Effects of Magic Realism

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2230

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...

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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 if they were real, and nothing like we expect them to be?'' He creates a tension between the old man's magical and human qualities, leaving us unable to fit the character into a comfortable mental category. The old man is far too human and decrepit to match our cultural image of angels: perfect, powerful, majestic, immortal. Nor does he appear to be a heavenly messenger, sent by God as a sign of momentous changes; his presence seems to be purely an accident of the weather, without purpose or meaning. Nonetheless, he certainly has his magical qualities, and is even credited with miracles (though, like everything else about him, they are disturbing, and fail to satisfy expectations). However miraculous his nature, origins, or abilities may be, he is stranded here, and relatively powerless—an exile from his former life, at the mercy of strangers. The villagers must somehow account for him, and because no one understands his language, he is unable (and apparently unwilling) to explain himself. Several possible interpretations arise, but most of them are clearly absurd, telling us more about the villagers' superstitions and beliefs than about the old man's ‘‘true nature.’’ They are rendered with playful humor, ensuring that the reader will appreciate the irrational and illusory basis of such ''folk wisdom.'' Yet our "superior," conventional methods of logic and reason don't seem any more useful in reaching a secure explanation. The old man remains a stubborn, intriguing mystery, both magical and ordinary, impossible to decipher but undeniably there.

This uncertainty (or ambiguity) applies not just to the old man, but evidently to life itself, as it is lived in this timeless, nameless village. It seems to be a place where just about anything can happen (for example, a young woman can be changed into a spider for disobeying her parents)—or at least, it is a place where everyone is quite willing to believe such things happen and to act as though they do happen. This impression is partly a result of Garcia Marquez' s use of narrative voice. For the most part, the story seems to be told by the standard ‘‘omniscient observer'' of third person fiction—a narrator who knows all the necessary facts, and can be trusted to present them reliably. When such narration expresses an opinion, the reader tends to accept it as a correct interpretation. This narrator may seem to fit the type at first, but later appears to change his point of view, and even his opinions of events. The narrator seems to endorse the villagers' thinking at times (for example, reporting without comment that the old man has a ‘‘strong sailor's voice,’’ even though we have no evidence for this assumption of Pelayo and Elisenda's), but at other times, he seems almost contemptuous of their irrational ideas. (A few lines later, when he describes how the couple ''skipped over the inconvenience of the wings'' and ‘‘quite intelligently’’ decided that he was nothing but a sailor, the intent seems to be strongly sarcastic.) We might entertain hope that Father Gonzaga's correspondence with church leaders will eventually produce an explanation—until the narrator comments that those ''meager letters might have come and gone until the end of time'' without result. In such ways, readers come to rely on the narrator for clues about ''how to take'' elements in the story that may be unclear. But this narrator seems determined to be untrustworthy, and leaves us uncertain about important events. Without telling us how, he treats everything that happens as though it ‘‘makes sense.’’ Though he is habitually ironic in his view of the "wise" villagers' beliefs, he describes the supernatural experience of the ‘‘spider woman’’ in simple factual terms, seeming to accept it as readily as his characters do. Are we to conclude that this fantastic transformation from human to spider actually happened? Or that the narrator is now as deluded as the villagers? Or even that he is purposely lying to us? At such moments, the narration seems to parody the style of traditional fairy tales; as the label ''magic realism'' suggests, some elements of the story seem meant to be approached with the simplistic "logic" of fantasy, while others are depicted with all the complexity and imperfection that mark ‘‘real life.’’

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. Dreamlike, poetic descriptions are presented matter-of-factly; like winged old men who fall from the sky, they are treated more as everyday realities than as bizarre impossibilities. When we learn that a character is deprived of sleep ''because the noise of the stars disturbed him,’’ it seems to be merely a symptom quoted from his medical chart, perhaps even a common cause of insomnia, not an obvious delusion or a feat of supernatural hearing. As in the similar case of the ''poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers,’’ the narrator gives no indication that any particular explanation is required, almost assuming that the reader will accept these odd riddles without question. Traditionally, we aren't meant to take such language literally (as a description of factual events), but poetically (or figuratively), as a creative key to some idea or state of mind, which we must interpret for ourselves. (The insomniac, for example, might be said to "really" be experiencing hallucinations due to mental illness, or perhaps a feeling of isolation and insignificance in the cosmos—but not actually listening to stars.) But here, such "magical" descriptions seem to be offered as straightforward accounts of "normal" (if rare and unusual) occurrences (his ears are sensitive, and those stars are just too loud!)—events whose ‘‘real meaning’’ need not, or cannot, be determined, but which must nonetheless be accepted as "real."

