Love in the Time of Cholera, set in the 1870s in an unnamed city in the Caribbean, examines the meaning of love through the intertwined lives of Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino de la Calle. Florentino Ariza, a telegraph operator and the illegitimate son of Tránsito Ariza, is considered an ideal suitor in his social circle. As a young man, though, he falls in love with Fermina Daza, a young upper-middle-class woman who lives under the control of her tyrannical father Lorenzo Daza. Although the two of them have never spoken, Florentino is convinced of his love and, after many months of waiting, succeeds in handing her a declaration of love through her aunt and guardian, Escolástica. After a period of doubt, Fermina responds positively to his letter and ultimately agrees to marry him.
One day, Fermina is caught writing a secret letter to Florentino at her school, the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin. As punishment, School Superior Sister Franca de la Luz expels her. After learning this, Fermina’s father requests a meeting with Florentino, although he is shocked to discover that Fermina knows little or nothing about her suitor. During this talk, Lorenzo Daza tells Florentino that his only goal in life is for his daughter to become an upper-class lady—and, therefore, that Fermina should not marry him. Florentino, however, refuses to give up on marrying Fermina, arguing that she should be the one to make this decision.
Furious, Lorenzo Daza takes his daughter on a long, dangerous trip through the countryside, hoping that this will make her forget Florentino. On the way, they come across scenes of death and violence, markers of the civil war between Conservatives and Liberals that has been devastating the countryside for half a century. They finally reach the residence of Fermina’s mother’s family, where her cousins live. There, Fermina begins a lifelong friendship with her energetic cousin Hildebranda Sánchez. Although Fermina is delighted to discover that Florentino has used his contacts in the telegraph system to send letters to her, her friendship with Hildebranda also makes her realize that it is possible to feel content without romantic love. At the same time, she remains committed to marrying Florentino.
When Fermina finally returns to the city, Florentino does not initially recognize her since she has changed so much and has fully matured into an adult. However, he approaches her in the market, using a secret code between them to make her understand that he is there. When Fermina sees him, she is struck by an instant, overwhelming feeling of disappointment. In a split-second, she realizes that she does not love Florentino but merely pities him. She rejects him, refusing to see him anymore and eliminating him from her life without giving this decision a second thought. After this, she meets a famous doctor in the city, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who becomes fascinated with her. Dr. Urbino studied medicine in Paris and has since returned to launch an innovative series of measures to reform sanitation in his native city. This played an important role in stemming the epidemic of cholera that killed thousands of people, including Dr. Urbino’s father, in the past decades. Dr. Urbino has also launched a variety of cultural activities to promote the arts and modern ideas he encountered in Europe. In all aspects of his life, his actions seem driven by a powerful belief in progress and modernity.
Fermina is initially annoyed by Dr. Urbino’s courtship. In particular, when Sister Franca de la Luz visits her to express her support of this marriage, Fermina realizes that most people, including members of the Church, are hypocritical and respond to social pressures more than sincere convictions. However, after Hildebranda visits Fermina and expresses admiration for Dr. Urbino, whom they have met in the street, Fermina ultimately realizes that she wants to marry him. After their wedding, the two of them embark on a honeymoon to Europe. On the ship, Fermina and Dr. Urbino have sex for the first time. Although Fermina feared that losing her virginity would involve pain and violation, she discovers that it actually allows her to express her curiosity and adventurous spirit. During the trip, Fermina and Dr. Urbino also grasp that their marriage is not based on love but on the material security that Dr. Urbino is able to offer Fermina. Dr. Urbino optimistically believes that the two of them will nevertheless succeed in fostering love for each other. In the long run, it proves highly ambiguous whether true love, beyond mere companionship, ever exists between the two of them. Nevertheless, neither Fermina nor Dr. Urbino ever regret their decision.
When they return from Europe, Fermina gives birth to a son, Marco Aurelio Urbino Daza. Although Fermina is not part of the upper class, she impresses high society with her elegance and talent, thus earning her place in this milieu. She and her husband bring innovative ideas to this social world and feel happy about the positive role they are playing in society. At the same time, Fermina becomes increasingly frustrated with her role at home. Instead of achieving personal fulfillment and independence, Fermina realizes that marriage has forced her to become a servant to her husband. This brings her deep unhappiness, which Dr. Urbino is unable to understand. A period of marital strife ensues. Although the couple takes another trip to Europe, from which Fermina returns pregnant with a daughter, Ofelia, Fermina then discovers that her husband has been having an affair with an American woman, Miss Barbara Lynch. Unable to stand this situation any longer, Fermina leaves the house and finds refuge at Hildebranda’s home in the countryside. After two years, Dr. Urbino realizes that Fermina has failed to return not because she is still angry, but because she is stubborn and suffers from wounded pride. As a result, he goes to fetch her and she agrees to return home.
