What are some symbols in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings?"

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munarriz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a number of symbols that play a significant role in the development of themes in Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” The old man’s wings are described as “buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked . . . forever entangled in the mud.” The wings emphasize that he is earthly and human when he arrives in Pelayo’s home with dirty and torn wings. At the same time, however, the presence of even these broken wings makes the observers believe that he is an angel, or not from this world. With this duality established, the old man, by the end of the story, recovers his strength and flies off under the power of his now strong, angular, and majestic wings. The duality represented by the wings, then, can represent the theme of appearance versus reality and the notion that there can be magic in that which appears to lack magic.

The duality of the wings can also lead one to view the Old Man as a Christ figure. Christ is believed by many to be both man and God, sharing the dual nature seen in the Old Man. Like a Christ figure, the old man comes to the town as a poor, humble, broken man and saves the boy and performs other miracles. He ends up being spurned and humiliated by the people he saved.

The Spider Woman that comes to the town as a part of a freak show is also important to the development of themes in the story. While the villagers first flock to the old man with enormous wings, after time, as the miracles he performs become more mundane, or “consolation miracles,” the villagers look for something new to worship. The Spider Woman at the freak show fulfills this purpose. They leave the old man and start to spend time with the Spider Woman, and they listen to her stories with pity. She comes to represent the shallowness of human faith. The Spider Woman shows us that people are fickle and flock to shiny new beliefs, looking for immediate results. Through Marquez's use of magical realism, the symbols in the short story all develop the complex nature of faith as well as man’s struggle to remain faithful in a confusing and chaotic world.

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One symbol is the infestation of crabs in Pelayo's house. During the strong rains, the land crabs hide indoors so they won't drown; Pelayo kills them and throws them into the water. The crabs symbolize both Pelayo's poverty -- he can't afford a better house -- and the instinct of all animals to survive under pressure. When the angel shows up, it is lying in the mud, trying to move but stuck. Just like the crabs, the angel has the instinct to survive, but it is too old:

...before going to bed [Pelayo] dragged him out of the mud and locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop.
(Márquez, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," salvoblue.homestead.com)

Although they do not treat it well, Pelayo and his wife offer the angel sanctuary to live through the winter; its instincts, if it sought them out specifically, were sound. After gaining money, Pelayo builds a new house, this time with barriers to keep the crabs out; the symbol of the crabs has been replaced by the angel, which now lives in the unchanged chicken coop, representing the poverty that Pelayo and his wife used to live in. The crabs, therefore, have served their purpose, and are no longer necessary.

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A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

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