Last Updated on January 19, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944
Márquez describes “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” as a tale, rather than a short story. This classification is important in understanding the story’s key themes and symbols. While story and tale have similar meanings and can be used interchangeably, tale carries certain specific connotations. A tale tends to be focused on plot and action, whereas a story is character-driven. A tale tells a universal truth, while a story shows the truth of a certain character or group of characters. Fairy tales and folk narratives are examples of tales. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” can be said to be driven by unfolding actions in the fashion of a fairy tale. These actions—the discovery of the old man, the townspeople’s treatment of him, and his eventual recovery and flight—illustrate important truths about the human condition, making the story a tale. However, unlike fairy tales, which are often set in a fabulous past, Márquez’s story is set in a realistic milieu. Although the narrative doesn’t name the town and country of the setting, its depiction is realistic. Pelayo is described as involved in a tedious activity like catching and killing crabs and throwing them out of his house; the day the old man is found is so drab and gloomy that “sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing.” Pelayo and Elisenda are dealing with routine but awful problems like a child’s sickness and mediocre living conditions. Into this ordinary, realistic setting, the narrative introduces a magical, extraordinary element: a winged man. Márquez’s method of juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane is known as magical realism.
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Magical realism plays a specific role in Márquez’s story: it serves to highlight the truth about human beings rather than provide an evasive fantasy. Magical realism helps tell a tale and present a universal problem. As the opening section of the story shows, Pelayo and Elisenda quickly become immune to the wonder the angel should evoke. The discovery of a man with not just large but “enormous” wings should inspire awe in the couple, especially given their Christian background, toward which the story strongly hints. In Christian lore, an angel has the appearance of a winged human being. Yet, the humans who discover the old man focus on his decrepitude and strangeness, his “pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather,” which is said to subtract any impression of “grandeur.” The old man does not speak a language they understand or revere and is hence labeled as a forgettable oddity. The old, wise neighbor who does recognize the old man as an angel proves to be narrow-minded in her assessment as well. She decides he is a fallen angel come for the child and the townsfolk, and that he must be clubbed to death. Thus, the neighbors equate the old man with Lucifer’s band, the group of angels who supposedly rebelled against God. The blasé attitude with which the humans treat the unusual old man is an allegory for the way people ignore the daily miracles occurring around them. While the story never specifies if the old man is actually an angel—he is simply referred to as a very old man with wings, as in the title—the point of the narrative is that he doesn’t need to be an angel to inspire wonder. Just the presence of a winged man—symbolizing the miracles of nature—should be enough to spark awe. Therefore, the magical realism element of the winged man serves to highlight the all-too-real apathy of human beings.
The irony here is that none of the old man’s actions suggest he is evil or harmful. He is frequently described as having “supernatural” patience. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes obvious that his presence brings Pelayo and Elisenda good fortune. He may be an actual benevolent angel. The sick child recovers soon, the couple comes into money, and the townsfolk are shaken out of their stupor. However, the human treatment of the old man continues to worsen. The townsfolk are described as treating him with derision, going as far as burning “his side with an iron for branding steers.” These unfolding actions show that the people do not respect truly wondrous happenings. They go out seeking miracles in a peculiar form, ignoring the real miracles unfolding around them. In this sense, the old man symbolizes the wonder found in the everyday world that people neglect in their apathy. The xenophobic and violent attitude of the townsfolk represents their lack of compassion. It also satirizes their self-righteous notions about being good Christians, since a good Christian is supposed to treat any fellow human with charity.
The satire on false religiosity is heightened in the figure of Father Gonzaga. Far from discerning the true nature of the angel, Father Gonzaga gets entangled in empty semantics, such as the old man’s supposed inability to understand Latin. For Father Gonzaga, an angel’s essence is not his docile, benign nature or his extraordinary wings, but his adherence to certain formal norms. Thus, the cleric is unable to see the truth right in front of his eyes. Later, the higher church authorities behave in a similar way, arguing over “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,” rather than recognize his obvious extraordinariness. The clergy’s apathy to truth represents how ritualism and superstition can limit human perception.
