Úrsula is without question the most important female character in the novel, the matriarch of Macondo's founding family. She's described as a small, active, and severe countrywoman who dresses in the stiff, starched petticoats of an earlier era and works in tandem with her husband, José Arcadio. Until, that is, he is seduced by the magic tricks brought to the town by passing gypsies and ceases to pay attention to family and community.
Úrsula as Provider
At first Ursula battles valiantly to dissuade José Arcadio from his harebrained schemes. But she quickly realizes that someone needs to hold things together and she has no one but herself. She and their two sons break their backs in the garden growing bananas, cassava, yams and eggplant while José Arcadio dreams up more misguided scientific experiments. Úrsula then starts a small and successful business selling candy animals, and later expands it to include a pastry shop. She proclaims: "As long as God gives me life, there will always be money in this mad house."
Úrsula as Politician
Traditional woman though she may be, Úrsula is strong and politically astute. Her first foray into politics occurs when José Arcadio persuades the other Macondo men that the whole village should move to some better location. When open defiance doesn't dissuade José Arcadio from his idea, Úrsula proceeds to rally the village women in opposition. She succeeds so well that José Arcadio never even figures out why his dream fell apart "in a web of pretexts, disappointments, and evasions until it turned into nothing but an illusion."
Úrsula also organizes the women of Macondo politically when her son, the Colonel, is about to condemn to death General José Raquel Moncada, the best governor Macondo had seen. She defies her son and brings in the mothers of the revolutionary officers who lived in Macondo to testify on Moncada's behalf. Outraged by the merciless regime of her own grandson, Arcadio, Úrsula takes to the streets in a political protest and lashes him in public. She stops the firing squad and demands the release of the prisoners. Her grandest moment comes when she issues her own decrees, reversing those issued by Arcadio. Úrsula may be a Victorian kind of woman, too naive to notice that both of her sons are having affairs with the village seductress, Pilar Ternera, but underneath, she is a steel magnolia: strong, politically shrewd, and honest. She is a stark contrast to her two corrupt sons. Úrsula as Moral Compass As the moral conscience of the novel, Úrsula struggles to restrain her self-defeating family members in their headlong rush into incest (her son José Arcadio marries his sister Rebeca), promiscuity (her son Aureliano produces seventeen illegitimate sons), profligacy (her carousing great-grandson Aureliano Segundo), and bitterness (Amaranta). Though a moral woman, she is not crippled by her morality: after all, she takes in the illegitimate grandson abandoned by her son José Arcadio when he runs off with the gypsies, adopts little Rebeca who may or may not be a biological relative, and opens her home and heart to Aureliano's seventeen bastard sons.
But Úrsula is also not superhuman—her power and influence are sadly limited. She can't stop her son José Arcadio from becoming a gypsy, and later a male prostitute any more than she will be able to dissuade her grandson Arcadio from becoming the most despotic ruler Macondo has seen or the Colonel from executing a man who deserved clemency. She's powerless to stem the losses and tragedies that beset the family. We must conclude that there are forces of evil for which no woman, even one as powerful as Úrsula, is a match. Like the matriarchs of the Bible, Úrsula seems to live to an impossibly old age. She watches over the family until the last Buendía dies, and the town's fate is sealed. As such, Úrsula is both the force that keeps the novel going for five generations and the moral conscience of a family in decline.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, December 9, 2013