now treats him like a “senile baby.”
The description of Fermina and Dr. Urbino’s marriage appears contradictory. The idea that such an intimate, caring relationship could be deprived of love is surprising, since it is clearly strong enough to encourage each of them to depend on each other entirely. This suggests that there might be a difference between romantic love and the love that stems from care. Fermina’s treatment of her husband as a “baby” suggests that their love is a familial one, based on relationships of need.
The two of them have never realized that it is easier to maintain general stability in a marriage than to handle everyday problems. Once, the two of them fought because Dr. Urbino argued that he had spent a week washing without soap, whereas Fermina said that there had always been soap. In truth, there had been no soap for three days, not a week. In then end, after days of tension, Dr. Urbino finally caved in, admitting that there was soap. This allowed them to find peace again. The narrator also notes that Dr. Urbino is the first man Fermina ever heard urinate, an act that he has also struggled to maintain over time—and has finally given in to old age by sitting down on the toilet instead of standing.
The description of Dr. Urbino and Fermina’s fight about soap seems ridiculous, but highlights that daily habits can potentially destroy even a seemingly invulnerable, caring relationship. The absurdity of such situations suggests that making a marriage work—specifically, in the narrator’s terms, maintaining its stability—involves constant effort, even in such seemingly trivial circumstances. The narrator’s comment about urinating emphasizes that trivial ordinary activities play a large role in building intimacy between a couple.
On Pentecost Sunday, Dr. Urbino shares what he has discovered about Jeremiah de Saint-Amour with Fermina. He says that Jeremiah was condemned to a lifelong prison sentence in his original country for a crime including cannibalism. Fermina had always assumed that Dr. Urbino appreciated Jeremiah for his life in their country, not for his past, and does not understand her husband’s shock. She also argues that, instead of lacking principles, Jeremiah’s lover revealed the depth of her love for him. Frustrated, Dr. Urbino says that what bothers him is not Jeremiah’s past deeds but his duplicity. Fermina replies that, had Jeremiah not taken up a false identity, no one would have shown him love.
The horrific nature of Jeremiah’s past crime highlights the fact that one’s public appearance can be completely at odds with one’s past life. This suggests, too, that it might be possible for people to change and redeem themselves. Fermina’s defense of Jeremiah’s lover suggests that following traditional norms does not make one more ethical or loving, unlike what her husband seems to think. Her pragmatic attitude also leads her to argue that truth might be less important than love and friendship in life.
The two of them then head to their luncheon, the marriage anniversary between Dr. Lácides Olivella and his wife. At the party, Dr. Urbino is seated at a table with both Conservatives and Liberals. The Archbishop comments to Dr. Urbino that this is remarkable, given the civil wars that are ceaselessly affecting the country, but Dr. Urbino remarks to himself that Liberal and Conservative presidents are the same, except that the latter are better dressed. He also notes that these people’s identities are less political than a result of their family lineage, which always prevails over politics and war.
The passing mention of civil wars suggests that, unlike what might appear at first glance, the atmosphere in the city and the country is fraught with violence and danger, which always lurk in the background. Dr. Urbino’s cynical attitude toward politics suggests that people are usually moved less by political ideals than by social class, which determines everything in this society—from the neighborhood where one lives to one’s political affiliation.
At the table, people mention Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s death. Dr. Urbino invents a new word, saying that Jeremiah died of “gerontophobia,” and someone laments that this death was not for love. Dr. Urbino then shares his memories of Jeremiah with the Archbishop, speaking of the saintliness with which Jeremiah lived—a thought that shocks the Archbishop, who does not consider suicide compatible with saintliness. Dr. Urbino asks the Mayor to preserve a collection of Jeremiah’s photographs.
Although not much is known about the details of Jeremiah’s saintly attitude, the Archbishop’s shock suggests that he is more concerned with appearances—namely, the nature of one’s death—than with one’s lifelong conduct. This highlights the rigid nature of certain religious norms, which can sometimes fail to recognize the true qualities of a person who does not abide by rules.
After the speeches have been made and everyone has eaten, Dr. Urbino Daza, Fermina and Juvenal’s son, finally arrives, saying that he was told his house was on fire. Fermina and her husband leave around that time to get ready for the funeral. At home, they discover that the firemen have destroyed the mango tree and sections of the house in their desperate (yet unsuccessful) efforts to catch the parrot. Dr. Urbino urinates in the garden, appreciating the smell of asparagus in his urine, and takes a nap.
This passage is humorous in light of the fact that the firemen were not called for something as serious as a fire, but merely to catch the house parrot. The destruction that ensues is equally ridiculous, since the damage done seems completely disproportional to the problem at hand. These details anticipate the darkly humorous nature of Dr. Urbino’s death, which will seem absurd and ridiculous.
When Dr. Urbino wakes up, he is moved by sadness, realizing that these are his final days. He knows that he is suffering from old age and, were it not for his religion, feels compelled to admit that Jeremiah’s idea to prevent old age is not necessarily a bad one. However, he also appreciates the sexual peace that old age has brought. While Fermina is cleaning up after the firemen, Dr. Urbino hears his beloved parrot call out. He walks out to insult him, and the parrot returns the insult.
Dr. Urbino’s desire to flout his religious principles and commit suicide suggests that they do not necessarily reflect his true beliefs. It also highlights his difficulty in handling old age and the fears that are related to this period in life.
