C.S. Lewis and the Feverish Passion of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’

Review of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

This summer, determined to finally make a dent in my ‘to read’ list, I finally took the plunge into Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s classic South American romance, Love in the Time of Cholera.

[SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON OUT]

García Márquez tells the story of the young poet Florentino Ariza, who falls in love with the lovely (and even younger) Fermina Daza. The two begin a passionate correspondence, despite the vociferous objections of Fermina’s father (on account of Florentino is a useless nobody, and a bastard to boot, while Fermina’s got a real chance of marrying well). When the two lovers finally come face to face again after years of separation, Fermina realizes that she was suffering from a juvenile infatuation, and she ends their secret engagement. She goes on to marry the highly respected (and highly educated) Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who is instrumental in the eventual eradication of the cholera that plagues the region. Dr. Urbino and Fermina have a fairly staid relationship that slowly grows into respect and eventually affection, but never quite ascends to passion.

Meanwhile, during the many, many years of Fermina’s marriage to Dr. Urbino, Florentino is still just as besotted with his lady love as he ever was, and swears to woo her again one day. He demonstrates his undying devotion for Fermina by bedding every female in town (with a particular emphasis on widows, though he is not above seducing the 14-year-old cousin entrusted to his guardianship). Basically, he is a sex addict and a lout.

But eventually, his so-called ‘patience’ pays off, and some fifty-one years later Dr. Urbino finally kicks the bucket (in a fairly ridiculous and amusing sequence of events), leaving the lovely—if slightly less youthful—Fermina available. Florentino renews his suit, showing up at the good doctor’s funeral to utter the supposedly romantic (if appallingly inappropriate and both manifestly and laughably untrue) pick-up line:

I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love. (50)

To her credit, Fermina sends him packing (with a rather acid remark about his—she hopes—impending death), but our perverted paramour is uncowed. After enduring the initial rebuff, he carefully and subtly begins corresponding with the newly widowed Fermina, engaging her curiosity and intellect without letting his romantic side run wild. She eventually succumbs to his advances, and the two embark on a never-ending riverboat cruise of passion. (No, really.)

Love in the Time of Cholera is among García Márquez’s best known works, along with his award-winning earlier novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (a frequent entry on ‘Best Novels’ lists). And, to its credit (and despite the unnumbered chapters clocking in at upwards of 50 pages apiece), Love in the Time of Cholera is extremely readable—or at least my translation was. The writing is vivid and evocative, and while description-heavy writing can sometimes be rather grating and even onerous to wade through, I was never bored or irritated with the book.

I was, however, rather disgusted. Not by the writing—that was consistently excellent—but by the characters. Specifically, the character of Florentino Ariza, the ‘devoted’ ‘lover.’ García Márquez contrasts the unexciting and monotonous familiarity of Fermina’s relationship with Dr. Urbino with the vibrant passion of her affair with Florentino. Neither relationship is portrayed as ideal, per se; there are certainly positive qualities in Fermina’s marriage to Dr. Urbino, and it’s clear that Florentino is no saint. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a false dichotomy being subtly forced upon the reader: a choice between loveless and emotionally lifeless security and commitment; or tumultuous, impractical passion (with, apparently, no moral boundaries). These are the two faces of love. Which will you choose?

The choice is a misleading one, not least because I suspect younger readers (if the novel comes their way) may come to believe that Florentino, with all his nonstop womanizing, somehow loves Fermina more than the reliable Dr. Urbino does. (Though in García Márquez’s sensuous South America, even the sober and rather starchy Dr. Urbino is not above an extramarital fling. Apparently marital fidelity, always in poor health, was yet another casualty in the cholera epidemic.) This either/or idea fits right in with the modern romantic narrative being pitched today: Passion matters more than pragmatism; passion is what draws lovers together and keeps them there. True love is entirely free of restrictions, and any attempt to bind love with commitment or promises will do nothing but strangle that love.

We know from Scripture that this is not the case. In the created order, commitment is the foundation of love. We see it in the first marriage, when Adam claims Eve as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (a clear implication of lifelong union and commitment, as nothing short of death would cause him to forsake or be severed from his own body). We see it in Song of Solomon, when the Beloved expresses ardent sexual love for her Lover, while proclaiming that ‘love is strong as death.’  We see it in God’s covenant relationship with Abraham and eventually Israel; because He loves Israel, because He has chosen Israel, He commits to Israel—and keeps that commitment even in the face of continued infidelity. We see it most of all in the Gospel, where Christ sacrificed Himself on behalf of His bride the church, in order to ensure an eternal marriage with His chosen people. Christian love has passion aplenty—passion that is only enhanced and matured by commitment.

The inimitable C.S. Lewis captures this tension perfectly in his Mere Christianity.

As Chesterton pointed out, those who are in love have a natural inclination to bind themselves with promises. Love songs all over the world are full of vows of eternal constancy. The Christian law is not forcing upon the passion of love something which is foreign to that passion’s own nature: it is demanding that lovers should take seriously something which their passion of itself impels them to do. (107)

These promises cannot apply to mere passion, sustained indefinitely. After all:

A promise must be about things that I can do, about actions: no one can promise to go on feeling in a certain way. He might as well promise never to have a headache or always to feel hungry. (107)

Lewis goes on to explain the value of keeping relational promises, even after the first passion of love has subsided:

What we call ‘being in love’ is a glorious state, and, in several ways, good for us. [...] Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. [...] You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. [...] But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense—love as distinct from ‘being in love’—is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners as, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it. (108-109)

I couldn’t agree more. We don’t have to choose between passionate love and secure commitment. The two feed on and support one another. So by all means, do read and enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera—it deserves its reputation. But don’t take its worldview to heart.

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Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.


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