Love in the Time of Cholera

by

Gabriel García Márquez

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Love in the Time of Cholera: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At 28 years old, Dr. Juvenal Urbino is considered a perfect suitor. After returning from Paris, where he studied medicine, he proceeds to exhibit his various talents, from science to music. However, despite young girls’ bets about who might spend time with him, it is only once he meets Fermina Daza that his life changes.
Although this succinct description of Dr. Urbino’s attitude toward Fermina suggests that he has fallen in love with her, this is actually not the case. There is a difference, the novel suggests, between being fascinated by someone and actually loving them.
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Social Norms vs. Personal Fulfillment Theme Icon
Dr. Urbino, however, has never believed in love, considering it “a clinical error.” Although he often strolled with women in the peaceful streets of Paris, he missed home and decided to come back. Upon his return, he discovers that his memory has idealized his country and that it is in fact more dismal than he remembered. For example, when he talks with the family and friends who come to greet him at the port, he sees fear and uncertainty in their eyes, which they try to conceal with a neutral tone, making light of the civil war. As he notices the poor, squalid nature of the city, he tries to hide his disappointment. Despite his disenchantment, over the next few weeks the love of his family and friends brings him comfort—though his father is now dead, having succumbed to cholera, which deprives the house of a dynamic spirit.
Dr. Urbino’s disappointment with reality after his trip outside of the country mirrors Fermina’s disappointment with Florentino after the countryside. Memory, the novel suggests, is capable of idealizing loved people or places to the point of making them unrecognizable. Only patience and sincere love—in this case, the love of friends and family—is capable of making one come to terms with reality and accept it. However, Dr. Urbino’s return represents a unique moment in the novel in which characters recognize the horrors of the civil war, beyond what the narrator’s neutral tone describes. This moment reminds readers that the backdrop to the story is dark and dangerous—and that they should not be fooled by the apparent normality of such terror.
Themes
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Moral Corruption and Cynicism Theme Icon
Concluding that it is his responsibility to take care of this world, Dr. Urbino tries to bring modern ideas about medicine to the city. He works hard to reform public sanitation and challenge widespread superstition. Although colonial houses have septic tanks, the majority of the population is poor and lives in terrible conditions, getting rid of human feces in the open, near their houses. He wants to build an aqueduct instead of letting people drink water infested by waterworms, which are superstitiously considered beneficial, as they are considered to lead to scrotal hernia—a source of male pride. He also fights to rid the market of the refuse from the nearby slaughterhouse and to build a protected, covered market. He realizes that, although his friends emphasize the beauty and value of the city, he alone recognizes its deterioration.
Dr. Urbino’s highest social and scientific qualities come to light in his lifelong efforts to reform his home country. For example, his ability to realize that poor neighborhoods do not benefit from the same protections as upper-class houses shows that his goal is to help the city as a whole, not only protect his own class. This highlights his strong ethics and his humanitarian inclinations. His objective, perspective allows him to confront inequality and medical problems head-on. This keeps him from either idealizing the city (as his friends do) and from giving in to cynicism, which would simply condemn the city to the misery he has found it in.
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The last epidemic of cholera killed thousands of people in 11 weeks, most of whom were buried in mass graves, though when these overflowed, the bodies were taken to a cemetery outside the city. A cannon was shot regularly because people believed that cannon powder could stop the epidemic. Although cholera is a disease that affects everyone, regardless of their status, the poor black population got hit the strongest during the epidemic.
The novel frequently mentions issues regarding race and class to emphasize that the society in which the story takes place is a deeply unequal one, in which wealth and misery coexist. Cholera brings these dynamics to life by showing that vulnerable populations suffer more from public disasters than the rich, who are better able to protect and take care of themselves.
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Dr. Urbino later realizes that his father’s attempts to stop the epidemic were futile, and probably contributed to the spread of cholera, even though he showed great sacrifice and was honored by the city. De. Urbino’s father ultimately died of cholera while writing a farewell letter full of love to his family. It is only when Dr. Urbino receives his father’s letter that he finally cries. This event brings Dr. Urbino closer to death, realizing that no one was immune to it, and leads him to become obsessed with cholera.
