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Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a tale that marked a distinct shift in the writer’s career away from political activism and his socialist agenda and towards an acceptance that Colombian society may be more conservative than he had wished to acknowledge (Martin, 2012ii, p. 79). As such, it focuses on themes that are considered to be traditional, such as honour killing, and yet had the propensity to provoke significant outrage as a result of their controversial nature (Bell-Villada, 2010ii, p. 208). The narrative itself recounts the events leading up to the murder of Santiago Nasar, a man accused of taking the virginity of disgraced bride Angela Vicario despite a distinct lack of evidence to reinforce the claim, and the reactions of those who knew about the plans to sacrifice him for the sake of honour. It is a highly complex novel that is multifaceted and incorporates a range of literary techniques, all of which are designed to encourage the reader to determine who is to blame for Nasar’s death.
This essay will address the question of blame for Nasar’s death by examining the use of a wide variety of stylistic, aesthetic and narrative techniques in depth, including the use of foreshadowing, the use of a narrator and the inclusion of thematic concerns like violence, guilt and religion. This will be done with a view to concluding that society as a whole can be held accountable for the death of Santiago Nasar. Although he is murdered at the hands of the twins and it is therefore their actions that ultimately kill him, it can be argued that they would not have murdered him had the conventions, attitudes and double standards that are manifested within society not been conducive to creating the circumstances that not only justified such murderous action but ultimately absolved the perpetrators of it.
Foreshadowing and Foreboding
Marquez’s novel contains numerous elements that are important in any examination designed to discover who is ultimately to blame for the death that is mentioned in the title, but the author’s use of foreshadowing and creation of a foreboding atmosphere from the outset of the novel are two of the most pertinent. Indeed, there are many elements that are identifiable within Marquez’s text that foreshadow the murder of Santiago Nasar, including the fact that the very first sentence actually informs the reader of the seminal event within the novel:
On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.
(Marquez, 2003, p. 3)
This is conducive to establishing a sense of foreboding from the opening chapter, which subsequently creates an atmosphere that is palpable to the reader from the outset. It also creates a sense of impotence (Martin, 2012i, p. 479), pointing to his death as inevitable and informing the reader of the conclusion of events prior to recounting the facts. Although the reader is made aware of the outcome of the narrative and is therefore aware that the main protagonist will die, Marquez successfully builds suspense via language that supplements this. For example, he uses the term “sacrifice” several times, juxtaposing it in the context of caring for loved ones (Marquez, 2003, p. 31) against the idea of death being sacrificial (Marquez, 2003, p. 52). This helps to project an ominous tone that is mirrored by other elements of the text. Although this does not tell the reader directly who is to blame for Nasar’s death, it does go some way to indicating rituals and attitudes within society, thus projecting a sense of collective responsibility.
Throughout the novel, Marquez draws upon symbolism that can be interpreted as foreshadowing Nasar’s death. For example, the cooking rabbits that Victoria Guzman is preparing are referred to repeatedly thoughout the text: “She had been quartering three rabbits for lunch, surrounding by panting dogs” (Marquez, 2003, p. 9); “... without taking his eyes off the two women who were disembowelling the rabbits on the stove” (Marquez, 2003, p. 9); “But she couldn’t avoid a wave of fright as she remembered Santiago Nasar’s horror when she pulled out the insiders of a rabbit by the roots and threw the steaming guts to the dogs” (Marquez, 2003, p. 10). Each of these three instances foreshadow what is to happen to Nasar, both literally and figuratively, as he is essentially disembowelled by Pablo Vicario – “a horizontal slash on the stomach, and all his intestines exploded out” (Marquez, 2003, p. 119) – and the panting dogs provide an apt metaphor for the townspeople who stand and watch him meet his fate. In this respect, foreshadowing once again points to a collective responsibility for what happens to Nasar. The physical violence presented here is individual in nature but the idea that there is a crowd baying for blood adds further credibility to the idea that society as a whole is to blame.
The front door is also a prominent symbol, remaining shut and barred throughout the novel, thus symbolically refusing Nasar any form of sanctuary from his murderers and providing an apt metaphor for the townspeople’s refusal to prevent the murder (Pelayo, 2001, p. 133). There is a distinct irony in the fact that Placida Linero bolts the front door of her house to protect her son, believing him to be inside but instead locking him out just seconds before the attack that precipitates his death. Pelayo (2001, p. 133) draws attention to the fact that this, along with the physical blows to his hands, feet and sides that leave him with stigmata, mimics the crucifixion of Jesus and parallel the need for sacrifice for the good of the community (Kong, 2009, p. 112). However, this particular example of foreshadowing singles out individuals for blame. Placida locked the door that would have given Nasar sanctuary with the Vicario twins inflicting the blows that killed him. Although a certain amount of blame can be placed on individuals as a result, it is the circumstances, rather than one single act, that bring about his death.
