In Love in the Time of Cholera, old age and death are always looming in the lives of the protagonists. The narrative opens with the description of Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s dead body, which his friend Dr. Juvenal Urbino is summoned to examine. When the doctor sees the dead body, he is shocked and soon realizes that he, too, is mortal. Over the course of the novel, various characters experience such moments of revelation. Indeed, although people such as Dr. Urbino play an important role in ridding society of dangerous diseases like cholera, the process of coming to terms with one’s own mortality is intensely personal. Dr. Urbino, his wife Fermina Daza, and Florentino Ariza will all have to accept that they have little power over the aging of their body. However, instead of giving in to resignation, Fermina and Florentino highlight another route: dedicating themselves to making their final years as pleasant and full of love as they can. Until death strikes, the novel suggests, no love or hope is vain if it contributes to people’s happiness.
As a modern, rational doctor, Dr. Juvenal Urbino believes that sensible medical reforms can greatly ameliorate people’s lives and allow society to progress. After his return from Paris, Dr. Urbino realizes that many behaviors in his native city exacerbate the spread of cholera. He is appalled to note that people drink water infested with waterworms, which they superstitiously believe have supernatural powers but are actually harmful to ingest. People also consider a scrotal hernia to be a symbol of virility, even though it is a severe condition. In addition, although cholera affects everyone, regardless of wealth or skin color, he notes that the disease kills a larger number of poor black people because they do not have the infrastructure, such as septic tanks in colonial houses, to protect themselves. Aware of these medical and social issues, Dr. Juvenal Urbino does not allow himself to succumb to the hopelessness of the situation—instead, he works hard to find solutions. He fights to build a closed sewage system, to convince people not to dispose of waste anywhere, and to move the slaughterhouse farther from where people live and eat. These innovative methods play an important role in preventing a new outbreak of cholera in the city, demonstrating that society is able to progress and protect itself from preventable ills, rather than merely accepting death as fate.
Beyond social progress, on a personal level Dr. Urbino and other characters are forced to accept that there is one thing in human life that even the best medical reforms cannot fight: old age and death. The idea of time passing provokes horror and panic in various characters. Florentino notices the ravages of time not in his own life, but in those of others. In particular, he is shocked to see Fermina Daza almost trip on steps in public while holding on to her husband. In that moment, Florentino realizes that what scares him most is old age, which could force him to rely on another person for support, in the way that Fermina and her husband depend on each other to survive. Although characters try to defend themselves against old age, their efforts are largely futile. Most characters in the novel demonstrate an attitude toward old age that is marked by fear and shame, considering old age to be humiliating. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour takes a particularly drastic measure to prevent old age: suicide. Dr. Urbino does not kill himself, but secretly takes a variety of medications to prevent certain problems associated with old age, such as vertigo and sleep issues. Similarly, Florentino is ashamed to become bald and to have to replace his teeth. Rather than either accepting old age as an inevitable part of life or trying to better themselves, these characters try in vain to ignore and conceal their problems.
In the end, however, whatever precautions or opinions characters might have about growing old and dying, they ultimately have no control over how their lives end. Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies after climbing in a tree to try to catch his escaped parrot, a darkly humorous death that contrasts starkly with his reputation as a serious, respectable man. This shows that death is unpredictable and surprising—and, therefore, that worrying about it does not impact its outcome. As a result, the only solution to old age and death is to confront this period of life head-on and make the best of one’s time left on Earth. Florentino and Fermina realize that shame does not add anything positive to their lives. Although they are both afraid about the other discovering their old body and their “sour smell of old age” during sex, they ultimately prove accepting of each other’s physical states. Instead of considering that old age is an obstacle to their love, they accept that they can now express affection in a new way: through calm, tender acts, at odds with the passionate love-making and intensity of their youth.
By the end of the novel, it appears that the only solution to the inevitable struggles of illness and old age is to make the best of difficult situations and enjoy life as much as possible. On the ship, when Florentino and Fermina are about to return to port and the routine nature of their lives—and, therefore, to the imminence of their death—they decide to believe that “it is life, more than death, that has no limits.” Instead of giving in to death, they turn the boat around, spurning the reality of boredom and decrepitude. Just as Dr. Urbino’s commitment to disease prevention advocates an optimistic and proactive outlook on life, their choice to keep on enjoying themselves emphasizes that death is ultimately out of their control—but that their capacity to enjoy their own lives isn’t.
Illness, Mortality, and Hope ThemeTracker
Illness, Mortality, and Hope Quotes in Love in the Time of Cholera
He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:
“Only God knows how much I loved you.”
After Florentino Ariza saw her for the first time, his mother knew before he told her because he lost his voice and his appetite and spent the entire night tossing and turning in his bed. But when he began to wait for the answer to his first letter, his anguish was complicated by diarrhea and green vomit, he became disoriented and suffered from sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera.
“A century ago, life screwed that poor man and me because we were too young, and now they want to do the same thing because we are too old.” She lit a cigarette with the end of the one she was smoking, and then she gave vent to all the poison that was gnawing at her insides.
“They can all go to hell,” she said. “If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.”
It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.