One Hundred Years of Solitude
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Subjectivity of Experienced Reality
Although the realism and the magic that One Hundred Years of Solitude includes seem at first to be opposites, they are, in fact, perfectly reconcilable. Both are necessary in order to convey Márquez’s particular conception of the world. Márquez’s novel reflects reality not as it is experienced by one observer, but as it is individually experienced by those with different backgrounds. These multiple perspectives are especially appropriate to the unique reality of Latin America—caught between modernity and pre-industrialization; torn by civil war, and ravaged by imperialism—where the experiences of people vary much more than they might in a more homogenous society. Magical realism conveys a reality that incorporates the magic that superstition and religion infuse into the world.
This novel treats biblical narratives and native Latin American mythology as historically credible. This approach may stem from the sense, shared by some Latin American authors, that important and powerful strains of magic running through ordinary lives fall victim to the Western emphasis on logic and reason. If García Márquez seems to confuse reality and fiction, it is only because, from some perspectives, fiction may be truer than reality, and vice versa. For instance, in places like Márquez’s hometown, which witnessed a massacre much like that of the workers in Macondo, unthinkable horrors may be a common sight. Real life, then, begins to seem like a fantasy that is both terrifying and fascinating, and Márquez’s novel is an attempt to recreate and to capture that sense of real life.
The Inseparability of Past, Present, and Future
From the names that return generation after generation to the repetition of personalities and events, time in One Hundred Years of Solitude refuses to divide neatly into past, present, and future. Úrsula Iguarán is always the first to notice that time in Macondo is not finite, but, rather, moves forward over and over again. Sometimes, this simultaneity of time leads to amnesia, when people cannot see the past any more than they can see the future. Other times the future becomes as easy to recall as the past. The prophecies of Melquíades prove that events in time are continuous: from the beginning of the novel, the old gypsy was able to see its end, as if the various events were all occurring at once. Similarly, the presence of the ghosts of Melquíades and José Arcadio Buendía shows that the past in which those men lived has become one with the present.
The Power of Reading and of Language
Although language is in an unripe, Garden-of-Eden state at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when most things in the newborn world are still unnamed, its function quickly becomes more complex. Various languages fill the novel, including the Guajiro language that the children learn, the multilingual tattoos that cover José Arcadio’s body, the Latin spoken by José Arcadio Buendía, and the final Sanskrit translation of Melquíades’s prophecies. In fact, this final act of translation can be seen as the most significant act in the book, since it seems to be the one that makes the book’s existence possible and gives life to the characters and story within.
As García Márquez makes reading the final apocalyptic force that destroys Macondo and calls attention to his own task as a writer, he also reminds us that our reading provides the fundamental first breath to every action that takes place in One Hundred Years of Solitude. While the novel can be thought of as something with one clear, predetermined meaning, García Márquez asks his reader to acknowledge the fact that every act of reading is also an interpretation, and that such interpretations can have weighty consequences. Aureliano (II), then, does not just take the manuscripts’ meanings for granted, but, in addition, he must also translate and interpret them and ultimately precipitate the destruction of the town.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Memory and Forgetfulness
While the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude consider total forgetfulness a danger, they, ironically, also seem to consider memory a burden. About half of the novel’s characters speak of the weight of having too many memories while the rest seem to be amnesiacs. Rebeca’s overabundance of memory causes her to lock herself in her house after her husband’s death, and to live there with the memory of friends rather than the presence of people. For her, the nostalgia of better days gone by prevents her from existing in a changing world. The opposite of her character can be found in Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who has almost no memories at all. He lives in an endlessly repeating present, melting down and then recreating his collection of little gold fishes. Nostalgia and amnesia are the dual diseases of the Buendía clan, one tying its victims to the past, the other trapping them in the present. Thus afflicted, the Buendías are doomed to repeat the same cycles until they consume themselves, and they are never able to move into the future.
One Hundred Years of Solitude draws on many of the basic narratives of the Bible, and its characters can be seen as allegorical of some major biblical figures. The novel recounts the creation of Macondo and its earliest Edenic days of innocence, and continues until its apocalyptic end, with a cleansing flood in between. We can see José Arcadio Buendía’s downfall—his loss of sanity—as a result of his quest for knowledge. He and his wife, Ursula Iguarán, represent the biblical Adam and Eve, who were exiled from Eden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The entire novel functions as a metaphor for human history and an extended commentary on human nature. On the one hand, their story, taken literally as applying to the fictional Buendías, evokes immense pathos. But as representatives of the human race, the Buendías personify solitude and inevitable tragedy, together with the elusive possibility of happiness, as chronicled by the Bible.
Gypsies are present in One Hundred Years of Solitude primarily to act as links. They function to offer transitions from contrasting or unrelated events and characters. Every few years, especially in the early days of Macondo, a pack of wandering gypsies arrives, turning the town into something like a carnival and displaying the wares that they have brought with them. Before Macondo has a road to civilization, they are the town’s only contact with the outside world. They bring both technology—inventions that Melquíades displays—and magic—magic carpets and other wonders. Gypsies, then, serve as versatile literary devices that also blur the line between fantasy and reality, especially when they connect Macondo and the outside world, magic and science, and even the past and present.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Little Gold Fishes
The meaning of the thousands of little gold fishes that Colonel Aureliano Buendía makes shifts over time. At first, these fishes represent Aureliano’s artistic nature and, by extension, the artistic nature of all the Aurelianos. Soon, however, they acquire a greater significance, marking the ways in which Aureliano has affected the world. His seventeen sons, for example, are each given a little gold fish, and, in this case, the fishes represent Aureliano’s effect on the world through his sons. In another instance, they are used as passkeys when messengers for the Liberals use them to prove their allegiance. Many years later, however, the fishes become collector’s items, merely relics of a once-great leader. This attitude disgusts Aureliano because he recognizes that people are using him as a figurehead, a mythological hero that represents whatever they want it to represent. When he begins to understand that the little gold fishes no longer are symbolic of him personally, but instead of a mistaken ideal, he stops making new fishes and starts to melt down the old ones again and again.
The railroad represents the arrival of the modern world in Macondo. This devastating turn leads to the development of a banana plantation and the ensuing massacre of three thousand workers. The railroad also represents the period when Macondo is connected most closely with the outside world. After the banana plantations close down, the railroad falls into disrepair and the train ceases even to stop in Macondo any more. The advent of the railroad is a turning point. Before it comes, Macondo grows bigger and thrives; afterward, Macondo quickly disintegrates, folding back into isolation and eventually expiring.
The English Encyclopedia
At first, the English encyclopedia that Meme receives from her American friend is a symbol for the way the American plantation owners are taking over Macondo. When Meme, a descendant of the town’s founders, begins to learn English, the foreigners’ encroachment on Macondo’s culture becomes obvious. The concrete threat posed by the encyclopedia is later lessened when Aureliano Segundo uses it to tell his children stories. Because he does not speak English, Aureliano Segundo makes up stories to go with the pictures. By creating the possibility for multiple interpretations of the text, he unwittingly diffuses the encyclopedia’s danger.
The Golden Chamber Pot
The golden chamber pot that Fernanda del Carpio brings to Macondo from her home is, for her, a marker of her lofty status; she believes that she was destined to be a queen. But while the gold of the chamber pot is associated with royalty, the function of the chamber pot is, of course, associated with defecation: a sign of the real value of Fernanda’s snooty condescension. Later, when José Arcadio (II) tries to sell the chamber pot, he finds that it is not really solid gold, but, rather, gold-plated. Again, this revelation represents the hollowness of Fernanda’s pride and the flimsiness of cheap cover-ups.
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