The mixture of different kinds of imagery, and different narrative attitudes, serves to heighten the reader's uncertainty. Realistic and magical descriptions are often combined, as if they are inseparable aspects of the same events. Thus, we are not only told that it is ''the third day of rain,'' but also, a few lines later, that ‘‘[t]he world had been sad since Tuesday.’’ By combining factual and imaginative descriptions, and seeming to treat them with equal credibility, the author suggests that both ''ways of knowing’’ are valid, perhaps even necessary to achieving a balanced understanding. Magic seems to lie just beneath the surface of the story, waiting to break through, almost beyond the narrator's control. For example, a description of the old man's undignified captivity lingers over factual, everyday details (his diet of eggplant mush, the crowd tossing stones to get him to react, the hens pecking through his feathers); but the insects infesting his wings are suddenly described as ''stellar parasites''—a poetic image, not a "factual" one (at least until there is any evidence of insects living on stars). If we approach the story expecting to be charmed by a fairy tale, the factual descriptions seem ‘‘too real;’’ they spoil the "magical" effect we hope for, by allowing the unpleasant and inconvenient details of everyday life to intrude on our imaginative landscape. But if we read with a "realistic" frame of mind, looking for solid facts and logical explanations, the strange poetic images only frustrate us, and may cause us to question other apparent ''facts.'' The magical touches may dazzle us, but they can also make us feel like the old man in his early efforts to fly: that we are ‘‘slip[ping] on the light,’’ unable to ''get a grip on the air.'' We must somehow accept the events our narrator presents (at least temporarily), in order to continue reading at all, and have any hope of making sense of the tale. But we are never sure whether to ''accept'' them as real events, mass hallucinations, symbolic stand-ins for some ‘‘other’’ story the author has in mind, or the unreal "magic" of legends and fairy tales. We cannot choose between reality and magic; Garcia Marquez insists on giving us both, even in the most minor details. When the startled bird-man suddenly flaps his wings, he creates a "whirlwind" in the courtyard, with a dustcloud composed of both (earthly) chicken dung and (heavenly) ‘‘lunar dust’’: even the dirt on the ground is shown to be both humble and marvelous at once.

Typical of the style, this story's tone seems both playful and serious. The striking images and sudden surprises stimulate the reader's senses and imagination, but also frustrate and complicate our efforts to fix a definite meaning to events. Works of magic realism are both praised and criticized for their ‘‘childlike wonder,’’ their depiction of a world of almost-infinite possibilities, where the supernatural and the everyday take on the same vivid intensity. But they are not fairy tales or two-dimensional fantasies; they offer no clear lessons, simple events, or sharp distinctions between reality and magic. "Wondering" includes both delight and confusion, the struggle to comprehend experiences that challenge our understanding, and don't fit our accustomed map of reality. Far more things are possible in the world of magic realism, including miracles, contradictions, and logical impossibilities—but this also means that more meanings are possible, and that all meanings will be elusive and uncertain.

Source: Tom Faulkner, Overview of ''A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Aspects of Narrative Structure in The Incredible and Sad Story of the Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother

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I am going to begin with beginnings. Each story in [The Incredible and Sad Story of the Innocent Evendira and her Heartless Grandmother (ISS)] begins with an arrival—a space or a consciousness is invaded by an unknown presence. But the nature of the invading presence differs: in ''Constant Death'' and "Blacaman" it is human (Onésimo Sánchez and Blacamán respectively); in ''Very Old Man'' it is part-human (the bird-man); in ‘‘Drowned Man’’ it was formerly human (Esteban's corpse); in "Sea" and ''Incredible Story'' it is a natural phenomenon (the smell of roses and a wind respectively); and in ‘‘Last Journey’’ it is an object (the ghost ship). But in four of the stories the source of the invading presence is the same: in one way or another, the sea is associated with the arrival in ‘‘Very Old Man,’’ "Sea," "Drowned Man’’ and ‘‘Last Journey,’’ and in the first two of these the invading presence returns to the sea at the end. And in all of the stories the arrival has the same extraordinary effect—it becomes the focus of widespread, sometimes all-absorbing, attention—and in each case the arrival represents the inception of a series of events that will occupy the remainder of the story. The effect of the arrival is to disrupt—it introduces instability into a pre-existent situation, and that instability produces interest and also movement. The interest stimulated by the new arrival centres on a common reaction in several stories: the need to discover the meaning of the disruption. But the invading presence also seems to produce a release of energy in the characters and so to create a new pattern of life. In both respects the arrival is a beginning—a point of inception.

The fact that in certain stories the characters need to interpret the arrival, to establish the meaning of the invading presence, is a sign of the destabilizing character of the event. The diversity of the interpretations and the confusion felt is most graphically apparent in ''Very Old Man.'' Here the desire to understand is powerful but the capacity to comprehend minimal: the bird-man is variously seen by the villagers as a nightmare, a shipwrecked sailor, an angel and a circus animal; and their confusion is shared by the chain of ecclesiastical interpreters extending up to the Vatican, which is notable for its failure to produce even a conjectural interpretation. The same overloading of interpretative skills is evident in ''Drowned Man,'' where the desire to establish whether Esteban is human is simply swept aside by unquestioning awe in the face of his extraordinary beauty. In both of these cases (and in the other stories with inanimate invasions) the new arrival sets up no dialogue with the community that is invaded—the bird-man and Esteban simply arrive and are observed. They provide no self-explanation, and that accounts, in part, for the disputes that arise as to their nature and even existence (examples of the latter are in ''Sea'' and ''Last Journey’’). In each case, the interpretations are attempts to accommodate the unknown within everyday frames of knowledge. Given the nature of the new arrivals, the interpretations are not surprising, though they are certainly not definitive either. They also provide a valuable means of assessing the workings of characters' minds, that is, their capacity for rational thought, and this factor is crucial for the reader's response, in potentially stimulating an ironic view of characters.

