A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Summary
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a short story by Gabriel García Márquez in which an old man with wings is imprisoned in a chicken coop.
- Pelayo finds a winged old man in his courtyard.
- Pelayo imprisons and begin charging people admission to see the man, whom the villagers believe is an angel.
- A local priest denounces the old man, since he does not fit the scriptural descriptions of an angel. However, people continue to come to see him until a new attraction, the spider woman, arrives in town.
- Eventually, the old man flies away.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
During a particularly bad rainy spell in his seaside town, Pelayo discovers the waves have washed hundreds of crabs into his courtyard. As Pelayo kills and throws out the crabs, he notices a groaning ancient man whom the sea seems to have brought into his courtyard. The man is bald, toothless, and weak but possesses enormous bedraggled wings. His wings are half-buried in the mud, and he has difficulty getting up. Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, stare at the old man and observe that he speaks in an “incomprehensible” language. Despite his great wings, he is a pitiful sight. They conclude the man may be a shipwrecked sailor, but a neighbor tells them he is an angel, here to collect the soul of their sick infant. The child has been running a high fever for the last few days. Soon, the news of a “flesh and blood angel” in Pelayo and Elisenda’s house spreads around the town. The old woman advises that the angel be killed because his appearance signals the apocalypse. Pelayo doesn’t have the heart to murder the silent, decrepit creature. Instead, he locks him up in a chicken coop.
Pelayo’s child recovers, and people begin visiting his house to view the old man, often tossing him food through the coop. The cleric Father Gonzaga arrives on the spot to assess if the old man is indeed an angel. When the old man fails to understand Latin, the ecclesial language, Father Gonzaga has “his first suspicion of an imposter.” The practical-minded Gonzaga concludes that the mere possession of wings does not guarantee that the man is an angel. The matter will need to be investigated further. He promises the townsfolk he will write to higher church authorities to determine the old man’s case.
Gonzaga’s visit doesn’t stop people from considering the old man an angel and seeking him out for blessings and miracles. Elisenda builds a fence around her courtyard and begins charging five cents for admission to see the old man. People, eager for cures and miracles, offer the old man elaborate feasts, but he refuses to eat anything but “eggplant mush.” He suffers the people’s intrusions patiently, even when they pull out his feathers and them to their ailing body parts. The old man reacts only when someone tries to brand him with a burning rod. He flaps his wings in alarm, scaring away the visitors. Meanwhile, the higher church authorities continue to debate if the old man has a navel or if he can stand on the head of a pin in an attempt to classify him. It is only the arrival of a new attraction in the town that draws attention away from the old man.
A carnival sideshow of a woman who was cursed to partially transform into a spider after disobeying her parents arrives in town. The woman has the head of a girl but the body of an enormous tarantula. Unlike the passive old man, the woman is voluble and recounts her tragedy to the townsfolk. She was very young when she snuck out of her house against her parents’ warnings and was struck by lightning, which transformed her into a spider. The admission charges to see the woman are lower than those to see the old man, and people are allowed to examine her spider’s body as much as they like. Because she is a more sympathetic and accessible figure than the old man, the woman soon replaces him as the town’s chief attraction. Visits to Pelayo’s courtyard dry up. Pelayo and Elisanda are unperturbed by this change, since they...
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have already amassed enough money through the old man to build a mansion with grills to keep out crabs during the high tide. The old man continues to live neglected in the chicken coop. As their child grows up, he visits the old man, unafraid. To the child, the old man’s wings seem so natural he is amazed other humans do not have them.
By the time the child is old enough to go to school, the coop disintegrates from the rain. The old man begins to wander inside the house, with the grown-ups often chasing him out of their bedroom with a broom. The old man seems to be everywhere in the house, exasperating Pelayo. Pelyao notices that the man’s wings have been reduced only to their cannula. When the old man runs a fever, Pelayo and Elisenda fear he might die. They do not know what they would do with a dead angel.
The old man survives the worst of winter and begins to improve in the first sunny days of December. His denuded wings begin sprouting feathers. He sits in the corner of a courtyard, singing to himself in Norwegian, careful not to attract the attention of the others. One day, a strong breeze blowing in catches Elisenda’s attention in the kitchen. She looks out and sees the old man attempt to fly off the top of the shed. After a few failed efforts, the old man manages to “gain altitude,” flying away clumsily like a “senile vulture.” Elisenda is relieved that the old man is no longer her problem.