To celebrate the advent of the 19th century, Fermina and Dr. Urbino take part in various ceremonies, including a trip in a hot air balloon. During their journey through the countryside, they fly over beautiful landscapes but also see human corpses everywhere, affected by cholera. Dr. Urbino ironically concludes that this must be an extraordinary form of cholera, as he can see that people have been given a death blow behind the neck.
It remains ambiguous whether the bodies were indeed affected by cholera and murdered so that the disease would not spread, or if they represent the mass assassinations that were taking place during the civil war. Either way, this dreary, horror-filled landscape serves as a reminder that, for many people, life is not as peaceful as it is for city-dwellers like Fermina and Dr. Urbino.
To Florentino, who see the couple return from this trip, such public events—and the aging he’s noticed in Fermina—are the true markers of time in his life. He sometimes talks to the couple when Dr. Urbino greets him, but Fermina remains impassive and indifferent. He wonders to himself if this might be Fermina’s way to hide her secret love for him. This thought leads him to return to his obsessive habits. He observes the couple in their carriage, identifies their routines, and often passes in front of their house. Later, though, he hears that Fermina might be suffering from consumption and traveled to Panama to cure herself. He begins investigating about her life and discovers that she left in an extremely discreet manner, giving no information about her whereabouts.
Florentino’s love for Fermina reaches heights of absurdity. Incapable or unwilling to face the reality of Fermina’s indifference, Florentino prefers to believe in a made-up idea: that Fermina still loves him. This rejection of facts shows him as a deluded person, potentially maddened by love and obsession. His efforts to follow the couple highlight this fact—not only because they are invasive and disturbing, but also because they have no logical purpose beyond gathering information. Florentino’s belief that Fermina has gone to Panama (when she has actually left to see her cousin, as the story is about to reveal) shows that his efforts to unveil the truth are futile—he will never actually understand Fermina’s behavior.
In reality, Fermina has left her home to go visit Hildebranda Sánchez in her province. This is the result not of disease, but of a crisis in her marriage. Dr. Urbino understands her decision and interprets it as divine punishment for his sins. As soon as Fermina leaves, however, both of them immediately regret their weak characters and Fermina’s decision to leave. Nevertheless, it takes her two years to return.
Fermina’s decision to leave Dr. Urbino highlights how unhappy she has become in her marriage, but her immediate contrition shows how mutually dependent the two of them have become. Although they are not necessarily happy when they are together, they now need each other to live.
The crisis in Fermina and Dr. Urbino’s marriage began when Fermina smelled a strange smell on her husband’s clothes. She had the habit of smelling people’s clothes and could immediately tell the difference. However, she could not understand how, with such a rigid schedule, her husband could have an affair, especially since she knew that Dr. Urbino only made love at night. During the next few weeks, though, she noticed the smell time and again. Although she did not have any other clue of her husband’s infidelity, her suspicion led her to notice changes in his character. He seemed both passive and unusually sensitive. Once, she even thought she saw him looking at her full of hatred.
This marital crisis suggests that Fermina is not the only one who has been suffering during her marriage. Dr. Urbino’s look of hatred for Fermina—which might or might not have actually taken place—suggests that he, too, resents not being able to express his freedom the utmost (in this case, his love for Miss Barbara Lynch). Fermina’s belief that her husband only makes love at night shows that she knows little beyond her husband’s habits, and that she does not realize he is capable of developing new ones outside of her reach.
Overwhelmed by her secret thoughts, Fermina began to wonder if she was going crazy. However, she also learned that Dr. Urbino had not taken Communion in weeks. He refused to answer her questions, and this convinced her that he was living in sin and was intent on pursuing this path, since he had not even sought help. One day, she suddenly called him during his reading. When he asked her what was wrong, she answered that he knew better than she did. This concluded the conversation. Instead of feeling desperate fear, Dr. Urbino experienced relief, as his relationship with Miss Barbara Lynch could finally come to light.
Dr. Urbino’s failure to take Communion shows that religion does not necessarily play the morally inspiring role he believes it does, since he rejects it when he knows he is behaving immorally. Fermina’s desire to confront her husband allows her to air out all her negative feelings and also gives Dr. Urbino the change to explain himself. Therefore, although this crisis is unpleasant for both of them, it has the potential to increase honesty and sincerity between them.
