An obsessive, impassioned nymphomaniac, Florentino falls madly in love with Fermina Daza on sight. After a brief love affair during which he sees Fermina only in passing, he cannot accept that she has rejected him, and dedicates his life to one day winning back her love. In the fifty-one years, nine months, and four days after their troubled love affair ends, he eagerly awaits the death of Fermina’s husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Despite his undying love for Fermina, he sleeps with innumerable women, though he remains convinced that he is saving himself for her, for he can never love another woman the way he loves Fermina. Florentino uses sex as an addict would a narcotic; it is the one means by which he is able to forget his heartache and his desire for Fermina, the woman who is the source of all his anguish.
His lovesickness for Fermina is often equated to cholera, as he is literally plagued by his passion for her. He is insane with love, and exhibits obsessive, borderline criminal behavior. He stalks Fermina and keeps watch on her house. He is drunk with his passion for her, and can think of nothing else. At work, he is incapable of writing a business letter; he can only write poetic prose as he writes in his love letters to her. He thrives on his plague of love, and revels in his own suffering; he feels martyred when he is thrown in jail for serenading Fermina with his violin. When Lorenzo Daza threatens to shoot him, he challenges him, saying that it is most noble to die for love. Ultimately, he is determined to win Fermina’s affections, and will stop at nothing to attain them. At once, he is the novel’s antagonist and protagonist, for he may be madly in love or simply mad.
An independent, headstrong person who is sophisticated and capable, Fermina prides herself on her unfaltering, haughty composure. She knows what she wants and will not stop until she successfully achieves it. When her husband does not allow her to keep any creature that does not speak, she finds one, a parrot, that can. When she adamantly refuses to forgive her husband until he admits to his own guilt, in time, he surrenders to her conditions. She refuses to accept blame for any misdeed; guilt is the one emotion she cannot tolerate. However, beneath her proud, unwavering facade, she seems a caring, nurturing woman, for she pampers her aging husband as she would a defenseless baby. Her fanatical love of animals and flowers also speaks to her nurturing, caring traits.
Fermina’s sudden rejection of Florentino is founded in the many changes she undergoes during her long absence. She leaves the City of the Viceroys as a young, impressionable girl swept up by the zealous desires of her first suitor, but she returns as a poised and sophisticated woman. The thrill of her forbidden romance with Florentino is lost on her with the onset of womanhood, for it is no longer scandalous or dangerous as it was when she was a young girl, bent on disobeying her domineering father. In her maturity, she realizes that her love for Florentino had been nothing more than the foolish adoration of a mere illusion, a fantasy of an idealized man and an idealized romance. In realizing her mistake, she feels compelled to move on into her adulthood without lingering on the foolish whims of her youth.
In her adulthood, she is a highly esteemed person who commands of respect. In marrying Dr. Urbino, she marries into the blue-blooded upper crust from the ranks of the peasants, and upholds with the utmost proficiency her position as a lady of society. Her husband’s overtly religious behavior disturbs her, for, after attending the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, an all girls, Catholic school which she is eventually expelled from, she is disillusioned by Religion and the Church. Both, she feels, lack the virtue they preach to their followers. When the Doctor suggests, as he does on numerous occasions, to involve the Archbishop in their faltering marriage, she adamantly, proudly refuses, and a stands her ground, as she does throughout the entirety of the novel.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino del Calle
The city’s most educated doctor and most esteemed public figure, Urbino is a relatively unemotional, uncommunicative man, though he is not unkind. He marries Fermina because he respects her haughty, serious manner. He pays more attention to his pet parrot than he does to his two children. His emotionlessness may stem from his aristocratic upbringing; unlike Florentino, who is of the peasant class, the Doctor is entirely passionless, taking pleasure in little but chess, medicine, and foreign books. He is an old-fashioned man, and still makes house calls to his patients, even after studying the newest medical technologies in Europe.
