The major themes of this novel trickle like a waterfall through One Hundred Years of Solitude, returning again and again to illuminate the Buendías and human nature. They are time, fate, humor and magic. It is in these concepts that the great playfulness and great power of the novel live. What do you need to know about them—and how will it help you in your reading?
"What did you expect," murmured José Arcadio Segundo. "Time passes." "That's how it goes," Úrsula said, "But not so much." "When she said it, she realized that she had given the same reply that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had given in his death cell, and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle." (from page 361 of One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Certain caveats and distinctions are in order concerning the way time is represented in this novel. First, and most obvious, the effect of García Márquez's decision not to number his chapters is to make readers think of the book as a single entity whose twenty unmarked subdivisions exist not as discrete segments but interlinked members in a unitary whole: one text. This larger design is further stressed by the book's immediately visible format of lengthy, fluid, event-filled paragraphs interspersed with minimal (if carefully chosen) dialogue. From sentence to paragraph, and from episode to chapter to full text of García Márquez's seamless narrative, things never stop happening and time ceases only after the final line.
On the other hand, it's important to keep in mind that One Hundred Years of Solitude, while basically chronological and "linear" enough in its broad outlines, also shows abundant zigzags in time, both flashbacks of matters past and long leaps towards future events. One example of this is the youthful amour between Meme and Mauricio Babilonia, which is already in full swing before we are informed about the origins of the affair. There are many instances of this type of fluidity.
Time in this novel is subject to large-scale shifts in narrative, reminiscent of William Faulkner's now-classic works. In contrast to Faulkner, however, García Márquez's are unobtrusive, and call as little attention to themselves as his more celebrated violations of the laws of physics. His shifts in time seem as natural as the course of a human life.
Read up on the other major themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Fate | Humor | Magic
"Solid, monumental like his grandfather, but with a joie de vivre and an irresistible good humor that they did not have, Aureliano Segundo scarcely had time to look after his animals. All he had to do was to take Petra Cotes to his breeding grounds and have her ride across his land in order to have every animal succumb to the plague of proliferation. Like all the good things that occurred in his long life, that tremendous fortune had its origins in chance." (from page 207 of One Hundred Years of Solitude)
The novel's central theme, highlighted by the title, is human isolation. If the solitude of the Buendías is directly linked to their egoism, it is so only in part, for it is too persuasive to be explained away so easily as an external condition. Disfigured "forever and from the beginning of the world by the pox of solitude" that prevents communication with others, the Buendías are a group of solitary individuals living together as strangers in the same house. As such, they personify the predicament of the human race.
The story of the Buendías also reveals the limited nature of the individual's control of his own destiny. Aureliano Triste's sketch of the railroad is "a direct descendant of the diagrams with which José Arcadio Buendía illustrated his scheme for solar warfare" and when José Arcadio Segundo shuts himself away to study Melquíades's manuscript, his face reflects "the irreparable fate of his great-grandfather." What is implied here is not merely that the human personality is largely shaped by heredity and environment, but also that individual life is subject to laws in that, since all men live out a limited range of experiences, every human existence corresponds in some senses to an archetypal pattern.
The world the Buendías inhabit is one that fails to come up to the level of their expectations, and their history is a catalogue of "lost dreams" and "numerous frustrated enterprises." Again and again the characters find fulfillment denied them. Not only are the Buendías' hopes and aspirations thwarted by life, but also misfortunes arbitrarily befall them, as when Colonel Aureliano sees first his wife die and later his sons, or when Rebeca and Meme tragically lose the men who brought them happiness.
For many of the characters indeed, life becomes synonymous with suffering, and a recurring motif is withdrawn from the world in a symbolic retreat to the refuge of the womb. Peace of mind is ultimately achieved only when the characters opt out of active emotional involvement in life, and accept the fate they have been given.
