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.