Garca Mrquez once witnessed the disinterment of the skeleton of a young girl with over 22 metres of red hair. While this had a plausible physiological explanation, Garca Mrquez was also reminded of the legend of a marquise who died young of rabies and was said to have had hair "like a bridal train". The novel is based on this legend, and while Garca Mrquez draws from it familiar themes of faith, passion, history and fate, this narrative is markedly more measured and less crowded, its focus averted from the larger events with which it is ultimately concerned.
Eighteenth-century Cartagena is a place through which life passes, literally so as the port is a trading post for slaves. The city is in decay and still dependent upon Spain as the remote provider of cultural sustenance, social status and religious command. The marquise Sierva Maria's parents are equally in ruins: her effete father lies "rotting in his hammock" while her mother, addicted to fermented honey and cacao, stays bilious and incontinent in her room. They despise the girl who has been brought up speaking Yoruban and sleeping with the slaves. As they wait for the rabies to manifest itself, the marquis, in a dubious confusion of panic and determination, issues an open invitation to every kind of quack healer, whose violent ministrations almost kill her. The bishop intervenes, pronounces Sierva Maria possessed and consigns her to a convent to be exorcised. This duty is given to a cerebral young priest, Cayetano Delaura, who wakes from a world of theological ideas to fall fatally in love.
The affair between the priest and the girl is described in staidly florid language which suggests that it is less about actuality and more about an ideal. Their love does not stand a chance in the face of other more voracious demons: religious zeal, superstition, power and greed. Repeated allusions to physical incontinence, disease and death suggest that the body cannot contain these demons of human nature: the terrified girl, told she has the devil in her, smears excrement around her cell; the bloated bishop's wary delicacy implies a fear that he might burst; and the mother's life is a cycle of binges, enemas and purges.
Voltaire appears in the book as a dangerous source of enlightenment, a writer of "perfect prose" whose combination of spareness and surprise is borrowed by Garca Mrquez to contain the resounding contrasts of his story. The narrative is like a seismograph, taut calmness punctuated by bursts of highly charged imagery or language, in a nevertheless unbroken line. Voltaire is also evoked in the priest's railing against "demons of rancour, intolerance, imbecility" and in the characterisation of those involved in the girl's redemption. They are satirical distillations but not caricatures: the cynical, casually manipulative bishop; the unworldly priest; the maverick, humanist Jewish doctor; the abbess lost in a maze of religious dogma. Sierve Maria herself is as inscrutable as an icon.
The novel's epigraph is taken from Aquinas' writings on resurrection, and the story seems most centrally concerned with the struggle to reconcile seeing with believing, reason with faith. In the retelling of this legend, Garca Mrquez has shown how the fantastic and the real support one another: those who flourish accept the paradoxical nature of their experience, a freedom granted here only to slaves, children and Jews, who are already in some way ostracised or without a voice.