It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise. . . .
The influx of modern technology that arrived in Macondo with the railroad is amazing and troubling to the citizens of the now-thriving village. But doubly confusing is the arrival in Macondo of foreign capitalists who establish a banana plantation in the village and set up their own fenced-in town right next to Macondo. Macondo rapidly becomes more cosmopolitan: the cinema, phonographs, luxury imports, and more and more prostitutes arrive in the town. It is a time of chaos and uncontrolled growth in Macondo, and Aureliano Segundo is overjoyed by the overflowing energy. The only person who remains unexcited is the ethereal Remedios the Beauty, who seems blissfully unaware of the changes going on around her. She is unaware, too, that her beauty is deadly and that men die for the sin of loving her. In fact, she remains unconcerned with love and with men throughout the novel and seems unworldly until one day she floats off the ground and up to heaven, disappearing forever.
With capitalism running rampant in Macondo, Colonel Aureliano Buendía begins to repent his decision to end the war against the Conservatives, who are facilitating the rise to power of the foreign imperialists. The wealthy banana plantation owners set up their own dictatorial police force, which brutally attacks citizens for even the slightest offenses. Colonel Buendía’s threat to start a war, with his seventeen sons as soldiers, results in tragedy: unnamed assassins track the boys down and kill all but one of them, shooting them in the crosses that are indelibly marked, like targets, on their foreheads. Colonel Buendía falls into a deep depression and visits Colonel Gerineldo Márquez in an attempt to start another war, but Colonel Márquez rebuffs him.
Úrsula, meanwhile, has grown very old and notices that time is passing more quickly now than it did in the old days. She is going blind, but no one notices, because she always knows where everyone is according to his or her daily routine. Úrsula is driven by a dedication to José Arcadio II becoming pope. Nevertheless, she is deeply sad at all the tragedy that has befallen the family. When José Arcadio II goes away to seminary and Meme to school, the house becomes even emptier. Amaranta starts weaving her own shroud in preparation for death. Fernanda del Carpio gains increasing domestic control and tries again to impose her harsh, religious discipline on the household. As a result, Aureliano Segundo moves into the house of his concubine, Petra Cotes, carrying his revelry to new heights. On one occasion, he almost kills himself in an eating contest with a woman known as The Elephant. In the absence of the children, the house becomes grim and ghostly quiet. When Meme comes home from school, however, Aureliano Segundo comes home from Petra Cotes’s to play the part of a father. When she brings home seventy-two guests from school one vacation, however, it becomes clear that she has inherited her father’s propensity toward reckless abandon.
Eventually, the solitary and enigmatic José Arcadio Segundo reappears around the house to talk with the old Colonel. But the Colonel does not respond well and instead withdraws even further into himself. Incapable of deep emotion and longing for some concrete memories of his past, the solitary old man drifts further toward death. He stops making new fish out of gold, which is his one constant hobby, and instead makes only a few fish before melting them down to start all over again. Finally, one morning, he passes away.
There is a certain amount of irony in García Márquez’s proposition that modern technology and the pace of modern change confuse the villagers’ sense of reality. After all, these are people who seem unfazed by the plainly miraculous. This reversal of the reader’s expectation is in fact a reversal of social norms: supernatural phenomena are expected in Macondo, but technological phenomena seem unreal. The reversal is especially apparent with the arrival of the train, which brings the confusion of modernity to Macondo: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alteration between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.” As One Hundred Years of Solitude progresses, technology takes the place of supernatural events: the engineers of the banana company are said to be “endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times.”
There is also a real political and historical message behind this reversal of expectations. García Márquez is attempting to convey the extent of confusion that Western industrial technology created in the lives of Latin Americans, whose minds were comfortable with the mythic and the supernatural, but for whom an adjustment to modern culture was extremely difficult. The townspeople reject the cinema because technology here is the stuff of unreality and illusions, whereas the appearances of the ghosts of José Arcadio Buendía, or of Melquíades, are taken to be genuine phenomena. As readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude, we are expected to view both magic and technology as real, accepting that the difference between them is, at least in the novel, a question of perspective rather than objective fact.
The banana plantation later becomes the most tragic disturbance for the town because of the influx of new money and new inhabitants that it brings. The perfectly ordered village that José Arcadio Buendía founded becomes noisy and chaotic. Only Remedios the Beauty retains her sense of calm and her innocence. She is one of the most perplexing characters in the novel, because she seems to lack a personality of her own—she functions only as a symbol. Incapable of the deep introspection characteristic of the Buendías, Remedios the Beauty lacks a sense of self and an ability to empathize with others. She is driven only by animal emotions, and her only characteristics are innocence and heartbreaking beauty. She functions, then, not as a living person within the novel, but simply as a symbol of the beautiful innocence that Macondo has lost—an innocence similar to that of Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit and gained knowledge of nakedness and sin. Remedios the Beauty sees nakedness as the only natural way to walk around the house. In the tainted world of modern Macondo, corrupted by too much knowledge and technology, Remedios is a relic and a reminder of the past. It comes as a tragic realization that she is, in fact, too pure for the world, and she simply floats skyward and disappears, presumably summoned back into the heavens.
While Remedios the Beauty’s untainted innocence seems reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, Úrsula’s musings on time in Chapter 13 call to mind the Old Testament as a whole. She reflects that, in the old days, children grew up more slowly and time affected people more gently. This notion is similar to the early parts of the Bible, where people live for vast numbers of years; as the Bible moves on, it depicts time passing more quickly. García Márquez has used a similar technique to determine the pacing of One Hundred Years of Solitude. At first, the future stretches out limitlessly—people live without fear of death, and there is more than enough room in the world for all their children. As the book moves on, however, death plays a bigger role and time begins to pass so quickly that it becomes hard to keep up with. For instance, children grow into adults in the space of a chapter or two. In addition to paralleling the Bible, this increase in the pace of time reflects the span of a human life, where time seems limitless at first but starts to fly by as the years go on. In that sense, Macondo is like a human being, One Hundred Years of Solitude, its biography.
As time passes more quickly, the cycles of repetition that have been present throughout the novel happen on a smaller and smaller scale. Aureliano keeps on making gold fishes, but now he melts them down again and again and reworks them, closing himself up in that minute repetition. Blind Úrsula is able to function because she realizes that the people in the Buendía house repeat the same routines every day with no variation. And, just before Colonel Aureliano Buendía dies, he has a dream in which he realizes that he has dreamed the same dream every night for years. All these occurrences are symptoms of the spiral that winds around the Buendías, binding them in a web of the past that they cannot escape.