In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez shows that public appearances do not always reflect private reality. Despite what high society promotes, being wealthy and having a stable marriage (the main goals of the upper class) do not necessarily guarantee happiness. During her marriage to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza realizes that the impression of contentment she emanates to the outside world does not reflect her experience in the house, where she is a servant to her husband. Through this personal dissatisfaction and her husband’s adultery with a mixed-race woman, Miss Barbara Lynch, Fermina discovers that the values of high society regarding social class, the role of women, and race do not actually conform to people’s desires. Instead, the novel suggests, challenging certain social codes may be the proper path to achieving a measure of freedom and happiness.
The focus of high society on social class and norms wrongfully suggests that social status reflects a person’s worth or happiness. In a world obsessed with status, family can prove an obstacle to personal happiness. When an adolescent Fermina Daza decides that she wants to marry Florentino Ariza, who has a promising future but is an illegitimate son in a poor family, Fermina’s tyrannical father Lorenzo Daza opposes the project. This suggests that a conservative family’s view of marriage is not meant to promote love or happiness, but rather social advancement. Paradoxically, though, upper-class people trust that wealth and power generate happiness. In the case of Fermina and Juvenal, people believe that the beautiful, practical house they own guarantees that their marriage will be a happy one. Dr. Urbino, too, naïvely assumes that the security he brings his wife makes her happy.
However, material comfort is unrelated to personal happiness, as it still disguises underlying power dynamics. Despite her wealth, Fermina is secretly miserable. She realizes that being married and taking care of a house is a form of servitude. Focused on the logistics of everyday life, she sees herself as “a deluxe servant” whose only goal is to take care of her husband. The power she has as a member of the upper class does not give her freedom. Rather, “she was absolute monarch of a vast empire of happiness, which had been built by [her husband] and for him alone. She knew that he loved her above all else, more than anyone else in the world, but only for his own sake: she was in his holy service.” Dr. Urbino recognizes this himself when he says that “[a] man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew his buttons.” He assumes that being a wife necessarily entails taking care of the household and of her husband. He, along with the rest of society, does not realize that Fermina might actually long for equality or personal realization beyond the domain of the household.
As these personal aspirations clash with societal expectations, it becomes clear that social norms serve primarily to limit people’s lives—not to lead them to fulfillment and contentment. Much of the sincere joy that Dr. Urbino and Fermina experience during their marriage derives from their opposition to the small-minded nature of high society. Dr. Urbino defies traditional norms by marrying a woman who is not part of the local nobility. Although people initially reject Fermina because of that, she soon makes her way in society thanks to her natural demeanor, which convinces everyone that she deserves to be admired and respected. More generally, Fermina and Juvenal bring modernity and progress to the city: “The most absurd element in their situation was that they never seemed so happy in public as during those years of misery. For this was the time of their greatest victories over the subterranean hostility of a milieu that resisted accepting them as they were: different and modern, and for that reason transgressors against the traditional order.” Happiness, in other words, can come from challenging the system and motivating society to evolve in the public sphere. However, the enjoyment that Fermina and Juvenal feel relates exclusively to their public role, not their private life—yet it is easy to confuse the two.
Ultimately, it is when characters are able to forgo tradition for their true emotional desires that they prove happiest. Dr. Urbino’s adulterous relationship with Barbara Lynch is doubly scandalous because Miss Lynch is a “mulatta” (a mixed-race woman). Having assimilated society’s racist beliefs, Fermina believes that her husband would never be attracted to a black woman. She does not realize, instead, that her husband feels joyous and free in the presence of his lover. Similarly, when Fermina and Florentino develop a romantic relationship in their old age, many people are aghast. América Vicuña, Florentino’s adolescent lover, says that old men don’t marry, thus confusing social norms with individual desire. In turn, Fermina’s children do not approve of their mother’s relationship, judging that love at that age is obscene.
In both cases, people are not able to understand that actual happiness, love, and attraction are not tied to society’s views about how people should behave. Without necessarily intending to, Dr. Urbino’s relationship with Miss Lynch and Fermina’s with Florentino challenge social norms, revealing that personal happiness is most likely to flourish outside of rigid social categories. The novel thus suggests that the conservative values of high society are an obstacle to people’s happiness and that people are most likely to enjoy freedom beyond rigid social categories.
Social Norms vs. Personal Fulfillment ThemeTracker
Social Norms vs. Personal Fulfillment Quotes in Love in the Time of Cholera
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.
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.
Instead, she was something she never dared admit even to herself: a deluxe servant. In society she came to be the woman most loved, most catered to, and by the same token most feared, but in nothing was she more demanding or less forgiving than in the management of her house. She always felt as if her life had been lent to her by her husband: she was absolute monarch of a vast empire of happiness, which had been built by him and for him alone. She knew that he loved her above all else, more than anyone else in the world, but only for his own sake: she was in his holy service.
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.”