More important than the question of characters' interpretations is the new direction that their lives take. The change results from the instability that the new arrivals produce, since characters are stimulated to undertake action, and action means change. It is not that any specific response is demanded, any inescapable action forced upon them, but that a field of possibility is opened up... In ''Very Old Man'' the bird-man's arrival involves Pelayo and Elisenda willy nilly in trying to cope with the sheer physical problem of crowds of onlookers, and that problem leads to their financial triumph, the building of a luxurious house and a new job for Pelayo: life is transformed...

The structure so far isolated, therefore, involves various kinds of invasion or arrival, which sometimes stimulate interpretation but which, above all, destabilize a pre-existent situation and lead to the inception of new movement, new courses of action. And the remarkable feature of the new movement in ISS is that the individuals involved, who first perceive the intruding presence, are frequently joined by the whole community—a broad expansion takes place, which makes the disequilibrium a shared and festive event. There is a multiplication of interest which often extends beyond the bounds of the local population. The fair motif is central to this expansion. In ‘‘Very Old Man’’ the bird-man's arrival initially affects only Pelayo and Elisenda, but overnight there is a large influx of people from the neighbourhood and subsequently of huge crowds of people from far and wide who stretch in a line over the horizon waiting to see the prodigy. This influx brings with it a variety of fairground performers from around the Caribbean who temporarily transform the community—life undergoes a process of carnivalization...

This move into expansion and carnivalization amplifies the localized effects of new arrivals; it is a consistent structural motif throughout ISS, but there is no precise repetition of detail in each story; it is a general rhythm and developmental strategy...

Given that some of the stories do not rely heavily on strong causal links to sustain forward movement, it is interesting to consider how endings are achieved. If there is little causal emphasis, what relation can an ending have with what precedes it? Is there any evidence to suggest that the endings in ISS act as points of culmination or resolution? And, if not, how does each story create a ''sense of an ending'' ? The key factor here is departure. Most of the stories rely on departures to provide a ''sense of an ending,’’ that is to create an impression that a "natural" cycle has been completed: the departure terminates what the arrival inaugurated, which is something that readers can accept by drawing on cultural knowledge and without needing an explanation of how or why it came about. ‘‘Very Old Man’’ ends with the growth of the bird-man's feathers which creates the possibility of flight and departure...

[The] ending of ‘‘Very Old Man’’ (not untypically) seems to be underdetermined; it is pointless to ask why the bird-man's feathers grow and why he flies away, since there is no cause other than the need to provide a narrative ending.

This type of ending leaves us with a global structure as a basis for most of the stories: arrival—reaction and expansion—departure. But the symmetry of this structure is deceptively attractive. It is deceptive because it provides a neat representation which fails to take into account an important aspect of the stories: their elusiveness. It is not that this structure is wrong, simply that it does not tell us enough. Above all, this pattern seems "closed," where the stories are teasingly "open"—that is, they are thematically reticent while foregrounding elements of a highly imaginative and problematic sort. There is a need, therefore, to question any simple, closed representation. One way to modify the neatness of the first representation is by looking at the reversals which contribute to the instability of the stories; and one way to begin trying to make sense of their openness—without reducing the stories to statements of what they are "about," which would impose closure from ''outside''—is to examine the fair motif...

The fair motif is, or accompanies, an intrusion into the narrative space in ISS—it constitutes or reinforces a radical disequilibrium in life patterns; in this way it represents a potential opening or transformation. And in that connection the fair motif can be examined in the light of what [Mikhail] Bakhtin [in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, translated by R. W. Rotsel, 1973] calls popular-festive forms or carnivals. Bakhtin's theorization is useful:

Carnival is a pageant without a stage and without a division into performers and spectators. In the carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, it is, strictly speaking, not even played out; its participants live in it, they live according to its laws, as long as those laws are in force, i.e. they live a carnivalistic life. The carnivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to a degree ‘‘life turned inside out," "life the wrong way round" ("monde ál'envers’’).

The laws, prohibitions and restrictions which determine the system and order of normal, i.e. non-carnival, life are for the period of carnival suspended; above all, the hierarchical system and all the connected forms of fear, awe, piety, etiquette, etc. are suspended, i.e. everything that is determined by social-hierarchical inequality among people, or any other form of inequality, including age... Carnival celebrates change itself, the very process of replaceability...

