The first part of One Hundred Years of Solitude ends with an inconceivable episode. The first time you meet the patriarch of the Buendía clan, José Arcadio Buendía, you'll find him strong and full of adventure, a defender of his wife's virtue, the natural leader of Macondo, a man of science and a seeker of knowledge. Yet, as the third chapter closes, he is driven mad by grief and disappointment—grief over the return of the ghost Prudencio Aguilar and the death of Melquíades and disappointment in his attempts to modernize his town. He lives the rest of his life a broken man—"[Úrsula and Amaranta] spoke to him and he looked at them without recognizing them. Later on, they built him a shelter of palm branches to protect him from the sun and the rain." While Gabriel García Márquez clearly meant to give the impression of strength to the man who founded Macondo, his exit from the novel in its early stages—especially when you compare him to his wife Úrsula who runs the family for more than one hundred years—is curious. So is the state he will remain: "soaked with rain and in a state of total innocence" (Page 86). Given little choice, the Buendías leave their patriarch tied to a tree for years to come.
No one in the novel is more fascinated by the promise of progress—of guiding the primitive society of Macondo to become one more advanced, scientific and fore-thinking than José Arcadio Buendía. He is fixated on it. As he gains knowledge, José Arcadio Buendía tries to share his experiments with the town but they are disinterested. Úrsula, as a result of her sojourn to find her son, is the one who reconnects Macondo with the modern world. She brings new people, merchants, peddlers and organized government. While José Arcadio Buendía is at odds with many of these changes, Úrsula finds ways to operate within them—she thrives. In the end, her husband becomes sentimental and lost. In choosing to remain innocent, José Arcadio Buendía relinquishes his right to guide the town or the Buendías—it is his disappointing and unexpected lot.
The exit of José Arcadio Buendía also helps set gender boundaries at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude. According to scholar Luis Harss, "In García Márquez men are flighty creatures. Women are solid, sensible, unvarying and down to earth, paragons of order and stability. García Márquez puts it another way: 'My women are masculine.'" When José Arcadio Buendía goes mad, we see this all the more clearly. For all his supposed strength, it is Úrsula who emerges the true progressive and the unquestionable hero of Macondo.
Learn more about the first part of the novel! Find out why Macondo doesn't sleep.
Use these questions to discuss pages 1-86 with your book club or answer some questions on your own!