Florentino Ariza has loved Fermina Daza without ceasing ever since their adolescent relationship. Florentino was the only child of Tránsito Ariza, who had a brief affair with ship-owner Don Pius V Loayza, who founded the River Company of the Caribbean for the Magdalena River with his brothers, but died when Florentino was young. After school, Florentino worked at the Postal Agency. He became the protégé of telegraph operator Lotario Thugut, who taught him both to use the telegraph and to play the violin.
Florentino’s decades-long passion for Fermina Daza becomes the crux of the story. It exemplifies Florentino’s commitment and determination but also his excessive romanticism, which reaches near-fanatical level. The fact that Florentino is an illegitimate son serves as a prelude to Florentino’s own behavior.
Although Florentino becomes the most sought-after bachelor in his circle, he falls in love with Fermina Daza as soon as he sees her. He is sent to deliver a telegram to Lorenzo Daza, who lives in an old, half-ruined house. Lorenzo Daza, who does not have many friends, receives the telegram with a somber stare. On Florentino’s way out of the house, he sees a young girl reading next to a woman he assumes is her mother and is overwhelmed by her.
The power of Florentino’s love derives in part from its mysterious, irrational nature. Like Dr. Urbino, Florentino feels immediately attracted to Fermina, without being able to say why. It remains ambiguous whether such a strong, visceral reaction is a necessary ingredient to romantic love. To Florentino, this phenomenon certainly leaves him with no doubt: he is in love, once and for all.
Florentino later discovers that Lorenzo Daza arrived from Spain after the death of his wife with his only daughter and his unmarried sister, Escolástica, a 40-year-old woman who took religious vows. Lorenzo’s daughter, Fermina, studied at an expensive religious academy for young elite ladies. This reveals the family’s wealth, if not their high social position—a fact that reassures Florentino, who realizes that Fermina might be a good match for him. However, Fermina always walks alone with her aunt, who keeps her from interacting with other people.
Fermina grows up in a stifling atmosphere, in which she is not allowed to socialize beyond the household. This highlights her father conservative worldview, which aim to keep his daughter from having relationships he (or society) does not approve of. Florentino’s assumption that Fermina belonged to his class because her father was not a local aristocrat proves naïve, since Florentino does not take into account Lorenzo Daza’s ambition.
Florentino proceeds to seek Fermina everywhere. He sits in the park next to her house. He writes a long letter full of segments of love poems that he reads continually. His mother tells him to win over Fermina’s aunt first. In the meantime, both Fermina and her aunt have noticed her suitor. Escolástica, who has raised Fermina like a mother would, tells Fermina that she should expect a letter from him one day. However, following his mother’s advice, Florentino does not want to give her directly his 70-page letter.
The adults’ assumptions about how Florentino should proceed in his courtship highlights prevailing attitudes of the time, in which a suitor’s relationship with the legal guardian matters as much as his relationship with his beloved. The length of Florentino’s letter underlines his exuberant, youthful passion. However, he also learns that he must proceed strategically in order not to scare or alienate Fermina.
Finally, after spying on Fermina in various locations and believing that she has not noticed him, Florentino boldly walks up to Fermina, who is alone in her doorway, and tells her that he wants to give her a letter. Surprised by his determined tone, at odds with his seemingly passive attitude, Fermina tells him to return every day until he notices that she has changed seats. When the day arrives, Florentino gives her an abridged version of the letter, promising fidelity and eternal love. Fermina tells him to return only when she says so.
Fermina and Florentino challenge the authority in Fermina’s home by exchanging secret letters and adopting complex stratagems. Florentino’s decision to condense his letter mirrors his later decision, in old age, to write neutral meditations instead of passionate letters to Fermina. In both cases, Florentino discovers that it is better to conceal some of his passion in order to woo Fermina more successfully.
