Conceived and born before the founding of Macondo, José Arcadio II is the oldest child of José Arcadio and Úrsula Buendía. If he has none of the imagination of his younger, swashbuckling brother, he nonetheless has passion and machismo equal to that of the Colonel. At the age of fourteen, his prodigious sexual development stirs Úrsula's latent fears of years past. For her, his over-sized sex organ seems as unnatural and as cursed as her cousin's reputed pig's tail. This fear of incest and genetic deformity gives the story a cyclical rhythm. Soon enough, the young José Arcadio II becomes the lover of Pilar Ternera, Macondo's fortune teller. He is attracted to her, so we are told, "by the smell of smoke" under her armpits and skin. This episode sustains the myth of Buendía original sin and is followed by a series of incestuous episodes: Amaranta and her nephew Aureliano José; Pilar Ternera and her son Arcadio; and Amaranta and her great-great-nephew José Arcadio V, who drowns in his bath, debauched and forlorn, still "thinking about Amaranta."
The affair between José Arcadio II and Pilar Ternera quickly bears predictable results. But Pilar Ternera's announcement that she has borne his child so frightens and depresses him that he runs away with a gypsy girl and her people, "a red cloth around his head." Úrsula flies from Macondo in search of her son. Returning months later, she brings new settlers from civilization and they open the town to all the good and evil aspects of material progress. Meanwhile, the son of José Arcadio II and Pilar Ternera is born. He is called "Arcadio" although baptized as "José Arcadio," to avoid confusion. "Arcadio" is brought up not by his mother but by his grandparents, a situation that parallels the author's life.
When José Arcadio II returns to Macondo, he is a full-grown man. He has been around the world sixty-five times; he is a member of "a crew of sailors without a country." His massive physical stature and his fabulous tales of adventure — he has practiced anthrophagy, slain sea dragons, and seen the ghost of the Caribbean pirate Victor Hugues — lure the women of Macondo in a manner reminiscent of Esteban, a character from García Márquez ' short story "The Handsomest Drowned Man." After cutting a wide swath through the lovely women of Macondo, José Arcadio II displaces Pietro Crespi in the affection of his (José Arcadio's) step-sister Rebeca. After brutally breaking Pietro Crespi's engagement, José Arcadio II marries Rebeca. The union is legitimized — to the dismay of Úrsula — but Father Nicanor reveals in a Sunday sermon that the couple were not really brother and sister after all. Úrsula, nevertheless, forbids them to ever enter in the family house again.
Later, José Arcadio II moves into a home built by his son Arcadio and settles down into the role of feudal lord. He tries to take forcible possession of the best plots of land around Macondo and taxes peasants "every Saturday with his hunting dogs and his double-barreled shotgun" on the grounds that Macondo's land had been wrongly distributed by his mad father.
He becomes a kind of heroic tyrant in one dramatic episode when he is able to save his brother from execution by a firing squad. However, his own death is violent yet ambiguous, with some reference to Rebeca's complicity (see parallels in García Márquez' short stories "Montiel's Widow" and "One Day After Saturday"). The author's narrative only suggests that José Arcadio was shot:
As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed, the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces . . .[until it reaches the family home].
There is no wound on his corpse, and no weapon is ever found. But the body reeks strongly of the smell of gunpowder; the stench is so strong, in fact, that it continues rising from the grave until the banana company has to cover it with a shell of concrete.
Machismo is a quintessential trait of José Arcadio II. He needs to express his masculinity through brute force, sexual profligacy, proliferation of male heirs, and subjugation of others, especially women. Machismo is both responsible for his gallantry and for his courage, as well as his suicidal persistence in the face of certain failure. It also figures in his posturing and his abundance of false pride.