On the day he is eventually killed, Santiago Nasar wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to wait for the boat which is bringing the bishop. The night before, he had dreamt about trees. He woke up with a headache. Some people remember that the weather was cloudy that morning, others that it was fine, but all recall that Santiago was in a very good mood. The narrator, lying in the lap of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, was wakened by the clamor of alarm bells.
Santiago is wearing a shirt and pants of white linen exactly like the ones he had worn to the wedding the day before. Santiago goes to the house of his mother, Placida Linero, to get an aspirin for his headache.
Santiago is slim and pale, with Arab eyes and curly hair. He is the only child of a marriage of convenience. He inherited his sixth sense from his mother. From his father, Ibrahim Nasar, he learned his love of firearms, horses, and falconry, as well as the qualities of valor and prudence. He and his father spoke Arabic with each other. After his father died, Santiago abandoned his studies at the end of secondary school in order to take over the family ranch.
Victoria Guzman is sure that it did not rain on the day of Santiago's death. She recalls that she had been in the kitchen, quartering rabbits for lunch, when Santiago came in. Divina Flor, her daughter, had served Santiago a mug of coffee with a shot of cane liquor, as she did every Monday. When she came again to take the mug away, he grabbed her arm and said, "The time has come for you to be tamed." Victoria Guzman says that she will never be tamed while she is alive. She was seduced by Ibrahim Nasar, Santiago's father, when she was an adolescent. Both women had heard that Santiago was going to be killed, but neither was certain whether or not the rumor was true.
The whole house is awakened by the bellow of the bishop's steamboat. Divina Flor leads Santiago to the front door. Even though the front door is usually closed and barred, Santiago always uses that door when he is dressed up. Divina remembers that when he went out the door, the boat stopped tooting and the cocks began to crow. There is an envelope under the door warning Santiago that someone is waiting for him to kill him, but it isn't found until long after Santiago's death.
As everyone makes their way toward the bishop's boat, the two men who are waiting to kill Santiago, Pedro Vicario and Pablo Vicario are waiting at the local milk shop, the only place that is open at that hour. They are still wearing their dark wedding suits, and holding knives wrapped in newspaper.
Though everyone has amassed roosters and firewood to give to the bishop, Father Carmen Amador, he never gets off the boat-he just stands on the upper deck and crosses himself until the boat disappears. The narrator's sister, Margot, invites Santiago over for breakfast. She finds Santiago attractive, and imagines the good fortune of his betrothed, Flora Miguel. He accepts her invitation, but says he must go home first to change into his riding clothes.
Many people on the docks know that Santiago is going to be killed, but many also think that he isn't in danger anymore. Everyone thinks Santiago has been warned that he is going to die. Margot learns that Angela Vicario, the bride of the day before, has been returned to her parents' house because her husband has discovered that she isn't a virgin. Margot is unsure how Santiago Nasar is involved in the mix-up. When she comes home, she tells her mother what she has heard, and her mother, Luisa Santiaga, goes to warn Placida that people are going to kill Santiago. However, someone running by tells Luisa not to bother, because he has already been killed.
Although Márquez never explicitly reveals the story's setting within the narrative, the story is based on an true event that Márquez read about. In the city of Sucre, in Colombia, a young medical student and heir to a large fortune was killed with a machete outside his front door. The young man was killed by the two brothers of a girl who had been married but was returned to her family by her husband after he discovered that she was not a virgin when she married him. When she accused the young medical student of taking her virginity, her two brothers killed the man.
The novel resembles a mystery. We immediately learn that Santiago Nasar is going to die and continue reading to find out how and why this event will occur. However, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is not a chronicle; the narrative does not present the events chronologically, as the title misleadingly suggests. The first chapter recounts the morning of the assassination by two brothers, Pedro and Pablo Vicario, but versions of the morning are retold from various different viewpoints throughout the rest of the book. The reader is shown repeatedly the circumstances of Santiago Nasar's murder, but the overarching question of Santiago Nasar's guilty is never answered.
Despite the journalistic style of the novel, much of the narrative is comprised of repeated events that seem to carry ambiguous symbolic meaning. For example, the narrator repeatedly highlights the disputes over what the weather was like on the day of Santiago Nasar's murder—some people think it was nice out; others believe that it rained. But significance of the rain is left unclear. The narrative is particular about irrelevant details, and vague about matters of real importance.
The novel reminds us of the difficulty of understanding events as they are experienced, and the arbitrary ways that the mind chooses to pattern events in retrospect. The arrival of the bishop, for example, is an event that was seen as potentially very significant in the novel, but turns out not to be especially noteworthy at all, since the bishop never steps off the boat. At the time, everyone thought that the bishop's arrival would be the biggest event of the day. In retrospect, the murder overshadows all other memory.
Memory, reality, and symbolism are further confused by the names Márquez chooses for his characters. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he includes fictional names along with the names of his own mother, Luisa Santiago, and of his own wife, Mercedes Barcha. The inclusion of the names of real people ties the events more strongly to a fixed reality.