Despite his scientific mistakes, Dr. Urbino’s father is a model of devotion to a public cause. This attitude, which Dr. Urbino inherits, contrasts with Dr. Urbino’s son’s ideas, which are disturbing in their exclusionary nature, meant to remove so-called dangerous segments of the population from the general public. This suggests that medical knowledge does not exist in a moral void, but that doctors should be moved by social principles of tolerance and equality.
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After one year back in the city, Dr. Urbino sees his first case of cholera—a patient who dies within four days. He orders the schooner on which the patient had come to be quarantined and tells the city to stop using the cannon. Although 11 more cases are reported that year, Dr. Urbino establishes strict quarantines and medical supervision which keep these cases from evolving into a crisis. Since then, people have realized that they should follow Dr. Urbino’s advice. They close the sewers and build a market far away from open trash. However, by then Dr. Urbino is too consumed by his feelings for Fermina Daza that he does not necessarily care about his newfound fame.
Dr. Urbino’s medical success suggests that rational experiments can fight superstition—for example, shooting a cannon to stop cholera. This shows that superstition derives from lack of knowledge, not from an inability or unwillingness to learn, and that it can therefore be eradicated when it represents an obstacle to the public good. Dr. Urbino’s obsession for Fermina mirrors the way in which Florentino forgets about his own job and duties when he thinks about her. In Dr. Urbino’s case, however, it remains ambiguous whether this represents love or the desire to attain a certain goal: to marry Fermina.
Themes
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Illness, Mortality, and Hope Theme Icon
Incidentally, according to Dr. Urbino’s belief, love does indeed arise from “a clinical error.” Dr. Urbino is called on to examine Fermina Daza, who is suspected of having cholera. When he arrives, he is impressed by the beauty of the semi-ruined house and feels that God is present. Following Fermina’s instructions, he waits for her father to return before examining her. However, both Fermina and Dr. Urbino are distraught by the presence of Lorenzo Daza in the room. Though overcome by emotion, Dr. Urbino examines Fermina’s body in the neutral way of a physician, concerned only about cholera, although Fermina covers her breasts with her arms. Dr. Urbino concludes that Fermina is suffering from food poisoning, and Lorenzo Daza, both relieved and impressed by the doctor’s aristocratic background, gives Dr. Juvenal a gold peso, an extravagant fee.
As happened when Florentino exhibited dangerous physical symptoms after falling in love, love is once again associated with cholera in this scene. In this case, cholera simply provides the backdrop for Dr. Urbino’s growing fascination for Fermina. The meaning of this association between love and cholera remains open to interpretation. The constant threat of death and disease in the novel perhaps makes love all the more intense and exciting. Alternatively, perhaps the threat cholera represents the external pressures that Fermina is subject to, such as her father’s demands, which limit her capacity to love freely.
Themes
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The next week, Dr. Juvenal Urbino returns to the house at a time when Fermina’s father is absent. He gives her a brief medical examination through the window, although he hasn’t been called or announced. Fermina does not understand why he has come and finds him annoying. However, Dr. Urbino compliments her beauty and asks her about music, his favorite topic to initiate friendship. Furious about the fact that Dr. Urbino is trying to seduce her, she slams the window shut.
Like Florentino, Dr. Urbino tries to talk to Fermina alone, when her father will not intervene. The difference in Dr. Urbino’s success thus derives not from different means to obtain the same goal (Fermina’s acceptance), but from Dr. Urbino’s social status. Indeed, in this case, the only reason Lorenzo Daza allows for this to happen is because Dr. Urbino comes from an aristocratic family.
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Social Norms vs. Personal Fulfillment Theme Icon
Lorenzo Daza, who has observed the interaction from another window, then yells at Dr. Urbino to wait for him. He invites him inside and forces his daughter to apologize to him. Furious, Fermina curtsies. Dr. Urbino is embarrassed and wants to communicate sympathy to Fermina, but she does not humor him. Lorenzo Daza then invites Dr. Urbino for coffee. The two of them drink coffee and many glasses of anisette. Lorenzo spends time lamenting his daughter’s stubbornness while also lauding her qualities. Drunk, Dr. Urbino leaves the house after many hours, hoping to catch sight of Fermina, which he does not. On his way home, he vomits, causing his mother to realize that something highly unusual must have taken place for him to be in this disorderly state.
