One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Episode #8 of the course Masterpieces of world literature and why they matter by Alisa Miller
Yesterday’s exploration of Things Fall Apart revealed the story of a people and a family shared through parable. In today’s lesson, we will also learn about a family, but this tale is told through the spectacles of magical realism in Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family and is set in a tiny village of only 20 adobe houses. On the opening page, the narrator explains that “the world was so recent that many things lacked names” and people had to point to indicate what they meant. The family grows as the world around them does, and as the family becomes more complex, the history of the region does too. The book begins with an illustrated family tree to help the reader know who is who, which in this family, is helpful. Each generation names their children after the prior generations, so the same few names get used over and over.
While the recycling of names may seem confusing, it is also indicative of one of the themes of the book: the cycle of history. The family’s story starts at the beginning of time and generally follows the history of Latin America, including progress, civil war, and its colonization by outside forces, while also documenting all those typical elements that make up a family’s history, such as courtships, marriages, relationships, and parenting. At the end of the book, the family and the village have diminished to nothing, just as the story began one hundred years before.
While relating the family history alongside the history of the region is significant, perhaps one of the more influential aspects of One Hundred Years of Solitude is Márquez’s use of magical realism. Magical realism is generally defined as the use of magical elements in realistic settings where those elements wouldn’t realistically appear and aren’t perceived as strikingly unusual by the characters. While the use of magical elements in this manner is not specific to one time or place, the naming of this literary device and its usage is significantly tied to Latin American writers in the mid-20th century.
Márquez uses magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude to enrich the story, as well as to reflect a culture where elements of the fantastic are incorporated into everyday life. Take, for example, the butterflies. Meme is a young woman who falls in love with a young man, Mauricio Babilonia. Each time Mauricio Babilonia makes an entrance in the story, he is accompanied by swarms of yellow butterflies. Meme uses the appearance of the butterflies as an indicator that her lover is nearby, even when he is in a crowd, and she can’t actually see him. The butterflies also become their downfall. When Meme’s mother discovers the young lovers kissing in a movie theater, she confines Meme to the house. Mauricio Babilonia begins sneaking into the bathroom each evening when Meme bathes. One evening, Meme’s mother sees the butterflies, which she associates with bad luck, and in an attempt to shoo them away, discovers the secret tryst.
Combining the elements of fantasy with reality, magical realism can highlight how strange or difficult real life can be while softening that reality. Through the use of magical realism, Márquez was able to tell the story of Latin America and the Buendia family, including their tragedies, in such a way that he informed without devolving into darkness. Readers responded to his style, which has led to One Hundred Years of Solitude being translated into several languages since its publication in 1967. The book remains one of the most significant works out of Latin America.
Join me tomorrow as we leave Colombia and head to South Asia, where we will learn about India’s independence from British rule in Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
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