At a Glance

  • Márquez writes in the style of magical realism, a term that refers to works of art that include magical elements in an otherwise realist world. The appearances of both the old man and the spider woman indicate that the story is set in a world where magical things sometimes occur.
  • Márquez uses both natural and divine imagery in his descriptions of places, characters, and events in the short story. In the first paragraph, he writes that "the world had been sad since Tuesday," when it started raining. This sets the tone for the story.
  • Wings are symbols of freedom, power, and divinity in the story. When the old man flies, he's both literally and symbolically freeing himself from his years as a sideshow attraction. 


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” García Márquez makes use of several highly inventive diversions from the basic story line to make interpretation even more elusive. In these narrative diversions theme and technique become inseparably intertwined. Although the old man/angel is central to the story, and every event bears on him, his appearance, behavior, identity, fate, or effects, the attention focused on the old man is frequently interrupted by shifts of focus to other characters, who are sometimes named and described at length. The obtrusiveness of the narrator, who is both at one with and apart from the other characters, also functions to distract the reader. The story, in fact, vacillates between the perspective of the omniscient narrator and that of the villagers, individually and collectively. When Father Gonzaga enters, for example, he reveals his suspicions about the old man, his observations about him, his sermon to the assembly of villagers, and his promise to seek advice from higher authorities. A few pages later, there appears a synopsis of his correspondence to the pope about the old man, and after another few pages, the waning of the old man’s popularity seemingly cures Father Gonzaga of his insomnia. Then the old man disappears from the narrative altogether.

The full history of the carnival woman who was transformed into a spider for disobeying her parents constitutes another episode and provides a similar distraction, as do the imaginative excesses of the ailments suffered by those who seek the old man’s help and the cures he provides: A blind man remains blind but grows three new teeth; a leper has sores that sprout sunflowers; a paralytic does not recover the use of his limbs but almost wins the lottery. Such details call attention to themselves, rather than to their cause. Thus, the episodic structure and narrative commentary within the story combine purposefully to distract the reader from the old man, thereby making rational interpretations of his arrival and departure impossible.

The reader of the story occupies a position superior to that of its characters, who view odd persons as clowns and believe that their neighbors possess supernatural powers. This sense of superiority is important to the story’s humor, but it is only a minor aspect of the reader’s total response. More significant is the reader’s attitude regarding the role of interpretation and invention. The reader appreciates invention in itself and learns to accept its privileged position in the story. The diversions from the main story line give invention precedence over action or closure. The reader approaches interpretation cautiously, as attributing symbolic values to either the old man or his mysterious disappearance will merely be acts of pointless interpretation. Thus, the Magical Realism of García Márquez’s style—a blurring of the division between the real and the fantastic—is used to underscore the notion (indeed, the seeming contradiction) that the irrational is a natural part of life and must be accepted on its own terms.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Lack of a Context
The time and place of this story are undetermined. The characters' names suggest a Spanish-speaking...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

In establishing the character of the old man, Garcia Marquez plays against traditional stereotypes of angels. Angels are...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Interested in writing as a young child, Gabriel Garcia Marquez first began his writing career as a journalist. He eventually turned to...

(The entire section is 355 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Look into other forms of "fantastic" literature, such as fairy tales, science fiction, mythology, superhero comics, or folk legends. Choose...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

After Garcia Marquez's birth in Aracataca, Colombia, this region entered a sudden economic decline after twenty years of relative prosperity....

(The entire section is 487 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" was adapted with some modifications as a film with the same title in 1988 in a Spanish production...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

''A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings'' was adapted, with some modifications, as a film with the same title in 1988, in a Spanish production...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Readers who enjoy this story may wish to explore Garcia Marquez's other works. Big Mama's Funeral (1962) and The Incredible and Sad...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Further Reading
BellVillada, Gene H., Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, University of North Carolina Press,...

(The entire section is 92 words.)