This event affects Florentino’s health. He loses his appetite and suffers from diarrhea, vomiting, and fainting. Although Tránsito knows this to be the consequence of love, Florentino’s symptoms so closely resembled cholera that she calls a doctor for her son. Tránsito tells him to enjoy these moments, because such intense feelings only exist in youth.
Florentino’s state affects the quality of his work, but his friend Lotario Thugut protects him. Lotario also introduces Florentino to an old, run-down colonial hotel where men can choose “little birds,” or prostitutes, but Florentino only wants to lose his virginity for love. Lotario’s charm and sexual exploits make him known in the hotel. Florentino, too, becomes a usual fixture there, as the hotel owner approves of his quiet attitude. Florentino also accompanies Lotario to the church choir, where he observes Fermina Daza.
The time that Florentino spends in the hotel filled with prostitutes anticipates Florentino’s later extensive sexual affairs. Although no explicit discussion of prostitution appears in the novel, no one condemns this practice. As a result, it remains ambiguous whether this practice can be seen as a form of freedom for men and women (interestingly, the word “whore” often acquires a positive connotation in the novel) or as one of the many sexual practices in the novel that can have harmful consequences.
After a month of waiting, Florentino finally talks to Escolástica, asking her to allow him to see Fermina alone. Impressed by Florentino’s determination, Escolástica believes he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit. As a result, she leaves Florentino and Fermina alone. Fermina then realizes that her suitor is not ideal, because he is too somber and mysterious, but she feels curious about him, which the narrator mentions is one aspect of love. After fervently re-reading Florentino’s letter, Fermina initially thinks she does not have to respond, but she simultaneously becomes obsessed with Florentino. During their brief meeting, Florentino tells her she should respond out of politeness, and she agrees.
In addition, to physical illness, the intensity of Florentino’s passion leads people to believe that it has a spiritual quality—one, nevertheless, that could also be seen as near-madness. Florentino and Fermina’s exchange about letter-writing suggests that not everyone conceives of letters in the same way. Although Florentino sees it as an opportunity to share one’s feelings, Fermina often accepts letters as one-way messages. Letters, however, more than direct contact, because their only form of communication.
Fermina then answers Florentino and the two of them fall desperately in love. They think about each other all the time, become obsessed with each other, and write each other daily letters even though it will take them one year to talk to each other again.
The description of Fermina and Florentino as perfectly in love remains ambiguous, since Fermina ultimately rejects him without a second thought. It thus remains unclear whether such youthful passion can be considered true love or not. The artificial nature of love letters might perhaps have served to impede true, sincere communication between the two of them.
Aware of Lorenzo Daza’s domineering attitude, Escolástica allows Fermina to communicate secretly with Florentino. The young lovers hide letters in secret spots. Tránsito becomes worried by her son’s state, feeling that Florentino is putting his health in jeopardy by writing fervent letters every night. Fermina, by contrast, writes more straightforward, practical letters, which allows her not to commit herself entirely. One night, Florentino plays a self-composed waltz, “The Crowned Goddess,” below Fermina’s window. Later, he plays it throughout the city to avoid raising suspicion.
Florentino and Fermina’s love is fueled by the difficulty of their communication. The stratagems they devise to exchange letters or declare their feelings to each other heighten the excitement of this youthful adventure. It remains ambiguous, as Fermina later reflects, whether her enthusiasm for Florentino derived from this particular excitement or from Florentino’s actual personality.
When one of the numerous civil wars affecting the country in the past half-century risks reaching the city, a curfew is instituted. Too self-absorbed to be aware of the external world, Florentino is imprisoned one night as a potential spy but is released after three days. After two years of correspondence, Florentino finally proposes to Fermina. After taking a few months to answer, she follows Escolástica’s advice and says yes, adding that she will marry him if he promises not to make her eat eggplant.
