A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Characters

The main characters in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" are the old man, Pelayo, Elisenda, Father Gonzaga, and the spider woman.

  • The very old man with enormous wings is an unkempt old man with large wings. Pelayo finds him and turns him into a sideshow attraction, profiting off of peoples' belief that the man is an angel.
  • Pelayo is the town's bailiff. He finds the old man and puts him on display.
  • Elisenda is Pelayo's wife.
  • Father Gonzaga is the local priest who denies that the old man is an angel.
  • The spider woman was supposedly turned into a giant tarantula after disobeying her parents. 

Characters

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421

The old man is the story's central character and its central mystery. He is given no name but is precisely described in the title, which includes everything that can be said about him with any assurance: he is an extremely old man, in failing health, with all the frailties and...

(The entire section contains 1421 words.)

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The old man is the story's central character and its central mystery. He is given no name but is precisely described in the title, which includes everything that can be said about him with any assurance: he is an extremely old man, in failing health, with all the frailties and limitations of human old age, and he has a huge pair of bird's wings growing from his back. Readers follow the other characters in their comic efforts to explain him, to assign some "meaning" to his sudden appearance, and finally to just put up with his annoying presence. But when he flies away at the story's end, the mystery remains.

The very idea of a "winged humanoid" evokes the image of angels, and most of the "wise" villagers quickly assume that he is an angel. But everything about him seems to contradict traditional stereotypes of heavenly power and immortal perfection. When Pelayo, the town bailiff, first finds him in the courtyard, apparently blown out of the sky by a strong rainstorm, his condition is pathetic: he lies "face down in the mud," "dressed like a ragpicker," and tangled in his half-plucked, bug-infested wings. The narrator tells readers directly that this "pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had." Father Gonzaga, the village priest, underscores the point later, when he observes that "nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels." Nor do the villagers allow him any dignity or respect; throughout the story, they treat him "without the slightest reverence." He is displayed like a circus animal or sideshow freak; poked, plucked, and prodded; branded with a hot iron; pelted with stones and garbage; and held prisoner for years in a filthy, battered chicken coop, exposed to the elements. Though he is the source of the family's great fortune, Elisenda, the wife of Pelayo and the one who first conceives of charging the villagers admission to see the "angel," comes to find him an intolerable annoyance, becoming "exasperated and unhinged" by his presence. He is understandably "standoffish" toward people, tolerating only the company of the couple's young child. The villagers come to think of him as "a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals."

Eventually, another star attraction, the spider-woman, relieves the old man from the villagers' attention. The centerpiece of a traveling carnival, the "woman who had been changed into a spider for disobeying her parents" proves to be a more popular attraction than the old man, causing the villagers to lose interest in him and putting an end to Pelayo and Elisenda's profitable courtyard business. As a young girl, the spider-woman had once gone dancing all night against her parents' wishes; later, while walking home, she was allegedly struck by lightning and transformed into "a frightful tarantula the size of a ram . . . with the head of a sad maiden." Compared to the baffling old man, the spider-woman provides a far more satisfying spectacle. While she is at least as grotesque and fantastic as the "birdman," she charges a lower admission price. More importantly, she is willing to communicate freely with her visitors, recounting her sad experience and inspiring sympathy for her fate. The "meaning" of her story is easy to grasp and teaches a clear moral lesson—one that confirms the villagers' conventional beliefs. In contrast, the old man makes no attempt to explain himself and seems to contradict all religious and folk beliefs about the nature of angels. His very existence raises disturbing questions, but he offers no reassuring answers.

Readers can only agree when the narrator observes that the old man's "only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience," given his cruel captivity. Even this virtue is later deprived of any otherworldly greatness; it becomes merely "the patience of a dog who had no illusions." The old man is described in imagery of earthly poverty and human weakness, contradicting heavenly stereotypes. Even the birds with which he is compared to are ignoble ones ("buzzard wings," "a huge decrepit hen," and "a senile vulture"). Yet, there is clearly something of the magical about him beyond his unexplained wings and mysterious origin. He does, after all, perform miracles—but they, too, fail to satisfy expectations. The blind man's sight is not restored, but he suddenly grows three new teeth; the leper's sores are not cured, but sunflowers begin growing from them. These are "consolation miracles," which show "a certain mental disorder," as if senility had caused his magic powers to misfire. Alternately, they could be practical jokes, a form of "mocking fun" to avenge his abuse by the crowd. Their sick child recovers when Pelayo and Elisenda take in the old man, but this could be coincidence, or perhaps another case of failed magic (if, as the neighbor woman believes, he is an angel of death sent to take the baby). And despite his obvious infirmities, he possesses surprising inner strength. His health seems to be in irreversible decline throughout; a doctor's examination finds it "impossible for him to be alive," and very late in the story his death appears imminent. Yet, with the coming of spring, after years of uselessness, his wings grow new feathers and regain their strength, allowing him to escape the village forever.

Although his wings make him a creature of the sky and he is clearly not at home on land, the old man also has some association with the sea. He comes from the sea (or at least from over it), washed up with a tide of crabs by a three-day storm; his first attempts to fly away are accompanied by "a wind that seemed to come from the high seas." Pelayo and Elisenda first take him for a foreign sailor (perhaps because they detect "a strong sailor's voice" in his incomprehensible speech), and an early plan called for him to be set out to sea on a raft with provisions. As his wings begin to regenerate, he sings "sea chanteys" under the stars. Critics disagree in their interpretations of this connection and in their judgments on its significance. But in Garcia Marquez's other works, they often find the sea to be an important theme or symbol, both as a natural force of great power (equally capable of bringing rich gifts or terrible destruction) and as a force associated with the supernatural. Several of his stories include episodes where unusual strangers from the "outside world" appear in a small town and have a strong effect on its people. Very often, these remarkable visitors arrive by sea.

The old man is also connected in some way with Pelayo and Elisenda's child. The newborn is ill when he first appears, but quickly recovers when the "angel" takes up residence. The "wise neighbor woman" believes that he was sent to take the child's life. Both the child and the old man come down with chicken pox at the same time, and the old man uncharacteristically allows the child to play with and around him, tolerating "ingenious infamies" with patience. But beyond these details, the connection or bond between the two is not developed.

Because the old man is a misunderstood outsider subjected to cruel mistreatment, he becomes primarily a figure of pity—a strange emotion for an "angel" to inspire. He has enough magical qualities to let the reader see him, at least potentially, as a figure of wonder, but his very human vulnerability keeps this from being much more than a suggestion. Finally, there is at least an equal suggestion of a potential "dark side." Pelayo's first impression is that of having seen a "nightmare," and the "mental disorder" of the old man's miracles suggests that his "magic powers" are uncontrollable, making him dangerous. When burned with a branding iron, his startled wing-flapping creates "a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust," and "a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world." It is almost a moment of terror. When he calms down, the villagers regard him with renewed caution and fear: "his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease, but that of a cataclysm in repose." And though his visit brings truly miraculous results for Pelayo and Elisenda by making them fabulously wealthy, it also seems to be a frightful and unnerving experience for them. Elisenda comes to feel that she lives in "a hell full of angels," and when they design their dream home, the couple make sure to "angel-proof" it with iron bars.

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