Fermina’s lack of independence is evident in her obligation to follow her father’s orders. This serves as a prelude to her later role in the household, where she will be subject to Doña Blanca and her husband’s demands. This whole process of courtship also suggests that women must be convinced to marry someone—and that they cannot trust their initial feelings toward their suitor, but should instead pay attention to his material offers. In Fermina’s case, it remains ambiguous whether she actually develops feelings for Dr. Urbino before marrying or whether she does so primarily to achieve material security.
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Later, Dr. Urbino serenades Fermina under her window. Simultaneously, her father tries to convince her that Dr. Urbino is a perfect match. Both Lorenzo and Dr. Urbino seek out each other’s company. Lorenzo teaches Juvenal Urbino chess, which would remain an addiction throughout his life. Dr. Urbino then sends Fermina a letter, in which he asks, in a simple way, for her father’s permission to visit her. She pities him, saying “Poor man,” realizing that these are the same words she used to pity Florentino Ariza.
The similarity between Florentino and Dr. Urbino’s courtship suggests that the two men are, to an extent, interchangeable. This highlights the uncertainty of Fermina’s decision to reject Florentino and marry Dr. Urbino, since it does not seem based on any clear difference of feeling for either man. This adds mystery to Fermina’s feelings and to the narrative, suggesting that certain events lie beyond characters’ control.
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Fermina receives three more letters over the next months, including an anonymous threat saying that she will incur disgrace if she does not accept Dr. Urbino’s courtship. She also receives a doll from Martinique that grows overnight, according to what Fermina believes to be African spells. This mysterious event and its recollection would bring her terror even many years later, when she is happily married with children.
Although the writer of the anonymous letter is never discovered, the letter shows that Dr. Urbino has clout in society and might have secret supporters helping him in his task. The mention of magic is one of few instances in the novel where seemingly supernatural events take place, in line with the themes often present in works of magical realism.
Themes
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Finally, Dr. Urbino sends Sister Franca de la Luz, Superior of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. Seeing this woman reminds Fermina of the horrors of that school, which she considers marked by spiritual emptiness. Although Sister Franca de la Luz seems genuinely happy to see her former pupil, as soon as she mentions that she is here to convince Fermina to follow Dr. Urbino’s wishes, Fermina angrily retorts that she does not understand Sister Franca’s behavior since nuns like her believe that love is a sin. Threatened with a visit by the Archbishop, Fermina remains impassive. Her stubbornness convinces Sister Franca that Fermina is still thinking about Florentino. In the end, the Archbishop never visits.
Unlike Florentino, Dr. Urbino benefits from a host of high-society allies in his romantic pursuit of Fermina, which gives him an advantage. Fermina’s comment about the nuns’ hypocrisy underscores the fact that, instead of embodying strong moral principles, most members of society—even those meant to inspire others on a spiritual level—merely sustain the pre-existing class structure, by encouraging individuals like Fermina to make choices based on wealth and prestige instead of personal feelings. Fermina’s resistance to this highlights her honesty and integrity.
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It is only when Hildebranda Sánchez arrives for a visit that Fermina’s life changes. The two of them bathe naked, compare each other’s bodies, and smoke cigars. Hildebranda decides to go to the telegraph office, where she observes Florentino Ariza. Although she finds him miserable-looking and inelegant, she is soon impressed by his kindness and devotion in helping her mail her secret lover a letter. She tells Fermina that Florentino’s life clearly revolves around love.
The friendship that Hildebranda and Fermina share plays an important role in Fermina’s life, since Hildebranda remains someone she can count on regardless of what is happening in her life in the city—for example, when Fermina later has problems with her husband. Hildebranda proves a good judge of character by understanding Florentino’s obsession with love.
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Hildebranda is shocked by Fermina’s solitary life. Indeed, Fermina’s life revolves around the routine of taking care of the house, which makes her feel as though everything in her life is determined from the outside. She dedicates time and energy to organizing a house where this does not matter tremendously, since, along with painting classes, this is mainly a way for her to pass the time. Although she manages to live in the same house with Lorenzo in a smooth way, one day he returns home announcing that they are suffering from total ruin. This deeply affects Fermina, who feels that she is now completely alone, living in a fragile social situation.
