Gabriel García Márquez’s incomparable 100 Years of Solitude traces a family line–that of the Buendías, originating with José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán–from its beginning to its end through seven generations; this is essentially what constitutes the novel’s plot. José Arcadio Buendía is the first of the line, though he obviously must have had a father himself, because he is the founder of Macondo, where the fate of the line plays out. Its fate is fated to play out here because José Arcadio Buendía leaves the place he grew up after killing a man who insults him for not being able to sexually satisfy his wife. Notably, this man, Prudencio Aguilar, levels the insult after José Arcadio Buendía’s cock defeats his in a cockfight; the insult stems from a rumor that’s stemmed from Úrsula refusing to consummate her marriage to José Arcadio Buendía because they’re distantly related, making her worried that their children will be born “with the tail of a pig,” as a cousin of hers was who ended up dying when he finally got someone to chop the tail off. Úrsula fights her husband off for a year before Prudencio Aguilar’s insult and death leads him to insist on consummation. They have three children, the second generation: José Arcadio (conceived on the original trek to found Macondo), Aureliano, and Amaranta. Rebeca arrives a bit later, sent by people claiming to be the Buendías’ relatives whom they’ve never met and can’t remember. (Rebeca is the only one of that generation to outlive Úrsula, who lives through the sixth generation of the family and must be at least 140 by the time she dies. Amaranta ends up dying a virgin, managing to resist consummating the mutual torrid passion she has for her nephew, Aureliano’s son José Aureliano.) A notable figure for the first generation, though not related by blood, is the gypsy Melquiades, who kindles José Arcadio Buendía’s interests in the larger world as well as his imaginative fancies, and who eventually, after coming back from the dead, resides in a room in the family’s house until he dies again.
The men of the second generation, José Arcadio and Aureliano, essentially spread their seed indiscriminately. Both conceive children by the card reader Pilar Ternera, who came to Macondo with the original settlers; by her, Aureliano has Aureliano Jose and José Arcadio has Arcadio (this makes these members of the third generation both half-brothers and cousins, initiating the convoluted genetic connections that will permeate the line). Second-gen Aureliano becomes a colonel who fights and loses 32 civil wars against conservatives, in the course of which he ends up fathering 17 sons who are (almost) all assassinated in a single night. José Arcadio, leaving after conceiving Arcadio to travel the world with the gypsies, returns and ends up marrying Rebeca, but they have no children. Aureliano ends up choosing to marry Remedios Moscote, the youngest and still prepubescent daughter of the town magistrate that José Arcadio Buendía butted heads with after he arrived and wanted to impose rules. But after she’s old enough to conceive, Remedios dies during her pregnancy (with twins); Amaranta feels herself responsible because she prayed fervently for something to prevent the marriage of Rebeca to the dance instructor Pietro Crespi, which the extended mourning period interferes with. When José Arcadio returns from traveling the world with the gypsies and Rebeca ends up marrying him, Pietro Crespi eventually proposes to Amaranta, but she refuses, getting involved with her nephew Aureliano Jose around this time, though she never lets him consummate it.
Both Arcadio and José Aureliano, the third generation, are raised in the house their fathers grew up in and where their fathers are still without knowing who their parents actually are. Arcadio eventually joins his uncle Colonel Aureliano in fighting the civil wars and is shot by a firing squad while his wife Santa Sofía de la Piedad is still pregnant; his children, the fourth generation, are Remedios and the twins José Arcadio Segundo and Aureliano Segundo, who are also unaware of their relation to Pilar Ternera.
After Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s civil wars are over when he finally signs a surrender agreement against the wishes of his men (he escapes the firing squad he’s facing in the novel’s opening when he’s rescued by his brother José Arcadio, whose own death is either murder or suicide), a banana company arrives and drastically changes the atmosphere of Macondo thanks to José Arcadio Segundo giving the visiting gringo Mr. Herbert a banana; José Arcadio Segundo becomes a foreman for the company. Eventually there’s a strike for workers’ rights that gets violent, and the banana company has soldiers open fire on a crowd of 3000 people that includes José Arcadio Segundo, who wakes up on a train full of the crowd’s corpses. When he makes his way back to Macondo, everyone has been convinced that the workers returned to their families and that no violence occurred; this is the version that makes it into the history books. Broken by the incident, José Arcadio Segundo then basically pens himself up in the gypsy Melquiades’ former room for the rest of his life, trying to decipher the gypsy’s parchments, having no children. The banana company mysteriously induces a ten-year nonstop torrent of rain that then enables them to abolish operations there.