There is undoubtedly an apocalyptic atmosphere engineered by Marquez that revolves around Nasar’s mortality but, according to Zamora (1985, p. 104), there is a greater significance to be attached to his death: “If the individual’s relation to the beginning and the end of time becomes more difficult to imagine as the former recedes and the latter fails to present itself, it is precisely the myth of apocalypse that provides for Garcia Marquez a temporal pattern of initiation and conclusion.” Although death may be perceived as inevitable (Zamora, 2007, p. 184), this particular quote attaches importance to Nasar’s demise as an individual experience that directly reflects on the wider context of his existence. In effect, the death of an individual has a social and political dimension that should not be overlooked. By extension, the implication is that blame cannot be placed on the individual but the wider circumstances.
Marquez’s Journalistic Style
Marquez’s literary style has been well documented by critics and academics alike as it does not adopt a typical, linear storytelling narrative aesthetic. Instead, it exhibits a journalistic aesthetic within Chronicle of a Death Foretold that mirrors Marquez’s foray into the world of journalism during the early 1980s (Rabassa, 1982, p. 48). It is actually an apt style to use given the subject matter of the novel and its labelling as a chronicle because of the notion that it mimics the “...primitive method of recording events and people and passing them on into history” (Rabassa, 1982, p. 48). Indeed, Gonzales’s (1993, p. 114) assessment of the novel suggests that it does just that, utilising journalistic rhetoric and the process of journalistic investigation in order to uncover the reasons behind the murder more than the perpetrators, as the identity of the murderers is already known. According to Gonzales, there is a concerted attempt to assess the collective responsibility of the townspeople’s complicity in the murder (Sangari, 1987, p. 157) via examination of “...the innumerable inconsistencies, lapses of memory and outright falsehoods...” (Gonzalez, 1993, p. 114). Indeed, the revision of memory (Boldy, 2010, p. 87) and the effects of time on it (Pope, 1987, p. 185) are major obstacles that the journalistic style is able to tackle throughout the novel. For example, Marquez (2003, p. 3) continually stresses that those recounting events are recalling them retrospectively, thus casting doubt over accuracy and forcing the reader to ask questions about the level of bias inherent in each tale, specifically why there is a need to revise versions of what happened if the parties in question do not bear any responsibility for Nasar’s death.
There are passages within the novel that do cast a measure of doubt over the resolution of Nasar’s death. Although it does appear that the events of the day have been resolved in the concluding chapters, there is an element of uncertainty that undermines its ability to achieve closure:
The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and mission assigned to us by fate.
(Marquez, 2003, p. 96)
Although the journalistic style that Marquez has employed is incredibly effective in conveying events to the reader in an authoritative and credible way, it does not remove all subjective value from the way in which it is conveyed, as is evident within the quote. There is no overriding objectivity because the narrator lived through events and experienced them as a part of the community. Indeed, the community is of great importance within the quote here. This passage of the novel clearly identifies a need to investigate and uncover the facts of what happened the day Santiago Nasar died but it also betrays a need on the part of the townsfolk to absolve themselves of blame. If the events were to be considered a “mission” that was determined by “fate” (Marquez, 2003, p. 96) then the implication is that everything that happened was purposeful and nothing that occurred on that day could have been avoided. As such, a predestined path would provide comfort for the townsfolk, although it was obviously too late for Nasar. Overall, though, this perspective of events with the emphasis on fate does suggest that Marquez consciously avoids placing blame on individuals or collective groups within the novel despite the writing style adopted, thus placing the power to determine who was at fault in the hands of the reader.
As alluded to in the previous paragraph, Marquez has used a narrator to provide a firsthand account of events as they occurred on the day Nasar died. The use of a narrator by Marquez is of particular importance within the novel because it provides the text with authority. The tale is recounted from a distance of twenty seven years, which allows the narrator to adopt an omniscient quality that provides the reader with a sense of closure upon reaching the end of the novel. However, the narrator’s authority is also able to imbue Nasar’s life and death with meaning (Zamora, 1997, p. 64) by encouraging the reader to “reconstruct the motives of the murder” and seek “interpretation of his narrative technique” (Christie, 1993, p. 21). However, it is necessary to examine the wider themes of the novel in order to do so. Although the presence of the narrator actively guides the reader, it is the content of the narrative that allows for the apportioning of blame to the greatest possible extent.