The fact that Fermina’s main activity, at a young age, is taking care of the house foreshadows the fact that this is not a temporary function, but will remain her lot for the rest of her life, because that is what is expected of female heads of household. Although this is not stated explicitly, it seems likely that Fermina’s fear of falling into poverty played an important role in her decision to marry Dr. Urbino, who would shield her from such problems.
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Hildebranda brings animation to Fermina’s life. As Fermina shows her cousin around the city, it becomes apparent that every place they see is a marker of Fermina’s relationship with Florentino. Fermina realizes that her affair with Florentino is the only thing that has ever taken place in her young life. Fermina and Hildebranda have their picture taken by a foreign photographer, although Fermina’s copy of the photo soon disappears. Florentino would purchase the photograph years later.
Fermina’s monotone, solitary lifestyle means that she necessarily depends on other people, such as Hildebranda and Florentino, to bring excitement to her life. In the case of her relationship with Florentino, this could have made it easy for Fermina to confuse love with entertainment. The fact that this picture was ultimately purchased by Florentino, on a pure stroke of luck, underscores Florentino’s lifelong obsession for Fermina.
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After having their photograph taken, the two women still have white starch on their faces and are harassed by the crowd. A carriage then stops near them and Dr. Urbino walks out, telling them that he will take them wherever they want. Although the house is not far, the carriage makes various detours while Dr. Urbino tried to have conversation with the women. Fermina is furious and quiet, so Hildebranda plays games with Dr. Urbino. When the women finally leave, Dr. Urbino grabs Fermina’s ring finger, telling her that he is waiting for her reply. In doing so, he catches her glove, and Fermina leaves without asking for it back. That night, Hildebranda expresses her admiration for Dr. Urbino. Smiling at her cousin’s enthusiasm, Fermina playfully calls her a whore.
Fermina’s frustration at this situation suggests that she does not appreciate Dr. Urbino’s scheming. Indeed, it remains unclear whether Dr. Urbino chanced to be where the girls were or whether he followed them there—a more sinister possibility. The fact that Dr. Urbino happens to catch Fermina’s ring finger brings the idea of a marriage to the forefront, suggesting that Dr. Urbino desperately wants this and that all Fermina would have to do is say yes. Fermina’s joking reference to her cousin at a “whore”—usually a derogatory term—is meant in a playful, non-insulting way. It is one of the many instances in which the word is used in the novel to describe positive qualities of sexual freedom and exuberance.
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That night, Fermina finds that she cannot sleep well because she is thinking of Dr. Juvenal Urbino constantly. The next morning, therefore, she writes Dr. Urbino a letter, telling him that he can talk to her father. Florentino Ariza soon discovers that Fermina is going to marry the doctor and falls into deep lethargy. Tránsito Ariza organizes for him to move to a new port along the Magdalena river, using her contact with Florentino’s uncle Don Leo XII Loayza to achieve this. Florentino’s uncle finds him a post in telegraphy, announcing that the telegraph is the instrument of the future. Before leaving on this journey, Florentino plays his violin waltz under Fermina’s window one last time. Then he leaves, vowing never to return.
It remains unclear why Fermina decides, all of a sudden, to marry Dr. Urbino, whom she seemed to dislike so much. In this way, her decision mirrors her abrupt and unexplained rejection of Florentino. It is possible that Fermina found her cousin’s enthusiasm contagious; that she too was charmed by Dr. Urbino’s playful mood in the carriage; that financial worries finally convinced her to marry; or perhaps that, as is later mentioned, she felt that this was her last possibility to marry before she considered herself too old.
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During this trip, Florentino’s first journey outside the city, the ship captain takes rigid measures to prevent harm to passengers since a new civil war between Liberals and Conservatives has just started. He forbids people from shooting alligators, a popular sport, and ultimately confiscates people’s weapons to keep passengers from fighting. He also prohibits people from leaving the ship after he sees a boat carrying the plague flag. Florentino spends his days alone, resisting stoically, and sees dead bodies floating on the river, victim either of cholera or the civil war. The terrible smell affects his recollection of Fermina.
