It's no coincidence that Gabriel García Márquez uses the words solitude or solitary on nearly every page in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But if the novel seems to focus on the generational span of a family and the community it came to create, then why is the notion of solitude—which seems to contradict the ideas of family and community—such an important and ongoing theme?
The popular saying, "History is written by the winners," remains a sad reality for almost everyone in the world who hasn't been in a position of political power. Being forced into the margins imposes an uncomfortable and collective psychic identity upon entire groups of disenfranchised people.
García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude precisely because he respected this identity enough to want to capture its voice in literature. After all, who else would tell their story? This is a book that is viewed by many as the crowning achievement for the voice of the marginalized.
How did Gabo embody this voice—and why was telling the tale of solitude so important to him? An Expert in Solitude Who better to write a story about solitude than García Márquez? He had 11 siblings but was raised an only child by his grandparents. Later, as a journalist with liberal sensibilities, he was self-exiled from his native homeland to escape the oppression of the conservative dictatorships of the time. Certainly, he came to understand only too well the properties of solitude.
In his Nobel Prize speech in 1982, García Márquez said: "Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude." Loss of Communal Identity When García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, Latin America had been a world neglected by Westerners and Europeans. This led to its political, geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the world. Explorers to Latin America came away with bizarre accounts of flora, fauna and local customs foreign to their sensibilities. History books written by government officials further distorted the cultural identity of the region.
As a journalist, García Márquez witnessed this tearing of the very fiber of Latin American identity, which sought to replace, absorb or erase the local oral tradition and popular culture in favor of Westernization. This development had the potential to obliterate the culture of the region with the promises of a modern world. Reclaiming "the Truth" García Márquez saw how the loss of identity threatened to break apart the people in ways that isolated them culturally from each other as well as from the world. His desire in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was to reclaim the communal culture and history of Latin America. He created Macondo as a metaphorical landscape upon which "the truth" of the voiceless could be played out for the world to witness before it might be lost forever.
It seems clear that the author intended for readers to question the various levels of solitude at play in the book. On a broad level, he wanted to encourage people to question the validity of the "official history" of Latin America, which tended to exile or omit certain uncomfortable realities. He also wanted to make official Latin America's collectively understood truth, the one that belonged to its people. By exposing this truth, he hoped to bring Latin America out of what seemed to be a globally imposed isolation. The Politics of Marginalization Solitude, at every level, has a specific political aspect to it in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even the most personal of solitudes—the act of estrangement within a family—is a purposeful imposition with political roots. Politics, after all, is about power—which many members of the Buendía family have and many others do not. In addition, the inherent power of the Buendías as the founding family degrades throughout the course of their tale. People in charge of their own destinies become subjected to the will of others until their individual spirits are all but wiped away. One of the clearest examples of this power decline is Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a man who was so vigorous he spent several years at war and fathered 17 sons only to be relegated to a life without memory, without emotion, without the fruition of all the power he had once possessed.
When people are exempted from taking part in acts of power—government, business, leadership—they can fall victim to being the "outsider." Anyone who's not an active part of a power center can claim some feeling of oppression by those in charge. This is the territory of the exile, a condition that people in every culture understand in their own way. Power Shifts in Solitude The story of Macondo, shifting from a virginal town without rules or history to a town in utter destruction, is really a history of Latin America and how it became an outsider in the world. The town begins as a family in exile. Then, as it grows and thrives, the government and modern industry move to overtake Macondo's center of power.
The government wields power by establishing strange laws regarding the color that houses must be painted and imposes an unwanted conformity upon the townspeople. The banana company—run by strangers (culturally, linguistically, racially)—gains control by exploiting the banana crops and manipulating the local work force into unfair working conditions.
The good people of Macondo never derived their collective identity from industry. They lived a sustainable, agrarian life. They didn't recognize the signs of cultural overthrow that came with modernization, and were helpless to defend against it once it consumed their land. When the banana company failed, the people of Macondo were marginalized yet again, left with a flattened economy, a fragment of collective memory, and no real hope for a prosperous future. Turning the Tides While One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a story riddled with disconnection on many levels, it also offers hope.
The novel owns its fair share of figures who strive for connection, like the under-appreciated Úrsula who keeps the social structure together because she understands that it's the glue of humanity, and Pilar Ternera who combats solitude by giving birth to endless numbers of illegitimate children over her equally endless existence as a means of populating the community.
And while sexual morals are a troubling and ongoing part of the story, it might be said that there's at least one facet to the unrestricted sexuality that's positive for the people of Macondo: It's the act of bringing human beings together in the most intimate way. All these romantic liaisons, incestuous or not, may have been the only tools the Buendías had for combating their generational curse of solitude. It's a poor replacement for real human relationships, but in desperate times, people tend to seek desperate measures. The Persistence of Life García Márquez has said that being forced into the margins has prompted Latin America, in no small way, to respond with life, persisting through every oppression—war, catastrophe, famine. There's something very optimistic about this observation. It suggests that resistance to solitude is the life-affirming solution to exile, even in the hardest of times.
Optimism was García Márquez's goal, ultimately. He joined Faulkner—one of his greatest influences—in saying, "I decline to accept the end of man" (which was a part of Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech). Despite the grave messages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez doesn't give up all hope in society or people. It seems that in some ways, he wrote this novel as an act of faith in the idea that the world might eventually give the voiceless and the solitary a second chance. More than anything, he must have wished to motivate people out of their own self-exile, out of solitude, as a way to share in the greatest human story of all. Other Examples of Solitude The sense of solitude doesn't begin and end with Macondo. Consider these other dimensions of isolation:
The madness of Macondo founder and great solitary figure José Arcadio Buendía who loses touch with reality in his impassioned search for the truth
The incestuous nature of the Buendía family, which prevents the community from assimilating with the larger world, leading to the family's eventual decay
The curious presence of Melquíades, an alchemist from somewhere else who, being described as a Gypsy, belongs to no one
The infidelities of the Buendía men, which desecrate familial relationships, leading to exile from and within the family
The infusion of outside culture by way of modern industry, which introduces the false glitter of foreign wealth at the expense of Macondo's collective memory and language
The ostracism visited upon the town and even between families through the political differences of liberals and conservatives
Perhaps there are also some others. Don't hesitate to discuss with your book club or come up with some on your own!