The Emblem of Blood and Honor
Words possess the mystical ability to convey universal ideas and themes of humankind, a fascinating phenomenon in literature that has intrigued readers for centuries. When the author puts down his pen and the last word has been written, the words seem to transform and interact with each other to create a nonpareil masterpiece encompassing far more philosophical values than its creator had perhaps initially intended. The philosophical elements that transcend the social commentary, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are unconsciously interweaved into the novel through Marquez’s depiction of characters, events, and most essentially, symbolism. Marquez uses modernistic and unconventional symbols to present to readers multifaceted themes and infinite possibilities of interpretation. The symbols of Maria Cervantes from the brothel and blood are both paramount in bringing to light the prominent distinction between gender roles, deep-rooted beliefs of Latin American society.
Marquez’s depiction of Maria Cervantes’s brothel as an utopia is integral in understanding their community’s perspective on the role of women. Traditionally, the belief of marianismo encouraged females in Spanish society to embrace their moral and spiritual strength, which was considered superior to that of men. However, this emulation of the Virgin Mary seems to be inimitable—Angela Vicario had lost her virginity before marriage, along with her other friends. Angela had proven her moral incompetence when she had capitulated to the masculinity of her ‘perpetrator’, granting him total submission. Her refusal to feign virginity by staining the conjugal bed sheets portrays her self-sacrifice for the man who had deflowered her. No trace of moral or spiritual strength is found in Angela’s character, as she failed in leading a life of purity and marital faithfulness. Ironically, it is Maria Cervantes, a lowly prostitute of the brothel, who is depicted in the light as the true Virgin Mary. Apart from carrying the name, which directly correlates to the divinity of the Bible, it is she who debunks the entire concept of marianismo. The liberty of her soul to live above the conventional social standards of women places her in a venerated position in the eyes of all men. In the case of Maria Cervantes, it is not she who loses her moral strength; she does not capitulate to the temptations of sex. Ironically, the lust is reversed. The men are in total submission to Maria’s sexualized body, “she was [the narrator’s] mad passion, his mistress of tears at the age of fifteen…” Maria’s existence is further glorified as she frankly accepts her status as a prostitute, without a hint of shame. As it was Maria who did away with their generation’s virginity, she becomes an exception from the rigid social conventions for women and thus retains her moral and spiritual strength.
Through the sensual ambience of the brothel, the distinct line drawn between spirituality and physical potency is blurred surrealistically. The association of the female with the tangible and the male with the spiritual, which dates back to the times of Aristotle, is discredited thoroughly by the divination of the brothel. By portraying Maria’s whorehouse as nirvana, it substitutes the Church and assumes the role as the town’s communal gathering—the place to replenish the soul. Maria, serving as the figurehead of the brothel, connects tangibility with the metaphysical, teaching men “there’s no place in life sadder than an empty bed.” Although prostitution is often denigrated as a licentious sin solely for corporeal gratification, Marquez depicts that the spiritual satisfactions obtained from sex are tantamount to the physical. The symbolism of Maria, and of the brothel itself, is a nonconformist insurrection against established beliefs of female inferiority and abolishes the rigid associations of spirituality with gender.
The symbolism of blood not only darkens the tone of the novel, but also is essential in depicting the fatal consequences of blindly following outdated values of honor. The connection of gender with reputation, blood, and honor is vital to the structure of traditional Latin American society. Apart from the fact that women are closely associated with tangibility and men with the soul, another distinction separates the two sexes—blood and name—with blood being attributed to feminine purity, and reputation to masculine integrity. As author Georgina Dopico Black once wrote in Perfect Wives: Other Women, “male honor is radically dependent on female chastity…honor, then, as the site, localizable in the wife’s body, through which the husband’s subjectivity is vulnerable to the wife’s will”. Thus, the female body is sexualized and directly interconnected with the honor and integrity of her male counterpart; any defacement of purity in the woman’s blood will consequentially deface the reputation of the men in the family. Any deviation from chastity and honorable marriage within the bloodline becomes a denigrating weapon used against that family, and the blood of the perpetrator must be sacrificially shed to restore the purity of the woman’s blood. Angela’s stark, untainted matrimonial bed sheets revealed her infidelity, and the absence of this symbolic blood entailed a ritualistic, masculine bloodshed. The purity of the blood of women holds the utmost importance because female blood was considered internal, symbolizing purity of the bloodstream, generation, and their vivacious power of producing life. In the eyes of men, if female purity is vandalized, it scars the generations to come, and shame would be eternally engraved in the familial bloodstream. The pursuit of these traditional ideals, distorted by the passage of time and advancement of civilization, leads to fatal ramifications. Santiago is stabbed to death; his entrails are slaughtered ruthlessly, like a sacrificial animal. With this sanguine darkness overshadowing the ongoing revelries of the wedding night, the somber conviction that manslaughter justifies adultery accentuates the distinction between male and female roles in Latin American society—it is masculine responsibility to restore reputation and name.
Although blood predominately symbolizes masculine violence and murder, Marquez manipulates the symbolism of blood in a surreal way so that this second representation of blood functions as a contradiction to itself. Blood simultaneously symbolizes both the grotesque and the beautiful, as the corpse of Santiago becomes united with the tranquility of nature and the blood from his wounds “began to flow like a syrup colored liquid…a purple blotch appeared on the upper lip and spread out very slowly, like the shadow of a cloud on water, up to the hairline.” The imagery of water vindicates Santiago and returns him his honor, as the pure waters cleanse his impurities. His life began and ended in the sky. Above water and in the clouds, his life was both fleeting and nebulous, mirroring his death—Unwarranted and mysterious. While the first symbolism of blood outlines the values of honor and the roles of each gender in Latin American culture, the second symbolism of blood carries a tone of melancholy and seems to be Marquez’s personal argument that outdated ideals have been distorted beyond reason. By uniting Santiago’s bleeding corpse with the majestic trance of the natural world, Marquez cynically hints that all masculine bloodshed and societal conflicts are misguided, for humankind withstands nothing against the profundity of nature. Sex, violence, and alcohol are all the products of humankind, a society with predominant male values. Moreover, the comparison of violent death to the calm of the sea endorses a feminine touch to the murder, further blurring the lines between male and female bloodshed. With the depiction of Santiago’s blood spreading throughout his body and “his hairline”, it symbolically effaces the clear distinction between man and woman. The symbolism of blood serves a double-purpose, highlighting the societal values on honor and also casting a skeptical shadow on humankind’s blind pursuit of those outmoded values.
The utopian brothel and the symbolism blood in the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold convene to elucidate the conventional values of gender roles in Latin American society. Marquez’s use of unusual symbols transform the crudeness of violence and sex into a multifaceted social commentary, which explores social implications such as the relationship between woman and man, tangibility and spirituality, body and soul. Undoubtedly, these juxtapositions are adeptly employed to portray an unlimited amount of interpretations. It is a novel to be studied for its balance of grotesque and beautiful imagery, for its explorations of human nature, and most importantly, for its unconventional symbols, which paint the various social phenomena found in our world today.
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