The stress here is on newness, on the potential for change, on living in a radically different way from before, if only for the duration of the festivity. In that perspective the fairs or carnivals of ISS are recognizable as stimuli for change (‘‘Sea’’ and ‘‘Very Old Man’’) or as ways of life (‘‘Blacamán’’ and ‘‘Incredible Story’’).

But the key question is: ‘‘How much really changes or is transformed in 755?" ... In ‘‘Very Old Man’’ there is real transformation; the fair builds on and exceeds the arbitrary arrival of the bird-man and it helps Pelayo and Elisenda to gain new social status by allowing them to earn money from the curiosity the birdman is. Here the change outlasts the festivity...

I will end by attempting to analyse the structure of the narrative space created in ISS. I want to suggest a way of understanding the kind of narrative world that exists in ISS; that is, by trying to establish the nature and consistency of the relations that hold between the actual world and the narrative world, I want to propose an analytical approach to the comprehension of the stories' narrative space.

In discussing the way all discourse is comprehended [in ‘‘Semantic macro-Structures and Knowledged Frames in Discourse Comprehension,’’ in Cognitive Processes in Comprehension, ed. M. A. Just and P. A. Carpenter, 1977], Teun van Dijk has stressed the importance of knowledge frames. He defines these as follows:

Frames are knowledge representations about the "world" which enable us to perform such basic cognitive acts as perception, action, and language comprehension.

We propose that frames define units or chunks of concepts which are not essentially, but typically, related. Some intuitive examples may clarify this point. Conceptually, there is no immediate or essential relation between the concept of ''table'' and the concept of "cereal," nor between "soap" and "water," nor between "waitress" and "menu." They are distinct and do not presuppose each other. Yet, they are organized by the frames of ''breakfast," "washing" and "restaurant," respectively. They usually denote certain normal courses of events or courses of actions involving several objects, persons, properties, relations, and facts ... It is in this sense that frames are higher-level organizing principles. They unify concepts of various types and at various levels of representation under the constraint of typicality and normality ... Frames ... are conventional and general. Most members of a society or culture have approximately the same set of frames.

Van Dijk points out that these frames act as a crucial part of our horizon of expectation and comprehension in processing all discourse (including literature), and it is clear that they complement whatever conventions may hold within any specific discourse. The reliance of discourse on knowledge frames is evident in its capacity to be comprehended without recourse to totalizing explanation. Discourse is efficient and concise; it can elide information precisely because it can rely on triggering knowledge frames in its audience—it can rely on shared experience. This is a basic assumption which is operative in discourse processing by default; that is, unless there is any indication to the contrary, it seems that normal knowledge frames are operative.

This basic assumption is apparent in innumerable details of ISS: the reader can be relied upon to attach the appropriate frame to single actions that in global terms form part of, for instance, having breakfast, making love, or attempting murder. Similarly, global action need only be alluded to for a knowledge frame to fill it out: playing draughts, selling a patent medicine, attempting to corrupt a politician. These bits of knowledge are trivial because they correspond to a possible or actual world of experience, and the input of information by the reader is, therefore, effortless, even unconscious, whatever the specific detail of the narrative.

But the key point is that much of the force of ISS derives from the deviation from knowledge frames. If one defines a ''possible world'' as one that is constructed and comprehended in terms of knowledge frames of the actual world (in specific combination or permutation), then it is evident that ISS constructs only partially possible worlds; it blurs or subverts the normal structures of the actual world. Some examples of blurring or subversive phenomena or actions which are ''facts'' within the stories will make the point more clearly. In ''Very Old Man'' the spiderwoman has an explanation for her condition: she is not a fairground curiosity; her condition is real just as that of the bird-man himself is real, and this blurs the normal distinction between the fairground and the real world ... In ''Very Old Man,’’ a cultural knowledge frame is subverted when it becomes obvious that the supposed angel displays only one feature characteristic of an angel: he has wings. Otherwise he is physically unimpressive, withdrawn, passive, fails to understand Latin and is ultimately a domestic nuisance....

[Often] the knowledge frames of the actual world are indispensable in reading, but there are also significant deviations from or transgressions of this ensemble of structured knowledge. So, in part, ISS aligned with and, in part, sits athwart actual knowledge frames. And the area of discrepancy does sometimes extend to the conscious actions and the minds of characters. Not only is there no rational critique of events by characters from within the stories—that is a viewpoint potentially equivalent to that of the reader—but the characters frequently add to the number of deviations...

