The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

First Chapter Structure with Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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March 15, 2017
Years ago, when I first read One Hundred Years of  Solitude, the first chapter blew me away. It’s a book that is hard to get into at first, but once I’d made it through the first chapter I was hooked. I wanted to take a look at what that first chapter is doing structurally–in the same vein as my discussion of Canticle for Leibowitz from last week. As much as possible–I’ll have to avoid discussing too much how this chapter connects to larger themes of the book–spoilers will be avoided. 

The Problem: 

Again–novels. Chapter structure is an odd thing, and it seems like it differs a lot from book to book. So I wanted to take a look at a second example, one that I think most people would find to be a quite different novel, to dig a little deeper. This will also be an examination of what this first chapter is doing. 

The Story: 

I’ve never read another book like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even Marquez’s other work, which I’ve also enjoyed, comes close to the brilliant experimentation taking place in this novel. They also don’t come close to matching the depth and breadth displayed here. Even the works of Allende and Borges, contemporaries said to be writing in the same subgenre, don’t really compare. It’s not, by any means, a fast-paced thriller, but it is profound and fascinating and reading it feels like steeping yourself in someone else’s mind. 

Probably the closest reading experience is Kafka, which I think is what Marquez intended. 

Anyway, enough drooling! The first chapter of this book is enlightening for its structure and it’s actually surprisingly similar in some ways to Canticle, which will probably become clear below. On top of structure, I’ll also discuss the things this story is doing as a first chapter to introduce the rest of the book. 

The Solution: 

What’s fascinating about this chapter as an opening is how much it feels like an opening, especially in contrast to Canticle. In the latter, the first and second chapters together almost feel like a short story that outgrew itself and had to turn into a novella and then a novel, while the former really feels like it’s introducing the story. Almost like the introductory paragraph to an essay, it has all the elements that will weave through the rest of the book–it touches on themes of solitude and superstition versus connection and science. It reveals the weird playing with time (Macondo, the central village, exists at a time when most things don’t have names, the narrator declares, but also Memphis exists–so late 19th century at the earliest). It shows how the names of the main characters repeat as the generations pass. These are all themes and conflicts that span the novel to its final page. 

Beyond that, the narration goes out of its way to emphasize happenings that feel inconsequential but will have major effects on teh rest of the story. It says things like “The children would remember for the rest of their lives” (which we will see all of) (4) and “…he made him a gift that was to have  profound influence on the future of the villlage: the laboratory of an alchemist” (which will feature on the last page) (5). This sort of thing is creating a kind of simmering anticipation, not quite suspense, at least not in the Steven King sense, but a longing to understand, to fill in blanks. 

These are all powerful things that the chapter does for the novel. The final thing it does, right at the outset, is very similar to Canticle in some ways: it provides an occasion. Here’s what it says: 

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). 

This is doing two things simultaneously. First, it’s giving structure to a huge portion of the book by mentioning the firing squad, which will not reappear for decades (or hundreds of pages, depending on how you count). This is, of course, vital to the sense of suspense for the book, and is a move that has been stolen 1000 times since–we might call it an extended occasion. But it is a two part occasion, just like the example from Canticle, and the other part (discovering ice) structures this chapter, with it ending at the moment they discover and react to the ice.  It’s just strange enough to propel you through the chapter to the end. A final note of difference: this chapter does not end on a cliffhanger. If anything, it ends in a way that feels complete, as if you could close the book and return later. Personally, I found this willingness to resolve in small doses to be a wonderful, refreshing thing. 

A second thing holding this chapter together, allowing it to cohere, is a unified type of plot event. It’s arranged basically as a series of visits by the gypsy (mysterious outsiders who bring a carnival and inventions from around the world) and the Colonel’s father, Jose. Jose is a bit of an inventor, and becomes a bit of a scientist, and it’s this gypsy named Melquiades who guides and encourages him on this journey. The chapter only briefly departs from describing these visits, a section specifically defined by their absence. This gives a sense of unity and purpose to the chapter, and direciton–any time something needs to happen, the troupe returns, bringing some new marvelous thing. 

And finally, something that will look familiar to those who read my last post, the chapter is structured using simple arcs. These differ a little from the other book in key ways. For one, they are a little more cohesive, a little subtler, with full transitions and gentle backtracking. Also, instead of being based on conflict, they are largely based on POV–namely, the distance the omniscient narrator takes at any given point in the story. Here are the arcs as I saw them. 

Arc 1: Close to Jose and Aureliano (P1-5)
Arc 2: Widen out to the family (P5-7) 
Arc 3: All the way out to the village level (P7-14) 
Arc 4: Narrow back to the family (P14-16)
Arc 5: Return to Jose and Aureliano (P16-18) 

This structure does a lot of important things. It introduces the village itself as a vital player in this story–community as character. It also gives a hugely necessary sense of pacing and real change over a chapter that get its unity from a repetitive plot, and uses huge blocks of detailed summary as its style. Without these arcs, it seems clear that the story would just wash right over you.

Finally: 

So in comparison to Canticle, this story also relies on arcs that progress and then regress. It also makes use of a two part occasion to leap into the story, giving a strong sense of mystery at the opening and unifying the chapter’s events. You could easily call this the “Ice Discovery” chapter on an outline, just as Canticle’s first chapter could be described as “the arrival of the pilgrim”–and I notice that the authors seem to have gone to great lengths to establish this sense of unity.

Also, a key element in the difference of pacing in these books may be (beyond that one is largely summary and the other largely immediate action) because of the rate at which these books introduce and resolve occasions. Canticle’s two part occasion is resolved by the end of chapter two, while Marquez delays the second half of his occasion until nearly 200 pages in. This made for massively different reading experiences, although both were quite pleasureable. 


What do you think of the differences between these two novels? Is there anything important about this chapter that I’m missing? Have you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? I’d love to hear what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading! 

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