On the ship, it becomes apparent that Florentino will conceive of all of his experiences—on this trip and for the rest of his life—in terms of his love for Fermina. The corpses on the river highlights the utter horror of civil war and cholera, which people in the city are not usually faced with. In addition, the prohibition to shoot alligators foreshadows the utter destruction that affects the river at the end of the novel, when it will become clear that human violence has destroyed the ecosystem.
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In general, all of Florentino’s thoughts tend toward Fermina. However, one night, when he is walking to the bathroom, someone catches him and pulls him inside a dark cabin. A naked woman undresses him and positions herself over him, causing him to lose his virginity. After this, she tells him to leave and forget about what had happened. Florentino concludes that the woman had been planning this assault. Reflecting on the pleasure he felt during this experience, he realizes that sexual experiences might be able to replace his passion for Fermina Daza.
Florentino’s first sexual experience is non-consensual, since he is taken into a cabin without knowing what is happening to him. As in other instances of rape in the novel, this episode is not described in negative terms. Rather, it serves as a mind-opening experience for Florentino, who will then devote his life to sex. However, in light of the novel’s neutral description of other morally shocking phenomena such as civil wars—an attitude typical of magical realism—readers are expected to evaluate such episodes critically, reflecting on their social and moral implications even if the narrator does not explicitly do so.
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Florentino tries to identify the mysterious woman, but fails to do so. He believes it had to be a woman from the family that’s staying in the cabin where he was pulled into. He disregards the youngest and oldest of the girls, ultimately concluding that his assaulter must have been a woman with a young child, even though she seems exclusively concerned with her child’s well-being. He discovers that her name is Rosalba and becomes obsessed with her, but cannot find any clue indicting her.
It remains unclear whether Rosalba is actually the woman who forced herself on Florentino. Florentino remains convinced that it must be her, but the novel provides no greater proof beyond Florentino’s conviction. This suggests that Florentino’s conception of her is probably just as much the result of his own fantasy as a realistic possibility.
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After eight days, the ship stops at a port from which people can go to Antioquia, a region affected by the civil war, and Florentino realizes too late that Rosalba and her family are leaving. This makes him feel lonely. As a result, he returns to his thoughts about Fermina Daza, and feels jealousy for the first time at the thought of her upcoming wedding. Although he desires revenge, he soon repents for wishing for Fermina’s death.
As this early episode suggests, Florentino primarily uses sex and fantasy as a way to distract himself from his continuous thoughts about Fermina and to keep from feeling lonely. It remains ambiguous, throughout his numerous sexual relationships, whether this is always true or whether, in some cases, he actually appreciates his relationships as an end in itself.
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On the event of the boat’s last stop, Florentino imagines Fermina’s wedding for himself, torturing himself with these images, even though he later realizes that he has miscalculated the date and laughs at himself because of it. The next day, after a night full of fever, caused by his love, he realizes that he no longer wants to work so far away from his city and decides to return there. He resolves never again to abandon the city where Fermina Daza lives.
Florentino never feels excitement for a particular trade (in this case, telegraphy), but always considers his profession in terms of the social worth it can bring him, which might impress Fermina. Florentino is also able to laugh at himself from time to time, as he does when he realizes he has tortured himself unnecessarily. This demonstrates that he does retain a sense of reality despite his romanticized obsession.
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When Florentino arrives, he is convinced he can smell Fermina Daza’s scent in the air. Then he learns that Fermina is on her honeymoon in Europe and will probably only return years later. This gives him hope that he might be able to forget her, perhaps through sexual affairs.
Florentino’s belief that he recognizes Fermina’s smell is humorous since Fermina is not actually in the city. It is more likely that Florentino simply recognizes the smell of his hometown, a place he now associates strongly with Fermina.
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One night, a woman named Widow Nazaret spends time in Tránsito Ariza’s house to take refuge from the war. Tránsito sends her to her son’s room in the hope that she might make him forget Fermina. Sitting on Florentino’s bed, the woman, who is 28 years old, begins to tell him about her grief for her husband. Then she undresses joyfully, making pauses that coincide with the sound of cannons marking a nearby attack. In turn, she undresses Florentino and the two of them make love. She has an exuberant joy and energy she has not been able to express with her husband.