In this way the narrative space seems rather idiosyncratic. And so a final question must be posed concerning the position of narrators. The narrators' position could theoretically provide a gauge of events or behaviour; it could align the global point of view with that of the reader and his/her knowledge frames; it could constitute an internal reference point of critical distance. In fact, the question of the narrators' position is quite complex. In the first place the authority and mediation of the narrators in ISS is more or less uniform. This is the case regardless of whether the narrator speaks with a first- or a third-person voice, though the latter is more common ... This authority and mediating power—plus the capacity to name and classify, and the control of chronological progress—doubtless create a certain consistency and clarity. But the question is to see how that authority and mediation are used. Do they carry out the task of distancing critique? The answer is that they do not. The narrators' authority is partial; it is used to register scenes and to fill in certain contextual gaps, but it is not used to justify, explain or question what the characters do or what phenomena are ... [The] narrators' silence, the lack of authoritative, rational discourse, is an important feature. The narrators do not rationalize; they do not analyse; they rather present events as if they were ‘‘simple facts,’’ even if these "facts" deviate substantially from our knowledge frames. This is curious in so far as their authority seems to imply a capacity for rationalizing distance; but, in fact, the narrators' viewpoint is closer to the characters than to the reader. Very often the ‘‘seeing eye’’ of narration is that of one aligned with a character's viewpoint or with an amalgamation of characters' viewpoints. And this is hardly surprising since the narrative structure, the relations between narrative world and actual world, would be inconsistent and simplified if the narrators cut through the complexities of the other features I have described. The gaps and uncertainties are crucial and exist in terms of the relation actual/narrative worlds. To have recourse to such labels as fairy stories or children's stories to describe ISS would be to seek security and closure by removing the stories into an unworldly, ''purely literary'' frame of reference (if such a concept is anything more than wishful thinking). The fissures in our knowledge frames that are created, and the consequent uncertainty potentially stimulated in our reading, are surely consistent with the basic thrust of the fair or carnival motif: namely, to open up and transform.

Source: Mark Millington, ‘‘Aspects of Narrative Structure in The Incredible and Sad Story of the Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother'' in Gabriel Garcia Marquez: New Readings, edited by Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 117-33.

The Logic of Wings: Garcia Marquez, Todorov, and the Endless Resources of Fantasy

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Is fantasy dependent on certain themes, and, if so, might these themes be exhausted? My own response to one story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's ‘‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,’’ a story in which theme and the atmosphere of a fantasy that emerges from the theme are, if anything, negatively correlated, leads me to suspect that fantasy is not closely tied to theme, so that fantasies may be created in any age, without reference to theme.

The story might best be described by starting at the end. At the conclusion, an old man flaps like a senile vulture away from the village where for years he has been held captive. The woman who has grudgingly taken care of him watches him open a furrow in the vegetable patch with his fingernails in his first attempt to rise. She sees him nearly knock down a shed with his ‘‘ungainly flapping.’’ As he gains altitude and begins to disappear, she watches ''until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot.’’ George McMurray, in his recent study of Gabriel Garcia Marquez [Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1977], focuses on this final image and concludes that for the reader (and the villagers) the story is a ‘‘cathartic destruction of antiquated myths.’’ My own reaction was quite different: I had the prescribed catharsis, but I came away with my taste for myth and the supernatural intact. I could see how McMurray arrived at his conclusion, because this particular Icarus, with his ‘‘few faded hairs left on his bald skull’’ and the air of a ‘‘drenched great-grandfather,’’ would hardly seem to inspire wonder. But I felt as if I had witnessed the beginning of a myth, not its end, and the story had evoked for me the sense of wonder and marvel that one associates with myth at its inception.

Whether the story is best designated as a myth or as a fantasy is another matter. Myths present ‘‘supernatural episodes as a means of interpreting natural events in an effort to make concrete and particular a special perception of man or a cosmic view,’’ as [C. Hugh Holman, in his 1972] A Hand-book to Literature would have it. The old man of Garcia Marquez's story does not stimulate the villagers to interpret anything. He is dropped into their existence unexplained, and leaves unexplained, clarifying nothing. It would be more accurate to consider the work a fantasy on the grounds that the story deals, to use the handbook's terms again, with an ''incredible and unreal character.’’ I will eventually apply a more contemporary definition of fantasy to the story, [Tzvetan] Todorov's definition [in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard, 1973], but for the moment I prefer to pursue further the consequences of McMurray's approach. His view implies that the subject of myth, or, as I will have it, fantasy, determines our reactions. If the text parodies a mythic subject, then the reader would appropriately respond, not with an elevated sense of wonder, but with amusement at the exposure of nonsense. Since the subject matter in Garcia Marquez's story does not diminish my own appreciation of the marvelous, I am left to conclude either that McMurray has misread the text or that the effect of a fantasy is not dependent on the subject. I have concluded that both propositions are true. McMurray has misrepresented the text, and, even so, something other than theme or subject matter creates what the reader responds to in a fantasy. ‘‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’’ can be used to show that, as Todorov has predicted, the manner of telling, not the matter, creates the fantasy.

