CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE: Assignment II

The Chronicles of a Death Foretold: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Penguin Books India (2007) Edition translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa)

‘Women in Marquez’s ‘Chronicles of a Death Foretold’

The representation and characterization of women in Marquez’s “Chronicles of a Death Foretold” provides an understanding of the varied ways in which patriarchy gets constituted, constructed and re-invented in the Latin American context and experience. Marquez’s women characters in the novella reflect not just the extent of women’s internalization of this hierarchy or their exploitation under this unequal gendered system, but his characterization also reveals the diversity of women’s subversions and resistances to this oppressive subjugation.

Patriarchy in Latin America is unique in its assertion as it works in a society where indigenous cultural practices have been rooted in a celebration of and openness about sexuality. This stood in direct opposition to the orthodox Catholic ideals of chastity and purity that penetrated into the local tradition during colonization under a patriarchal state apparatus. Patriarchy also worked closely through intersecting oppressions of class and race with the advent of Spanish and Portuguese claiming the “New World” from these early indigenous societies[1]. Through the character of Angela Vicario, Marquez presents to us these various dynamics at work in assertion of patriarchy and exploitation of women; the complex links between gender, class and violence; and the trajectories of resistance that women adopt to build an independent space for themselves under such an oppressive system. Angela’s situation raises questions of class exploitation and the position of women under the Christian value system. For Bayado, it is merely a matter of ‘conquest’ of the woman he chooses. Angela Vicario becomes the passive object of her sexual desire. His class position and wealth allowed him this privilege. Bayado becomes representative of the foreign imperialist presence in Latin America. It is made clear in the novel that Angela from the very beginning did not feel any attraction towards Bayado San Roman (It was Angela Vicario who did not want to marry him.”He seemed too much of a man for me” she told me).  She did not appreciate his performative public avowal to show his interest in her and the manner in which he never really courted her or engaged with her feelings, but “bewitched the family with his charm”. Marquez thus critiques this system of exploitation that leaves no space for women to assert or even voice her own choice or opinion. He shows how such a situation is made worse under family pressure mediated through the power exerted by a prospective proposal of social mobility.  Angela’s parents ‘decisive’ argument claimed that “a family dignified by modest means had no right to disdain that prize of destiny”. When Angela only ‘dares’ to hint at “the inconvenience of the lack of love”, her mother “demolishes it with a single phrase — Love can be learned.” Women are hence conditioned and taught to inform their feelings and emotions and as well as their sexuality in accordance with the unequal standards of an orthodox patriarchal society. The novel shows us how the Vicario sisters were provided rigorous training on mastering their domestic role as prospective wives – “The girls had been reared to get married” or Purisima del Carmen’s claim “Any man will be happy with them because they have been raised to suffer”.

As argued by Elizabeth Dore in “Hidden Histories of the Gender and the State in Latin America”, historically, the patriarchal character of colonial society in Latin America was codified in a succession of royal proclamations that granted male members of a family legal authority in their households and established a regulatory framework that restricted and ‘protected’ women. There was a naturalization of patriarchal law. Men’s privileges and obligations were regarded as natural law. State order in the colonial era resided on the fact that a well-ordered society was premised on well-ruled families. Such families were governed by patriarchs who demanded obedience, provided maintenance and guaranteed ‘protection’ of female ‘honour’[2]. This patriarchal authority was reinforced by internalization of such value systems by women like Purisima del Carmel who become active agents for perpetuating patriarchal norms.  Colonial officers drew on legal and cultural norms of patriarchal authority to lend legitimacy to the authority of the state. Marquez in ‘Chronicles of a Death Foretold’ thus deconstructs and challenges the question of ‘honour’ associated with women’s sexuality and the surveillance and regulation that it entails. He exposes how these value systems of preservation of women’s chastity and honour are part of a larger system for exploitation of the masses and perpetration of violence. The protection of a woman’s honour promotes an excess of male aggressiveness and machismo.  Patriarchy thus sanctions senseless violence of which both men and women become victims. The state in its proclaimed role of the patriarch also thereby seeks legitimacy for its violence. Patriarchal violence in Latin America, Elizabeth Dore argues is thus part of a larger system and discourse where states through ‘utilizing coercion and constructing consent’ endeavour to create ‘a political culture that naturalizes one form of social domination’[3]. In the novella, gender and violence thus converge for the murder of Santiago Nasser. The unquestioning acceptance of the murder and the collective unwillingness to avert its course raises larger questions on the imperviousness born out of the everyday experience of violence perpetrated by state apparatuses in Latin America on its people under both its colonial and post-colonial histories.