Florentino’s love makes him blind to anything outside of its realm. This is a humorous quality with potentially dangerous consequences—to himself, as in this example, and, as it becomes clear in the next decades of his life, to other people he harms without noticing. The background of violence in the novel remains constant, suggesting that life is more cruel than Florentino and Fermina’s youthful energy and sheltered lives make it seem.
Unsurprised by this turn of events, Florentino’s mother, Tránsito, has long negotiated to rent the entire house they live in, instead of sharing it as they have done. To do so, she uses the money she receives from her small pawn shop, where she gives loans to rich families in a discreet way, thus allowing them to keep their reputations intact. With her savings, Tránsito hopes to buy the house before she dies. In the meantime, Florentino is promoted to First Assistant at the telegraph office and is reassured that the practical aspects of his marriage are stable. Florentino and Fermina agree to wait two years before marrying, by which time Fermina will be done with her studies.
Florentino is not too blinded by his passion to ignore practical realities of life, and he understands that financial security is a prerequisite to marriage. However, like Dr. Urbino later, he fails to foresee that financial stability does not guarantee the stability of people’s feelings—and, in particular, of Fermina’s love. Tránsito’s job highlights the hypocrisy of high society, in which people are concerned exclusively with their reputation and take extreme means to pretend that they are still rich and powerful.
In the meantime, Florentino reads and memorizes a variety of love poems that fuel his letters. He also spends time in the hotel, where he discovers scars on the women’s bodies, the result of violent attacks or crude C-sections. He feels comfortable there, sharing the women’s everyday lives while staying a virgin for Fermina.
Although prostitution is not necessarily condemned in the novel, the violence that these women have suffered from are an example of the cruelty that sex can lead to. In this sense, it serves as a dark, gloomy foreboding concerning Florentino’s future sexual affairs, in which he sometimes fails to take the women’s safety into account.
Four months before Florentino and Fermina have promised to be engaged, Lorenzo Daza approaches Florentino and tells him that they need to talk. The week before, Sister Franca de la Luz, the Superior at Fermina’s school, saw that Fermina was secretly writing a love letter. This led Fermina to be expelled. When Fermina finally told her father the truth, he did not understand how all she knew about Florentino could be his profession and his love for the violin.
Sister Franca de la Luz’s behavior highlights the prejudice that society holds against young girl’s love and sexuality. Instead of being free to express romantic desires, girls are denied the freedom of love. Fermina’s very limited knowledge of Florentino shows that their love is based on scarce information, and that their intimacy might be more fragile than they realize.
As punishment, Lorenzo sent his sister Escolástica back to Spain. Many years later, Fermina discovered that her aunt had died in a leprosarium. Fermina responded with rage to her father’s decision, emerging from this grief-inducing event a changed woman, far from the innocence of adolescence. Fermina, however, refused to change her mind about Florentino and threatened to kill herself with a meat knife. As a result, Lorenzo resolved to have a chat with Florentino.
Fermina’s apparent willingness to sacrifice herself for her love mirrors Florentino’s determination to be killed rather than to give up on Fermina. However, in light of Fermina’s later change of heart, it remains ambiguous whether this represented true love, an effort to escape her father’s control, or a fleeting emotion. Her father’s callous attitude highlights his lack of feeling and his belief that his daughter’s happiness matters very little.
Lorenzo admits to Florentino that his only goal is for his daughter to become a high-society lady. Lorenzo works as a mule trader and laments his own reputation. He concludes his speech by asking Florentino to give up the courtship. Florentino then asks Lorenzo what Fermina’s opinion is, since she should decide for herself. However, Lorenzo menacingly says that only men should decide his. When he threatens to kill Florentino, Florentino replies that he would be honored to die for love.
Florentino’s defiant attitude mirrors Fermina’s, suggesting that love is strong enough to make someone give up on their own survival. Florentino’s desire to hear Fermina’s opinion derives not only from his desire to know exactly how she feels about him, but also represents his defense of women’s freedom. Unlike Lorenzo Daza, he believes that women should be free to make their own decisions regarding their romantic life.