McMurray's points should first be dealt with in more detail. His interpretation is brief, but his argument is easily extended. Part of Garcia Marquez' s strategy, as McMurray suggests, was undeniably to diminish the grandeur of this unearthly winged creature. Similes used to describe him do not even grant him human attributes: matched with the villagers who stood around his cage he looked ' 'like a huge decrepit hen among fascinated chickens.’’ Later it is said that he tolerates a child's ''ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions.’’ A complex simile, to be sure, for the narrator is saying not only that the old man is like a dog, but also that the dog with his patience and lack of illusions is like a human being. Nevertheless, the effect of the simile is to emphasize the analogy to an animal. The syntax of the sentence which reveals the old man's wings also diminishes rather than ennobles him. Pelayo, the man who found him, heard something moving and groaning in the courtyard that he had recently cleaned of crabs and the stench they left behind. Pelayo ‘‘had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn't get up, impeded by his enormous wings.’’ The long sentence, with its hesitations that duplicate in the reader the efforts of the old man, relegates the marvel of his wings to the terminal subordinate clause. Rhetorical decisions such as these have just as much effect on us as the content. It would seem that both the language and the content are pushing the reader in the direction that McMurray has outlined. The supernatural is described as something ordinary or, even more precisely, foul and repellent.

McMurray's analysis can be extended further. The narrator's motive in telling the story would seem to be satiric rather than inspirational. The credulity of mankind and greed—Pelayo's wife begins to charge admission to see the old man—are apparently the narrator's targets. The church is too, for the attempts of ecclesiastical bureaucrats to discover through correspondence with the resident priest whether or not the winged creature is an angel are bogged down by their desire to find out ''if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn't just a Norwegian with wings.’’ Furthermore, the narrator's exaggerated manner of description seems to undercut even further our response to the old man. When Pelayo and his wife Elisenda first speak to the old man, ‘‘he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor's voice.’’ What it is that makes the voice sound like that of a sailor is not questioned by the narrator, who simply mirrors what is presumably the illogic of Pelayo and Elisenda. The narrator's complicity in this fabrication extends beyond mirroring. He notes that Pelayo and Elisenda ‘‘skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway.’’ Since wings are certainly more than an ''inconvenience,'' and the logical processes of Pelayo and Elisenda are therefore something less than intelligent, we have a narrator who, instead of striving to establish the credibility of this supernatural creature, is emphasizing the credulity of the villagers

Similes that demean, satire, playful logic—it would seem that Garcia Marquez is not about to honor a myth. Yet none of these devices totally cancels out the mystery. The diminishing suggested by these devices does not represent all of the truth about the old man and his wings. However decrepit the old man is, he does renew himself. When he arrived he seemed close to death, and several years later a doctor listening to the old man's heart concludes that it is impossible for him to be alive; yet after his release from his cage and with the onset of sunny days, stiff feathers begin to grow on his wings. Although the narrator continues to denigrate, calling the new growth ‘‘scarecrow feathers’’ that look like ‘‘another misfortune of decrepitude,’’ the feathers do allow the old man to fly away. Something about the old man is greater than the narrator's estimation of him.

Other devices that the narrator used to increase rather than decrease our respect for the old man also need to be considered. When compared to those around him the old man becomes the model of patience, trying the best he can to ''get comfortable in his borrowed nest, befuddled by the hellish heat of the oil lamps and sacramental candles that had been placed along the wire.’’ He refuses to eat the mothballs that one of the villagers thinks is the ‘‘food prescribed for angels,’’ and subsists on eggplant mush. If he is "befuddled," that term has ironic value, for it is those that regard him who are confused.

Contrast with what seems to be even the sanest of mortals is illustrative. Father Gonzaga is the figure presented by the narrator as the most sane. He is not, as his parishioners are, ready to make the old man the mayor of the world or a ''five-star general in order to win all wars,’’ nor does he want to put him out to stud to create ''a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe.’’ Father Gonzaga ''had been a robust woodcutter'' and so by implication is more realistic. He soberly approaches the old man and says good morning in Latin. Father Gonzaga has ''his first suspicion of an imposter'' when he saw that the old man ''did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers,’’ and it is at this point we realize that Father Gonzaga is the one who fails the test, not the old man. Father Gonzaga notices that ‘‘seen close up’’ the old man ‘‘was much too human,’’ and so the priest warns his parishioners not to be taken in. In the light of Father Gonzaga's response, the comment that the old man is ‘‘too human’’ is particularly telling. Gonzaga's rationalism obscures his realization that although the winged gentleman may not meet doctrinal specifications, he still is miraculous. What begins to emerge is an image of the old man as someone possibly more human and reasonable than members of the wingless species.

The winged man's humanity is underlined by a foil the narrator creates—a woman who has been changed into a spider. Her presence distracts the villagers, and they cease to pay attention to the old man. Her exhibit costs less, and unlike the old man, she talks about her affliction. Where the old man refused, she encourages responses, readily accepting meatballs tossed into her mouth. There is nothing ambiguous or submerged about our perception of her. The old man's wings were slowly revealed; we are told bluntly that this woman is ''a frightful tarantula the size of a ram ... with the head of a sad maiden.’’ Though the narrator does not exaggerate the catalogue of her strangeness, she is in fact more grotesque than the old man.