Dr. Urbino had seen Miss Barbara Lynch, a tall “mulatta,” in the hospital. Fascinated by her, he observed her medical examination, learned her address, and visited her that afternoon. Miss Lynch recognized him and invited him in for coffee. Dr. Urbino then realized that a friend had once warned him that, during his marriage, he would have to face a violent passion that would uproot him. However, convinced of his moral righteousness, he had discarded this possibility, which had now come true.
The mention of Miss Lynch’s race—with the derogatory term “mulatta”—is significant not only because this society is so rigidly organized along racial and class-based lines, but also because it also subverts Fermina’s expectations, later revealing her own racial bias. Dr. Urbino’s discovery of true passion suggests that all his theories about love are at least partially wrong, since they derive in large part from his lack of experience about what romantic passion truly entails.
Miss Lynch, who is 28 years old, was the only child of a black Protestant Reverend and spoke good Spanish. She had recently divorced another minister. When Dr. Urbino mentioned her earlier examination, she suggested he return the next day in the afternoon. Upon examining Dr. Urbino’s documents to find clues about her husband’s behavior, Fermina had found the inscription of the woman’s name but had discarded the possibility that they were lovers because the woman was black and therefore not suited to her husband’s taste.
Fermina’s belief that she knows who Dr. Urbino would or would not find attractive proves wrong not only because she does not realize that her husband is capable of unpredictable behavior, which he could not even anticipate himself, and also because it disguises Fermina’s prejudice.
The next day, Dr. Urbino examined Miss Lynch, taking part in a gynecological exam in which he proceeded to touch her in sexual ways. He had done that once in the past, although the woman’s indignant reaction had brought him great shame. This time, though, Miss Lynch only made a remark about medical ethics, to which Dr. Juvenal replies that ethical codes assume doctors have no feelings or desires. When he confesses his attraction to her, Miss Barbara Lynch admits that she has known this all along, ever since she saw him at the hospital. She says that she is black but not stupid.
Dr. Urbino’s use of a medical exam as a sexual opportunity is deeply morally disturbing. In addition, the fact that he was guilty of this in the past suggests that he has not learned from his mistake. In this particular case, he is lucky that Miss Lynch reciprocates his desire. However, in behaving so unethically Dr. Urbino shows that he lacks respect and compassion, paying attention exclusively to his own pleasure, not to the dignity and integrity of the woman before him, who is expecting a medical exam.
During their relationship, Miss Lynch wanted love and her reputation safeguarded. She allowed Dr. Urbino to repeat his auscultation but did not take off her clothes. Dr. Urbino could not resist his desire and visited her every day, but it was difficult to be discreet in the poor neighborhood where the carriage was so easy to spot in the street. Therefore, Dr. Urbino could never stay long, even though he wanted to be with this woman for the rest of his life. Although he was obsessed with her, he came in with barely enough time to make love to her while standing up. Such quick sexual acts left him satisfied and exhausted while Miss Lynch had barely enough time to feel the beginning of sexual pleasure.
Although it is initially ambiguous whether Dr. Urbino feels love or only sexual desire for Miss Lynch, his desire to spend his life with her suggests that his feelings are more than purely sexual. However, once again, he seems less interested in making Miss Lynch happy than in satisfying his own sexual needs. This introduces an element of inequality in their relationship. Overall, it remains unclear whether Miss Lynch shares Dr. Urbino’s feelings, or whether she is simply humoring him by letting him come to her house.
Finally, Dr. Urbino became too morally disturbed by his own behavior and, concluding that all he needed was someone who understood him, confessed everything to Fermina on the afternoon she mentioned his infidelity. He decided never to see Miss Lynch again, although he sent her a tiara. He suffered in silence and told his confessor what he had done after Communion.
Dr. Urbino’s capacity to admit his wrongs underlines his moral integrity. Even though he has behaved wrongly, he tries to stand by his greatest commitment, his marriage to Fermina, even if this causes him deep suffering. This also suggests that he trusts in the safety of his love with his wife more than the passion of an affair.
After Dr. Urbino told Fermina everything about his affair, she was most bothered by the fact that he had told her confessor before her, since she considered religious officials unworthy of trust. This made her feel even more humiliated than the fact that Dr. Urbino’s lover was black—although he corrected her, saying that she was a “mulatta.” Fermina concluded that she now understood everything, since the mysterious smell was that of a black woman.
The contrast in Dr. Urbino and Fermina’s attitude toward the Church derives not from disagreement over what constitutes moral behavior, but from varying beliefs in the importance of tradition and the uprightness of the clergy. Once again, Fermina’s association of her husband’s black lover with the feeling of humiliation highlights her racist prejudice.