That week, Lorenzo Daza takes his daughter out of the city, only mentioning that they are going “to their death.” After Lorenzo threatens to hit Fermina with his belt, she agrees to go on the trip with him. They ride on mules throughout the countryside, suffering fear and hardship. However, Fermina remains convinced that her love with Florentino will remain strong. She and her father see hanged corpses and meet various soldiers, signs of the ongoing civil war, which has not reached the city. They are able to escape death by saying that they are Spanish.
The fact that Lorenzo prefers to put his daughter’s and his own life in danger to escape Florentino’s influence underscores his fanaticism, his belief that life is not worth living if it does not revolve around social climbing. The fact that no political details are given about the hanged men or the presence of troops on the territory highlights the brutality and absurdity of war, which leads to horrific destruction, regardless of what strategic goals might be at play.
They finally reach the town of Valledupar, where Fermina’s mother’s family live. There, Fermina meets her cousin Hildebranda Sánchez. Hildebranda, too, is in love. She takes care of Fermina, who has terrible ulcers on her behind, caused by mule-riding, which are potentially life-threatening. Fermina feels happy to be so well taken care of. When her cousin hands her a telegraphed letter, Fermina cries, understanding that Florentino was able to use the telegraph network in the country to write to her.
This period in Fermina’s life is dynamic and complex. Although she is moved by Florentino’s devotion, she also discovers another gratifying aspect of life, friendship, which is capable of bringing her happiness even if Florentino is not present. The fact that her ulcers could potentially have killed her once again highlights her father’s cruelty as well as the absurdity of death, which is capable of striking at any moment.
Fermina’s father, Lorenzo, in the meantime, assumes that his daughter has forgotten all about her suitor. Paradoxically, Fermina’s love story mirrors her parents’, because her mother also had to fight her own parents to marry Fermina’s father—which she ultimately did. Fermina’s father, though, does not realize that his tyrannical attitude simply mimics the one he fought when he was younger.
Lorenzo’s blindness to the fact that he was lucky to have been accepted into a respectable family when he was not considered worthy of them underlines people’s hypocrisy when it comes to social ambitions. Following only the orders of one’s family and social expectations is often contrary to personal happiness, the novel suggests.
In Valledupar, Fermina finds pleasure in spending time with Hildebranda—who is in love with a married man—and realizes that it is possible to be happy even without romantic love. However, in her letters she determines to organize the practical details of her future relationship with Florentino, as she is convinced that she can only have a happy life if she shares it with a man she loves. Simultaneously, her relationship with Lorenzo Daza becomes smoother, giving the impression that it is close and loving.
Hildebranda’s love for a married man proves potentially as tragic as Florentino’s later unrequited love for Fermina—although Hildebranda’s story, unlike Florentino’s, does not end in fulfillment. Fermina’s assessment that she can’t be happy without romantic love remains ambiguous, since she never regrets marrying Dr. Urbino, a man she is never sure she actually loves.
In the meantime, Florentino resolves to go diving to find the sunken galleon, the San José, and its treasures. He finds a young boy, Euclides, to help him in his task because he cannot swim. They make various trips in the scorching sun and, after Florentino finally reveals what their true purpose is, the young boy returns with fantastic tales about the treasures of the underwater ship. He brings back a precious earring and medal as proof.
Florentino’s innocent attitude toward life is mostly deprived of the suspicion and cynicism that adults around him exemplify. Instead, his romantic inclinations make him particularly gullible and vulnerable to manipulation, as his determination to do everything in life in the name of love keeps him from recognizing people’s baser intentions.
This encourages Florentino to mention his enterprise to Fermina, who believes that this is one of Florentino’s many poetic exaggerations but also worries that he might have gone crazy. Euclides brings so much evidence from the sunken ship that Florentino finally shows them to Tránsito, who immediately realizes that the objects are fake and that Euclides is mocking Florentino. Although Euclides swears he never lied, he soon disappears and Florentino never sees him again.
