Chronicle of a Death Foretold | Study Guide

Gabriel García Márquez

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Chronicle of a Death Foretold | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

On the day he's murdered, Santiago Nasar gets up early, dresses in crisp, clean white clothes, and goes out to see the bishop, who will be stopping at the small, out-of-the-way town in which he and the other characters in the book live. Santiago is a "merry and peaceful ... and openhearted" young man of 21. Although he's of Arabic descent, he seems to be a Christian because he is so enthusiastic about seeing the bishop, even though Santiago's mother, Plácida Linero, states that the bishop "hates this town." Divina Flor, the daughter of the Nasars' cook, Victoria Guzmán, is "disemboweling the rabbits" when Santiago comes into the kitchen, and he's upset at the carnage. There had been a wedding celebration the night before, which Santiago had celebrated in the company of the narrator, but Santiago is still up and out of the house by 5:30 a.m. Curiously, Santiago does not leave the house via the most often used back door but goes out through the front door, which is almost always barred from the inside. He rushes to the dock by the stinking river, which had once been the lifeblood of the town, to wait for the bishop.

The narrator is a journalist who returns to his home town to try to figure out what happened when Santiago was murdered 27 years earlier. He questions Victoria Guzmán, but she says that neither she nor Divina knew that two men were waiting to kill Santiago. That is why she didn't warn him, though Divina says her mother actually wanted the men to kill Santiago. However, some unidentified person had shoved a warning letter under the door of the Santiago residence. Alas, no one noticed the written warning until it was too late.

On the day of the murder the two killers, Pedro Vicario and Pablo Vicario, are waiting for Santiago in a milk shop across the street. The shop has a view of the Nasar house's back door, where the twins assume they'll see Santiago leaving. The two murderers have been waiting since the end of the wedding party in the wee hours of the morning, and each sleeps with a butcher knife clutched to his chest. The killers are brothers who will commit the murder to avenge the honor of their sister, Angela Vicario. She has told them she had sex with Santiago and has thus been dishonored. Like almost everyone in town, the brothers are drunk from the previous night's revels.

The bishop arrives by boat but refrains from stepping off it and onto town land. He "make[s] the sign of the cross ... mechanically" from the boat and then departs. Santiago feels cheated but quickly regains his sunny mood. The narrator's sister, Margot, is with Santiago at the dock, and she invites him to come to her house for breakfast. Santiago agrees but says first he must change his clothes, so he hurries home, telling her he'll be there in 15 minutes. The narrator states that "many of those who were on the docks knew that [the brothers] were going to kill Santiago." The mayor, Don Lázaro Aponte, insists he didn't think Santiago was in any danger. The town priest, Father Carmen Amador, feels the same way. The narrator is surprised further when his mother tells him she didn't even know about the planned murder, even though she always seems to know everything that's going on in town. When she learns about the plot, she goes straight to her friend Plácida to warn her that her son is in danger. On the way to Plácida Linero's house, a man stops her in the street to tell her not to bother going because "they've already killed him."

Analysis

The novella opens with a quote from Portuguese playwright Gil Vicente (c. 1465–c. 1537): "the pursuit of love is like falconry." Here, finding love is represented as a form of predation in which the raptor, or the seeker of love, snares a love object almost at random and then kills it. Finding love is likened to a blood sport in which the beloved is a victim of inevitable violence. The quote sets the stage for the fury and violence that love engenders in the novella. It is also likely a critique of the cultural norm of vengeance killing, a custom that must be taught to the men who carry it out, perhaps in the same way captive falcons are trained to hunt on the wing.

Santiago's dreams contain the symbols of trees and birds. The trees in his dream make Santiago feel happy, but when he awakes, he feels as if he's "completely spattered with bird shit." The birds he senses upon awakening, which may have been in his dream, dispel his happiness and may therefore be omens of evil to come. Later his mother tells the narrator she believes that "any dream about birds means good health," a good rather than an evil omen. In an earlier dream of trees, Santiago was flying through a woodland "without bumping into anything." This image of flying through trees may represent Santiago's sense of freedom, but it also may foreshadow his future as a potential victim of a hunting falcon (murderers). Neither Santiago nor his mother recognizes the symbol of trees as an omen or portent of Santiago's fate.

