Many critics and readers see in One Hundred Years of Solitude the story of the rise and fall of a family led by a strong line of patriarchs. The first of these is José Arcadio Buendía, founder of the family line and patriarch in the grand Mediterranean tradition, which continues on to the present day in Latin America; the second is Buendía's younger son Aureliano, a warrior for the Liberal Party's cause during the nation's turn-of-the-twentieth century civil strife. These men, who strive to reach a pinnacle of success and then are brought down low, are the novel's protagonists.
Macondo's Strongest Women
But upon closer examination, the novel's female characters, particularly Úrsula Iguarán Buendía, the family matriarch, emerge as protagonists in their own right. For example, Úrsula's endless stamina, her entrepreneurship and her moral sway are the very glue that keeps the Buendía family line going for over one hundred years.
She and other stalwart female characters attain power, not by means of violence but by maneuvering through their roles as wives, mothers, or renegades. Their behavior reflects the fact that Latin American feminists have chosen not to pursue women's rights in an individualistic way. Instead they have used the respect and influence accorded to women (especially mothers) as a tool with which they can compete in the "macho" world. It's not surprising that the Buendía women, especially those who live in the nineteenth century, play the role of traditional women. What is remarkable is the way in which they extend their spheres of influence beyond the home. The family matriarch, Úrsula, is an excellent example of how such a woman gains influence and power. Fernanda del Carpio, who marries Úrsula's great-grandson Aureliano Segundo, is another such character, even though she is otherwise not an attractive sort of personality.
Exceptions to the Matriarchal Model
Only five female characters are genetically part of the family—Amaranta, Rebeca, Remedios the Beauty, Renata Remedios (Meme) and Amaranta Úrsula. The first three bear no children. The last two, Meme and Amaranta Úrsula, are destined to die with Macondo itself.
Gabriel García Márquez has made public that he views women as realistic and resilient—a source of sustenance and a moral beacon. Men, on the other hand, are inconstant and flighty. In an interview García Márquez once said, "...in most cases, women are the practical sex. It's men who are the romantics and who go off and do all kinds of crazy things; women know that life is hard. Úrsula is a prototype of that kind of practical, life-sustaining woman." This contrast between male and female is made clear from the very beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
How the Female Characters Measure Up
Overall, the contrast between the male and female characters is stark: the men pursue knowledge to the exclusion of family responsibility, they start wars, abuse political power, become corrupt with money and land, and are incapable of loving anyone. But the Buendía women, despite their strengths and virtues, have some serious defects of their own: rigidity, disinclination to have sex, and in the case of Amaranta, a hateful and vengeful streak. Therefore we cannot classify the female characters into categories of "good" and "bad". Taken together, the women, far from being secondary characters, are complex and significant protagonists comparable to the men in One Hundred Years of Solitude.