Read up on the other major themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Time | Humor | Magic
"The sign Aureliano hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which the inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: This is a cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce, milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk." (from page 52 of One Hundred Years of Solitude)
There is one aspect of this novel that should definitely not go unnoticed: it is one of the funniest books ever written. More than once the author himself has said that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work "completely lacking in serious" and when asked what the novel is "about" he sometimes likes to reply that it is a story of a family that doesn't want their kids being born with pig's tails. Behind these flippant remarks stands the Colombian's desire to take Macondo away from the academic theorists, to remove all presumptuous obstacles between the book's basic funniness and common readers. Chuckles and guffaws may well be more legitimate responses to García Márquez's great novel than the best and brightest of critical analyses.
The varieties of humor in the book are simply astonishing. There is the comic incongruity of José Arcadio Buendía's researches, the sadly spurned truth of his declaration that "...the earth is round like an orange," and the sheer madness of his desire to daguerreotype God. There is some jesting with names, there is comic-strip farce in the seismic return of José Arcadio, his one-word greeting, his enormous and thoroughly tattooed physique, and the women who pay him for bodily pleasure.
There is also a marvelous political satire of Yankee technology and its more grotesque gigantisms in the elaborate hardware applied by Mr. Herbert to a harmless banana. There is the occasional spoof of florid Spanish rhetoric in the letter from Rebeca's first parents and in Fernanda's four-page harangue. The loftiness of the pretensions of Fernanda del Carpio's ancient family—with their golden emblazoned chamberpots—becomes that much funnier when it encounters Amaranta's sharp tongue and pig-Latin reminders of real dung in a post-medieval world.
In the end, much as the novel is very perceptive about human nature, it doesn't shy away from the comedy of the people of Macondo and their lives. To read it entirely seriously is to miss out on a great deal of the pleasure to be had. So by all means, let yourself laugh along!
Read up on the other major themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Time | Fate | Magic
"Alvaro was the first to take the advice to abandon Macondo. He sold everything, even the tame jaguar that teased passersby from the courtyard of his house, and he bought an eternal ticket on a train that never stopped traveling." (from page 433 of One Hundred Years of Solitude)
One Hundred Years of Solitude is best known not for its scrupulous realism but for its imaginative flights of fantasy, its unreal sorts of actions such as a levitating priest, a young woman who rises to heaven, and an apparently conscious trickle of blood. It is not that material of this kind is new in literature—similar events are commonly depicted in folk myth, classical epic, medieval romance, fairy tale, gothic novel, and science fiction. What is special about this book is its perfect integration of these unusual incidents into everyday life.
The fantasy matter in García Márquez's novel forms a broad and diverse spectrum ranging from the literally extraordinary through nonetheless possible, to the farthest extremes of the physically fabulous and unlikely. As an example of the former, the relatively possible, when Colonel Aureliano Buendía shoots himself in the chest, the bullet comes out through his back without having injured a single vital organ. In another instance, Úrsula secretly figures out the exact trajectory of the sun and the configuration of shadows it will cast within the house, day by day, in the course of the year.
The next level of unreality is the systematic use of hyperbole, exaggerated entities represented with a precision that gives them a distinct, palpable, and cogent profile. García Márquez has himself remarked that if you say you have seen a pink elephant, you will not be believed, but say that you saw seventeen pink elephants flying about that afternoon, and your story gains traction. The exaggeration in this novel is almost always numerically specific, like Colonel Buendía's thirty-two defeated uprisings and the rainstorm that lasts four years, eleven months, and two days. Flying carpets and human levitation, in contrast, are events that are truly magical, and their author's conjuring craft deserves a close look. As has often been noted, what makes these unrealities convincing and credible is the entire narrative and physical scaffold that surrounds them. In a classic instance, Father Nicanor Reyna gulps down a cup of hot chocolate every time he is about to rise from the ground. The impression created is that the humble beverage has something to do with the priest's powers.
The wilder incidents in One Hundred Years of Solitude make perfect sense for their respective characters and situations. The subject matter is often death, an event so typically charted with emotions and concerns that it calls out for a meaningful legend (whether religious or literary) from the imagination. The expected wonder of all such happenings is nonetheless displaced as the townspeople routinely accept extravagant unrealities while reserving their incredulity and awe for technological artifacts like moving pictures, false teeth, or the very significant ice that begins a novel-worth of things that both the residents of Macondo and its readers find downright amazing.
Read up on the other major themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Time | Fate | Humor