Meanwhile, Aureliano Segundo has the fifth generation, three children with Fernanda (while keeping the lifelong mistress Petra Cotes): Amaranta Úrsula, Jose Arcadio (whom Úrsula wants to groom to be pope), and Renata Remedios. The last goes by the nickname Meme and ends up having a fling with a mechanic, Mauricio Babilonia, who someone shoots one night when he’s sneaking into the house, leading to their discovery and Fernanda shipping Meme off to a convent. A nun shows up at the house one day a few months later with Meme’s baby by Mauricio, the sixth generation, Aureliano Babilonia, who doesn’t actually go by that name because Fernanda tells everyone she found him “floating in a basket,” and no one knows where he really came from. Fernanda raises him as her own child, so he’s essentially raised as fifth gen, as a brother to the other daughter of Fernanda and Aureliano Segundo, Amaranta Úrsula, though she’s really his aunt.
Amaranta Úrsula eventually leaves to spend some time abroad in Brussels right after Úrsula finally dies. When Amaranta Úrsula returns to Macondo to live, she and Aureliano, not believing themselves blood-related and with no one around who knows that they are, begin a passionate affair (notably, after Aureliano goes for advice to Pilar Ternera, who’s outlived even Úrsula and whom he’s unaware he’s related to, she encourages him to pursue it, leading him to essentially rape Amaranta Úrsula into willingness). When Amaranta Úrsula dies giving birth to their son, Aureliano, who’s the sixth/seventh generation, Aureliano Babilonia (only referred to in-text at this point as “Aureliano,” thus conflating him with the newest baby) is so distraught he goes out and gets drunk, and, “in the last dawn of Macondo,” the child Aureliano is eaten alive by ants on the porch, thus ending the line. Aureliano, who’s been trying to decipher Melquíades’ parchments (which Jose Arcadio Segundo failed to) since before he seduced Rebeca, is finally able to that day, discovering his true origin. He understands that Macondo will be wiped out the moment he finishes deciphering the parchments, “because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” The End.
One can tell from this description of the “plot” that time works uniquely in this novel–things are not so simple as a neat chronological presentation of a series of events. There’s more summary than scene, and the narrator will frequently have to circle back to to describe things that were going on “during the period of [blank].” Úrsula repeatedly comments on how time seems to be going in a circle:
Looking at the sketch that Aureliano Triste drew on the table and that was a direct descendent of the plans with which José Arcadio Buendía had illustrated his project for solar warfare, Úrsula confirmed her impression that time was going in a circle.
When [Úrsula] said it she realized that she was giving the same reply that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had given in his death cell, and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle.
Macondo also returns to the same state at the end that it was at the beginning, which reinforces how time does seem to have gone in a circle:
It was also around that time [after Úrsula and Rebeca have finally died] that the gypsies returned, the last heirs to Melquíades’ science, and they found the town so defeated and its inhabitants so removed from the rest of the world that once more they went through the houses dragging magnetized ingots as if that really were the Babylonian wise men’s latest discovery, and once again they concentrated the sun’s rays with the giant magnifying glass, and there was no lack of people standing open-mouthed watching kettles fall and pots roll and who paid fifty cents to be startled as a gypsy woman put in her false teeth and took them out again.
The description of Melquíades’ parchments near the end echoes and comments on the novel structure’s circular use of time:
It was the history of the family, written by Melquíades, down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time. … The final protection, which Aureliano had begun to glimpse when he let himself be confused by the love of Amaranta Úrsula, was based on the fact that Melquíades had not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.
Such concentration is an impressive feat that is not Melquíades’ feat alone, but also Marquez’s.