The narrator expresses his frustration, all these years later, at "trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards." The fickleness of memory arises when the townspeople cannot even agree on the state of the weather on the day Santiago was murdered. This is the first of innumerable contradictions arising from witnesses' faulty memories.

Both chance and choice seal Santiago's fate. Had the bishop not, by chance, visited the town on this particular day, Santiago would have been dressed for ranch work, and he would have carried a gun. Critic Isabel Rodriguez Vergara underscores that "the bishop's visit thus changes not only the order of things in the town, but also Santiago's routine, which makes his murder possible." As it is, Santiago chooses to wear special attire and to go unarmed to greet the bishop. Crucially, it is by chance that no one in the Santiago household notices the warning note that had been pushed under their door. This accidental oversight further ensures that the "foretold" murder will take place. Others also make fatal choices. Victoria Guzmán hears of the Vicario twins' murderous plan, but she chooses not to "warn him because [she] thought it was drunkards' talk." Her choice, based on an unfounded assumption, costs Santiago his life. Santiago's own choice seals his fate when he decides to go home to change his clothes rather than follow Margot to her house for breakfast.

Both Victoria Guzmán and Divina Flor are complicit in the murder. They know it will happen but don't take the warning seriously enough to do anything about it. Clotilde Armenta, too, is complicit in the killing. The Vicario brothers wait for Santiago in her milk shop, but instead of firmly stopping them from carrying out vengeance, she simply asks them to "leave him for later" after the bishop has gone. It's stated that everyone "on the docks knew that they were going to kill Santiago." Still, not one of them does anything to prevent the murder. For this reason, nearly the entire populace of the town is complicit in the horrific crime. When the mayor is later interviewed by the narrator, he says he "believe[d] [Santiago] wasn't in any danger," a belief not based on fact. The priest, Father Amador, also isn't worried, thinking the talk of murder "had all been a fib." Even the narrator's mother, who supposedly has supernatural "powers of divination," says she was unaware of the danger Santiago was in. She may not be complicit in the murder because when she does hear of it, she immediately goes to warn Santiago's mother. As chance would have it, however, Santiago is already dead.

The servants at Santiago's house introduce the theme of violence as they sit in the kitchen "disemboweling the rabbits." Santiago is sickened by the violence implied in the dismembering of innocent animals. The violence of butchery is associated with Santiago's murder when Victoria Guzmán brandishes before him the bloody butcher knife used to slaughter the rabbits. The knife foreshadows the butcher knives the Vicario brothers will use later to slaughter Santiago.

That the Vicario brothers are universally viewed as "good sorts" emphasizes how customary or routine honor killing is in their culture. They are described as ordinary, nice men, but it is a cultural custom that even nice men are expected to carry out vengeance when a female relative is believed to have been violated. Honor killing is customary and normal. Thus when Bayardo San Román returns his bride to her home because she's not a virgin, there seems to be no question that her brothers will avenge her honor with murder.

Gender roles are revealed in Santiago's words to Divina Flor, which make clear men's notion that women are theirs to tame. Divina Flor even accuses Santiago of molesting her but relates these experiences resignedly or as if it's his right. Victoria Guzmán's youthful experience of being forced to become Ibrahim Nasar's mistress reinforces the power of men and the powerlessness of women in this culture, yet she accepts her gender role as her fate.

Santiago's mother reveals what the bishop represents to the town and his contempt for it. She says, "He'll give an obligatory blessing [but] he hates this town." She discerns the bishop's feelings correctly as he blesses the town "mechanically" and never leaves the boat. The implication is he thinks the town sinful and beyond redemption and will not sully himself through contact with it or its inhabitants. The subsequent murder seems to justify his judgment.

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