The novel opens with Dr. Juvenal Urbino entering the house of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who has killed himself and his dog with gold cyanide, on Pentecost Sunday. De Saint-Amour was Dr. Urbino's good friend and chess partner, so although the death is clearly suicide, Dr. Urbino instructs the police inspector to tell the press it was accidental. While Dr. Urbino is studying the last game of chess de Saint-Amour ever played, the police inspector finds a sealed letter addressed to Urbino, which turns out to be de Saint-Amour's final instructions, as well as a confession that completely changes Urbino's perspective of de Saint-Amour.
Dr. Urbino met de Saint-Amour through chess, which they would continue to play together, and chess would remain the most significant thing in their relationship. Once the first outdoor cinema was opened, they would see movies together as well. Dr. Urbino took on the role of de Saint-Amour's unconditional protector without knowing his history, and it is thanks to him that de Saint-Amour was able to open his photography studio.
Dr. Urbino goes to the old slave quarter of the city to see de Saint-Amour's long-term lover, whom Dr. Urbino has only just learned about from the letter. She had met de Saint-Amour in the convalescent home in which she had been born, following him to his new city a year later--and staying forever. She tells Dr. Urbino the story of the night before: she had gone to see All Quiet on the Western Front with de Saint-Amour, and he had seemed depressed when they returned to his house, eventually asking her to leave so he could write his letter to Dr. Urbino. She explains that long ago he had made the decision not to live to old age but to commit suicide at age sixty.
Dr. Urbino returns home with the hope of taking a short siesta before going to Dr. Lacides Olivella's silver anniversary party, but he finds his house in an uproar because his prized parrot has escaped his cage. Dr. Urbino has had the parrot for over twenty years, and it is the only animal that he will allow in the house. Fermina Daza had bought the parrot after Dr. Urbino had told her that nothing would be allowed in the house that did not speak. The doctor became very attached to him.
No one has been able to catch the parrot for over three hours, so Dr. Urbino tells them to call the fire department--which he essentially created. He finds Fermina in their bedroom dressed for the anniversary party. They are completely and utterly dependent on each other--for example, Fermina has to dress Dr. Urbino--although neither knows, or wants to know, whether that is because of love or because of convenience. Fermina notices the signs of Dr. Urbino's decline--his failing memory, his mood changes--but she does not foresee that this means he is near his end.
While they are preparing for the party, Dr. Urbino tries to tell Fermina why he is so upset by the revelations of de Saint-Amour's past. The man was a fugitive rather than a war veteran refugee. But Fermina is unimpressed and barely listens. Instead they leave for the party, which has been meticulously planned to be the social event of the year. Yet, for the first time anyone can remember, it rains on Pentecost Sunday, and the downpour is so extreme that they must move everything inside and everything is thrown off. Dr. Olivella's wife, Aminta Deschamps, somehow saves the party from disaster.
Dr. Urbino greatly enjoys the music at the party--it puts him in a good enough mood that he feels sad instead of angry at de Saint-Amour's death. He wife makes him promise to attend the funeral, which, after reading the letter, he had decided not to attend, and he now is glad to acquiesce. His son, Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino Daza, arrives with the belated dessert and then explains that he had heard his father's house was on fire, which is why he was delayed. Dr. Urbino and Fermina leave before the dessert is eaten because he must have his siesta before he goes to de Saint-Amour's funeral.
Dr. Urbino's siesta is disturbed by the destruction the firemen wreaked on his house--while allowing the parrot to escape further. While sitting in his rocking chair, Dr. Urbino hears his parrot speaking to him, finding that the parrot is right outside the window. Urbino goes outside to try to catch him, climbing the tree with a ladder left by the firemen. He has just grabbed the parrot when his foot slips, and he falls backwards off the ladder to his death. He tells Fermina with his last breath, "Only God knows how much I loved you."
Dr. Juvenal Urbino had done much to improve the city, so his death is not just a private tragedy; it causes an uproar among the common people. Fermina does not let this uproar have any effect on the funeral since she believes the dead belong only to the family and that the vigil should be private. Her grief turns into anger against the world, from which she derives the courage and control to face life alone after fifty years of marriage.
Florentino is at the vigil and, moreover, makes sure everything runs smoothly, although Fermina does not notice. The funeral itself is essentially ruined by a downpour, which discourages almost everyone from coming. After the attendees have left the vigil, Fermina sees him, and as she is about to thank him for coming, he makes a declaration of love to her. She kicks him out of her house in a fury and weeps for the first time since Urbino's death. When she wakes she realizes that as she sobbed in her sleep, she was thinking more of Florentino Ariza than of Juvenal Urbino.
Part One of Love in the Time of Cholera gives a very unusual introduction to the main characters of the novel. The main protagonist of the first section is Dr. Juvenal Urbino--an important character throughout the novel, but never again as central as he is in this first section. By making the day of his death both the opening of the story and the time his character is most important, Marquez underscores the fact that in this story, the true love story begins only when Dr. Urbino dies. Apart from Dr. Urbino, the people for whom his death are most important are Fermina and Florentino, so we can expect that the story will focus on them and be told to some degree from their perspectives.
Unlike most novels, two of the characters who are introduced most fully in the opening are dead early on. (The author here is perhaps showing his skill through this unconventional choice as well.) The first section focuses a good deal on Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who turns out to be not at all centrally important to the novel. He does, however, call attention to the theme of aging, which is quite important in the novel. De Saint-Amour chooses death although he is happy in life, rather than living into his old age. He also has an imperfect view of what to do about love: although he stays with one woman his whole life, he decides not to marry her and chooses to keep their love secret. Dr. Urbino can see nothing true or honorable in such a love, but Fermina believes it is as true as any love.
The treatment of love is only just beginning in part one, but this section introduces many of the complications that will grow throughout the novel. The narrator's descriptions of Dr. Urbino's and Fermina's relationship do not clearly suggest whether they really were in love or not. At times the narrator strongly implies that they were not really in love, but at other times his descriptions lead the reader to believe that they were. This ambiguity introduces the great complexity of love that the novel will develop in more detail.
The themes of aging and class are also introduced among the three main protagonists. Aging is most clear in Dr. Urbino, regarding whom we get a detailed account of the steady decline of his mind and body as he nears death. We also see Fermina Daza's aging as well as Florentino's careful attempts to slow his aging. The most prominent characteristic described with regard to these characters is their age, together with the effects of time on their lives and bodies.
The theme of class is introduced more subtly, but it pervades the first section. The novel opens with the death of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a good friend of Juvenal Urbino who is a polar opposite in class status. Juvenal Urbino is described as a doctor only to the wealthy, and when he has to go into the poor area of the city to see de Saint-Amour's paramour, he gets lost because it is so foreign to him. This view into the old slave quarter is then contrasted with Dr. Urbino's own elaborate home, as well as the extremely lavish party for Dr. Olivella, where all the guests are of the upper class. At such parties, the guests are divided in seating by their prominence within their social group.
As for the "time of cholera," it is not yet time.