He is an honest man, driven by his immense faith in God, and feels anguish when he cannot resist the temptations of Barbara Lynch, with whom he cheats on his wife. He is grateful when Fermina discovers that he is cheating on her, for the immense guilt he feels prevents him from even enjoying the pleasure that he once took in committing "ethical violations" against Barbara. Despite his commanding public presence, in his home, he is a weak, cowardly man. When Fermina asks him to stand up to his mother in her defense, he is to frightened to do so. Again, after a fight with Fermina in which he was truly and factually correct, he relinquishes his pride and submits to his wife. He is both respectable and pitiable, particularly when he is enfeebled by his old age.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Love as an Emotional and Physical Plague
The novel’s most prominent theme suggest that lovesickness is a literal illness, a plague comparable to cholera. Florentino Ariza suffers from lovesickness as one would suffer from cholera, enduring both physical and emotional pains as he longs for Fermina Daza. In Chapter 2, Florentino is so ill from worry that Fermina will not respond to his declaration of love, his mother calls on his godfather, a homeopath, who initially mistakes Florentino’s lovesickness for cholera. Again in Chapter two, Florentino complicates his emotional pain with physical agony when, he vomits after eating flowers and drinking cologne so that he may know Fermina’s scent. Florentino’s illness, it can be argued, transcends the physical to the psychological, for though he is sick in his heart and in his stomach, he is compulsively obsessed, and therefore mentally disturbed.
The theme of love as a plague culminates in the book’s final chapter, in which Florentino orders the Captain of the ship on which he and Fermina are aboard to announce, falsely, that there is an outbreak of cholera on board. Although there is not a case of cholera aboard the ship, the claim is not entirely false, for Florentino has been infected by a relentless passion for Fermina since the day she rejected him in the Arcade of the Scribes, fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago. His passion has persisted much like a deadly plague of cholera, for Florentino is literally plagued by love.
The Fear and Intolerance of Aging and Death
Aging and death are prominent concepts which first emerge upon the death of Jeremiah Saint-Amour and are expanded throughout the novel. Dr. Juvenal Urbino realizes, upon seeing Saint-Amour’s body, that death is not a "permanent probability," as he has always imagined, but, for the first time in his long life, truly and fully understands that death is an actual, irreversible, and immediate destiny. Once a man of great strength and authority, Dr. Urbino is, in his old age and debilitated physical condition, forced to use the toilet like a woman. In old age, the Doctor, now pathetic and dependent, is belittled and enfeebled by his own maturity, for his mind and body have become unfamiliar, their changes frightening signs that he will soon succumb to death.
After receiving Fermina’s reply to his second profession of love, Florentino lies absolutely still in bed, "more dead than a dead man.". Indeed, Florentino is growing very old, as is Fermina, and must now suffer the injustices of old age, as he once had to suffer the injustices of his youth. There is much bias against the elderly, and there exists a hurtful stereotype that any person in their elder years is limited, both in physical and mental capacities. When América laughs at Florentino’s sober news that he intends to marry, she cannot take him seriously only because he is an old man, and in her own view, and in popular belief, old people simply do not marry; for to be in love after mid-life seems against some unwritten social rule. Further proof of bias against the elderly is Ofelia’s opinion that love among older people is nothing more than "disgusting."
Suffering in the Name of Love
Throughout the fifty-one years, nine months, and four days that Florentino is apart from his beloved Fermina, he seems to revel in the pain his unrequited love inflicts. Strangely, Florentino enjoys the suffering he endures for love; when he must spend three nights in a jail cell on account of the violin serenade he plays for Fermina, he feels martyred, satisfied for having sacrificed himself in the name of love. The marathon romantic torment Florentino suffers sustains him, for he sees his anguish as a gratifying, strengthening experience that will lead him to his ultimate desire: Fermina. When Lorenzo Daza threatens him with a gun, and tells him to stay away from his daughter, Florentino challenges him and declares that there is nothing more noble than to die for love. Florentino enjoys the anguish he feels when in love, and induces it when he ingests flowers in Chapter 2, for if he cannot be with Fermina, he must feel something, even if it is pain, to know that he is alive. The flowers, like his love for Fermina, make him violently ill, and deliver intense emotional and physical agony.
