I wrote the essay adapted below for my World Literature class at Grove City College. It is a character analysis of Melquíades, a gypsy from the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The book follows the trajectory of the Buendías, a family who founded the town of Macondo. We see the town change as it begins to be influenced by the outside world after being isolated for so long. The story is very bizarre with a wildly different cast of characters. A summary does not do it justice; it must be read to be understood.
Warning! Spoilers below!
In One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, the first appearance of the gypsy Melquíades in Macondo is as a seller of magnets. The introduction of Melquíades alongside the magnets seems significant, since from that point on the Buendías were drawn to him, as if pulled by the strings of fate. The magnetism of that initial contact was mutual, and from that moment on, the old gypsy became intimately involved in the lives of the Buendías, ultimately chronicling their genealogy and history from the conception of Macondo until the elimination of the Buendías from the earth. Melquíades is described as a “heavy gypsy, with an untamed beard and sparrow hands,” a seemingly unlikely vessel for such prophetic pronouncements. Yet Marquez delights in the unlikely, and Melquíades is far more than a mere gypsy. Within the text, it becomes evident that Melquíades is a paradoxical figure; a charonic guide to the Buendías’ imminent destruction, a guardian of the family’s more virtuous traits, a deliverer of justice, and a prophet of doom.
Melquíades is above all a character of tension between opposites, as his multifaceted and frequently clashing roles suggest. Marquez uses bizarre images, such as false teeth left in a glass and sprouting vegetation, to consistently identify the gypsy with both death and life. False teeth are a sign of decay, and their abandonment suggests death, while plant growth itself is frequently a symbol of rebirth. The juxtaposition of images of death and life serve as reminders of Melquíades’ eternal connection to the Buendías, which endures while he is alive and even after his death. The gypsy is a frequent presence within the Buendía household, journeying with the family on their path to eventual destruction. Thus, Melquíades is depicted as a charonic guide—the gypsy equivalent of the ferryman for the dead, Charon, who retains the almost comedic insistence on proper payment that the peddling gypsies seem to share, but whose primary role is to passively guide the dead to their fateful destination.
Fittingly, the novel begins with transactions between the gypsy and the Buendías, paralleling the toll paid to Charon in Greek mythology. As a charonic guide, Melquíades is a personification of both immortality and death. In the stories Melquíades tells in Macondo, for example, the gypsy laments that “death follow[s] him everywhere,” and yet claims that it “never decid[es] to give him the final clutch of its claws” (5). Though Melquíades is frequently spared from death, death is nonetheless an inescapable part of his life, which attributes to the paradox of his character, and his identification as a charonic figure. The hat that he wears is described as looking like a raven or crow, two birds that often symbolize death. This also hints that Melquíades is in some way a harbinger of death. Additionally, when the gypsy returns after a long disappearance to visit Macondo, he recognizes immediately that the absentmindedness of José Arcadio Buendía is unnatural, as “cruel and irrevocable” as the “forgetfulness of death” (48). After this episode, Marquez reveals that the gypsy equates solitude with death, which is particularly evident when Melquíades recalls leaving the abode of the dead out of loneliness. Despite this conviction, the gypsy takes definitive steps that cause the Buendía family to isolate themselves from their family and community (49).
By leading the Buendías into isolation, Melquíades is sending them on the road to the eventual destruction of the entire family line. One way that he does this is by encouraging the Buendías to engage in certain isolating activities, especially those members who were previously inclined to actively working in the community, such as José Arcadio Buendía and José Arcadio Segundo. When José Arcadio Buendía withdrew from his family and the larger community by pursuing his scientific and alchemical interests, Melquíades provided him with a lab to do his work and sold him the tools he needed to continue on that path. Another instance of nurtured solitude occurred after Melquíades’ death. José Arcadio Segundo was struggling with the trauma of the massacre he witnessed, and became absorbed in Melquíades’ texts, closeting himself in the gypsy’s old room with the ghost of Melquíades for his only company. In both situations, Melquíades’ presence continually nudges the family to its eventual ruin.