Marquez is sympathetic to this subjugation of women and it is through women that he offers a critique of this system. While the whole town assembles at the dock awaiting the arrival of the Bishop, Santiago’s mother, Placido Linero refuses to do so. She comments, “He won’t even get of the boat. He will give an obligatory blessing, as always and go back the way he came. He hates this town.” The Bishop is representative of the power of the Church in collusion with the Spanish colonial state and Placido Linero’s comment is an exposition of the hypocrisy of such religious institutions and her refusal to join the people in their extravagant celebration is significant of her critical stance. Even Flora Miguel, Santiago’s fiancé, was not present at the scene. It can be seen as her resistance to the institution whose enmeshed system of values has led to her oppression and condemns her to ‘humiliation’. When General Patronio San Roman arrived at the town, it was only the narrator’s mother who refused to meet him and saw through the contradiction of a community that bowed down to its very perpetrators. General Roman was a ‘hero’ of the civil wars, a representative of the autocratic Conservative regime. She refused to shake hands with “the man who gave the orders for Gerineldo Marquez to be shot in the back”. By creating an enigma around the narrator’s mother and her pagan beliefs through magic realism, Marquez provides an opposition to the rationalist approaches of Western Euro Centric discourse and makes a political statement regarding the fact that the Latin American experience of plunder and violence cannot be described in unequivocal terms. Her character is part of Marquez’s larger vision for articulating the continent’s response to the west to urge the west to recast and reformulate its understanding of the ‘other’. The ‘extraordinary’ is an ordinary part of people’s everyday experience, embedded in the social and historical formation of Latin America – it is a mode of existence.[4]

Marquez seems to provide an alternative to the nonsensical violence through the characters of his important women who become the only characters in the novel who make a conscious effort to stop this senseless violence. Clotilde Armenta urges the twins to halt the murder when Santiago passes by her tea-shop –“For the love of God, leave him for later, if only out of respect for his grace the bishop.” .When she sees Bedoya, she asks him to warn Santiago; she also informs the Bishop and the civic authorities. She even makes a physical intervention in holding Pedro Vicario by the collar to prevent the murder. Santiago’s mother closes the door thinking he is already inside so as to prevent the occurrence of the murder. Maria Cervantes is not present at the site of murder. Clotilde’s lamentation about the solitariness of women in the world is thus a critique of the socio-economic system wherein a women’s position denies her any agency and makes resistance to mindless violence and exploitation very difficult for them. Even in the responses of guilt to the collective complicity in the murder, women’s responses are most extreme. Hortensia Borte, ‘whose only participation was having seen two bloody knives that were bloody as yet’ was so disturbed by the whole experience that she was in a state of nervous breakdown and one day,  “unable to take in any longer, she ran out naked into the street.” Santiago’s fiancée, ran away ‘out of spite’ with a lieutenant of the border patrol, who then ‘prostituted her amongst the rubber workers of Vicada’. Aura Villeras, the mid-wife suffers a severe bladder spasm. It is hence a comment on how women and women’s body are always the worst and very often amongst the most vulnerable victims in situations of conflict and violence.  Another significant aspect is the novel’s end with the heart warming image of Santiago Nasser calling out to the narrator’s aunt Wenefrida Marquez, (another woman character) “They’ve killed me, Wene child” – which, despite its danger of reinstating stereotypes of the feminine as empathetic and loving, does serve an enduring image of human warmth and love, which cannot be subdued by this violence.

