Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” treats two issues: interpretation and invention/imagination. After the discovery of the stranger, six interpretations of his significance arise within the story. Once Pelayo recovers from his initial astonishment, he concludes that the old man is a lonely castaway. The basis for his conclusion is that the man speaks in a strong “sailor’s voice.” This explanation is merely arbitrary, however, because basic logic rejects the interpretation and makes Pelayo’s explanation merely humorous. The second interpretation is made by a neighbor woman who is thought to know “everything about life and death.” The humor of her interpretation arises in the certainty with which she pronounces that the old man is an angel.
The next three interpretations are proposed by various innocent and ingenuous villagers. According to them, the stranger may be either the mayor of the world, a five-star general, or the first of a race of winged wise men who will take charge of the universe. Although Father Gonzaga believes that the old man is not an angel, it is noteworthy that as the “official” interpreter in the town, he is the only one who refuses to offer a concrete interpretation; instead he merely sends a letter to the pope.
In the final analysis, the text offers no rational explanation for the enigmatic man. If fact, the text defies rational explanation or analysis. It is suggested, however, that the old man may be purely imaginary because he is described as disappearing in an “imaginary dot” on the horizon at the end of the story. Although critics have argued that the old man leaves because of his disillusionment with the exploitation surrounding his visit, at no time is this interpretation substantiated within the narrative itself.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” thus becomes a parody of the interpretive process itself. Appearing as the first story in the volume La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada (1972; Innocent Erendira, and Other Stories, 1979), it also functions as a kind of warning to the reader. The story’s implication is that one must take extreme care when attributing rational laws of cause and effect to innately irrational occurrences. The story also affirms Gabriel García Márquez’s right to invention, to the creative process, and to the life-affirming value of the human imagination.