Other echoes: early in the novel, José Arcadio Buendía finds the skeleton of a ship on one of his treks to find the sea; José Arcadio Segundo later brings the only boat in to ever dock in Macondo, and even later, Aureliano Triste, one of the 17 Aurelianos, brings the railroad to Macondo in order to expand the reach of his ice business, which will recall the novel’s opening line about Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembering, as he faces a firing squad, the afternoon his father took him “to discover ice.” At that point José Arcadio Buendía has a vision that Macondo will be made of ice, and in the final lines the town is described as “the city of mirrors (or mirages)” that will be “exiled from the memory of men” when Aureliano finishes deciphering the parchments. So José Arcadio Buendía’s vision of the town of ice, whose impermanent nature he does not understand, is foreshadowing both the family’s and the town’s impermanence. He also refuses to believe it when Melquíades tries to warn him:
One night [Melquíades] thought he had found a prediction of the future of Macondo. It was to be a luminous city with great glass houses where there was no trace remaining of the race of the Buendía. “It’s a mistake,” José Arcadio Buendía thundered. “They won’t be houses of glass but of ice, as I dreamed, and there will always be a Buendía, per omnia secula seculorum.”
The dream that José Arcadio Buendía is described to have in the paragraphs before he’s found dead could be a manifestation of his doomed desire for his line to continue forever:
When he was alone, José Arcadio Buendía consoled himself with the dream of the infinite rooms. He dreamed that he was getting out of bed, opening the door and going into an identical room with the same bed with a wrought-iron head, the same wicker chair, and the same small picture of the Virgin of Help on the back wall. From that room he would go into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another one just the same, and then into another exactly alike, and so on to infinity. He liked to go from room to room. As in a gallery of parallel mirrors….
The tragedy of the novel’s ending is that it’s not just the family that vanishes, but any memory of them. This becomes political commentary in that the Buendías, largely via Colonel Aureliano Buendía but also through others, have fought to resist the forces of tyranny imposing on the town and the region. The fact that no one will remember their efforts underscores these efforts’ utter failure. Near the end, when Aureliano (Babilonia) is searching for more information on his identity, he talks to a priest who tells him he must just be named for a street in the town, which enrages him:
“So!” he said. “You don’t believe it either.”
“That Colonel Aureliano, Buendía fought thirty-two civil wars and lost them all,” Aureliano answered. “That the army hemmed in and machine-gunned three thousand workers and that their bodies were carried off to be thrown into the sea on a train with two hundred cars.”
The priest measured him with a pitying look.
The firing squad in the first line is also something that recurs; the novel circles back to show us that Colonel Aureliano does not in fact die by that firing squad as we’re led to believe he will at the beginning–he dies under the same chestnut tree where his father spent his later years (though his father was brought inside to die)–but Arcadio does die by firing squad, and Jose Aureliano is killed for an act of civil disobedience, so also at the hands of higher authorities.
The names are probably the most obvious example of recurrence that makes time feel circular:
While the Aurelianos were withdrawn, but with lucid minds, the José Arcadios were impulsive and enterprising, but they were marked with a tragic sign.
Another recurrence is that some of the mothers who have the children don’t want to name them after their forebears because they’re concerned it will brand/curse them with these associated characteristics, but it’s always the men who insist on using the names, and then the women decide not to challenge them. (Though it’s worth noting that the name Aureliano comes from Úrsula’s father, so the names are not just patrilineal.)
Aureliano Segundo, as was his custom came back to sleep in the house during his daughter’s vacation and Fernanda must have done something to regain her privileges as his legitimate wife because the following year Meme found a newborn little sister who against the wishes of her mother had been baptized with the name Amaranta Úrsula.
Through her tears Amaranta Úrsula could see that he was one of those great Buendías, strong and willful like the José Arcadios, with the open and clairvoyant eyes of the Aurelianos, and predisposed to begin the race again from the beginning and cleanse it of its pernicious vices and solitary calling, for he was the only one in a century who had been engendered with love.
“He’s a real cannibal.” she said. “We’ll name him Rodrigo.”