Tránsito serves as a down-to-earth, balancing presence in Florentino’s life. Although she encourages his love for Fermina Daza, she also remains realistic about the world. Euclides’s disappearance confirmed his guilt. To Florentino’s credit, the story of the San José galleon, however, is based on historic fact. It was sunk in battle in 1708 and the sunken ship was actually found recently, in 2015—decades after the publication of Love in the Time of Cholera.
One positive aspect of this adventure, though, is that Florentino discovers the beauty of the lighthouse and becomes friends with the lighthouse keeper. On Sundays, men come from all over the city to observe the women sunbathing on the beach—and wearing elaborate bathing suits that hide almost their entire body—without being seen, using the spyglass. Later, after Fermina rejected Florentino, he spent many happy moments in the lighthouse.
The practice of watching women from the lighthouse—presumably without their knowledge—is blatantly voyeuristic, although Florentino does not seem disturbed by this.
Florentino then suddenly learns that Fermina is returning to the city. That night, he can’t sleep. When Fermina arrives with the schooner under pouring rain, Florentino doesn’t recognize her—both because of the rain and because she has matured during her time away. At the age of 17, Fermina now has a more imposing attitude and, recognizing this, Lorenzo gives her the “keys to [her] life”: authority over the house.
On a symbolic level, the fact that Florentino does not recognize Fermina represents the first major element of uncertainty and rupture in their relationship, suggesting that something during the trip has perhaps made them grow apart. Meanwhile, the association of womanhood with household tasks underlines the rigid gender roles that women are expected to abide by.
The next day, Fermina goes to the market with Gala Placidia, their black servant from the old slave quarters. Florentino is amazed to see her pass next to him. She has changed during her time away; she has an intense stare and wears an elegant braid that gives her an adult air. He follows her in the crowd and is astounded by the ease with which she walks among so many people, which she used to do with Escolástica when they went to the market. She ignores snake charmers and beggars but enters all the stores, trying on clothes and sampling various foods. Beyond these playful moments, she buys everything she needs with authority, as though she has done it all her life, when this was in fact her first time being in charge of a household. She buys various things that she plans to use in her marriage with Florentino.
Fermina’s authority and efficiency will remain strong qualities throughout her life, especially as she becomes a wife, a household manager, and a woman bent on entering high society. Fermina’s attitude does in fact reflect the society’s unequal class structure, as beggars and rich market-goers coexist in the same public spaces. Her determination to plan her marriage with Florentino suggests that she is still deeply devoted to him—an attitude that will make her sudden rejection of him all the more surprising. In light of her attitude in the market, it is possible that what attracts Fermina to the idea of marriage is its promise of personal independence, which she has never enjoyed before.
Overwhelmed and fascinated by Fermina’s beauty, Florentino still finds the courage to act quickly and talk to Fermina in the Arcade of the Scribes, a quiet gallery. Florentino whispers to her that she is a “crowned goddess.” However, when Fermina turns around, everything she’s felt for Florentino suddenly vanishes, convincing her that it has all been a mistake. Disappointed and pitying Florentino, thinking “poor man” to herself, she waves her hand at him and tells him to forget her before walking away. She later writes him a letter telling him that her feelings for him were an illusion. She returns to him everything he has ever given her, and even though Florentino insists on seeing her, she refuses his visits. It is not until 51 years later that he would finally talk to her again.
Florentino’s words to Fermina reference their secret language of love, in which Florentino calls Fermina a “crowned goddess”—a term derived from the lyrical love poetry he reads so fervently. Fermina’s sudden rejection and pity for Florentino remains unexplained. This, combined with Fermina’s lack of repentance about this act and her general honesty, suggests that Fermina’s feelings are simply unpredictable. It suggests, perhaps, that Florentino and she did not know each other well enough for their love to be based on true mutual understanding, resistant to change.