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Reflections on a great novel[1]

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has been an object of almost universal admiration among reviewers, whose written reactions to it pullulate with superlatives and an intemperate use of vague but impressive-sounding words like ‘magnificent’, ‘unforgettable’, ‘irresistible’, ‘fecund’. Bill Clinton called it the best novel in any language since Faulkner died. It has been translated into dozens of languages; it has been compared with Don Quixote and its Nobel Prize-winning author with Cervantes; it is certain to be one of the enduring classics of the twentieth century. So the question naturally arises, ‘What’s all the hype about?’ Once you’ve read it you ought to have a fairly firm intuitive grasp of the answer, but its complexity and richness is such that you may have difficulty not only giving a well-reasoned explanation of your admiration but also ordering your impressions and placing them in the tidy schema that one desires whenever one finishes reading a thought-provoking work of art. The purpose of this paper is to help you with the task of assimilation and interpretation.

Now, in offering interpretations I might be assumed to be speculating on the author’s intentions, but, strictly speaking, that is not my purpose. It seems a less dignified, more picayune endeavor to ask unceasingly ‘What did the author mean here?’ than simply to formulate your own ideas on what you think should be, or could be, the significance of the passage in question--because, after all, if you care so much about what the author was thinking you might as well just ask him and save yourself some time. Of course, wondering what the author meant is precisely one way to arrive at your own ideas, but as a goal of literary analysis (rather than a means) it seems fruitless and degrading, since it implies an exaltation of a person rather than of his creation--admittedly, a person with a privileged perspective and perhaps more insight than you, in that he wrote what you’re only reading, but nevertheless a person whose interpretation is merely one among many and is not The Interpretation. Any work of art is independent of its creator, and a knowledge of his conscious intentions is at best a good starting-point for gleaning all that the work can say to us.[2] In regard to the justifiability of praising him for ideas and themes that a reader has imposed on the work it is indeed important to know whether he in fact had those ideas and themes in mind when he wrote it, because if he didn’t it makes no sense to praise him for them[3]--though it does to praise him for having created a work that is rich enough to be susceptible of such and so many interpretations. However, this concern with praising and criticizing the author, as irresistible and sensible as it is, is really superfluous and has nothing to do with literary criticism, which is concerned only with the meaning and value of the work (and with the author insofar as his comments illuminate possible interpretations). Thus, I’ll refrain from speculating on Marquez’s purposes and making unnecessary judgments about his talents, confining myself to suggesting themes and meanings that can plausibly be read into the novel.


One Hundred Years of Solitude is, first of all, a history of a mythical town named Macondo, founded sometime in the 19th century by José Arcadio Buendia, his wife Ursula, and a group of young families who leave their old homes to embark on their adventure with Buendia. The story traces the growth of the village from a tiny settlement of twenty families to a bustling and prosperous town, and then its decline to a dusty outpost with hardly any inhabitants that finally succumbs to oblivion. On another level it is the history of the Buendia family, in relation to which all the action in the novel takes place. On a third level it is an allegory of human history, from its ‘idyllic’ beginnings (modeled after the Book of Genesis) to its extinction. This symbolism is clearly the real purpose of the book, and much of the action has a broad historical significance. To give only a few examples, in the beginning José Arcadio Buendia represents Eve, for he strives passionately to attain scientific knowledge, to become wealthy by mining for gold, to invent a powerful weapon of war, and to realize schemes the unbridled ambition of which is essentially the same force that will cause Macondo’s loss of innocence and its eventual downfall. Ursula represents Adam, the archetypal character by whose homely industry mankind remains grounded in reality and doesn’t succumb--at least not for a while--to the well-intentioned but ultimately pernicious plans of the dreamers who drive history forward. The whole book mirrors history in revolving around the dialectic between these two spirits (the first of which is embodied in the male characters, the second in the female--but especially Ursula). Another example is Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s twenty-year-long civil war, the futility and destructiveness of which are obvious indictments of real wars. The meaningless political struggle between Liberals and Conservatives, which is, significantly, nothing but an excuse for the war,[4] serves the same allegorical purpose. The occasional impositions of martial law, as well as the slaughter of the three thousand workers at the train station, symbolize the evils of authoritarianism and imperialism. The American banana company that invades Macondo, and through the harshness of its treatment of the natives it employs causes labor strikes and eventually (in a Conservative reaction) mass slaughter, is a portrayal of the ‘Western Colonizer’. The historical stage of industrialism is represented in the construction of the railroad. The constant necessity of the Buendias to defend their house against voracious red ants and termites, the threat of which intensifies at the end of the novel (when the town itself is falling apart), reminds the reader of the age-old battle between man and nature, as well as the knowledge that nature must triumph in the end--which of course it does in the book, when the ants finally disintegrate the house and the winds obliterate the town--thereby erasing the memory of man from the annals of time. Similarly, the characters are in some cases symbolic of universal ‘types’: José Arcadio is the restless, untamed adventurer, the “protomale”, the hunter-gatherer; Colonel Aureliano Buendia is the Latin American dictator, the warlord, the man obsessed with glory and made brutal and solitary by his quest; Melquiades is the personification of timeless wisdom; Aureliano Segundo is the libertine, the glutton and the spendthrift; Amaranta Ursula is the sexually liberated, self-confident modern woman; Aureliano Babilonia is the hermitic scholar. Even the characters that don’t seem to represent a ‘type’ are obviously symbolic on occasion: for example, Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven because she is impervious to the temptations and passions of the world (despite the fact that they literally clamor after her) and thus lacks a distinctive mark of humanity.