The experience with Widow Nazaret represents Florentino’s first consensual sexual relationship, even though his mother and the widow herself orchestrate it. The mention of cannons adds an eerie atmosphere to this scene, highlighting the presence of danger and death in another part of the city. This first experience with a widow is one of many, and Florentino soon realizes that most widows are just as happy as Widow Nazaret to rekindle their sexual passion.
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Still talking about her husband and her grief, Widow Nazaret concludes that now, at least, she always knows exactly where he is. From then on, she abandons her mourning clothing and welcomes a variety of men into her rebuilt house, enjoying the pleasure of taking control of her sexual life and of being, as she says, “the only free woman in the province.”
The fact that Widow Nazaret is able to remember her husband fondly while taking part in numerous sexual affairs suggests that these two aspects of life, while seemingly contradictory, are compatible. It suggests that marriage never brought her the sexual pleasure she now enjoys—and, therefore, that her life now is unrelated to anything she ever experienced with her husband.
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Florentino continues to see Widow Nazaret on a regular basis, and she seeks to imitate love without being bound to it. She feels grateful to Florentino for making her “a whore,” and Florentino concludes that he had indeed freed her from the “virginity” of marriage, teaching her that no sexual act done in the name of love could ever be immoral. When she begins to spend time with more men, though, they see each other less and ultimately forget each other.
Although Widow Nazaret enjoys casual relationships, she does not necessarily want them to be purely utilitarian but, rather, appreciates creating tenderness between Florentino and her—which Florentino will later repay in kind by taking responsibility for her after her death. Florentino’s belief that any sexual act is morally valid gives Widow Nazaret the freedom she desires, but also overlooks that in certain cases harmful power dynamics can exist between the people involved.
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This experience serves as the first in a long series of affairs. Florentino’s solitary attitude gives women the impression they are doing him a favor and he, in turn, is easily able to identify women who might be interested in him. Throughout his life, he keeps a record of his affairs, which ultimately numbers 682 long-term sexual relationships.
The extraordinary number of affairs Florentino has in his life underlines Florentino’s obsession with sex. His entire life revolves around finding sexual partners while waiting for Fermina. It remains ambiguous whether he chooses this way of life out of loneliness or out of pure passion.
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Although Florentino is convinced he has all but forgotten Fermina Daza, he once sees her in the streets and is shocked by how elegant she looks in her fancy dress. He also admires the attitude she and her husband share. Instead of feeling jealousy, Florentino feels ashamed, convinced that he is not worthy of a woman like Fermina.
Florentino’s admiration of Fermina and Dr. Urbino suggests that he, too, sees only the outside expression of this marriage and does not realize that Fermina is not necessarily happy. Florentino’s conviction that he must become worthy of Fermina leads him to work hard to achieve a higher social status.
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Fermina seems happy with her decision to marry Dr. Urbino. In Valledupar, she often heard her cousins talk about sex, including the sexual relations of her family members. She discovered the pleasures of “solitary love,” although, until she married, masturbating made her feel ashamed. Overall, she was convinced that losing her virginity would be a terrifying, painful experience. As a result, during her wedding and her honeymoon, she is anguished at the thought of being raped.
Fermina’s fears about sex contrast with Florentino’s previously described ignorance and innocence—instead of being worried about sex before it happens, he simply does not think about it. By contrast, Fermina’s attitude suggests that she has perhaps internalized certain beliefs—for example, those promoted at her religious school—that sexuality is fearful and wrong. This attitude also contrasts with many widows’ discovery that sex can be a source of joy and revitalization.
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Fermina’s husband anticipates her fears and allows her to spend her first three nights on the ship to Europe without any painful experiences. Dr. Urbino spends the first night taking care of Fermina, who is experiencing seasickness. On the fourth night, he asks about the fact that she does not pray before going to bed. She answers that she was disgusted by the hypocrisy she witnessed at school and now prefers to express her faith in silence, keeping a private relationship between God and her.
