Caught in a Town’s Suffocating Embrace

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday

I recently received a fascinating 100 Years of Solitude essay from a student in my Magical Realism class. When Faith Wallace, who grew up in rural Maryland, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, she recognized a familiar dilemma. Picturesque though the town of Macondo may be, it becomes a trap for those raised in it.

To explain her response to the novel, Faith talked about having had a fiancé who had their whole life planned for them. They would never leave the southern part of the state where they grew up but would have a family there and be content. Attending St. Mary’s College opened Faith’s eyes to the larger world. Ultimately, she chose to break off the engagement and explore that world and her own potential within it.

When discussing her essay with her, I recommended that Faith also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where the protagonist, who like Faith has recently lost a mother, turns to marriage for its comfort and security.  Her best friend describes the house into which Dellarobia moves as a roach motel: once one enters, one never leaves. College, however, provides an escape route for Dellarobia, as it has for Faith.

In 100 Years, the fear of being locked in a community’s suffocating embrace appears in the matriarch’s fears of incest. When Ursula marries her cousin Jose Arcadio Buendia. she fears that they will have a child with a pig’s tail and resists having sex with him until he kills a neighbor for questioning his manhood. They flee together into the Amazon rain forest and found the town of Macondo.

Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says the incest taboo is universal, not so much because of potential genetic deformities as because of the very real danger that the community will fragment into individual families. The fact that 100 Years ends with a pig-tailed baby and the collapse of the Buendia house graphically makes the point. “Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude,” Garcia Marquez solemnly intones in the novel’s final sentence, “[do] not have a second opportunity on earth.”

In her essay, Faith reported on an insulting southern Maryland slur that captures this symbolism. Those who confine themselves to St. Mary’s County are sometimes called SMIBs, an acronym for “Southern Maryland Inbred.” Whether or not actual instances of incest occur in our area, the acronym certainly signals the isolation–the solitude–that Faith feared for herself.

In her essay, Faith notes when the Buendias reach out beyond themselves and when they collapse inward. Ursula’s adopted daughter Rebeca, for instance, is set to marry dance instructor Pietro but marries instead Usula’s world-traveling son Jose Arcadio when he returns to Macondo. A horrified Ursula throws them out of the house, and when Jose Arcadio dies, Rebeca retreats into solitude.

Likewise, Ursula’s daughter Amaranta, next set to marry Pietro, instead falls in love with her nephew. Although she ultimately pulls away from him, she too retreats into solitude. In the Buendia household, those attracted to other Buendias up isolated from the rest of the world.

The drama repeats itself in the novel’s apocalyptic ending. Ursula Amaranta, Ursula’s great-great granddaughter, initially appears to have successfully left Macondo as she marries an interesting man and travels the world. Yet she obsesses about her childhood home and returns to restore it. Her husband, who has broad interests, finally becomes bored and leaves, after which Amaranta Ursula pairs up with her cousin. She thereupon gives birth to a child with a pig’s tale, who is eaten by red ants, while she herself dies of a hemorrhage. Her cousin is buried by a hurricane that the book describes as biblical.

I couldn’t very well counsel Faith to leave St. Mary’s County forever given that I myself am retiring to the town where I grew up. Ursula Amaranta’s mistake, however, is attempting to recreate her own childhood instead of finding a new life for herself. I don’t have that ambition, nor does Faith. Instead, she wants to discover the new woman who resides within her.

She couldn’t have chosen a better essay to end her college career, I told her.

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