The book’s symbolism, however, is not always so cut-and-dried, and even the foregoing sketches are simplistic. The characters are not, as in the dramas of Goethe, merely representative types devoid of real life; they have too many idiosyncrasies and their fates are too involved. The same is true of the action: individual episodes are usually too particular to bear on universal themes in a clear and direct way. Practically every page furnishes examples. To approach the book with the idea of seeing in all the characters and all the plot some kind of deep and obvious referential meaning is not to do it justice. I made that mistake occasionally, misled by the few episodes that are clear commentaries on broad swaths of life, and as a result I found myself bewildered and uncertain of what was being said. When I tried to decipher the hidden meaning behind such incidents as José Arcadio Buendia’s insanity and Rebecca’s obsession with eating dirt and chips of whitewash off the walls I had so much trouble that in many cases I decided there was no deep symbolism, that these details existed only to give the characters depth and to make the story interesting. Most of the time they seemed thematically irrelevant. So I thought there was tension in the book between its macrocosmic allegorical plan and its microcosmic personal narratives. This seemed all the more likely in that it has at least three major levels of meaning. I was wrong, though. The plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude is not supposed to be like that of Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina in always bearing directly on the overarching themes--or, to be more precise, in its details it is (generally) not supposed to be directly symbolic of abstract categories of real-life situations or to make judgments about them (as it is and does in its totality). Rather, it describes a separate world, a world that is an explicit and self-conscious symbol of discrete categories of our experience only in its outlines and in scenes like the massacre at the train station and Remedios the Beauty’s ascension to heaven--scenes that have a ‘universal’, ‘symbolic’ feel to them, or to which symbolism can be applied fairly easily. The rest of the plot is there to create a world that only in the fact of its richness recalls ours. It reminds us that life is a subtle, morally ambiguous, comical and tragic phenomenon, that an awesome complexity characterizes the life of the collectivity and even of individuals and their families, that history is made by collisions between the most diverse types of people and events. The reader should not constantly analyze personal narratives to understand their ‘deeper meaning’; they exist, on the whole, only to replicate the wealth and diversity of life. It would indeed be easy to draw facile parallels between the characters and vague archetypes like ‘the religious bigot’ or ‘the star-crossed lovers’ or ‘the pedophile’, but in most cases that would be pointless and contrary to the spirit of the book.[5] Even some of the examples given above are rather gratuitous than insightful. It doesn’t much matter that José Arcadio can be considered to represent ‘the adventurer’; what matters is the way his character develops, and the scope and complexity that he adds to the novel. On the other hand, the symbolism of Amaranta Ursula is significant because it tells the reader that the description of her is a description of the ‘modern woman’. The reader must rely on his own discretion--his aesthetic sensibility--when deciding whether to apply such abstract symbolism to a character or a scene. Another example of an incident to which it can be related is Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s gift of the Aztec shawl to Amaranta and the funny stories he tells after fighting his war for many years, which are “simple leftovers from his humor of a different time”, and which draw attention to the demoralizing and transforming effect that the war and glory have had on him and thus tie into the thematic condemnation of violence. On the other hand, Aureliano José’s passion for Amaranta doesn’t seem to have an obvious ‘thematic’ significance besides its contribution to the book’s realism.


Thus, there is no tension between the concreteness of the characters and the vast allegorical sweep of the novel, between the seemingly opposed imperatives of uncompromising realism and symbolism, because there are two types of symbolism: it can be a ‘hidden meaning’ behind the words--behind individual episodes and characters (in which case the text is less concerned with being perfectly and impartially realistic)--a hidden meaning pointing to, and saying something about, classes (or isolated aspects) of experience; or it can be a simple, judgment-free reconstruction of reality (that doesn’t break up experience into classes but acknowledges its fluidity and reconstructs that instead). One Hundred Years of Solitude makes use of both, but it places an emphasis on the second. Many scenes apparently lose themselves in the story (so that it feels like you’re brutalizing them if you force some kind of allegorical ‘meaning’ on them), but of course that’s not a flaw because in their aggregate it allows them to recreate our world without bias, objectively. One of the reasons why the second type of symbolism seems more prevalent than the first--why episodes seem to “lose themselves in the story”--when you read the actual sentences is that they embody a seamless realism that almost never pauses for philosophical or psychological reflections and almost never includes judgments about what is happening in the story. Sometimes judgments are buried in the sentences, barely noticeable, as in the example given above of Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s gift to Amaranta, but even that is rare. Most of the time the book just describes, and the author’s thoughts and biases are absent. The reader gets the impression that to impose an easy symbolism on most of the plot is to be crude, not to appreciate the book’s subtlety, not to treat it as it wants to be treated, so that most conjectured ‘meanings’ behind characters and incidents feel forced and unnatural. One of the measures of the book’s greatness is that despite its epic scope, which encompasses six generations and the communal life of a town, each character has a complexity that forbids simple interpretations, a complexity that mirrors life.


