Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Matriarchs of Marquez's Universe

Gabo has always mentioned his grandmother as an important influence on his writing, including his magnum opus 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude'.

The tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness ... What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

So it's not surprising that there are a lot of strong women characters/matriarchs in his works. I am using the term 'matriarch' a bit loosely here in that I am not referring to women who necessarily head a whole clan or who are extremely rich and powerful. They do not always have the final say in what goes on in their family. The men (i.e) husbands/sons mostly do as they please. But in spite of all the macho posturing, when push comes to shove it is the women in Gabo's works who face tough situations head on, never blinking and it is them who provide solution to it, when the men flee from facing them.

'Ursula Iguarán' 

'Ursula iguarán' (One Hundred Years Of Solitude)is obviously the first place to start when we talk of matriarchs. Married to 'Jose Arcadio Buendía', she is the one who holds the entire Buendía family together, through six generations. As Jose goes off on his harebrained scientific schemes of alchemy or on his expeditions to find a new world, it is  Ursula who takes care of the family. A proud, but compassionate women she watches in dismay as in every generation the men in her family go running off to the various corners of the world, forgetting their responsibility, whether it be her son 'Colonel Aureliano Buendía' who went off to start a war (and in the process become the same thing that he opposed)or her great-great grandson (?) 'José Arcadio II' who leads a debauched life after being groomed by her to become the pope!!. She views all this stoically, suffering for a bit, but then moving on to the next thing. When she says about the Segundo twins 
"That's what they're all like,", she said without surprise, "crazy from birth."
"Just like Aureliano," Ursula exclaimed. "It's as if the world were repeating itself."

you can see the resigned sadness of a woman who always tries her best, but knows that ultimately things will get screwed up. A reason for this is her lifelong fear of her family being cursed because of her having married her cousin. It's typically a Greek theme that Gabo has placed in the South American context, diluting it a bit. Years later,  Jeffrey Eugenides would use the same theme/concern in his 'Middlesex' in the form of Desdemona fearing a similar catastrophe due to her marriage with Stephanides. There is a parallel between the two couples, even the end of the husbands has a similar resonance. (And both of them remind of Zeus and Hera, the Great gods and couples, but siblings first). But she never loses her dignity. When she starts loosing her sight, she make the entire household follow a strict regime of how they will walk, where each item will be place, so that she can hide her loosing sight from the others. Even near her end, as she suffers from delirium she never tells Aureliano Segundo about the location of the hidden gold, only saying
"When the owner appears,", Ursula said, "God will illuminate him so that he will find it."

What a lady!!! She could have tried to find the gold and use it during the innumerable crisis that hit her family, but no she didn't. A simple mind, nothing nothing much beyond the well being of her family, she has a strong sense of right and wrong and abides by it through her life. A tigress who protected her cubs throughout her life.

Big Mama

It's not just in the novels, but even in short stories we can find such strong characters such as 'Big Mama's Funeral'. An unique thing in this story is that, we never see Big mama much in the flesh. She passes away soon after the story begins and the remaining part is about her funeral. But through the description of the funeral details and other events, we form a picture of a very powerful matriarch, a woman who lorded over an entire clan.

"When she sat on her balcony in the cool afternoon air, with all the weight of her belly and authority squeezed into her old rattan rocker, she seemed, in truth, infinitely rich and powerful, the richest and most powerful matron in the world."

The story's exaggerated for sure, but it's not always about that. There is a point where Gabo tells us about an old photo of Big mama as a beautiful young woman.

"That afternoon the inhabitants of the distant and somber capital saw the picture of a twenty-year-old woman on the first page of the extra editions, and thought that it was a new beauty queen."

Why did she never marry, did she have any lovers, didn't she live marriage or did she sacrifice her life so that she could look after the extended family are some questions that come to our mind. But there's no mistaking that she had been an extremely powerful woman, deciding on the business matters as well as matrimonial ones. 

Big Mama's matriarchal rigidity had surrounded her fortune and her name with a sacramental fence, within which uncles married the daughters and their nieces, and the cousins married their aunts, and brothers their sisters-in-law, until the intricate mesh of consanguinity was formed, which turned procreation into a vicious circle.

The Matriarch of the Patriarch

Even in the self explanatory 'The Autumn of the Patriarch' (Gabo at his eccentric stylistic best), there is a small but substantial female character, the mother of the unnamed patriarch. She is a uneducated, simple woman who cannot understand the heights that her son has reached. This is best illustrated by the following paragraph

"She had said I'm tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you'll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother."

A simple soul who asks the president (her son) to deliver empty bottles to a store, when she herself could have owned the store. Irrespective of the heights he has reached and the enormous power he wields, for her he will always be the young boy she raised. Her only wish in her world is for her son to be happy. She frets about him, wants a nice match for him and when he is running about after women in the houses, she rouses the parrots and other birds she raises so that the sound they make will drown out what his son is up to. Another typical mother, always forgiving of her son.

Tránsito Ariza

'Transito Ariza' is the mother of the doomed lover 'Florentino' in 'Love in the time of cholera'.  A single mother who raised her son all alone, she is the one who figures out Florentino's failed love and tries to remedy it. She sends him away to work in the hope that he will get over it.  She even tries matchmaking with a widow, hoping that it would make her son forget his first love. But sadly she fails in it as  Florentino's love is enduring and she

"died in the conviction that the son she had conceived in love and raised for love was immune to any kind of love because of his first youthful misfortune."

In this she is similar to the other women we have seen in that they try their best for their children, but ultimately fail in it. This is again a very small character but does make an impact.

The heartless Grandmother

So far we have seen characters who have been good, but there is also Innocent Eréndira's heartless grandmother, a positively creepy old woman who even forces her 14 year old granddaughter into prostitution because the girl mistakenly burnt their home. She even bargains with customers about how much they should pay. Ultimately she gets her just comeuppance for her evil actions.  This is probably one of the very few elderly characters who have been Gabo by portrayed as evil. You can find young/middle aged evil characters, but the elderly men and women are most often goo. Maybe it's due to the impact of his grandmother that Gabo kep all the elderly as mostly pure.

I haven't re-read Gabo in quite some time now so I could have missed out other strong elderly female characters. But it's Gabo's greatness that I was able to bring out these strong women from the depths of my memory without much effort, as he has etched them so well.


  1. Hi-here is a link to my post for Book Blog Appreciation Week in which I refer to your blog


  2. Thanks mel. Yes I am based in India and am the sole person who maintains this blog.