As Dr. Urbino ages, Fermina takes care of him in the same way she would take care of a baby. One day, Dr. Urbino discovers that his close friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, an Antillean refugee, has committed suicide at the age of 60 to avoid aging. He also discovers, from a letter Jeremiah left him, that Jeremiah was a criminal in his homeland and that he had a secret lover in the city, whose existence Dr. Urbino had never suspected. Dr. Urbino is disturbed by this series of events. Not only is he shocked to realize that his friend had concealed his past life to him, but he also realizes that he, too, is afraid of the suffering of old age, for which he has begun to take a lot of medicine. On the very same day as Jeremiah’s suicide, Dr. Urbino falls from a ladder while trying to catch his parrot, which has escaped to high branches of a mango tree. The fall proves fatal, and before dying, he tells Fermina that he loves her deeply. At the age of 72, Fermina is devastated by her husband’s death. At the funeral, Fermina sees Florentino Ariza, who is now 76. She does not pay attention to him, focusing instead on hiding the grief that is destroying her on the inside. That evening, though, as she is about to lock her house, she notices Florentino standing before her. He tells her that his love and fidelity for her are as strong as before. Furious, Fermina shuts the door.
Florentino Ariza has indeed never forgotten Fermina Daza. Committed to this adolescent love, he decided to center his entire life around the possibility of winning her back. As a result, he worked hard to become President of the River Company of the Caribbean, the firm that his father and uncles founded. This allows him to achieve a high social status and thus, in his mind, to prove worthy of Fermina’s love. He resolves to wait for Dr. Urbino’s death before resuming his courtship. In the meantime, Florentino takes part in sexual relationships with over 600 women. He believes that this does not compromise his love for Fermina, since he does not marry or start serious relationships with any of them. Many of the women Florentino has relationships with are widows. He discovers that, despite widows’ grief for their husbands, widows are often surprisingly happy and free. Having escaped from the obligations of marriage, they can now focus on their own pleasure and feel free to take part in many casual relationships, often leading them to jokingly describe themselves as “whores.”
However, although Florentino believes that sex is entirely separate from morality, he fails to recognize that some sexual relationships are influenced by harmful power dynamics. One woman, Olimpia Zuleta, is killed by her husband after he discovers her adulterous relationship with Florentino. Later, Florentino starts a relationship with a 14-year-old girl, América Vicuña. He understands neither that she should be protected as a child, nor that she is capable of strong romantic and sexual feelings toward him. As a result, he puts an end to their relationship to focus on his romantic pursuit of Fermina Daza without realizing that this will devastate América. At 17, the young girl commits suicide out of despair. In both cases, instead of reflecting on his moral responsibility, Florentino is primarily concerned with the safeguard of his reputation. This depicts him as a morally debased person, incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions.
Furious at Florentino’s shocking admission of love on the day of her husband’s funeral, Fermina writes him an angry letter. Florentino responds to it with a mild tone, focusing on intellectual meditations instead of professions of love, which he knows will upset her, and giving Fermina the impression that he is trying to erase the past. Over time, the two of them develop an intimate relationship. Florentino goes to Fermina’s house every Tuesday to have tea with her. Both of Fermina’s children find the idea of a romantic relationship between two old people revolting, but Fermina is not affected by their criticism. Desirous to leave the oppressive atmosphere of the city, Fermina goes on a boat trip, accompanied by Florentino. There, over 53 years since the end of their youthful adventure, the two of them begin a romantic relationship. They hold hands, kiss, and have sex, although they are both aware that their bodies are old and potentially disgusting. Although Fermina remains annoyed by Florentino’s frequent references to the past, which she finds useless and distracting from his other qualities, such as his calm intelligence, the two of them find peace during this trip. They appreciate the quality of a love separate from marital difficulties and societal obligations—a love that is rendered all the more intense by its proximity to death.
When Fermina and Florentino approach the city, the two of them realize that going back to shore means facing the reality of old age and the likelihood of death. Hoping to retain the joy and peace they currently feel, Florentino suggests that they stay on the river instead of putting an end to their journey. Both Fermina and the boat’s captain, Captain Samaritano, are impressed by this idea and decide to follow it. Inspired by his romantic idealism and his love for Fermina, Florentino concludes that they could keep on sailing together like this forever.