Another measure is the ‘haunting’ quality of the sentences, which exists, in part, precisely because of their remarkable objectivity. The literary style of the book has been called “magical realism”, because unbelievable events are related in the same “brick-faced” way as ordinary ones. An insomnia plague in Macondo is treated like something common and unexciting, as is a priest’s levitation after eating chocolate, as is a gypsy’s making himself invisible by drinking a potion. Its combination of exceptional realism and a plot that includes miraculous events sets One Hundred Years of Solitude apart from other novels I’ve read, and it makes the novel itself unreal and magical. But what thematic purposes does the inclusion of supernatural events serve? For one thing, in giving the book a mood of fantasy it lays across all human history a halo of unreality. If the novel is a dream--or dreamlike--so is our world. One quality of dreams is transience; another is a delicate equilibrium: both of these qualities are transferred to humanity. History becomes a brief, miraculous but tragic affair, full of hope and beauty but, as it turns out, destined to end in misery and ignominy. Our last descendants will, like Aureliano Babilonia, finish deciphering the parchments we’ve left behind at the moment when the “city of mirages” (our global civilization) is being wiped away by winds,[6] to be forgotten for eternity, as if it had never happened. This is the main thematic reason for the book’s “magical realism”, though other reasons can be thought of. (For example, the equality of the amazement with which Macondo’s citizens greet wonders of technology and wonders of magic tells the reader that really it is arbitrary for him to believe in the first kind and laugh at the second, and that technology (and the natural world) itself is remarkable and beautiful. Thus, the greatness of our potential highlights the tragedy of our fall.)


Closely related to the use of magic is the vague sense of time in the novel (which is another reason why it’s so haunting). Although on a broad scale it’s clear that time is progressing conventionally--linearly, year after year--on smaller scales the book is reminiscent of Melquiades’ parchments, which “[did] not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.” Often it is impossible to tell over how many months or years a particular episode takes place, and even when it’s happening, for events continually overlap. The tenuousness of this reality calls to mind Ursula’s idea that time is progressing in circles, that it keeps returning to earlier points. She realizes that fundamentally her family does not progress; themes recur, the same failings appear again and again. Macondo experiences a historical progression, in that it starts out as a primitive village and gradually absorbs technologies and cultures and increases in complexity; therefore, the book’s macrocosmic structure incorporates a linear notion of time, appropriate to the fact of Macondo’s historical development. But within this general ‘linear’ background--primarily in the life of the Buendia family--is temporal repetitiveness, temporal ambiguity, temporal uncertainty. José Arcadio Buendia goes insane when he decides that time is no longer passing, that it has stopped, that the world is locked in a perpetual Monday. He perceives that recently there has been no change in the natural world; likewise, history brings no real changes in the human world, in how people interact, in what they think and feel. People remain essentially the same generation after generation; what changes is the technological and thus ‘social’ backdrop against which they act, and that is why ambitions that failed once may succeed later, and catastrophes that didn’t happen in the beginning happen in the end. Because the Buendia family represents concrete humans, the building blocks of society rather than society (and history) itself, temporality on its level is muddled and circular and abstract, overlaps itself and never seems palpably to pass; things don’t happen in an obvious succession but instead have a dreamy quality, in that they seem to happen at the same time as one another. This dreaminess, incidentally, is reminiscent of the magical dreaminess: the two reinforce each other.


The rest of the book’s symbolism I’ll let the reader interpret as he wants. The purpose of this essay was only to sketch a few general themes and lay a basis for whatever detailed meanings may be read into the novel.



[1] [These thoughts are from many years ago. They’re far from academic in style—especially in their amusingly abrupt conclusion, a product of my acute disappointment with what I’d written.]

[2] Psychologically it is difficult to separate the creator from the creation, partly because when the reader makes judgments like ‘The purpose of this scene is…’ and ‘This character symbolizes…’, the way he phrases them suggests the existence of an intelligence that originally intended the purpose of the scene (for example) and the symbolism of the character, and to which he must defer. But both implications are unnecessary. The judgment can as easily and more justifiably be ‘The most aesthetically appropriate purpose of this scene, the purpose that I choose based on my knowledge of the rest of the work, is…’, and in that case there’s no omniscient authorial intelligence before which he must prostrate himself.

[3] In the actual practice of literary criticism it can be assumed that the author did have in mind most of the reader’s ideas.

[4] Aureliano Buendia says at one point that the reason he’s fighting is his pride. And he starts the war not as a Liberal but as a private citizen outraged by the murder of a woman, which, it so happened, was committed by Conservative soldiers.

[5] See the next paragraph for what I mean by ‘contrary to the spirit of the book’.

[6] It’s significant that wind is the most ‘magical’ and ‘ghostly’ or ‘ephemeral’ destructive force in nature.

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