“No,” her husband countered. “We’ll name him Aureliano and he’ll win thirty-two wars. ”
Another recurrence: general confusion about who’s related to whom. Arcadio and Aureliano Jose live in the same house as their fathers without knowing they’re their fathers, and Arcadio tries to sleep with Pilar Ternera because he has no idea she’s his mother. A lack of clarity about bloodlines becomes critical to what ends the bloodline when Fernanda refuses to tell anyone the truth about where Meme’s son Aureliano really came from. Had Amaranta Úrsula realized she was his blood aunt rather than his adopted sister, she might have been able to resist his advances, as Amaranta resisted those of her nephew Jose Aureliano, whom she was aware was her nephew. Though it should be noted that Amaranta Úrsula did put up a significant struggle:
Aureliano, smiled, picked her up by the waist with both hands like a pot of begonias, and dropped her on her back on the bed. With a brutal tug he pulled off her bathrobe before she had time to resist and he loomed over an abyss of newly washed nudity whose skin color, lines of fuzz, and hidden moles had all been imagined in the shadows of the other rooms. Amaranta Úrsula defended herself sincerely with the astuteness of a wise woman, weaseling her slippery, flexible, and fragrant weasel’s body as she tried to knee him in the kidneys and scorpion his face with her nails, but without either of them giving a gasp that might not have been taken for that breathing of a person watching the meager April sunset through the open window. It was a fierce fight, a battle to the death…
And Pilar Ternera, who’s actually a part of this family though no one has ever acknowledged it, encourages this act basically as the last thing she does before she, the last person to predate Macondo, finally dies.
Another recurrence that contributes to the feeling of time being circular is the use of the phrase that the novel opens with: “Many years later…”:
MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant after noon when his father took him to discover ice.
Many years later Colonel Aureliano Buendía crossed the region again, when it was already a regular mail route, and the only part of the ship he found was its burned-out frame in the midst of a field of poppies.
Many years later, when Macondo was a field of wooden houses with zinc roofs, the broken and dusty almond trees still stood on the oldest streets, although no one knew who had planted them.
Many years later there were those who still insisted that the royal guard of the intruding queen was a squad of regular army soldiers who were concealing government-issue rifles under their rich Moorish robes.
Many years later, when she began to f eel she was the equal of her great-grandmother, Fernanda doubted her childhood vision, but her mother scolded her disbelief.
Many years later that child would still tell, to the disbelief of all, that he had seen the lieutenant reading Decree No. 4 of the civil and military leader of the province through an old phonograph horn.
Many years later that child would still tell, in spite of people thinking that he was a crazy old man, how José Arcadio Segundo had lifted him over his he ad an d hauled him, almost in the air, as if floating on the terror of the crowd, toward a nearby street.
The groundbreaking magical realism in the novel functions largely on a symbolic level, like when it rains yellow flowers when José Arcadio Buendía dies, or when Colonel Aureliano is only three and seems to cause a pot of soup to spill without touching it:
The child, Perplexed, said from the doorway, “It’s going to spill.” The pot was firmly placed in the center of the table, but just as soon as the child made his announcement, it began an unmistakable movement toward the edge, as if impelled by some inner dynamism, and it fell and broke on the floor.
Once you know the whole story, the soup seems symbolic of the family itself: it seems like the most stable fixture in the town, but then turns out not to be, and Colonel Aureliano’s failure to defeat the Conservatives paves the way for the imperialist banana company to wreak its destruction, which is a significant turning point in the family’s destruction. The novel depicts forces that we generally perceive as harbingers of progress to actually be harbingers of the exact opposite, which is why Macondo ends up in the same place at the end that it was at the beginning, like the train.
But when they recovered from the noise of the whistles and the snorting, all the inhabitants ran out into the street and saw Aureliano Triste waving from the locomotive, and in a trance they s a w the flower-bedecked train which was arriving for the first time eight months late. The innocent yellow train that was to bring so many ambiguities and certainties, so many pleasant and unpleasant moments, so many changes, calamities, and feelings of nostalgia to Macondo.
It’s interesting that Amaranta Úrsula’s nickname for the last Aureliano is the “cannibal”; a person who eats other people seems symbolic of this bloodline that will destroy itself through incest, which is of course Úrsula’s concern from the very beginning of the line. The ants that end up eating the last member of the line are also people-eating, and it’s certainly notable foreshadowing that in the period of Amaranta Úrsula’s and Aureliano’s feverish incestuous fornication they slather themselves with jam before making love on the porch and wake up with the ants trying to eat them. But the incest aspect that eradicates the family could be inversely symbolic of the larger imperialist forces that contribute to their destruction–they don’t really just destroy themselves in a vacuum; they can’t be said to be solely responsible, though of course any imperialist looking at it from the outside would probably say that they had…in this way the symbolism comments more broadly on the imperialist narratives it dramatizes in the episode of the American-owned banana company killing 3000 people in a massacre that goes utterly acknowledged by the history books. The incest aspect of the novel is certainly ugly and discomfiting, in the obvious way that imperialism should be but frequently isn’t.