Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One day when Pelayo, a coastal villager, goes to dispose of crabs that have washed ashore onto his property, he discovers an old man with wings lying face down in the mud. The toothless creature is bald and dressed in rags. As Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, carefully examine the creature, looking for clues to its origin, it responds to their questions in a tongue that they cannot identify. They suspect that he is a castaway from a ship. Other villagers who see the old man offer theories about his origins and appearance. The couple plan to set him adrift on a raft, but they first imprison him in a chicken coop. When a large crowd gathers around the coop, Pelayo and his wife decide to charge admission to view him, thereby creating a circuslike atmosphere.
The local priest, Father Gonzaga, is disturbed by rumors that the mysterious winged creature might be an angel, so he comes the next day to investigate. When the old man fails to understand Latin, the priest denounces him as an impostor. Nevertheless, curious people travel great distances to see the creature, and a carnival arrives to take advantage of the large crowds. Father Gonzaga, in the meantime, writes to the pope in an attempt to ascertain the church’s official position on the creature and the apparently “miraculous” occurrences that the crowds associate with the old man. The Vatican demands to know if the old man knows Aramaic, if he can fit on the head of a pin, and if he has a navel....
(The entire section is 404 words.)
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Section 1 Summary - Arrival
While Garcia Marquez makes no divisions in the text, this discussion will consider the plot in four separate stages. The story begins with the ‘‘old man's’’ arrival and ends with his departure. The intervening period, which covers several years, may be divided into two stages: the brief sensation caused by his appearance and a long period of declining interest in which the strange visitor is all but forgotten.
The setting is an unnamed coastal village, at an unspecified time in the past. A long rainstorm has washed crabs up from the beach into Pelayo's house, creating an odor he thinks may be affecting his sick newborn child. Disposing of their carcasses, he sees a figure groaning on the ground in his courtyard; as he moves closer, he discovers it to be ''an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn't get up, impeded by his enormous wings.'' Staring at this pitiful "bird-man," Pelayo and his wife Elisenda begin to overcome their amazement, and even find him familiar, despite those mysterious wings. While they can't understand his language, he seems to have ‘‘a strong sailor's voice,’’ and at first they decide he is a shipwrecked foreign sailor, somehow managing to overlook the need to explain his wings. But a neighbor soon "corrects" them, stating confidently that he is an angel. Assuming he is nothing but trouble, she advises them to kill him. Not having the...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Section 2 Summary - Sensation
The villagers treat the old man like a ''circus animal;’’ they toss him food and speculate about what should be done with him. Some think he should be made ''mayor of the world,'' others want him to be a ‘‘five-star general in order to win all wars,’’ and still others hope he will father a superrace of ''winged wise men who could take charge of the universe.’’ The village priest arrives to inspect the captive, and presumably to make a more reasoned judgment on his nature. Father Gonzaga suspects ''an impostor'' at once and finds the old man's pathetic appearance to be strongly at odds with the church's traditional image of heavenly messengers. Finding the old man smelly and decrepit, his battered wings infested with insects, and showing no knowledge of church etiquette, the priest concludes that ''nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.’’ Despite his skepticism, he refuses to give a definitive ruling on the old man, choosing instead to write letters to his church superiors and wait for a written verdict from scholars in the Vatican. In the meantime, he warns the villagers against reaching any rash conclusions.
But word of the "angel" has already traveled too far, drawing fantastic crowds and creating a carnival atmosphere; events unfold quickly, described in language that suggests the exaggerated, dreamlike world of fairytales.
Surrounded by all this hectic activity, the old man takes ‘‘no part in...
(The entire section is 299 words.)
Section 3-4 Summary - Decline and Departure
The new sensation is ‘‘the spider-woman,’’ whose fantastic nature includes none of the majesty we associate with angels; she represents a kind of ''magic’’ familiar from fairytales and folk legends. When still a girl, she once disobeyed her parents by going dancing; later, on the way home, she was struck by lightning and changed into a giant tarantula, retaining her human head. As a spectacle, she appeals to the crowd in ways the old man cannot, and even charges a lower admission price. Significantly, she speaks to her visitors, explaining the meaning of her monstrous appearance; her sad story is easy to understand, and points to a clear moral (children should obey their parents), one her audience already believes to be true. In contrast, the old man does nothing to explain himself, teaches nothing, and doesn't even entertain people; rather than confirming their beliefs, his mysterious nature challenges all the expectations it creates. He does perform some miracles, but they are equally puzzling, seeming to be either practical jokes or the result of some ‘‘mental disorder.’’ These disappointing miracles ‘‘had already ruined the angel's reputation, when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.’’ The crowds disappear from Pelayo and Elisenda's courtyard as suddenly as they had come, and the unexplained mystery of the "birdman" is quickly forgotten.
Still, thanks to the...
(The entire section is 584 words.)