The Colombian society in Marquez’s ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ is a predominant character throughout the story; it is the alpha in the novel as it calls all the shots for the people who live in the town. The most distinctive role of society is that of creating labels. Labels are created through memories and actions that the society thinks ‘defines’ an individual. The tags are used interchangeably with names, which is how an individual is remembered. The smallness of the town ensures that no memory of a person is ever forgotten but only tainted further. Labels are dissected according to the society’s cultural beliefs. Labels reflect the gender expectations imposed by society as demonstrated by Angela Vicario and Bayardo San Roman. Labels mirror the status and role of women in society like that of the cook, the prostitute and the nuns. They also make us question who the ‘victim’ is.
Society is constructed out of a narrow-minded group of ‘traditional’ thinkers who take upon themselves the right to set the parameters of social behaviour, beliefs and norms. The labels that they create only aid in dividing the people further down into categories. Certain ‘cults’ for example the ‘cult of virginity, machismo and honour’ are predominant beliefs that help draw the line within which a certain group must act. The cults of machismo and virginity presuppose that women must abide by the conduct a man sees as fit, be as pure as a virgin offering herself for sacrifice on the night of her marriage to a man who thinks himself superior in all forms. The men are of ‘tough’ calibre, the ‘protectors’ and ‘saviours’ like the Vicario brothers who ‘restored’ their sisters “honour”. It is the irony of the fate of women that they are labelled as commodities: virgins and whores; low class and high class; fresh and stale.
The most prominent divide in society is that of the genders. Angela Vicario is one such “beautiful” entity that was ‘returned’ by Bayardo because she breaks out of the social norms by losing her virginity and her ‘honour’ (prevailing conflict and theme throughout the novel) to a man out of wedlock. ‘Returned’ suggests that she is flawed hence cannot be married to a macho man or accepted by society. The word ‘beautiful’ reflects society’s shallowness while judging women. No wonder the women are commoditized into epithets such as beautiful, virgins and pure, not unlike the virgin oil, the virgin forests and the virgin wool in the Latin American society. Bayardo San Roman, “the man who returned his bride”, was justified in his shameful behavior toward Angela as being a man he deserves a fresh and a virgin woman. Through the text translated by Rabassa there are undercurrents of the ironical tone adopted by Marquez when he insinuates that it is quintessential duty of a woman to keep her “treasure box” intact for her husband to enjoy himself of it! It is very ironical that a woman is judged by the label she wears, and she must make sacrifice her sexuality, her desires and her right to lead her life on an equal footing with man. One of the main concerns of Marquez behind writing this historical novel in a fictionalized version is to make the reader aware of the double standards prevailing in the Columbian culture.
As seen on most Latin American societies, the role of the Columbian women is centered on marriage and the ‘perfect’ bride; “the girls had been reared to get married”1. Reared links to domestication of animals, and ‘returned’ shows the categorization of women into “goods” for the convenience of the male dominated society. Matrimony has nothing to do with matchmaking of the heart but instead with ‘fortunes’, shown by Bayardo and Santiago Nasar. Angela hails from a family of “scant resources”7 whereas Bayardo “swims in gold”. Thus Angela has no choice but to marry him since status and survival in the town is more important than love as in the eyes of her mother, Purisima del Carmen “Love can be learnt.”9 The fortune and the social status of a man is what counts in this society. Under these circumstances, no doubt, Angela bears the tag “married forever”1. The word “forever” has a sense of foreboding; it gives a sense that the woman is trapped in the shackles of the society until her end. The honor code and the cult of virginity engulf the woman in such a vicious circle that even after Angela is deserted by Bayardo, she will have no suitor for her as she bears another label: deserted and forsaken. M Marquez draws the attention of the reader to the prevailing misconception in the society that the character of a woman is the true reflection of her inner self. The status of a woman is no different from “a butterfly with no will”10. The simile reflects her beauty as well as her fragility and defenselessness in society.
Marquez gives us an insight into this evil society through his art of characterization also. Each character bears a label in the society, and no wonder the label a woman bears is a reflection of her social standing. Placida Linero, for example, has a “well earned reputation as a dream interpreter”12, a fact suggesting that she was accepted and respected in society. Marquez repeatedly calls Victoria Guzman “the cook”6, and the woman who comes to ask for milk as “the milk beggar”11. Such labeling of characters shows Marquez’s journalistic style seeping in, wherein he simply states the fact. The “milk beggar” is just any milk beggar in society and is known as nothing more. This way the reader understands the role and position of the character without having to decipher it from in between tedious descriptions. The language and diction reflects society’s view of the characters.
The narrator who gleans his information through his various interviews with the townfolks labels Divina Flor as the “servant girl”. Santiago himself labeled as the “hawk” and sexual objectification of women. Against the status of her birthright, her physically appealing qualities are of greater concern to him. Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, the ‘prostitute’ is another example of a woman who gets her social standing from her sex appeal. It is ironic that despite being a prostitute in a Catholic dominant town she is more respected than any other woman ‘of class’ in society not only because her name echoes that of Mother Mary’s but also because she has an “apostolic lap.” Is she more sacred than those who follow the cult of virginity? Maybe yes! Her prerogative that she can act outside these boundaries is what makes her so special. Marquez highlights that since the men make up the society, they create the barriers and the labels in the society, in order to satiate their vast sexual appetite and enjoy their patriarchal roles.
Marquez dwells on the socio-cultural beliefs of the townfolks by elucidating the fate of the “sufferer” in the town. The people not only delight in their laxity but also in the sufferings of the victim. Whether it be Angela or Santiago, the townfolks resign them to their fates never once trying to judge their guilt or innocence. According to them a victim must suffer at the hands of the plaintiff. No one bothers to question whether Santiago was the one who took Angela’s virginity. All they know is that the woman must suffer as she rebelled against the virginity norms and the man because he violated her honor. However, Bayardo is exempted from this punishment as he is not found guilty of breaking any cult. He is neither an offender nor a violator, and no doubt the people sympathize with him. The only person who considers Santiago a victim is his best friend, the narrator. “For him, the victim’s very behavior during his last hours was overwhelming proof of his innocence”. But for others Santiago holds the label of the “perpetrator”, a notion that tarnishes his image forever.
Marquez follows a laconic style wherein with the use of adjectives of age and social class along with labels he ties the image of the character altogether. Women are further categorized according to age. Elderly women have differentiated adjectives as compared to the girls in their youth. Santiago’s mother, Placida Linero is described as “solitary”2, suggesting that even though she’s married she’s alone. Purisima del Carmen, Angela’s mother is described as ‘sacrificial’8 which can be linked to being married forever. Angela on the other hand is described as “the beautiful girl”3 while Divina Flor is described to be “coming into bloom”4 and “untamed”4. It is noteworthy that Angela being of a higher socio-class than Divina is described as graceful and attractive whereas the ‘servant girl’ is depicted as a sex object. The diction associated with each label and age reflects socio- cultural beliefs about women- younger women are coveted and sexually appealing but older and married women are portrayed as undesirable.
Marquez through the use of labels reflects society’s prejudiced cultural beliefs about women. They are objects that must bear labels such as old or young, desirable or undesirable and pure or corrupted. A woman leads her life trapped in a vicious circle imposed on her by men, and if she dares to give a voice to her identity and sexuality, she is indubitably going to be called “damaged goods.”