A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez

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What is the magical realism in the story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Márquez? 

In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," evidence of magical realism can be found in the description of the angel whom Pelayo finds. Although this creature would seem somewhat magical, the narrator retains a realistic and matter-of-fact tone when describing the being. He is "very old," with "dirty and half-plucked" feathers, and he is dressed like someone who lives in poverty. This realist description of something magical is a hallmark of magical realism.

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In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” magical realism is embodied in the title character. On the one hand, the old man is a magical figure, a creature from some kind of fantasy world. At the same time, there is an awful lot about him that's ordinary and commonplace, the kind of things we'd expect to see in someone we know, such as an old relative.

If we look at the title of the story, the “Very Old Man” is the realistic element, whereas the “Enormous Wings” supply the magic. For an old man to have enormous wings is, of course, magical. Old men—or old women, come to that—don't have wings, large or otherwise.

But, despite these magical appendages, the old man is recognizably realistic all the same. With his almost completely bald head and very few teeth, he could be anyone's grandpa. It is this realistic element to the story's central character that makes the old man such a fascinating, ambiguous figure.

With his extremely large wings, it's not surprising that so many people think he's an angel. At the same time, the disheveled state of those wings, not to mention all the physical features one would normally associate with an old man, makes it entirely reasonable to suppose that he's actually nothing more than a charlatan.

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Magical realism is a genre in which literary realism and magical elements are combined; in addition, the magical elements of the texts are typically narrated in a manner that is consistent with realism. When the story begins, Pelayo has been dealing with the effects of three days of rain, and the narrator tells us that "sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing." There is no Romantic idealization of nature here. Pelayo has been killing the crabs that have come up from the water into the house, and his wife, Elisenda, has been applying cool compresses to their sick child's forehead to soothe him. Details such as these are all quite realistic. These elements of the story are rather mundane and everyday, all things that most readers can imagine and relate to.

However, the fact that Pelayo encounters a very old man with "enormous wings" when he goes to chuck out the crabs is certainly an example of the kind of "magical" or supernatural or surreal things that can occur in a work of magical realism. The neighbor woman takes one look at the strange being and declares that he is an angel, though he is described in incredibly realistic, rather than idealistic, ways. He is "dressed like a ragpicker," and he has just "a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth." He is in a "pitiful condition" with his muddy "buzzard wings." The angel, something quite magical and outside the realm of typical realist texts, is described in an incredibly realistic way, another mark of this peculiar and fascinating genre.

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Magical Realism is the blending of fantasy and reality. This style is a cultural aspect of Marquez's native Columbia and is a notable genre in other Hispanic cultures. In this story, the blending of fantasy and reality serves to question notions of truth and fiction

Marquez plays with uncertainty and this mix of the miraculous with the "every day" gives the reader a challenge in trying to make sense of what is real and what is not. In the end, there is no clear indication of the differentiation between reality and fantasy. This literary style allows the author to stretch the imagination and gives the reader an unconventional reading experience wherein he/she must deal with the uncertainties. Thus, the reader is forced to "wonder" and this is 'wonder'fully imaginative but also frustrating for a reader who wants things spelled out logically. 

In the story, the couple and the people of the town debate whether or not the old man is an angel. They seem to ignore the fact that, regardless of whether or not he is an angel, there is an old man with wings. In fact, the doctor thinks that the man's wings are so "natural" that he wonders why more people don't have them: 

What surprised the doctor most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too. 

In the end, the old man's monetary cache is trumped by a spider woman, another instance of magical realism. 

Here is one interpretation that deals with a way that magical realism is used in a critical respect. If this story is interpreted as a critique of commercialism and materialism, the elements of magical realism illustrate how mindlessly people pursue monetary gain. Even though they have a miracle (angel or 'natural' man with wings) on their hands, they treat him as an annoyance unless he is bringing them money. This shows how single-minded people can be and how they might miss miraculous things in life, not to mention the opportunity to be generous and caring. 

Portraying the old man as an angel or winged, Marquez shows how thoughtless and unimaginative people can be when they are too concerned with the trivial things. 

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