Gabríel Gárcia Marquez’s short story “One of These Days” presents an interesting power struggle between a town’s dentist and its mayor. It’s very short, and is a popular selection for students.
Summary of “One of These Days”
Aurelio Escovar, an unlicensed dentist, opens his office at six in the morning. He arranges his tools and starts polishing a set of false teeth. He works steadily and absentmindedly.
After two hours, he stops to look out the window. His eleven-year-old son tells him the Mayor has come and wants a tooth pulled. Aurelio doesn’t want to help and continues his work. The Mayor threatens to shoot Aurelio and walks in uninvited.
The right side of his face is unshaven and swollen. He sits down and Aurelio prepares his instruments. He looks at the Mayor’s tooth and says they can’t use any anesthetic because it’s abscessed. The Mayor watches Aurelio as he finishes setting up.
The Mayor braces himself and Aurelio grips the infected tooth with his forceps. He tells the Mayor that now he will pay for the twenty dead men. The Mayor bears the pain through some tears as Aurelio pulls the tooth out.
Aurelio hands him a cloth to dry his tears. He tells him to gargle with salt water and go to bed.
As the Mayor leaves he says to send the bill. Aurelio asks if he should send it to him personally or to the town. The Mayor says they’re the same thing.
Theme: Power & Corruption
There’s an obvious power imbalance between the dentist and the Mayor, mainly caused by the local corruption.
The dentist makes an initial attempt to refuse service to the Mayor and then holds out for a little while, even implying he doesn’t care if the Mayor shoots him. Once the Mayor walks in and they’re face to face, he complies without further protest. Ultimately, he knows he can’t refuse.
Despite the Mayor’s obvious power, the dentist has a temporary power advantage in this situation. He seems to be using it when he tells the Mayor he can’t have any anesthetic. “The Mayor looked him in the eye” after he said this. Knowing he needs the dentist right now, the Mayor could be deciding whether this point is worth pressing. He gives in to the dentist.
The level of corruption is made plain in the dentist’s statement just before pulling the tooth: “Now you’ll pay for our twenty dead men.” The Mayor is an appointed representative of a violent regime. The town has been strong-armed into submission.
The corruption is also highlighted at the end. In answer to the dentist’s question about sending the bill to the Mayor or the town, the Mayor replies: “It’s the same damn thing.” That is, the town’s money and the Mayor’s money are the same. There are no ethics that enforce a separation between the personal and professional for the Mayor.
The dentist and the Mayor also represent different social classes, the common working citizen and the ruling elite.
The dentist is “…skinny, with a look that rarely corresponded to the situation”. His skinniness suggests a material lack. His seeming disconnect from his environment could suggest he’s worn down by the drudgery of his life.
The narrator tells us directly: “It was a poor office”, and then lists a few of its modest contents. The dentist’s work space has a “crumbling ceiling and a dusty spider web with spider’s eggs and dead insects.” These signs of decay confirm the dentist is from the poorer class.
We aren’t told much of anything about the Mayor. We know his position in the town, and that he’s a part of the new establishment. This tells us he’s a part of the upper class. His statement at the end that he and the town are the same, tells us he has access to the town’s resources.
1. What can be inferred by the fact the Mayor has five days beard growth on the sore side of his face?
The Mayor’s mouth has been very sore for five days, and he probably felt some discomfort prior to that. It seems he has waited as long as he could. This suggests he wasn’t eager to go to this dentist for treatment. He probably knew the dentist’s feelings toward him.
It also tells us he didn’t have any other options. The only dentist in the area is unlicensed and hostile. The Mayor isn’t presiding over a prosperous town.
2. Does the dentist really think he’s getting revenge on the Mayor?
The dentist says that anesthetic can’t be used because it’s an abscess. As far as I’ve been able to find, this doesn’t preclude the use of anesthetic, so the dentist wants the Mayor to feel the pain. (For another possibility, see Similar Anecdote from In Evil Hour, below.)
Before pulling the abscessed tooth, the dentist says, “Now you’ll pay for our twenty dead men.” On the surface, this suggests the dentist is getting revenge.
But the dentist says those words “Without rancor, rather with a bitter tenderness”. This could mean the dentist wants revenge against the whole corrupt regime rather than against the Mayor personally. He says the words without much conviction, knowing that this temporary pain doesn’t hurt the corrupt system.
Even though the dentist takes the opportunity to make the Mayor suffer, he seems to know the gesture is hollow.
3. What does the title mean?
This isn’t completely clear. I think it’s related to the question above about the dentist’s revenge.
His revenge is weak—withholding anesthetic from a murderer, or someone in league with murderers, hardly makes things even. It could foreshadow an eventual legitimate revenge. That is, one of these days the Mayor, and the whole corrupt system in place, will get what’s coming to them.
The title sounds like something the dentist, and others like him, would say to themselves over and over to help them endure the situation they’re in. Maybe not today, but one of these days they’ll have their revenge.
Similar Anecdote from In Evil Hour
Marquez’s novel In Evil Hour has a similar encounter between a dentist and mayor. We’ll look at a few of the differences here.
In this version, we see the mayor trying to deal with the pain beforehand, avoiding a trip to the dentist’s.
When it becomes too painful, he goes to the dentist’s house in force with three military police officers. They break down his front door and order his wife to stay in the bedroom or be shot.
They ransack his workspace looking for firearms. The officers are then posted around the room before the dentist starts.
More details are given on the issue of the anesthetic. When mayor asks for it, the dentist says, “You kill people without anesthesia.” The mayor orders one of the policemen to find it. The dentist tells him that with an abscess like he has, anesthesia won’t do any good.
The mayor’s pain is stated more directly in this version, calling the extraction “the most terrible moment of his life.”