In Love in the Time of Cholera, sex often represents a way for characters to escape the socially oppressive routine of everyday life. Through his experiences with widows, separated wives, and adulterous women, Florentino Ariza realizes that women often find pleasure and self-affirmation through sex, beyond what a conservative society deems acceptable for them to express. However, some sexual behaviors can remain tainted by dangerous dynamics of power and control. Florentino believes that sex lies outside the moral sphere, and this leads him to take part in morally questionable deeds, including rape and sex with a minor. By depicting these episodes in a neutral tone, the narrator challenges readers to make up their own mind about what they see. Readers are encouraged to question the morality of sex in various contexts and develop their own moral perspective and to differentiate sexual interactions that are potentially liberating from those that can prove violent and harmful.
In a society marked by rigid social norms and class-based behavior, sex—especially sexual relations outside of marriage—can provide a freedom lacking in ordinary society. In Love in the Time of Cholera, first-time sexual experiences constitute joyful acts of discovery. Florentino loses his virginity to a woman who introduces him to a new sensual world whose existence he had never imagined, and which might be potentially capable of making him forget his obsessive love for Fermina Daza. Similarly, for Fermina, sex is a form of discovery: of her own body and of male anatomy. First, she experiences masturbation as a secretive, pleasurable activity in harmony with her natural instinct. Then, during her first sexual relation with her husband Dr. Juvenal Urbino, she examines his penis with curiosity while Urbino explains how it functions, thus providing her with important information. These episodes suggest that sex can be tied to curiosity and personal knowledge, providing an opportunity for everyone involved to learn more about each other’s bodies.
In addition, illicit or non-traditional sex allows people—in particular, women—to escape the constraints of marriage. Widow Nazaret’s intense sexual life with multiple partners, leads her to consider herself “the only free woman in the province.” As Florentino gets to know multiple widows, he concludes that widowhood indeed allows women to be in control of their own lives, without having to obey orders or to focus on anything but the satisfaction of their own pleasure. In the novel, non-widowed women find a similar freedom after separating from their husband or through adultery. However, sexual relations do not always provide a perfect escape from society and can actually heighten the dangers and inequality that exist in society. Although Florentino claims that “nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love,” he is naïve (or hypocritical) in believing that sexual relations exist in a moral vacuum. Indeed, on various occasions, Florentino’s sexual decisions make him directly or indirectly responsible for other people’s deaths.
After Florentino writes with paint on the body of one of his lovers, Olimpia Zuleta, she is later killed by her furious husband. Florentino puts flowers on Zuleta’s grave but does not seem plagued in any way by guilt or grief. His nonchalant attitude in response to his own actions demonstrates the potential immorality that irresponsible sex can encourage. Even more disturbing is Florentino’s relationship with a 14-year-old girl, América Vicuña, of whom he is the legal guardian. Although he knows she is still a child, he does not hesitate to have sex with her. This story, too, has a tragic ending. After Florentino abandons her to focus exclusively on Fermina Daza, she kills herself out of jealousy and pain. Florentino later experiences grief but never questions the morality of his deeds. In both cases, Florentino fails to examine his own responsibility in these deaths. Instead, his immediate reaction is selfish: he fears for his own reputation, fearful that people might discover his secret relationships with these women—again, sex proves to be as much a vehicle for pain and violence as a lighthearted escape.
In addition to these deaths, rape in the novel is described in neutral or positive terms. Florentino’s first sexual experience is a case of rape, since he is taken by surprise by a woman who forces him to lose his virginity without ever asking for his consent or revealing her identity. However, Florentino is fascinated by this experience, retaining only the positive aspects of it. Similarly, Florentino’s friend Leona Cassiani desperately searches for the unknown man who raped her when she was young, whom she believes to be the love of her life. Both Florentino and Dr. Juvenal Urbino take part in acts of rape—Florentino with a maid, and Dr. Urbino by using his authority as a doctor to touch his female patients sexually during gynecological exams. In the novel, none of these episodes is condemned in explicit ways or recognized as a form of violence.
These episodes demonstrate that sexual relations are not exempt from violence or unhealthy power dynamics, which can lead to fatal consequences. But by remaining neutral and not explicitly drawing the line between moral and immoral behavior, or consent and lack thereof, the novel invites readers to make up their own minds about the moral validity of certain actions. It is up to the reader to pay attention to these episodes and realize that sexual relations in the novel are not always as innocent or innocuous as they might appear.
Sex and Morality ThemeTracker
Sex and Morality Quotes in Love in the Time of Cholera
In this way he learned that she did not want to marry him, but did feel joined to his life because of her immense gratitude to him for having corrupted her. She often said to him:
“I adore you because you made me a whore.”
Said in another way, she was right. Florentino Ariza had stripped her of the virginity of a conventional marriage, more pernicious than congenital virginity or the abstinence of widowhood. He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love.
But in those solitary Masses they began to be aware that once again they were mistresses of their fate, after having renounced not only their family name but their own identity in exchange for a security that was no more than another of a bride’s many illusions. They alone knew how tiresome was the man they loved to distraction, who perhaps loved them but whom they had to continue nurturing until his last breath as if he were a child, suckling him, changing his soiled diapers, distracting him with a mother’s tricks to ease his terror at going out each morning to face reality. And nevertheless, when they watched him leave the house, this man they themselves had urged to conquer the world, then they were the ones left with the terror that he would never return. That was their life. Love, if it existed, was something separate: another life.
She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her.
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.”