The Disappearance of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour
Before setting out once again on my discussion of “Love in the Time of Cholera,” I should probably issue, belatedly, a spoiler alert. Beware!
“Love in the Time of Cholera” begins with Dr. Urbino going to the house of his old friend Jeremiah de Saint Amour, who has poisoned himself and left Dr. Urbino an eleven-page letter. The letter contains shocking revelations and directs Dr. Urbino to go to a particular house in the city. There he is greeted by a woman he recognizes as Jeremiah’s lover. She is not named in the text, but does greet Dr. Urbino by saying “This is your house, Doctor.” He talks with her, about the suicide and about the letter but is ultimately repelled by the woman who says she refuses to mourn Jeremiah in traditional ways, that she will destroy his possessions and try to go on with her life.
This passage occurs on page twenty-three of the Modern Library edition. After this, there is no further mention of the woman, or the letter. No explanation of why the woman says the house is his. Jeremiah reappears on page three-hundred-thirty-three, when Florentino hears tolling bells and is reminded he’s supposed to go to Jeremiah’s funeral—the bells are actually for Dr. Urbino.
What is going on? Isn’t it a bit strange to describe these events in great detail, to introduce a secret—and then abandon both? One might expect that later on in the chronicle, an explanation would surface, that Jeremiah’s confession would be revealed.
I think the concept of mirroring may help us in our quest for understanding. I’ll go further—I believe what we have here may be referred to as a mise en abyme (literally, placement into the abyss)—the technique of inserting a story within a story. It’s not the only one in “Cholera,” but it does have primacy of place.
My opinion—Jeremiah’s lover’s reaction to his death, her apparent lack of caring is a mirror for Fermina Daza’s reaction to Dr. Urbino’s death. More than that, Jeremiah’s having a secret life is a double for Dr. Urbino himself—the measured doctor and man whose secrets are gradually revealed. His liaison with Miss Barbara Lynch, for instance. Ultimately, on page three-ninety-six, Fermina Daza visits her husband’s grave the day before she embarks on her journey with Florentino. “…she made peace with her dead husband in a monologue in which she freely recounted all the just recriminations she had choked back. Then she told him the details of the trip and said goodbye for now.”
The term mise en abime originally referred to a technique in heraldry, where a smaller version of an emblem was placed in the center of a larger one.
What does this mini-tale of Jeremiah’s death and his lover’s reaction accomplish?
It presents two important ideas (two at least) that mirror or foreshadow later events.
1. People you think you know well—Jeremiah to Dr. Urbino—may have shocking secrets.
2. A woman—even if she loves her husband, may experience widowhood as a liberation.
These are both key ideas in the broader story; the tale of Jeremiah’s death foreshadows the tale of Dr. Urbino’s death and his widow’s reaction. We learn within the first fifty pages that Fermina will be a widow, that the Doctor dies after the unfortunate encounter with the parrot—without the story of Jeremiah, we might tend to assume that Fermina would go into reclusive mourning and maintain a steely disdain for Florentino.
And she does not. No, she does not.