Illustration by Oscar Bray

Love in the Time of Cholera

As the story of the lovers Florentino and Fermina ultimately shows us, love can rival any disease, any conflict and any age.

May 2, 2020

Google the words ‘coronavirus,’ ‘relationships’ and ‘dating’ and you will find dozens of articles with the title or byline: ‘love in the time of coronavirus.’ This very original play on words is a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s highly acclaimed novel: Love in the Time of Cholera. The plot is simple and similar to many tales before it: a boy and a girl meet, fall in love, part ways and spend decades leading separate lives. The text continues as the protagonist, Florentino Ariza tries to win back his sweetheart, Fermina Daza, after her husband suddenly dies. The author uses the outbreak of cholera in the early 20th century in this unnamed Caribbean country as a fascinating vessel to weave a beautiful tale of aging, death, love, loss and grief.
There are numerous moments when Florentino’s love for Fermina is so powerful that it makes him manifest the symptoms of cholera. I interpret this as a direct comparison between heartsickness and cholera, where the author shows the physical toll that loneliness and sorrow can take. Many common scenarios in relationships have taken on a new dimension of hopelessness in the face of the outbreak: you may have to confront the possibility of never seeing your loved one again, especially if you or they are elderly, you may have to nurse your partner through a deadly illness and if you’re single or had a recent breakup, for the next few months you’re very much alone. Perhaps most alarmingly, it has never been easier to perpetrate and more difficult to escape domestic violence and abuse. Fermina Daza’s two miserable years trapped in the home of her conniving mother and sisters-in-law shows how relationships and mental health can easily deteriorate under these types of conditions. While none of this means that regulations put in place in times of deadly outbreaks should be flouted, the unfortunate reality is that some people are going to be worse off from the Covid-19 lockdowns than they would have been if they had contracted the virus.
Cholera isn’t the only affliction felt by the characters in Marquez’s novel: old age and its negative connotations is a cross that many of the characters have to bear. Take, for example, this short extract: “At times [Dr. Urbino] awoke at dawn gasping for air, like a fish out of water. He had fluid in his heart. He felt it lose the beat for a moment … and then, because God is good, he felt it recover at last … He went mad with terror … all he needed in life, even at the age of fifty-eight, was someone who understood him.” The lyrical matter-of-fact prose makes the reader feel the loneliness of growing old and the haunting knowledge of just how much time has passed. To me, one of the most beautiful moments is towards the beginning of the novel, when Fermina Daza “bathed her husband just as if he were a newborn child,” and when he cried over the death of a friend, “she dried his eyes and wiped his teary beard with the handkerchief sprinkled with Florida water and put that in his breast pocket, its corners spread open like a magnolia.”
These small touches of humanity become more heart wrenching when we see the stigma placed on Florentino and Fermina for having a love affair in their old age and the gradual loss of status and goodwill they face as they age. The dehumanization of the elderly has unfortunately become a staple of public discourse and everyday life during this outbreak. This has led to many senior citizens ignoring quarantine rules for various reasons, including the fact that being seen as old is practically a taboo in most Western cultures. Examples of this can be found in the different standards of elderly care that exist across different cultures and countries. It is a given that in many cases, good art can cultivate empathy for groups that are otherwise unseen, and Love in the Time of Cholera provides this service to the elderly, reminding us that they are humans with lives to live, encouraging the care and affection that they need at this time.
While the seriousness of cholera is by no means downplayed in the novel, an attitude of societal acceptance is clear - this ‘normal’ is not even close to new. The arts are kept alive along with inventions like silent films and the hot air balloon. Life goes on. Part of this could be put down to the class privilege Dr. Urbino, Florentino and Fermina have, but I think it also represents a ray of hope during these turbulent times. As with the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago, artists are struggling to remain motivated to create. Covid-19 isn’t just limiting our ability to connect with individuals we love, it is also gnawing away at opportunities to contemplate, enjoy and create love.
I have sometimes rebuked myself for selfishly worrying about personal problems in the face of a worldwide plague, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. We have to remember that when we are forced apart from our loved ones, neglected by the media, trapped in abusive homes or struggling with depression, those immediate problems are just as, if not more, real than the large-scale horror that caused these problems. These feelings are human and personal, and they should be embraced rather than pushed away in favor of arbitrary practical priorities. As the story of Florentino and Fermina ultimately shows us, love can rival any disease, any conflict, any age and even time itself, and we each do whatever we can to remind ourselves of the love and beauty that still remains within and around us.
Oscar Bray is a contributing writer. Email him at
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