Prevalent Thematic Concerns
Violence and killing are two major thematic concerns that are repeatedly referred to throughout Marquez’s narrative. The townspeople have a “blind notion of family duty” (Camayd-Freixas, 2000, p. 116), which is manifest in their acceptance of the need for honour killings in order to restore the status quo where necessary. Marquez points to the fact that everyone knew of the crime prior to it being carried out and, by drawing upon his knowledge of society as a result of an actual honour killing in 1951 (Bell-Villada, 2010i, p. 18), is able to convey the code of silence that actively led to Nasar being the last one to discover the plot. This suggests that the community as a whole was complicit in the murder to some extent whilst justifying the killing in other ways:
Fate chose him as the victim for a communal, sacrificial rite... Because of the reader’s fascination, like that of the murderers, with the prophecy’s power and the code’s obligations, the inescapable nature of Nasar’s death appears to be obvious (Ortega, 2014, p. 79).
This observation identifies Nasar’s death as little more than an inevitable event that stems directly from the nature of society, its conventions and its code of behaviour. In effect, and despite the fact that Nasar has not been proven guilty of any wrongdoing, his life is sacrificed to restore the honour of the community as much as the family in the wake of Angela’s return to the village in disgrace. In this respect, the value of honour is placed above that of human life, with love providing a motif to unite society without actually providing it with any form of spiritual salvation (Hahn, 1992, pp. 72-73).
This particular theme also underscores the gender divide within the community, noting the differences between men and women. This is true of both gender roles and expectations. For example, the Vicario sisters are expected to embody a virtuousness and purity that is in keeping with conservative values (Coale, 2000, p. 30; Olivares, 1987, p. 483). The veil she puts on for the wedding is perceived to be an act of courage by the mother of the narrator because it suggests to society that Angela was pure and untainted, which was essentially a lie:
...the fact that Angela Vicario dared put on the veil and the orange blossoms without being a virgin would be interpreted afterwards as a profanation of the symbols of purity. My mother was the only one who appreciated as an act of courage the fact that she had played out her marked cards to the final consequences.
(Marquez, 2003, p. 41)
In stark contrast to the sisters, the men are subject to a form of machismo, which “...can be observed as a form of emphasis on male pride and on characters’ sexual behaviour... The societal code is perhaps the justification for the bordello in town. It is male behaviour to frequent this place, where women can be used as objects of desire” (Pelayo, 2001, p. 124). Indeed, this is evident in Marquez’s description of Santiago Nasar in numerous sections of the novel. For example, “...he was a sparrow hawk. He went about alone, just like his father, nipping the bud of any wayward virgin who began showing up in those woods...” (Marquez, 2003, p. 90). This matter of fact statement holds no judgement at all but instead follows this journalistic style that Marquez utilises throughout the novel, but the fact that such behaviour is deemed acceptable from generation to generation suggests that there is a very real gender divide in terms of expectations and behaviours, especially as society is “ruled by men for men’s needs” (Pelayo, 2001, p. 125). Furthermore, this raises questions of how far society condones such behaviour and therefore whether in fact the double standards that are evident in terms of attitudes to purity and sexuality can be blamed for the death of Santiago Nasar. After all, if Nasar had deflowered Angela, which it is abundantly apparent was not the case, then he would simply have been behaving within society’s expectations whereas Angela would not have been. This particular theme therefore provides further evidence that society as a whole should accept a degree of blame for Nasar’s murder.
In conclusion, the analysis presented here has identified significant evidence presented by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that it is highly possible to place blame on society for the murder of Santiago Nasar, thus promoting a collective guilt for the loss of life based upon little more than a need to restore the status quo of the community and the honour of a family. There can be little doubt that the concept of honour is prevalent in the societal discourse within the town and is visible within the actions of individuals from the very outset. Indeed, the evidence presented within the analysis here demonstrates that it underpins the foundation of society as a whole and therefore must be considered as a major factor in the death of Nasar. This is especially true given that, despite the guilt over the murder that manifests itself in both society and the consciousness of the twins in the years following the murder, it appears that very little has changed. The absolution received by the twins from the political and social institutions within the town certainly point to a fundamentally flawed society that will continue to be so, with the loss of a single individual being unable to change the thought processes and rituals within the area. As such, despite the fact that Marquez himself is reluctant to place blame on individuals or the town as a whole, the reader is steered towards forming the conclusion that society as a whole should accept the majority of the blame for the murder of Nasar. This is why it is possible to conclude that the thesis determined at the outset of the essay has been proven, specifically that the twins must bear the blame for committing murder but they would not have done so had they not been bound by the conventions, attitudes and double standards in society. It is those conventions and attitudes that place honour above all else, greater even than the importance of human life.
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