Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera follows the romantic lives of three central characters—Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino—to explore the meaning of true love. The daughter of a Spanish mule trader, Fermina Daza discovers domestic love when she marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, an intelligent man from a wealthy family. During her marriage, Fermina realizes that her couple is tied together through intense knowledge of the other, tenderness, and habit—but not necessarily through romantic love. By contrast, she discovers passionate love during her adolescent romance with telegraph operator Florentino Ariza. Although Fermina ultimately rejects him, Florentino proves to be a hopeless romantic and devotes his entire life to waiting for her to return to him. By the end of the novel, after the death of Fermina’s husband, the two of them reunite. This happy ending seemingly proves that Florentino’s ardent love has triumphed over Dr. Urbino’s domestic affection. However, through Fermina’s doubts and reflections, the novel shows that true love is not necessarily easy to recognize. Following the various periods of Fermina’s life, Love in the Time of Cholera suggests that there might be different ways to love different people at different times, depending on personality and the various stages of life.
Although Fermina and Dr. Urbino do not marry for love, their relationship evolves over time into a relationship of mutual dependence, suggesting that relationships which lack romance can still serve a practical purpose. Dr. Juvenal Urbino marries Fermina because he admires her qualities, but not because he is madly in love with her. Over the course of their marriage, though, both characters develop tender feelings for each other. Fermina takes care of her aging husband with devotion, treating him like a “senile baby.” The two characters realize that they constantly think about each other and cannot live without each other. However, they take care not to question whether this mutual dependence derives from love or mere habit, preferring not to trouble the stability of their marriage. Dr. Urbino, in fact, believes that stability in marriage is more important than happiness. He understands his relationship with Fermina as a lifelong commitment made of self-sacrifice. This devotion allows him to put an end to his adulterous relationship with Miss Barbara Lynch—a woman for whom, incidentally, he seems to feel the romantic passion that lacks in his marriage.
Ultimately, it remains ambiguous whether true love has ever emerged between Dr. Urbino and Fermina. When Dr. Urbino lies dying after a violent fall, he tells Fermina: “Only God knows how much I loved you.” This romantic statement suggests that he must have felt love for her after so many years of partnership, but it does not keep Fermina from questioning the nature of this love later on. “It is incredible how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not,” she says. Although Fermina and her husband shared evident feelings of care and affection, it remains unclear whether sharing domestic life was sufficient to kindle true, unequivocal love.
By contrast, Florentino Ariza loves Fermina with an intensity that he never doubts. However, although his romantic attitude can be seen as an antidote to the routine nature of Fermina and Dr. Urbino’s marriage, the relationship between Florentino and Fermina is also marked by conflict and ambiguity. Florentino Ariza’s love for Fermina is physical and uncontrollable. It manifests itself in visible ways: Florentino loses his appetite, has diarrhea, and vomits, to the point of making it seem as though he is a victim of cholera. Love, in this sense, is associated with illness, an intense physical phenomenon against which Florentino cannot fight. This suggests that Florentino’s love might be unequivocal, but is not necessarily wholly positive, as it has an obsessive tinge to it. In fact, when Fermina and Florentino reunite at the end of the novel, they seem to have different conceptions of love. Fermina is annoyed by Florentino’s excessive romanticism—the very quality that, in Florentino’s eyes, constitutes his love. In the end, it is only by concealing the more obsessive aspects of his character (and highlighting, instead, his capacity for intellectual reflection) that Florentino ultimately seduces Fermina.
Although the novel’s ending suggests that Florentino’s love has finally vanquished all obstacles, it also reveals that Fermina and Florentino’s relationship might be successful primarily because it represents an escape from the responsibilities of life: “It was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry 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.” The characters are both at “the heart of love” and “beyond love”—an ambiguous characterization. Perhaps, the novel suggests, this particular relationship is successful because it does not reflect what is traditionally understood as “love” (the intense passion that Florentino has experienced his whole life) but, rather, camaraderie in the face of death. Their love, then, functions because it is perfectly suited to this particular moment in time: the end of the two characters’ lives, after long years of marriage and youthful passion.
The ending of the novel thus suggests that Florentino’s love for Fermina as an elderly man arrives at the right place and time, but is not capable of replacing or overshadowing Fermina’s marriage to Dr. Urbino—a man she might not have loved, but whom she feels was an adequate husband for her. While for Florentino this ending represents the culmination of his life-long desire, to be united with the woman of his dreams, for Fermina it merely fills a gap at the end of her life. The novel thus shows that love can take on various forms and serve different purposes over the course of one person’s life.
Love 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.
“Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can,” she said to him, “because these things don’t last your whole life.”
She turned her head and saw, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, those other glacial eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified with fear, just as she had seen them in the crowd at Midnight Mass the first time he was so close to her, but now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment. In an instant the magnitude of her own mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand.
“No, please,” she said to him. “Forget it.”
She herself had not realized that every step she took from her house to school, every spot in the city, every moment of her recent past, did not seem to exist except by the grace of Florentino Ariza. Hildebranda pointed this out to her, but she did not admit it because she never would have admitted that Florentino Ariza, for better or for worse, was the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life.
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.
He was a perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, or turned out a light, or closed a door. In the morning darkness, when he found a button missing from his clothes, she would hear him say: “A man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew on his buttons.”
Over the years they both reached the same wise conclusion by different paths: it was not possible to live together in any other way, or love in any other way, and nothing in this world was more difficult than love.
Still looking at her, he said without warning:
“I am going to marry.”
She looked into his eyes with a flash of uncertainty, her spoon suspended in midair, but then she recovered and smiled.
“That’s a lie,” she said. “Old men don’t marry.”
It had to be a mad dream, one that would give her the courage she would need to discard the prejudices of a class that had not always been hers but had become hers more than anyone’s. It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.
One day, at the height of desperation, she had shouted at him: “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.” Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she had attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them both so many happy hours.
“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.”
She could not conceive of a husband better than hers had been, and yet when she recalled their life she found more difficulties than pleasures, too many mutual misunderstandings, useless arguments, unresolved angers. Suddenly she sighed: “It is incredible how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not.”
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.
The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.