Any reference to a flower or any kind of floral imagery within the text serves as an indirect reference to the presence of love. Because Florentino himself makes a strong association between flowers and love, the reader may also. Florentino expresses his affections for Fermina (and a number of his mistresses) by sending them flowers, as is customary. However, the novel brings special meaning to flowers, as does Florentino. He uses flowers, namely camellias and roses, to express his feelings for Fermina, and to remember her. In Chapter 2, Florentino is so impassioned by his love for Fermina, that he eats gardenias and rose petals in order to know and consume her, figuratively. In many of his letters, Florentino sends Fermina a white camellia, the "flower of promise," a gesture which represents his undying love for her. Also, Florentino serenades Fermina with a single violin concerto, entitled "Crowned Goddess, which he composes in her honor, after seeing her wearing a crown of flowers atop her head.
Consistently throughout the novel, the presence of rain is either indicative or foreboding of a pivotal scene or critical turn of events in the book, such as when torrential rains flood the city on the day of Dr. Urbino’s funeral. Rains also ravage the city on Pentecost Sunday, the day of the Doctor’s death. Rain and other derivatives of water (rivers, puddles, tears) are frequently represented in the book as bearers of cleansing and change, whether that change be positive or negative. The immense downpour that floods the city in the first chapter brings upon two drastic changes: the death of the prominent Doctor, and the the reappearance of Florentino Ariza in Fermina’s life. Water is referenced yet again in Chapter 2 when Transito Ariza finds Florentino asleep where drowning victims are known to wash ashore, for Florentino is a victim not of the ocean, but of his obsessive love for Fermina, and the self-inflicted suffering he endures for her.
References to birds as representations of danger and temptation are made continually throughout the novel. The single most important bird in the novel is the cunning parrot which is responsible for Dr. Urbino’s death, and establishes the meaning for later references to birds. The prostitutes at a transient hotel are referred to as "birds," a term also used to describe the promiscuous-looking women who ride the trolley with Florentino. The birds in this and in later chapters pose a danger or a possible threat to the characters, as the "birds" at the hotel threaten Florentino’s purity. In Chapter 2, when Florentino first approaches and speaks to Fermina, bird droppings fall and splatter onto Fermina’s embroidery work, foreboding the romance’s ill fate. Later, in Chapter 3, Dr. Urbino says, as he leaves the house of Lorenzo and Fermina Daza, to beware, for the birds — like women — will peck one’s eyes out.
The Yellow Flag of Cholera
When the Captain raises the yellow flag to announce to other ports that there is a case of cholera aboard, his gesture is symbolic of Florentino’s complete surrender to his plague of desires, for, at long last, he has finally been consumed by Fermina’s love, and has surrendered himself to it, as a sufferer of cholera would surrender to death.
When, in Chapter 5, Florentino announces that he and Leona Cassiani have "killed the tiger," he implies that they have overcome any remaining sexual tension between them, the "tiger" representing that tension. Since Florentino first meets Leona Cassiani, there is an enduring sexual tension between them, particularly because Florentino had initially mistaken Leona for a whore. However, the current of sexual electricity that runs between Leona and Florentino lessens in the years after their first meeting. Leona and Florentino "kill the tiger" with honest communication, specifically when Leona tells Florentino, with the utmost sincerity, that she has known for a long time that he is not the man she is looking for.
A Camellia Flower
In many of his letters, Florentino sends Fermina a white camellia, the "flower of promise," a gesture which represents his undying love for her. In Chapter 1, Fermina refuses the first camellia Florentino gives her from his lapel, and returns the subsequent camellias he sends her. In her refusal to accept the camellias, Fermina rejects any commitment to Florentino and his offering of love. She does not want to be bound to him, and by refusing the "flowers of promise," not only does she resist any obligation to her lover, but, as she understands it, helps to curb any thoughts of marriage that Florentino may have. Thus, his marriage proposal comes as a complete shock, and leaves her panic-stricken, for she is not yet mature enough to undertake such an immense responsibility as marriage.