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Role of Religion in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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To understand the role of religion in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, first we have to understand the setting of plot, the era where the story has been set, the society and community it deals with. The work is set in an unnamed, remote part of Colombia. The novel is considered by many to be loosely based on the killing of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964.

For the novella that continues to win well-deserved accolades for its multi-faceted qualities since it was first published in 1981, the plot is disarmingly and deceptively simple: narrated in journalistic investigative mode, it pieces together and recounts how the Vicario brothers set about and finally avenge the honor of their sister, Angela, who gets married to the wealthy and suave Bayardo San Roman in a lavish ceremony but is spurned on the wedding night itself and returned in disgrace to her parents because the groom discovers that she has already been “deflowered”. Pushed against the wall, Angela accuses Santiago Nasar , another wealthy inhabitant of Arab descent , of being her violator.

It is generally considered by most readers that the initial chapters lay bare the religious and spiritual makeup of the townspeople but I believe that religion is subliminally present even earlier, within the title of the novella itself. The very word ” Death” is integrally and inextricably linked with matters religious. Afterall, aren’t the mysteries surrounding birth and the eventual inevitability of death and its varied reasons (sudden, accidental or planned) the moot points of religion? Man, since times immemorial has looked heavenwards beseeching answers to numerous unsettling and puzzling questions with which our lives are beset with every hour of the day; from the mundane prosaic familiar everyday things to the agonizing ones about sorrows, deaths and destruction unleashed by natural calamities, freak accidents or brute force perpetrated by man himself. Religion has sought to provide succor and solace to its distressed seekers. Religion is meant to be a cohesive force, helping society to bond better and progress in a civilized manner. For the same purpose, religion, with its commandments and rules and laws and codes of conduct, monitors people’s way of life to ensure that humanity and sanity remain intact and that the world does not disintegrate into a chaotic blood-thirsty mayhem of madness.

Instead, in the milieu presented to us in the novel, what we witness is the entire principle and driving force of religion being turned on its head. Over the years religion has been reduced only to its attendant corrupted man-made paraphernalia; traditions, customs, rituals, offerings, pomp, omens, superstitions, intuitions and divinations. Religion, in its grotesque form, is amply manifested in the novel.

The news of the impending arrival of the Bishop to their town also reveals their religious makeup. “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on”(1). The failure of the Bishop to dock there for no ostensible reason other than that he did not like the town is read by me as a failure of that particular brand of religion too, to safeguard the death of Santiago Nasar. The novel is replete with references to Christianity and Catholicism. But the treatment of the same by the people is again a reinforcement of the fact that religion does not hold any profoundly exalted and revered position. There is hardly any religious fervor in Santiago Nasar’s desire to wait for the bishop’s boat despite his mother’s dissuasion. For him, the primary incentive is the pomp and regalia of the Bishop’s arrival. Religion, it is obvious, has become more of a spectacle.

With words like “pontifical dress of Santiago” (6); skepticism of Bishop’s stop (7) Bishop not getting off his boat (16) the bishop’s fetish for cockscomb soup (16); the mechanical sign of the cross (17) etc, the novel obviously abounds with references to Christianity. But the essence is missing. The outward symbols flourish but it is warped and deformed.

Death is an inherent fear and obsession in human beings. It is this primal fear of the unknown and an ardent desire to safeguard their future after death that the people try hard to curry favor with the bishop even though the bishop himself is an outsider and makes no bones about his dislike for that town. It is again ironical that the same townspeople desperate to pay obeisance to the bishop for life after death are the ones who are all so nonchalant about the impending catastrophe, the revolting script of death in life, about to unfold in their own midst.

The vice-like grip of the machismo Code of Honor, followed religiously by the Vicario twins and its catastrophic consequences; its tacit approval by the inhabitants and the later exoneration and acquittal by the judiciary, are all parodies of what true religion intends. Religion is made subject to both irony and a scathing indictment. The point to be noted is that not only the kind of unorganized superstitious religion followed by most of the people is looked at with dollops of skepticism but also that the so called more organized religion, of which the Bishop is representative, is also treated with irony.

This is brought home to the readers by the failure of either of these mutilated versions of religion in safeguarding Santiago Nasar from his merciless doom. Omens and superstitions are part and parcel of the religion of the novel’s Colombian town. Santiago’s mother enjoys the reputation of foreseeing the future but is tragically, and ironically, unable to foresee and prevent her own son’s brutal death. Infact, even more heart-rending is the fact that it is her act of closing the door that unwittingly snuffs out the chances of the wounded Nasar’s survival. But the layers of irony don’t end here. What leaves the readers astounded is the revelation that so ingrained is Placida Linero’s indoctrination in superstition that she berates herself for failing to understand ominous signals on the day of her son’s death rather than regret the fact that her act of shutting her door proved to be the proverbial last straw that cost her son his life.

Nowhere in the novel do we come across any religious figure that can be looked up to for a way out of the morass whether it is the superstitions-seeped inhabitants or the representative of the Church with his marked desire for cockscomb soup and the charm that lures people like “the movies”. The narrator’s sister, a nun, is herself given in to drinking and indulgences.

The death of Santiago Nasar, in the last twenty-seven years, has become shrouded with varying versions, often contradictory. It almost seems that the writer has deliberately not made the narrator privy to the truth so that death’s mystery, the eternal unsolved mystery for man though the ages, continues to remain so. The varying accounts of that fateful day; whether it was raining on that day or it happened to be a particularly sun-lit, are things that are left inconclusive. But the superstitious and ominous connotations are there for all to perceive; rains portend an impending disaster, something unsavory, in this instance the death of Santiago Nasar. In a place reeking as much of superstitions as the said Colombian town, it really does not come as a surprise that over the years the death that rocked that town took on fantastic and incredible proportions and fanciful connotations as it spread from ear to ear.

Another pivotal point left unanswered is whether Santiago Nasar is actually the perpetrator or is it Angela’s desperation to hide the name of someone that makes her blurt out the name of an influential person of the town. The reader infact, is left with this highly disturbing and unnerving feeling gnawing at his inside that the latter is most probably the truth. Evidence and facts and justice, the core of religious dispensing of justice, are all carelessly thrown outside the window to suit the people’s own system of honor and the barbaric and thoughtless execution of justice.

The parody of religious figures and symbols climaxes and its mockery and caricature clinched when Santiago Nasar is alluded to as a Christ like figure martyred for machismo. Even if any other allusions are missed by the readers, this culminating incriminating allusion stares at the reader’s face leaving him without an iota of doubt regarding the befittingly satirical treatment meted out to the ugly face of religion in the novel.


1. Marquez, Gabriel “Chronicle of A Death Foretold”

2. Cross, mm “Notes on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold” http://www.student.yorku.ca/~yu249566/marquez.htm, last accessed
on May 10, 2003

3. Morales, Donald, Ph.D. Professor of Literature, The Research Process: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, http://www.mercynet.edu/faculty/morales/chronicledeath.html , last accessed on May 10, 2003

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