A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Essays and Criticism
by Gabriel García Márquez

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Effects of Magic Realism

(Short Stories for Students)

The style of writing referred to as ''magic realism'' is marked by its imaginative content, vivid effects, and lingering mystery. In combining fantastic elements with realistic details, a writer like Garcia Marquez can create a fictional ''world'' where the miraculous and the everyday live side-by-side—where fact and illusion, science and folklore, history and dream, seem equally "real," and are often hard to distinguish. The form clearly allows writers to stretch the limits of possibility and to be richly inventive; however, it involves more than the creation of attractive fantasies. The village in ''A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings'' may be appealing in some ways, but it is also a complex, difficult, even disturbing fantasy. Beyond imagination, the successful creation of such a world in the reader's mind requires skillful use of the same tools and techniques familiar in more conventional, less ''magical’’ types of fiction. Garcia Marquez not only combines realistic details with fantastic ones, but seems to give them both equal weight, an equal claim to reality or truth in the reader's mind.

In the character of the ''bird-man,’’ we can see this style at work and experience the charming (but unsettling) effect it often has on readers. His mysterious nature is the story's central "problem," the source of its energy and tension. We know, of course, that human beings don't have wings; logically, such a character must be either a monster or a miracle—if he exists at all. Yet when the doctor examines the old man, what most impresses him is ''the logic of his wings,'' which ''seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn't understand why other men didn't have them too.’’ Logic and science insist that such a creature must be supernatural, but Garcia Marquez presents him as entirely ‘‘natural’’; much like the doctor, once we've "seen" him, it's as if winged old men were common, even unremarkable, visitors. We see how, despite ‘‘the inconvenience of the wings,’’ Pelayo and Elisenda ‘‘very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.'' As readers, we are guided to the same kind of acceptance. No one questions the old man's existence, or the reality of his wings, not even the narrator (except, perhaps, in the final line, when the old man becomes ‘‘an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea’’). He may or may not be an angel, but he is unquestionably an old man with wings, as "real" as anyone else in the story.

Several techniques contribute to the old man's vivid "existence." Detailed sensory imagery is a standard means for writers to reinforce a character's "reality" to the reader, and Garcia Marquez not only makes us ''see'' the old man (right down to the ‘‘few faded hairs left on his bald skull’’ and the parasites picking through his ruined feathers), but also "smell" him, "feel" the texture of his wings, and ''hear'' his whistling heartbeat. The rich imagery also works to undermine supernatural stereotypes, contradicting our usual ideas about angels and denying the old man any of the heroic or exalted qualities we expect. He is described not only in human, earthly terms, but in terms of extreme weakness and poverty (‘‘dressed like a ragpicker,'' ''his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather’’). When he is compared to birds, they are not exotic eagles or dazzling peacocks, but common species with less-than-noble reputations (his ''buzzard wings," "a decrepit hen," "a senile vulture’’). As Father Gonzaga observes (and by the author's design), ‘‘nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.’’ He thus becomes real the more we see him as human, a creature closer to our own experience and understanding—not a shining, mythical being but a frail, suffering, even pathetic fellow, who happens to have a few physical quirks.

The problem Garcia Marquez presents us is not just ''What if angels were real?'' but ''What...

(The entire section is 9,237 words.)