Five days later, Fermina left for Hildebranda’s province. Although Fermina’s children knew nothing about what had happened, they were not surprised and had actually wanted her to take such a trip for a long time. Soon, Fermina also realized that she had long wanted to go on such a journey, to revisit the places she associated with nostalgia. On her way, though, she realized that the idyllic villages she remembered were full of corpses because of cholera—this time, without a final blow in the neck. As a result, she decided to avoid such villages, in order to keep her memories clear of disgust.
Fermina’s children’s lack of surprise suggests that Fermina’s unhappiness must have been easy to recognize and that she had probably needed a break from the oppression of home for a long time. Fermina’s disappointment at revisiting familiar places shows that it is impossible to relive the past, since people and places constantly change and, in addition, memory often idealizes scenes from the past.
When Fermina arrives at Hildebranda’s, she is shocked to see how fat and aged her cousin has become, although she still has the same personality as before. She is still in love with the same man, although she has married someone else. Dr. Urbino fetches his wife after two years, when the local bishop tells him that the only reason his wife has not returned is because of wounded pride. Fermina, who has been busy preparing eggplant for lunch, is overjoyed to see him.
Hildebranda’s desperate love for a married man mirrors Florentino’s desperate love for Fermina. In both cases, the love remains in their mind even if it cannot express itself in reality. Fermina’s joy at seeing her husband confirms that she does not actually want to separate from him, since they share too close a relationship for either of them to feel perfectly happy without the presence of the other.
After Fermina’s return, she and Dr. Urbino go to see a movie, which she says out loud is boring. Florentino, who is also there with Leona Cassiani, recognizes her voice. After the event, he sees Fermina leave with her husband, using his arm to support her. When she almost trips on the steps, Florentino feels terrified. He realizes that he is not afraid of death but of aging in the same way and of having to rely on a woman for support.
In the same way that Fermina’s shock at seeing an aged Hildebranda showed that it is easier to recognize the passing of time in others than in oneself, Florentino is amazed to realize that Fermina—whom he has idealized so much—is also growing old. His fear of depending on someone else highlights his habit of living independently, without either the comfort or the difficulty of having a loved person by his side.
After this, Florentino accompanies Leona home. In her apartment, in which he has spent many Sundays, he tries to caress her but she stops him, telling him that she has long realized he is not the man for her. She reveals that she was raped by a mysterious man when she was young and had since tried to find him because of the passion he had aroused in her.
Once again, as happened with Florentino’s first sexual experience, rape in the novel is described not as violence or violation but as a pleasurable experience, capable of generating passion. Surprisingly, Leona’s confession shows her to be potentially as deluded as Florentino—who can be seen, in some ways, as her male alter ego.
Florentino is now 56 and has entered old age. He struggled to keep from balding but has ultimately had to accept the loss of his hair. He also needed an operation on his teeth and, following his uncle’s advice, had all of his teeth removed, so that he could wear false teeth.
Florentino’s struggles with old age mirror Dr. Urbino’s difficulties at the beginning of the novel. Both of them use palliatives to treat certain symptoms, but are ultimately helpless before the advance of old age.
Uncle Leo XII retires after many years at the head of the River Company of the Caribbean. Florentino decides to spend his Sundays with him, since he no longer sees him at work. His uncle tells him that, despite all the changes in politics and the economy he has witnessed during his long career, including many civil wars, the country is still stuck in colonial times. He also wants his nephew to marry, and told him that he would have married Leona if he were 50 years younger. Months later, Florentino is chosen as President of the River Company of the Caribbean. Florentino knew that the only reason he had achieved such a position was thanks to his desire to be worthy of Fermina Daza.
Uncle Leo XII’s harsh evaluation of the country’s state suggests that the civil wars the country has known have brought only violence and destruction—no real progress or development. This is visible, for example, in the rigid division between aristocrats and the rest of the population. The fact that Florentino attributes his professional success to his love for Fermina shows that his obsession for Fermina, however unrequited, has given him something to live for, capable of making him work hard and achieve social mobility.
Florentino then recalls the various lovers he has had over the years. He notes that he always followed their lives, even from afar, maintaining at least a distant link with them. He remembers Rosalba and Widow Nazaret, the only one for whom he proved responsible as he paid for her funeral expenses. He remembers one woman who had threatened to cut off his penis so he would only belong to her, and another who taught him that it was possible to be in love with various people at the same time, claiming that her heart “had more rooms than a whorehouse.”
