The dominant theme of the novel, as evident from the title, is solitude. Each character has his or her particular form of solitude. Here solitude is not defined as loneliness, but rather a fated seclusion by space or some neurotic obsession. In fact, the danger of being marked by solitude is its affect on others. “If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!” Ursula tells her husband. One form of solitude is that of madness-the first Jose Arcadio’s solitude is being tied to a tree, speaking in a foreign tongue, and lost in thought. The ultimate expression of solitude, however, is Colonel Aureliano’s achievement of absolute power, an “inner coldness which shattered his bones.” Consequently, he orders a chalk circle to be marked around him at all times-nobody is allowed near him. Amaranta is another extreme example. Her coldness is the result of power achieved by denial-her virginity. Obstinately, she keeps her hand bandaged as a sign of her “solitude unto death.” All the other characters have lesser forms of these two extremes: they become “accomplices in solitude,” seek “consolation” for solitude, become “lost in solitude,” achieve “an honorable pact with solitude,” and gain “the privileges of solitude.” The saddest expression of solitude is probably the last. The final Aureliano “from the beginning of the world and forever [was] branded by the pockmarks of solitude.” He is literally alone because of the scandal his mother caused Fernanda. He is imprisoned in the house for most of his life until there is no one left to pretend to guard him. He has nothing to do but decipher the parchments of Melquiades. In the process “everything is known” to him-even the obliteration of the world of Macondo.
B Love and Passion
Love involving persons afflicted by solitude is not a happy experience for those in the novel. The largest symbol of doomed love is Remedios the Beauty, for anyone who pursues her dies. Often the pursuit of the beloved takes the form of writing. Love poems and letters are rarely sent. Rather, they accumulate in the bottom of trunks and then eventually kindle fires. The chase can lead to animosity between siblings and the death of the innocent. Simple passion, on the other hand, often brings happiness to those involved. Aureliano Segundo’s passion for his mistress Petra Cotes, in fact, creates fertility and wealth for the family. Nevertheless, consummation is tricky and often dangerous, as it can involve peering through holes in the roof, threatening the removal of chastity pants, or abiding by strange calendars. In its mildest forms, love is a “physical sensation … like a pebble in his shoes.” At its worst, love drives a man to suicide, “his wrists cut by a razor and his hands thrust in a basin of benzoin.” In the end, the only Buendia baby “engendered with love” kills its mother, is eaten by ants, and brings an end to the world of the novel.
C Fate and Chance
The plot of the novel is very simple, Garcia Marquez told Rita Guibert: it is “the story of a family who for a hundred years did everything they could to prevent having a son with pig’s tail, and just because of their very efforts to avoid having one they ended up by doing so.” The plot is very much like the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex (one of Garcia Marquez’s favorites), where the effort to prevent a prophecy ends up guaranteeing its fulfillment. In a link with another fundamental western text, the fate of the women in the novel is Eve’s fate. They bear the pain of birth, knowing in advance their children will be dictators, bastards, and eventually possess a pig’s tail. Ursula’s attempt to avoid taking part in this fate is not only circumvented, but her efforts prompt her family’s expulsion from home under the shadow of a murder. Thus the cycle of violence, incest, and procreation is begun. Plans by her descendants to alter this course fail. For example, Fernanda decides the fate of her children only to have them hate her for it. Men, for all their creation and destruction, are but steps toward ending what Ursula had begun. This is set forth in the greatest declaration of fate in the novel, the epigraph of Melquiades’s manuscript: “The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”
Playing a role in the development of fate is the nature of time. Throughout the novel, time moves in ways that are nonlinear. When Ursula sees Aureliano Triste planning for the railroad just as his grandfather Jose Arcadio planned Macondo’s development, it “confirmed her impression that time was going a circle.” She makes similar observations about her great-grandson Jose Arcadio Segundo, whose actions resemble those of her son Colonel Aureliano. As Ursula ages, time becomes mixed up for her, as she relives events from her childhood. Later, Jose Arcadio Segundo and the last Aureliano discover that the first Jose Arcadio was not crazy, but understood “that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.” Pilar Ternera, who has witnessed all the years of the Buendia family’s history, knows that the circular nature of time ensures that the family cannot avoid their fate: “A century of cards and experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.” The family’s time is limited, even as Aureliano sees how all of it “coexists in one instant” in the manuscript. As he finishes reading the pages, he knows that “everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
The first line of the novel foreshadows a large role for death in the novel. Death is described as a black mark on a map, and until Melquiades dies, Macondo has no such mark. Thus unknown to the spirits, it is left alone by the world-except for a few accidental discoveries. After that first mark of blackness, death is as constant a theme as solitude and each character has their particular death. The greatest death is that of the patriarch Jose Arcadio; it is marked by flowers falling from the sky. After that, death becomes a haunting presence, made ever more physical as the degree of decay increases. Burial ceremonies become arduous treks through rain and mud or something one does alone. For example, Fernanda lays herself to rest. Amaranta is the person most familiar with the rites of death. She sees death personified as “a woman dressed in blue with long hair, with a sort of antiquated look, and with a certain resemblance to Pilar Ternera.” She is told that she will die once she has finished her own shroud, so she works slowly. When she is finished, she tells the whole community to give her any messages they wish ferried to their dead. Amaranta earlier reveals that she loved Colonel Aureliano the best by the way she prepares his body for burial. She does this in solitude.
F Knowledge and Ignorance
In the beginning, Jose Arcadio was a beneficent and wise leader who disseminated the simple knowledge necessary for creation. His community prospers by following his agricultural instructions and the trees he plants live forever. But then his mind is awakened to the world by the science brought by the Gypsies. His madness begins in the fact that there is so much to know and so many wonderful instruments to invent. In his fascination with mechanical objects he represents the hope of someday having machines do all the work. “Right there across the river there are all kinds of magical instruments while we keep on living like donkeys,” he proclaims to his wife. Ursula keeps working like an ant while Jose Arcadio sits, depressed at their lack of instruments. When she stirs him, he goes so far as to teach his children the rudiments of reading and writing before he is lost again in “searching for the mythical truth of the great inventions.” Knowledge can distinguish man from beast, but it is dangerous without the activity needed to keep human civilization going. The proper mix of knowledge and activity (represented by the vivacity of guests and the fight against the ants’ encroachment) is never struck. As the book nears its end and knowledge is ascendant, the lack of activity speeds decay and hastens death.