The narrator's description of the villagers' response to her is familiar: once again the logic of the villagers is suspect; the crowd regards her a spectacle full of ‘‘human truth,’’ a ‘‘fearful lesson.’’ The facts of the lesson, however, are these: a lightning bolt of brimstone changed her form because she had been dancing all night without her parents' permission. The narrator's indirect exposure of the triviality of what the crowd considers a basic truth alters our response to the old man. We begin to admire more his silence and even his diet.

The way the villagers treat him is ultimately the best clue to how we should regard him. They poke, they prod, and at one point they burn him with a branding iron. Up until this point pain itself has seemed unreal. Those with ailments who come to be cured have only the most fanciful of afflictions, such as that of an old man ‘‘who couldn't sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him'' and that of ‘‘a poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers.’’ But the old man with wings responds with true pain, ranting in his ‘‘hermetic language,’’ tears in his eyes, flapping his wings to create ‘‘a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust.’’ The villagers take the old man as no more than a creature of fiction, hence not subject to pain. They may not see the old man's humanity, but the reader should.

What I hope is emerging is a more complete sense of the role of the narrator. His denigrations of the protagonist have been systematic but not exclusive. He distorts by alternately exaggerating and understating. What could be called the outer or secondary level of distortion is the product of the narrator's supposed sympathy with the viewpoint of the villagers. This level, whose function is basically satiric, leads the narrator to call wings ''inconvenient'' or to exaggerate the church's concern in terms of the medieval problem of calculating the number of angels on the head of a pin. The narrator takes the viewpoint of the villagers themselves, pretending to be alternately detached or supportive, but everywhere he exposes irrationality and superstition. Underneath this level, however, is another, an inner or primary level of distortion, which grows from one central fact—there is an old man with enormous wings. That conception embodies even in its grammatical form a paradox in the contrast between "old" and "enormous," for we would not expect anything so powerfully endowed to be so decrepit. Beyond this paradox is a kind of simplicity and unarguable solidity. The nature of the wings themselves does not change; what changes is our perception of their naturalness. By the end of the story, a doctor examines the old man and is surprised by ''the logic of his wings,'' and the reader is prepared for a similar realization. These wings, as the doctor puts it, seem ‘‘so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn't understand why other men didn't have them too.’’ This old man, with his muteness, his patience, is in some ways more human, more natural, and even more believable, than anyone else in the story. The secondary level of distortion playfully exposes human folly; the primary level by contrast defines more desirable human traits.

At this point it is appropriate to define the genre of the work more precisely. The definition will allow us to see how the two levels of distortion work together to create the effects we associate with fantasy. Within the last few years, several critics, in particular W. R. Irwin [The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, 1976], Eric S. Rabkin [The Fantastic in Literature, 1976], and Tzvetan Todorov, have attempted to describe fantasy as a genre. Of the three, Todorov's analysis provides the most instructive standards to apply to Garcia Marquez's story. The fit is not perfect; Todorov, I believe, concludes that "fantasy" narrowly defined is hardly being written anymore. But even the divergence between ‘‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’’ and Todorov's principles is in itself enlightening.

Todorov assumes that, first, fantasies produce the effect of hesitation. The reader is never wholly sure whether he is confronting a supernatural event or something that can be rationally explained. If the reader is able to conclude the event is explicable solely on the supernatural level, the story belongs to another genre, the marvelous, and, if the reader chooses the rational explanation, the story falls into the genre of the "uncanny." Second, the reader usually participates in the story through the medium of a character who believes in reason and order, so that the reader experiences the hesitation through the character's eyes. Third, the reader must not be able to explain away the supernatural events by considering them allegorical or poetic. In this case the reader would conclude that the supernatural is merely a shorthand for an idea, hence not to be taken literally. One of the clues to allegory is that no one in the story takes an aberration to be unusual, and so there is no sense of hesitation.

In the case of the Garcia Marquez story, it is simpler to deal with the second point first. There is no character recounting for us his experiences. There is an implied narrator, and this narrator is a direct inversion of the sort of character that Todorov has posited. This is no rational human, but a creator of exaggerations. The hesitation that Todorov speaks of as his first point, then, derives in this story not from the doubts of a character, but from our doubts about what the narrator is saying. Todorov's analysis allows us to see the ingenuity of what Garcia Marquez has done. Garcia Marquez has taken what would normally be the index of normality, the village folk, and made them the greatest of exaggerators. The unreal character, in contrast, begins to appear normal and harmless. Garcia Marquez has managed to make his central contrary-to-fact situation, the old man with wings (what I have been calling the primary level of distortion), seems altogether more rational and ordinary than the villagers. Those who follow Rabkin's definition of fantasy should be pleased, for the effect that I have described is replete with what Rabkin calls 180-degree turns in perspective, the undermining of established expectations. As for the matter of allegory, it is possible that the wings themselves might be taken as allegorical evidence of the true dignity of man. What prevents us from taking the wings as allegory is the very insistence on the decrepitude of the old man, and elaboration of the reality of the wings, the ‘‘stellar parasites’’ in them. In the same way, the characters both are and are not taking the old man as unusual, so that the wings both are and are not allegorical. It is not that Garcia Marquez is making hash of Todorov's categories. What he is doing by his exaggerations is creating the maximum doubt and hesitation about not only the supernatural but the natural as well.