Dr. Urbino’s tact reveals the respect and tenderness he feels for Fermina, as his goal is to make her feel comfortable. Fermina’s rejection of religious tradition suggests that faith is unrelated to one’s outward behavior. Rather, Fermina believes that clinging to traditions that hypocritical members of the Church have perverted is worse than resisting moral corruption on one’s own.
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That night, as Fermina prepares to sleep in the same bed as her husband for the first time, she makes sure the room is completely dark before exiting the bathroom in her nightgown. She enters the bed in terror, but Dr. Urbino simply takes her hand and recounts stories about his life in Paris. Meanwhile, he begins to caress her body. Annoyed by his attempt to take off her nightgown, she does so herself and then stays still. He takes her hand again and touches her nipple, which surprises her and makes her blush. He jokes that she should not worry since he has already seen her breasts, and Fermina replies with a smile that she is still angry about that.
All of Dr. Urbino’s actions aim to make Fermina feel comfortable. His effort to build trust and intimacy between them underlines his respect for her and his belief that the sexual act—like their relationship in general—should be a partnership. Fermina’s brusque movements and responses highlight her forceful character, resistant to other people’s orders. Overall, though, this scene is filled with tenderness, surprise, and humor, which serves to lessen Fermina’s fears.
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As Dr. Urbino begins kissing her, Fermina explores his body until finding his penis. Then, she prays to herself and begins exploring this organ with curiosity. She is surprised by its shape and asks Dr. Urbino about its function. He proceeds to explain to her how it works and she concludes that it is ugly. Dr. Urbino added that it is also unpredictable, since men have little actual control of it. She also notes that there are too many parts to it, and Dr. Urbino is shocked to realize that he had written about the exact same thing: the fact that the human body could be more efficient if it were more simple. She encourages him to continue his medical explanations, but he retorts that this would be a lesson not in science, but in love. The two of them remove the sheets, and Fermina locks her arms around his neck.
This scene suggests that Fermina has forgotten her fears and expressed her curious, adventurous spirit. Dr. Urbino’s medical explanations serve to emphasize that sex is a normal, natural function of the body and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong or immoral about it. It also suggests that sex (and, in this case, losing one’s virginity) does not have to be a solemn, uncomfortable experience, but can involve playfulness and should rely on positive communication between the two partners. Fermina’s willingness to take part in this activity highlights her own desire to explore a new aspect of her body and life: her sexuality.
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Dr. Urbino reflects privately that he does not actually love Fermina but admires her personality—namely, her authoritative attitude and her strength. However, when she kisses him, he concludes that they will be able to create love together. Although they never discuss this issue explicitly, they both know that they made the right choice in marrying each other.
Dr. Urbino’s conception of love as something that people build together is optimistic, but also suggests that he has never actually experienced the intensity of romantic love himself.
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At dawn, Fermina is still a virgin. However, the next night, she undresses before he comes to bed. She is the one who makes the first move, excited about this new adventure, and realizes that there was not much blood, only a small stain. They are both surprised to realize that they made love well. They do so every day, but Dr. Urbino soon realizes that, despite his strong character, Fermina won’t allow anyone to have control over her, and that he will therefore need to share power. After three months of sterile love-making, Fermina suddenly becomes pregnant and returns home ready to have a baby.
The gradual nature of Fermina’s first sexual experience allows her to feel comfortable and confident. Fermina’s strength of character comes forth in everything she does. However, although it might lead to power-sharing in the pair’s marriage bed, it fails to impact her role in their household, which remains constrained by social norms.
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When they return to their country, the couple seems changed, full of love and modern European ideas. Dr. Urbino makes sure to find ways to receive books from Europe, and Fermina discovers the elegance of foreign fashion. They also bring back the shared memory of seeing Oscar Wilde in a Parisian bookstore. However, when people ask Fermina about the trip, the fatigue of traveling and of her pregnancy causes Fermina to reply that Europe was not so special.
Dr. Urbino and Fermina’s appreciation of European culture allows them to bring new life to the society they live in, and to strengthen their trust in modernity and progress. In this light, Fermina’s dismissive comment about Europe is humorous, since it does not reflect her fascination with it, but also signals that the Caribbean city she lives in is perhaps the place where she feels most at home.
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