The founder and patriarch of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía represents both great leadership and the innocence of the ancient world. He is a natural explorer, setting off into the wilderness first to found Macondo and then to find a route between Macondo and the outside world. In this tale of creation he is the Adam figure, whose quest for knowledge, mirrored in the intellectual pursuits of his descendants, eventually results in his family’s loss of innocence. José Arcadio Buendía pushes his family forward into modernity, preferring the confines of his laboratory to the sight of a real flying carpet that the gypsies have brought. By turning his back on this ancient magic in favor of his more modern scientific ideas, he hastens the end of Macondo’s Eden-like state.
For José Arcadio Buendía, however, madness comes sooner than disillusionment. Immediately after he thinks he has discovered a means to create perpetual motion—a physical impossibility—he goes insane, convinced that the same day is repeating itself over and over again. In a sense, his purported discovery of perpetual motion achieves a kind of total knowledge that may be too deep for the human mind to withstand. Perpetual motion could only exist in a world without time, which, for José Arcadio Buendía, is what the world becomes and, in a sense, is what time throughout the novel becomes: past, present and future often overlap. This overlapping of time allows José Arcadio Buendía to appear to his descendants in the form of a ghost, so that his presence will always be felt in Macondo.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía is One Hundred Years of Solitude’s greatest soldier figure, leading the Liberal army throughout the civil war. At the same time, however, he is the novel’s greatest artist figure: a poet, an accomplished silversmith, and the creator of hundreds of finely crafted golden fishes. Aureliano’s (I) inability to experience deep emotion contributes to his great battle poise and artistic focus, yet Márquez’s depiction of the Colonel melting away his hard work and starting all over again signals that this poise and focus is not worth its price.
Aureliano (I) is never truly touched by anything or anyone. His child bride, Remedios Moscote, seems at first to have a real effect on him. When she dies, however, he discovers that his sorrow is not as profound as he had expected. During the war, he becomes even more hardened to emotion, and, eventually, his memory and all his feelings are worn away. He has all of his poems burned, and, by the end of his life, he has stopped making new golden fish. Instead, he makes twenty-five and then melts them down, using the metal for the next batch. In this way, he lives solely in the present, acknowledging that time moves in cycles and that the present is all that exists for a man like him, with no memories.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s attempted suicide shows us how deep his despair is when he realizes that civil war is futile and that pride is the only thing that keeps the two sides fighting. His disillusionment is a moving commentary on the despair that arises from futility but, also, on the futility that arises from despair.
Of all the characters in the novel, Úrsula Iguarán lives the longest and sees the most new generations born. She outlives all three of her children. Unlike most of her relatives, Úrsula is untroubled by great spiritual anxiety; in this sense, she is probably the strongest person ever to live in Macondo. She takes in Rebeca, the child of strangers, and raises her as her own daughter; she welcomes dozens of passing strangers to her table; she tries to keep the house from falling apart. Úrsula’s task is not easy, since all of her descendants become embroiled in wars and scandals that would cause any weaker family to dissolve. With Úrsula as their mainstay, however, the Buendías are irrevocably linked, for better or for worse. To keep the family together, Úrsula sometimes is quite harsh; for example, she kicks José Arcadio and Rebeca out of the house when they elope. This decision is partly a result of her unyielding fear of incest. Even though Rebeca and José Arcadio are not technically related, Úrsula is terrified that even a remotely incestuous action or relation will result in someone in the family having a baby with the tail of a pig. Her own marriage to José Arcadio Buendía is incestuous because they are cousins, and she constantly examines her children’s behavior for flaws, frequently saying, “[i]t’s worse than if he had been born with the tail of a pig.” Because of her fear of incest, Úrsula is a contradictory character: she binds the family together, but is terrified that incest, the extreme of family bonding, will bring disaster to the Buendía house.
Aureliano (II) is the purest example in One Hundred Years of Solitude of the solitary, destructive Buendía thirst for knowledge. He is utterly isolated by his grandmother, Fernanda del Carpio, because she is ashamed that he was born out of wedlock. He never even leaves the house until he is fully grown. As he lives in solitude, however, he acquires a store of knowledge almost magical in scope. He knows far more than he could have read in his family’s books and seems to have miraculously accessed an enormous store of universal knowledge. After having an incestuous relationship with his aunt, Amaranta Úrsula, Aureliano (II) watches the last of the Buendía line (their son, born with the tail of a pig) being eaten by ants. He finally translates the prophecies of the old gypsy, Melquíades, which foretell both the act of translation and the destruction of Macondo that occurs as he reads. Aureliano (II) is therefore Macondo’s prophet of doom, destroying the town with an act of reading and translation that is similar to our reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude.