At a Glance
- The very old man with enormous wings: The title character may or may not be an angel.
- Pelayo: the town's bailiff. He finds the old man and puts him on display.
- Elisenda: Pelayo's wife and the mother of his child, who is ill at the beginning of the story.
- Father Gonzaga: the local priest who denies that the old man is an angel.
- The spider woman: she was supposedly turned into a giant tarantula after disobeying her parents.
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...
(The entire section is 1,421 words.)