Florentino’s long-term interest in all of his former lovers does not necessarily imply that he felt love for them, but it certainly indicates that he feels a minimum of tenderness and interest in their lives. The variety of experiences he has had suggests that each individual has a different way of conceiving of sexual relationships—as a subversive act capable of providing freedom, as a form of ownership, as love, and so on—and that there is not just one way to experience pleasure through romance and sex.
Another lover, Andrea Varón, had both women and men as lovers. She was the only one for whom Florentino ever paid to have sex, though they negotiated a symbolic fee of one peso and Andrea managed her sexual life as a business exclusively for her own pleasure. Sara Noriega was the only one who left Florentino with some bitterness. She ended up in a psychiatric institution, where she was forced to be isolated because she loudly recited lewd poetic verses that could drive other inmates insane.
The topic of prostitution appears at various times in the novel, either literally or metaphorically (through women’s self-definition as “whores”) but is rarely depicted in a negative light. Like other unconventional practices, it is shown as a potentially liberating experience for women—although one potentially fraught with danger and violence, as Florentino discovered in the hotel as a young man.
Around the time when Dr. Urbino dies, Florentino is having an affair with a 14-year-old girl, América Vicuña, to whom Florentino, her relative in the city, was supposed to serve as a guardian while she studied in secondary school. Although Florentino knows that she is still a child, he recognizes nascent womanhood in her and guides her toward sexual relations with him. América feels that she has reached heaven and becomes so happy that she performs exceptionally well at school. Florentino, in turn, enjoys this relationship because it is defined by innocence instead of the calculation he is used to. He begins to love her and takes special precautions to prevent pregnancy. Although people warned her to stay away from Florentino because old age might be contagious, she ignores their advice.
Florentino’s relationship with América is the one where Florentino’s conception of sex as a realm free of morality is challenged most severely. Florentino’s failure to realize that, as an old, experienced man, he might be taking advantage of América Vicuña’s innocence for his own pleasure shows him as an unthinking, potentially callous being. The fact that América feels pleasure while having sex with Florentino is unable to erase the dangerous underlying power dynamics between them, which renders their relationship deeply unequal. Indeed, while Florentino sees this relationship in a light way, as distraction, América experiences through it her first, intense feelings of love and attraction.
On Pentecost Sunday, after making love, they hear church bells ring continuously. Florentino knows that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour had died but concludes that the bells must be ringing for someone more important, such as a governor. América does not care about death and is enjoying lying next to Florentino in bed, in a cabin next to the dock. Florentino loves her but feels anxious about her, because he’s foreseen that she will die by the end of her studies. Remembering that he has to attend de Saint-Amour’s funeral, he dresses and helps her with her braid.
América’s lack of interest in death contrasts starkly with Florentino’s understanding that she will die soon. This prescient thought suggests that Florentino might not be as ignorant about América’s passionate attitude as he appears to be. In this sense, it is possible that Florentino is knowingly taking advantage of América’s innocence to have sex with her, while knowing that she will be much more affected by it than him.
When they enter the carriage, the driver tells Florentino that the bells are ringing for a famous doctor. Florentino immediately understands that Dr. Urbino has died, even if the tale of his death seems ridiculous. Florentino suddenly feels terrified at the idea that he could have been the one to die. In an agitated state, he drops América off at school and hurries to Dr. Urbino’s house.
Florentino’s identification with Dr. Urbino’s fate derives from their similar age as well as their shared passion for Fermina Daza. Dr. Urbino’s death is a primordial moment in the narrative, since it allows Florentino to confront his fantasy about seducing Fermina again with reality.
Florentino has fantasized about, and waited for this moment his entire life. Full of determination, he declares his everlasting love to Fermina Daza. Although he knows his confession could be considered too brutal, he fears losing such a precious opportunity and is convinced that this is his destiny. For the next few weeks, he barely sleeps and suffers from pains and discomfort related to old age. When he finally gives up, he sees that a letter is waiting for him by the door—the letter he has hoped to receive for over 50 years.
Florentino’s excitement at Dr. Urbino’s death is shocking because it seems so disrespectful. It emphasizes both Florentino’s determination and selfishness, as he proves more committed to expressing his feelings than to gauging Fermina’s sadness and grief. It also highlights his desperation, since he knows that, in the same way that Dr. Urbino has died, he, too, could die at any point.