Despite the destructive nature of Melquíades, which drives him to divide the Buendía family and promote solitude within its members, the gypsy also has a more constructive role as the family’s eternal guardian. As their benefactor, he attempts to drive them away from the evil deeds that merited the punishment of solitude; namely, incest and murder. The first example in the text where is apparent is when Melquíades acts to deter José Arcadio Buendía from making weapons for solar warfare (3). Even though he fails to prevent José Arcadio from pursuing this aim, the episode demonstrates an attempt to steer the family patriarch away from choices that might make him culpable of more deaths. Another instance, one in which improper sexual behavior could have occurred, was when Remedios wandered into the laboratory where Aureliano was working. Aureliano, overcome by desire for Remedios, “hated” Melquíades merely for being present; as a result, “all he could do” was offer a gift to the little girl (65). Despite Melquíades’ passivity, the gypsy put a check on any sexual impulse Aureliano otherwise could have gratified.
Melquíades also adopts the roles of prophet and judge, which are in some ways complementary, but are often contradictory in practice. They are complementary because, as a prophet, he is aware that the Buendías are condemned to eventual destruction after one hundred years of solitude, and as a judge he enforces that sentence. For instance, when members of the Buendía family were attracted to Melquíades’ room and absorbed in the task of interpreting his manuscripts, judgment and prophesy converged. The task isolated various members from the family as they attempted to decipher the prophetic books, and the translation of the manuscripts was a condition of the prophesy itself. On occasion, however, Melquíades’ judgments upon the Buendía family show a degree of care that would be difficult to maintain alongside his prophesies, which affirm that no matter how he intervenes in their lives, it will not change their fate. For example, he chooses to show himself to Arcadio, who eventually becomes a tyrant in Macondo. Even though he knows Arcadio’s future, he understands that Arcadio is innocent as a child and treats him accordingly.
A notable instance when the gypsy undertakes his role as judge is when a member of the Buendía family, José Arcadio Segundo, acted nobly. After becoming involved in union activities and witnessing a massacre during which he rescued a young boy, José Arcadio Segundo returns to Macondo. No one believes his story, but he is soon tracked down by the police. When the police search for him in Melquíades room, they cannot find him, even when they look directly at him. Since Melquíades continually influences the appearance of his old room and appears only to certain people, it is reasonable to assume that he could choose how the room would appear to an outsider. Just like Colonel Aureliano, the officer saw the room merely as a dusty room filled with chamber pots. He was judged unworthy to see the room in the same state in which most of the family could, while José Arcadio Segundo was judged worthy of seeing the room as it used to be, and of being protected from the unjust intentions of the police.
Melquíades acts solely as a prophet when he is making a firm pronouncement based on a vision, as well as when he is inscribing the fate of the Buendías in his manuscripts. Not only does Marquez present him as a prophet, he also demonstrates that Melquíades is remarkably accurate in his predictions. Once, the gypsy prophesied aloud, informing José Arcadio Buendía that Macondo would one day be a “luminous city,” but that the Buendías would no longer be in existence. The prophesy is met by rejection on the part of José Arcadio Buendía, but is eventually proven to be true, though Melquíades eventually realizes that the “luminous city” is not built of glass, but of “mirrors (or mirages)” (53, 416). In the final pages of the novel when the line of the Buendías ends, it is revealed in Melquíades’ manuscripts that “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude d[o] not have a second opportunity on earth” (417)
The gypsy Melquíades ultimately serves both constructive and destructive purposes for the Buendía family. Even though his actions push them toward their inevitable fate, there is a mildness and wisdom within his methods. Even in their solitude, he guides them away from the choices that brought this punishment upon them. Marquez deliberately uses the paradoxes that occur within the gypsy’s character to bring the story together; it is the gypsy whose prophecy fills the pages of the novel itself. Truly, he fulfills his role well, for when the last page is deciphered by both Aureliano and the reader, it is the voice of Melquíades, reaching past death, that has the last word.
Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, HarperCollins, 1992.