One Hundred Years of Solitude is filled with all kinds of intriguing pairs and oppositions that interact in fascinating ways. Think of the Aurelianos versus the José Arcadios, the optimism versus the pessimism, the magic versus the mundane.
As you read a book of such incredible fullness and scope, you can't help but develop insight into the detailed evolution of a family and a town—the way their genesis provides a balancing portrait of humanity—with all its joys and woes, its successes and calamities, its loves and hates.
Truth vs. Fiction
We know this book is fiction. But as we come to know the town of Macondo, we begin to see how fiction can impart a larger truth about ourselves. Often as not, fiction can be more revealing of truth than any reportage of bare fact. After all, facts can be distorted.
When you, as a reader, are presented with anecdotes that stretch credibility—the insomnia plague that makes people forget who they are and where they came from; the rain that lasts four years, eleven months and two days; the slaughter that is forgotten in the time it takes José Arcadio Segundo to return home from the train—ask yourself why the narrator has done this. Are his stories meant to be interpreted literally? Doubtful. It's much more likely that he wanted you to look beyond facts for the truth that they are meant to represent.
Could the insomnia plague relate to a loss of collective identity, just as much as it relates to a literal illness? Could the unrelenting rain evoke the kind of inertia and loss of morale that swamps a town and its people after a catastrophe of both economic and human proportions? What other episodes like this do you see—episodes that smack of the incredible but potentially illuminate a truth about human nature?
If you're having trouble swallowing what you see as the narrator's tall tale, ask yourself what other meanings and interpretations might lay behind the distortions. Like many stories of mythical resonance, One Hundred Years of Solitude invites you to delve into its multiple layers to extract your own understanding.
Science vs. Magic
In the very first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio Buendía discovers a new kind of faith in the science of Melquíades's gadgets. After his unsuccessful experiments with magnets and solar warfare, he's dazed by the revelation that the earth is round, "'like an orange.'" Úrsula, his wife, reacts with anger, "'If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!'" she exclaims. Later, in the face of the persistence of these "'mad, gypsy ideas'," Úrsula takes the children off to pray.
Yet, to the citizens of Macondo, a magic carpet is no more or less mysterious than magnets, an icebox and a telescope. Nor is a wondrously preserved ship carpeted in flowers, at the far side of a darkly enchanted region of forest, any more explicable for the Buendías than the miraculous excitement of lust, or the wonders of a pianola. This conjunction of science and magic, of wonder and the ordinary, is more than novelty. Science becomes magic—and the magical becomes logical—thanks to the narrator's careful story spinning and the reader's willingness to accept it.
Comedy vs. Tragedy
Readers often come to regard this book as either humorous or depressing. It's actually a bit of both. The comedy and tragedy of One Hundred Years of Solitude originates from two different sources: Shakespearean and contemporary.
In the days of Shakespeare, comedy wasn't necessarily humorous; it addressed life, renewal and the triumph of youth. The older form of tragedy was about death, endings and the elders outliving their children. Both these elements exist in the novel. There's the comedic way in which life burgeons. Children are conceived and born. They grow and become young adults, who have children of their own. Life persists in the face of war, calamity, and oppression.
There are also modern forms of comedy and tragedy in Gabo's work. The novel's farcical tongue-in-cheek elements lead to a self-inclusive humor that invites us to share the joke. We get the sense that in writing this book Gabriel García Márquez feels certain irreverence toward literary convention. He knows the limits of literature and he plays with them.
And so, we find that the humor is often one of manifestation—the way Aureliano Segundo and Petra Cotes's joie de vivre causes the animals to reproduce wildly. Or the way that Meme invites four nuns and sixty-eight classmates to visit Macondo for a week, during which meals have to be served in shifts and seventy-two chamber pots purchased in order to accommodate the hordes. As a skilled storyteller, García Márquez knows we need humor, sensuality and irreverence in order to balance his story's tragedies.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of One Hundred Years of Solitude is that of truth not revealed—of doors closed and history forgotten or rewritten to suit the purposes of those in power. This extends to a national level, with the forgotten revolutions of Colonel Arcadio Buendía—but this tragedy also finds its parallel elsewhere in the Buendía family. That this is redeemed by the truth in the final pages of the novel is one of the ironies that make us understand the plight of the Buendía's, and humanity, that much more fully.
There are numerous other oppositions in One Hundred Years of Solitude that are worth exploring more deeply. They include:
Depravity vs. Morality
Human Landscape vs. Physical Landscape
Love/Friendship vs. Sex/Procreation
Characters also generate some interesting contrasts. Sometimes, the comparison of two divergent personalities can reveal intriguing aspects to each that aren't immediately evident when a character is examined in isolation. Think about:
The Aurelianos vs. the José Arcadios
Úrsula vs. Melquíades
Petra Cotes vs. Fernanda
Amaranta vs. Rebeca
Of course, these lists are just a small sampling of the riches presented by the contradictions in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As you read, see what other oppositions present themselves and ask yourself what they might imply about the themes of this magical book.