We should now be able to reconsider some of the questions originally raised by McMurray's interpretation. Although it might be possible to contend that McMurray' s reading of the text failed to take into account the double role of the narrator and the two levels of distortion, and hence he did not see the extent to which Garcia Marquez has shifted our sympathies toward the old man and located the antiquated, exhausted view in the perception of the villagers, such a view does not fully account for the energy of the story. Arriving at the truth of the story and feeling its impact do not automatically result from peeling off the secondary layer of distortion and getting at the primary. It is not possible to take either level as the ultimate truth. The positive values may seem to be vested in the primary level, for Garcia Marquez has made muteness and patience seem truly supernatural virtues, and by implication exaggeration the expression of human fallibility. But the center of the story is still an exaggeration. Men do not have wings. The process of distortion itself is the vehicle of our approach to the story. The very act of reading and interpreting the story rests not on muteness and patience, but on the appreciation of exaggeration. In reading the story the reader does not respond only to the truth of a particular idea, in the case of this story, for instance, the idea that there is an indestructible, winged aspect of man that can fly despite its own aging or the lack of appreciation from ordinary men. The story is a whole, not a set of levels, and what causes the reader to respond, in the terms that Todorov has established, is the reader's hesitation over what is real.

This hesitation is built up from the minutest details, as can be shown in one isolated segment, the ending. Even slight distortions in language are significant. The concluding phrase states that the old man ''was no longer an annoyance in [Elisenda's] life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.'' The antithesis of "annoyance" and "dot," contrasting an abstraction with something at least barely visible, might make us grammatically uncomfortable, but the mismatch reproduces the quality of the story itself. It is as if there were a rather easy flow between our feelings and the things we find about us, so that a thought might suddenly take a substance as real as our own, or just as suddenly disappear. The energy created by unusual phrases works in the same way. The idea of modifying "dot" by the adjective "imaginary" is plausible in that the dot may be so small that it is nearly imaginary, but the conjunction of the two terms is also implausible; it has something of the force of an oxymoron, for Elisenda is simultaneously seeing and merely imagining. ''Imaginary'' is also apt in that the old man is by our standards rightly considered imaginary. Structurally the close is effective because it complements the opening—the character was visually constructed piece by piece for us, and now visually recedes into nothingness. Viewed from one perspective, humankind is relieved of a burden. Viewed from another, a creature more perfect, more logical than man has achieved his freedom. The fact that the old man has escaped from the perspective of the characters means to the characters that he does not exist, he may be ignored. But we have seen him endure over a period of time and can imagine him perhaps going back to whatever imaginary place it is that he lives in, one that has as much validity to it as this imaginary town into which he has fallen.

The cluster of possibilities here matches the possibilities advanced in the rest of the story. Clusters such as this give the story its power and create the effects we identify with fantasy; the clusters work much the same way as the hesitation over the natural and the supernatural. Because the effect of the story, the sense in which it is a fantasy, is created by the treatment, not by the subject or theme, the number of fantasies that can still be written should be endless. At one time myths may have been man's way of imagining the unimaginable, but now, even though literal myth-making is no longer used to explain the world around us, the sense of wonder that myth brings with it need not in consequence be abandoned. It does not matter that we cannot take the fanciful as literally as man might once have, nor does it matter that the subject of a myth is decrepit, toothless, and featherless. The sense of wonder that a myth or a fantasy evokes inheres not in the subject, but in the telling. Fantasy is more the how than the what.

Putin terms of Todorov's discussion, fantasy is created initially by something significantly contrary to the ordinary. The task of the reader is to naturalize, to recuperate, that is, to make intelligible, this break from the norms of the reader's experience. The most significant thing about the genre is that the break should not readily be bridged; the circuits must be kept open as long as possible. In Todorov's words, the hesitation must continue. What the reader ends up recuperating is ultimately the process, the broken circuit itself. It is not what the break is about, it is that there is a continuous break that makes a fantasy. Since fantasy is a process, not a result, its resources are endless, and it is in no way dependent on the fashion of the conventions it adapts.

The final matter to consider is the effect of parody in the genre. Does the parody of a myth or fantasy make the story a last gasp, as the Russian formalists have asserted in other cases, of a genre that is about to expire or assume a new form? I think not. Parody is not central to this story. The mention of stellar bugs and scratchings is only a way for the narrator to make the mystery of the old man more, not less, incredible. There are parodic elements, but this is not a parody as such. What one ultimately grasps in a fantasy is the potential of language to construct a world partly, but not wholly, like our own. Fantasy is the logical extension, the wings, of language itself. Literature in general and fantasy in particular are the magic which our customary language so dimly represents.

Source: John Gerlach, ''The Logic of Wings: Garcia Marquez, Todorov, and the Endless Resources of Fantasy,’’ in Bridges to Fantasy, George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 121-29.

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Critical Overview