Marquez’s representation of prostitution and his characterization of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes and her ‘House of Mercy’ is another instance of Marquez’s gender politics as being sympathetic and critical of the exploitation of women. Through her character, Marquez inverses the dominant stereotypes associated with women and prostitution which lead to their further marginalization. The name Maria Alexandria Cervantes in its connotation itself is subversive in nature. Maria stands for Virgin Mary, her middle name is a reference to Alexandria, the heart of knowledge and learning in Egypt and Cervantes is the famous Spanish writer.  Maria Cervantes is accorded an extraordinary status in the novel, and she is celebrated for her sexual experience and knowledge, she takes the role of a mentor figure in the narrative – to quote the narrator, “I was recovering…….in the apostolic lap of Maria Alejandrina.” The Latin American assertion of patriarchy is a different experience in this respect where sexual pleasure and gratification is not seen as a degenerative experience. Under the indigenous native culture, sexuality is not seen as something to be repressed but as something to be fulfilled. In fact even Church authorities largely followed the crown (and St Augustine) and accepted prostitution as a necessary evil. Also Catholicism was more tolerant to prostitution; in fact this tolerance was one of Martin Luther’s criticism of Catholicism during the Reformation period. Prostitution was generally not criminalized in Latin America until the nineteenth century. However, as in Catholic Europe authorities attempted to encourage women to change their ways by opening up asylums for repentant prostitutes and ‘fallen’ women and there were attempts at regulation. Anne M Hayes in ‘Female Prostitution in Costa Rica: a historical perspective 1880-1930’, argues that such regulation systems creates the stigma associated with prostitution working along the Foucauldian logic that explains stigma as a political construct. The stigmatization of prostitution came in part also from the implicit sanction by Catholic tradition of a double standard. While prohibition theoretically rejects extra-marital sex for both sexes, regulation explicitly acknowledges a double standard. While Evangelical Protestantism preached abstention of males from extra-marital sex, Catholic societies essentially gave men a license to roam while dividing women into faithful wives and stigmatized public women.  Also prostitution was also rooted in an exploitation of women under vulnerable economic situations. To quote Hayes, “sexual commerce per say does not promote oppressive values of capitalist patriarchy, rather it is the cultural and legal production of a marginalized, degraded prostitution that ensures its oppressive characteristics, at the same time acting to limit the “subversive potential” that might attend a decriminalized culturally legitimized form of sexual commerce.”[5] In his novel, Marquez allows for this ‘subversive potential’ of prostitution. There is an enigma build Maria Cervantes’ character in her power over men, especially young men and she is representative of a fecundity and profusion of life in the native Latin American culture – “saddest thing in life is to have an empty bed”. Marquez thus creates an extra-ordinary women out of the most exploited and ‘stigmatized’ women. The narrator is also shown to have a special bonding with Maria Cervantes, reflective of Marquez’s close companionship with prostitutes, the immense time spend by him in brothels and thereby his empathy and understanding to their vulnerability and exploitation.

Solitude is a central concept to Marquez’s expression and experience of Latin America – a quality which is a consequence of not being understood by others. This loneliness in Marquez’s characters is integral to his politics and in this novel, his women characters embody this loneliness. Clotilde as the lone individual actively trying to stop the murder of Santiago fails to understand the indifference, the unwillingness of the community, especially men to act to prevent the murder. She has a very crucial presence in the novel. Maria Cervantes provided succor to many men, but is lonely in her position and contradictory role in society. Angela Vicario also suffers from a loneliness which comes from her being a victim of a very decadent and regressive social code. Their loneliness thus becomes a political statement by them on the society and its hypocrisy of social norms and its exploitative and unjust economic system.