Ironically, the old man gets a reprieve only when the limited attention span of the townsfolk moves onto another distraction. For the townsfolk, the old man is only a spectacle, and that, too, an inadequate one. The arrival of the spider woman provides them with a new avenue of entertainment. Thus, they shun a truly miraculous sight for a grotesque carnival show. The narrative is sympathetic toward the plight of the spider woman, but it satirizes the townspeople’s unhealthy interest in her. The reason they prefer her to the old man is because she presents an obvious cautionary tale: disobey one’s parents and get turned into a spider. The old man, on the other hand, is an aloof cipher, “a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.” Because the townsfolk cannot package the old man’s story into a neat aphorism, they shun him.
Throughout the narrative, the townsfolk, including Elisenda and Pelayo, are depicted as greedy, ignorant, and even cruel. They fixate on the old man’s pitiful appearance, completely overlooking the awe-inspiring sight of his gigantic wings. This is obvious through the repeated descriptions of the old man’s unsavory appearance and smells: the narrative is showing the reader the angel through the biases of humans. His eyes are frequently described as “antiquarian” and “foggy,” and his wings are compared to that of a scraggly hen. Even after Pelayo and Elisenda make their fortune through the angel, they continue to see him as an encumbrance. The narrative notes that when they do wash his chicken coop, it is not to keep the angel in more hygienic conditions but to rid themselves of its “dungheap stench.” The terrible condition of the coop is juxtaposed against the trappings of the couple’s newfound wealth, Elisenda’s “satin pumps” and “dresses of iridescent silk.” The only person who treats the old man considerately is Pelayo and Elisenda’s growing child. Significantly, he is the first to enter the coop, despite the stench. He plays with the angel, unafraid in his innocence. Thus, the old man and the child both symbolize an uncorrupted purity. The child is an example of humanity’s potential for goodness, before it is ruined by greed, prejudice, and superstition.
As if to further signify the connection between the child and the old man, both of them contract chicken pox. The doctor who visits the pair is the only other person who treats the old man with dignity. He examines him dispassionately and notes that his wings are logical and natural. So logically are the wings constructed that to the doctor it seems odd that other human beings do not possess them. The doctor represents the voice of reason in the text, asserting that the angel’s differences don’t make him abhorrent. His view also shows that while people think of themselves as normal and others as odd, the reverse may be equally true. What if the winged human is natural and the wingless are the strange ones?
One of the narrative’s striking features is that Pelayo and Elisenda remain static characters. Though their circumstances improve dramatically, their inner nature remains the same. They do not learn from their mistakes or adapt their worldview in any way over the course of the story. They let the coop disintegrate with the weather—a sign of their neglect of the old man’s terrible living quarters—and resent the old man’s entry into their home. They consider his frequent forays into the house as an intrusion, unable to see that he perhaps only needs some shelter in his feverish state. In a deeply ironic statement, Elisenda shouts that “it’s awful living in that hell full of angels.” Her perception is so limited she considers the presence of the angelic old man infernal. Even when the old man displays obvious signs of his angelic nature, such as speaking in tongues—an unintelligible language spoken in a heightened state of divine grace—the couple view him as only a nuisance. When their child recovers, along with the angel, they do not view this as a miracle.
What the couple consider the old man’s deterioration is actually a part of his recovery. He begins to sprout feathers, symbolizing that he is able to regenerate in spirit, unlike the apathetic humans around him. The humans associate him with senility and ugliness, but the old man sings sea songs under the stars and basks in his solitude. There is something obviously magical about him that the humans continue to overlook. In the climax of the story, the old man achieves an uplifting ending by flying away. His dramatic escape is juxtaposed against the mundaneness of Pelayo and Elisenda’s life: it happens when Elisenda is cutting onions in the kitchen. Significantly, even though Elisenda witnesses something as momentous and dramatic as an old man flying off in the sky, she remains a passive observer. She fixates only on the ugliness and clumsiness of his efforts, rather than the miraculous recovery he has made. When the old man flies away, she compares him to a “senile vulture,” a phrase which echoes her and her husband’s initial impression of him as a “buzzard.” Both vultures and buzzards are scavenging birds unfairly associated with malice and dirt. The fact that Elisenda’s perception of the angel doesn’t change shows that she and her husband are untouched by the grace the old man represents. When he flies off, she is relieved that he is no longer her problem.
Elisenda’s response is an allegory for the human propensity to shun the real grace which surrounds them. This grace could be in the form of the miracle of nature—the old man symbolizes a magnificent animal—or the wondrous patience and empathy of another human being—again symbolized by the old man—yet people close their hearts and minds to this grace. Life in the town goes on as before, unaltered by its contact with the truly divine.