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Fermina's return home to Urbino's memory of his father
Florentino receives unexpected word of Fermina's return. The wind is so strong that the schooner on which she is traveling is blown back to port, and, after a night of terrible seasickness, the schooner sets sail again. This time, it successfully returns to the City of the Viceroys during a downpour of rain. Fermina is so drenched—and so matured—upon her arrival that Florentino does not recognize her. At seventeen, Fermina is given the responsibility of running the household, and though she revels in her authority, she is depressed to be home again.
Fermina and Florentino had not agreed upon a means of communication after her return, and Florentino is not sure Fermina has truly returned until he sees her crossing though the plaza with her servant, Gala Placidia. He follows after her, dazzled by her maturity, and nervously approaches her in the Arcade of the Scribes, a dingy marketplace. She has just bought special ink with which to write him, and percale for their marriage sheets. He remarks that the Arcade is no place for a "crowned goddess." Upon seeing him, she is filled with disenchanment, and chastizes herself for having been foolish enough to love him. She wipes him from her memory then, and asks him to "forget it."
That afternoon, Fermina sends Florentino a two-line letter that explains how, upon seeing him, she had felt that their love had been an illusion. Fermina also returns everything Florentino has sent her, and asks that he do the same with the items she has sent to him. Desperate, he writes her countless letters, which she refuses to accept. Finally, he returns all of her letters and gifts, with the exception of her braid, which he agrees to return only if he is allowed to speak to her in person. After she refuses, Transito Ariza speaks to Fermina, but to no avail. Fermina does not even invite Transito inside the house. Defeated, Florentino allows his mother to return the braid. In the fifty-one years, nine months, and four days that follow, not once does Florentino have the chance to speak or see his beloved Fermina in private—until the day he repeats his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.
At twenty-eight years old, Dr. Juvenal Urbino is the most-desired of bachelors. The girls hold secret lotteries to determine who will spend time with him, and he plays along—until he meets and falls in love with Fermina Daza. When he returns from Paris, where he had studied advanced medicine and surgery, he is saddened upon the sight of his beloved city, which has deteriorated after having suffered through an economic crisis and a cholera epidemic. Urbino's own family had not been spared; his father, a doctor also, had died of cholera six years before.
After praying to God for guidance, Urbino is convinced that he must take responsibility for restoring his city to greatness, and addresses its people with his concerns about the dangers of poor sanitation, contaminated drinking water, and the filth of the public market, all of which contribute to outbreaks of disease.
The cholera epidemic has caused the cemeteries to overflow, and orchards and cattle ranches have become burial grounds. During the epidemic, a cannon is shot every quarter hour. Local superstion holds that gunpowder purifies the atmosphere. Dr. Urbino's father, also a physician, is a civic hero at the height of the epidemic, as well as its most esteemed victim. When diagnosed with cholera, his father locks himself in a utility room at the hospital and writes a loving letter to his family; he signs his name with his dying breath. Meanwhile, Urbino is in Paris, and doesn't cry upon receiving the sad news. Only when he reads his father's letter does he cry, forced to face the certainty of death.
One of Urbino's earliest memories is of his father asking him to scratch his back. When he does, Urbino is startled by the sensation that he cannot feel his own body. It had been a rainy afternoon, and Urbino had been drawing larks and sunflowers on the floor with chalk. Unprovoked, his father tells him that if he were to die now, Urbino would hardly remember him when he grows to be his age. When Urbino reaches adulthood, he realizes, with a certain fear, that he is identical to—and as mortal as—his father.
Fermina's sudden rejection of Florentino may seem unfounded and abrupt, however, the reason for her change of heart is a result of the many changes she has undergone during her long absence. Fermina may have left the city as Florentino's "crowned goddess," a young, impressionable girl swept up by the zealous desires of her first suitor, but she has returned as a poised and sophisticated woman. Ironically, Florentino himself is the first to notice the changes which have occured in her, even before her refusal of him. So drastic are these changes in Fermina that he does not even recognize her when she alights from the boat.
For Fermina, the thrill of her forbidden romance with Florentino has ended, for it is no longer scandalous or dangerous as it was when she was a young girl, bent on disobeying her domineering father. Now, Fermina holds the power and authority in her household, her father having bestowed the responsibility upon her, and, in her maturity, realizes that her love for Florentino had been nothing more than her foolish adoration of an idealized man and an idealized romance. Fermina has indeed grown up, and, now that she is a woman of her own rite, wants to disconnect herself from her childhood, to which Florentino bears a strong association.
Although she is now mature and has completed her passage to womanhood, Fermina buys the ink and percale with Florentino in mind because she still idealizes him. For her, he is an illusion of unattainable perfection and love. Now, she is hungry—not for Florentino himself, but for the idealized image of him she has contrived. This illusion remains until she sees him and her psychological fantasy is shattered by the reality of his imperfect physical appearance. Fermina had not loved Florentino; she had loved her romanticized idea of him. Upon seeing Florentino, Fermina realizes that her conception of him is not based in fact, but in fantasy, and in realizing her mistake, feels compelled to move on into her adulthood without lingering on the foolish whims of her youth.
Similar to Fermina's sudden, shocking realization that she has loved merely an idealized illusion of a real, flawed man, is the startling sensation—or lack of sensation—that frightens the young Dr. Juvenal Urbino as he scratches his father's back. Dr. Urbino's memory of his father is significant because it is his first memory of death, perhaps the first time he realizes, fearfully, that death is not merely an illusion, a fate which occurs in another time and another place, but that death is an 'immediate reality,' as the Doctor refers to it in his adulthood. In his inability to feel his own physical presence, his own body, the young Urbino feels somehow dead.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Love in the Time of Cholera!