Marquez through his women characters also explores the Foucauldian paradigm of power being diffused through society.  Hence, those who “appear to be powerless in society exercise power through every-day resistances”. Women hence adopt various strategies of direct, indirect and discreet forms of resistance and subversion to the patriarchal order — which Marquez represents through his women characters. The Vicario sisters, being brought up under a strict system of monitoring, resisted this system in their female bonding – “it was difficult…to break the circle, because they always went together everywhere, and they organized dances for women only and were pre-disposed to find hidden intentions on the designs of men.” It is never clear to us if Angela’s loss of virginity is an instance of sexual abuse and if Santiago was really her ‘perpetrator’. Hence, Angela’s non-virgin status can very well be read as her subversive refusal to be part of a system that condemns women to pre-marital celibacy. Such a reading is strengthened by the fact that after Bayado rejects her after marriage, Angela actively pursues him with an uninhibited avowal of her sexual desire for him.  Angela actively asserting her sexuality as a young woman without getting ‘caught’ for it, despite the strict system of surveillance in her family, is significant of the diverse everyday practices of resistance that she adopts to build that space for herself. Also the tricks and advices that Angela receives from her friends (which she however never adopts) are amongst the various modes of resistances that women innovate and engage in to negotiate their independent space under a patriarchal social structure. Thus, Marquez allows for a subversive understanding of women’s practices marked as ‘deceptive’ under patriarchal discourse.

Marquez also explores dimensions of resistance in terms of his women characters breaking off from and not conforming to the stereotypical roles expected of them. He does not let Angela’s character to degenerate after the humiliating experience of her being rejected by Bayado. Marquez builds Angela’s character such that she does not fall into despair or repentance under stereotypical notions of the response of a ‘fallen women’, but she actively charts the trajectory of her own life – “she became lucid, overbearing, mistress of her own free will…..she recognized no other authority than her own nor any other service than that of her obsession.” She emerges as an autonomous individual who not only asserts financial independence but also finally manages to fulfill her desire for Bayado with her relentless pursuits. In fact even her decision to name Santiago as her ‘perpetrator’ and strategy of never clearing the mystery around it, should be read not as the fearful admission of a submissive woman under pressure. It could be read as a conscious decision on her part to guard her personal life – “She would recount her misfortune in full details to anyone who wanted to hear it, except for one item which would never be cleared up – who was the real cause of her damage and why, because no one believed that it had been really Santiago Nasser.” It was her refusal to her private life and sexuality being exposed to male voyeurism or gaze. Marquez’s refuses to allow judgment on her for this fact in the novel by making the collective complicity in the murder of Santiago the focus of the novel and not Angela’s naming of him. In fact, Marquez has the narrator’s mother appreciating Angela for “her act of courage” in skillfully playing “her marked cards until the final consequence.” Also by finally not using any of the tricks that her friends had taught her to conceal the pre-marital loss of her virginity and instead pitying the powerful and ‘macho’ Bayado as “the poor man who had the bad luck to marry me”, she once again behaves in an unconventional and subversive manner.

In the end it can be said that Marquez’s characterization of women is representative of the unique and complex gender relations in the functioning of patriarchy in Latin America, its intersecting links with class, race and the state for perpetuation of violence and the resistances women adopt against this exploitation in their position under this unequal system.


[1] Marysa Navarro and Virginia S. Korrol, Women in Latin America and the Carribean: Restoring Women to History (1995)

[2] Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, ed. Hidden Histories of the State and Gender in Latin America (2000)

[3] Elizabeth Dore and Maxine Molyneux, ed. Hidden Histories of the State and Gender in Latin America (2000)

[4] Kumkum Sangari, “The Politics of the Possible: Essays on Gender, History, Narratives and Colonial English” (2002)

[5] Anne M Hayes, ‘Female Prostitution in Costa Rica: a historical perspective 1880-1930’ (2006)

4 Responses to “Women in Marquez’s Chronicles”


  1. wow that was realy helpful.

  2. Ankita Says:

    Rashly great site..thanks for helping us:)

  3. Katie Says:

    Thank you so much! This will really help me with my presentation on Traditional Roles of Women in Latin America in regards to COADF!! Thanks!

  4. umoja Says:

    How am i supposed to cite this mla?!?

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