Dr. Urbino then tries to catch the parrot, using a ladder to climb the tree, but the parrot consistently jumps one branch higher. After a while, a servant comes out and screams, realizing that Dr. Urbino is high up and could easily fall. At the same moment, Dr. Urbino reaches out to catch the parrot, but he suddenly feels the ladder fall beneath him and knows he is about to die, though he regrets doing so without taking Communion or saying goodbye to those he loves.
Dr. Urbino’s cause of death—trying to catch a parrot in a mango tree—is ridiculous. This suggests that death is utterly unpredictable and has no bearing on one’s personality or on the nature of one’s life, such as the serious, rigidly organized lifestyle of Dr. Urbino.
Hearing the servant’s scream and then the shouts of their neighbors, Fermina runs out screaming as well. She is deeply shocked to see Dr. Urbino lying on the ground and, when she approaches him, she sees that he is resisting death to talk to her. “Only God knows how much I loved you,” he tells her before dying.
Dr. Urbino’s profession of love contrasts with the couple’s doubts about the nature of the feelings that tie them together, as well as with Fermina’s later doubts about their love. However, it suggests that Dr. Urbino is capable of romance and that he values Fermina immensely as his partner.
Dr. Urbino’s funeral becomes a city-wide event. Dr. Urbino was famous in his country for his modern medical techniques, which he learned during his studies in Paris. The last cholera epidemic had killed his own father and, focused on eradicating cholera, Dr. Urbino organized the building of the first aqueduct and the modernization of the sewage system. He founded various societies, from medicine to language, as he believed in using progressive ideas throughout all aspects of society. He created the Center for the Arts and the annual Poetic Festival. He also restored the Dramatic Theater to introduce opera to the country. However, although he considered himself a moderator between Conservatives and Liberals, each group rejected him in its own way.
Dr. Urbino seemingly led a virtuous life, focused on ridding the city of dangers such as cholera and on promoting learning across a variety of disciplines. Despite his cynical view of politics, which has not helped to eradicate violence in the country, Dr. Urbino has proven hardworking and hopeful throughout his life, trusting that modern ideas could bring better living conditions to everyone. His son Dr. Urbino Daza’s ideas, by contrast, although equally modern, will prove double-edged, since they have an idea of progress that is inherently exclusionary.
In life, some of Dr. Urbino’s concrete actions proved that he did not behave as an entrenched aristocrat: namely, his move to a nouveaux riches house, instead of his family palace, and his marriage to Fermina Daza, who belonged to the lower classes. Although high society initially scoffed at Fermina, they were later impressed by her superior elegance and personality.
The upper class’s reluctance to admit Fermina in its ranks highlights the deeply unequal nature of this society, in which one’s social ascent depends not on one’s merit but on one’s connections to members of high society. Fermina’s success, however, suggests that it is possible to elevate oneself through marriage.
Although Fermina is deeply grieved by Dr. Urbino’s death, she also demonstrates authority and self-control. She organizes the various details of her husband’s funeral and is careful to control her outward gestures so that they do not reveal the extent of her grief and anger at the world. When she sees her husband in the coffin, she tells him that they will see each other again soon.
Like Dr. Urbino’s profession of love, Fermina’s grief shows that, despite her doubts about the nature of her love, she cared about him deeply and will miss him. Her self-control also highlights the emotional divide between public behavior and private feelings, which often do not align.
At that scene, Florentino Ariza, a man in the crowd, feels a pang of emotion. He played an important role in smoothing over the various organizational details that followed Dr. Urbino’s death. His serious, efficient attitude impresses everyone around him and, although his status as a bachelor makes his natural charm suspicious, he feels that he had loved passionately and silently longer than anyone else. On the night of Urbino’s death, Florentino Ariza, the President of the River Company of the Caribbean, dresses as somberly and elegantly as he always does, even in the strong heat. He stays until the end of the funeral, completely soaked by rain, and returns home to rest, so as not to fall sick.
Similarly to Fermina’s private grief, Florentino also keeps his secret intentions hidden, putting on a show of neutral self-control when he is in fact overwhelmed by romantic passion. Florentino’s dark, sober attitude and appearance give him an air not only of mystery, but of danger and gloom. This external characteristic suggests, on a symbolic level, that his behavior is far from transparent and that he is capable of taking part in potentially immoral or unsavory deeds.
After Fermina has said goodbye to all her friends, she prepares to lock herself in her house when she sees Florentino Ariza standing by her door. Before she can say anything, Florentino tells her that he has been waiting his whole life to reiterate his vows of love to her. Convinced that Florentino is not crazy but is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit, she tells him to leave at once and never return, concealing her anger with a neutral tone.
Florentino’s declaration of love seems completely inappropriate in the circumstances that Fermina finds herself after the death of her husband. However, the idea that Florentino seems influenced by supernatural powers returns various times in the novel, suggesting that his actions and desires lie—in people’s minds, at least—above human laws and norms.
It is only after Fermina hears Florentino leave that the full weight of her husband’s death affects her. She cries, realizing, as she lies in bed, that she has not slept alone since losing her virginity. Everything around her reminds her of her husband, fueling her tears, and she finally falls asleep in a daze. She cries in her sleep, but when she awakes, she realizes that she thought more about Florentino than about her late husband last night.
Fermina’s simultaneous grief for her husband and curiosity (or anger) toward Florentino suggests that personal feelings and thoughts are largely uncontrollable. Fermina knows that Florentino’s behavior was improper, but this rational thought does not keep her from thinking of him. This suggests that she might have more feelings (whether positive or negative) about Florentino than she realized.