A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Analysis

  • "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" is a work of magical realism, which incorporates fantastical elements, such as the old man and the spider woman, into an otherwise realistic setting.
  • Márquez uses both natural and divine imagery in his descriptions of places, characters, and events in the short story. The possibly angelic nature of the old man is neither confirmed nor denied, allowing readers to interpret the story in different ways.
  • 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. 

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 24, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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...

(The entire section contains 3250 words.)

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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

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The Lack of a Context
The time and place of this story are undetermined. The characters' names suggest a Spanish-speaking country, and a reference to airplanes indicates that we are somewhere in the twentieth century; but beyond these minor details, we seem to be in the "once-upon-a-time" world of fairy tales. The narrator tells of events in the past, using the phrase ''in those times'' in a manner common to myths and legends. These associations help prepare the reader for the story's "magical" elements by suggesting that this is not a factual history to be taken literally, but a tale of the imagination where the usual rules may be suspended.

Such an ''undetermined'' setting is common in Garcia Marquez's fiction. While he is often outspoken in his journalism and takes a public stand on many political issues, references to contemporary history in his fiction tend to be indirect and uncertain. Critics have tried to trace such connections (for example, by suggesting that a character in one of his novels is modeled on a certain South American dictator), but the author's decision to write in this manner indicates that such ''messages'' are not his primary concern. By its nature, the story is not tied to any particular time or place; like legends from a mythical golden age in the past, it calls our attention to timeless, universal themes, applying in a general way to all times and places.

The Context of Reception
While the story shows no direct evidence of historical context, it was, of course, written in a particular time and place. And like all artistic productions, its "success" has depended not only on its artistic merits, but on its ability to attract an audience and to gain acceptance from critics and scholars. Unlike the writing itself, the reception of a work involves factors largely outside the author's control, factors usually having much to do with historical and cultural context.

The extremes of popular and critical reception can be seen in the stereotype of the ‘‘starving artist,’’ who works without reward for years then suddenly (perhaps only in death) receives widespread, long-overdue recognition. This is the ‘‘tragic genius,’’ ahead of his time—‘‘the world was not ready'' for the work he produced. The type does not fit Garcia Marquez exactly, but he did labor in relative obscurity for many years, then suddenly became an international phenomenon: a bestselling author who was also praised by prominent intellectuals, even being heralded as the vanguard of a revolution in Latin American literature. Such sudden enthusiasm, for however deserving an artist, indicates that the world somehow was ready for Garcia Marquez in 1967, when the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude brought him instant fame, as well as intense scrutiny.

The Garcia Marquez ''boom'' was fueled by a number of developments, both in popular culture and in critical scholarship, which made it easier for many readers to embrace a work of ‘‘magic realism,’’ and an author from a non-Western culture. The late 1960s are usually characterized as a period of intense cultural change, in which traditional values of all kinds were challenged, and alternative ways of living were widely explored. College campuses were a particular focus for this controversy, most famously in occasional violent confrontations between law enforcement and student political protesters. But it also found expression through passionate debates within the scholarly disciplines, debates in which the most basic assumptions were questioned, and apparently radical changes were given serious consideration. In literature departments, one result was an effort to expand the ''canon''—the list of ''classic'' works (sometimes listed in an official document, sometimes found in the unspoken, shared assumptions of faculty members) whose study is traditionally considered to form the necessary basis of a liberal arts education. Critics charged that, with few if any exceptions, the canon had excluded women and people of color from the roll of ''great authors,'' as well as writers from poor or working-class backgrounds and those from non-European cultures. Efforts to expand the canon, to include a more diverse blend of cultural voices among the works considered worthy of serious scholarship, have continued for over thirty years. Garcia Marquez can be seen as an early beneficiary of this trend; Latin-American writers had long been neglected, and his work could be shown to include many of the elements critics had praised in European and North American works. He thus made an early ‘‘test case’’ for expanding the canon, an example of a non-Western writer who deserved to be honored on a level equal to his Western contemporaries. His recognition encouraged the ‘‘discovery’’ of many more Latin-American authors and contributed to an explosion of scholarship on the region's literary heritage.

Finally, this story has a context within Garcia Marquez's own career. It was written in 1968, a year after his sudden fame. One interpretation of ‘‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings'' sees it as an exaggerated, satirical account of his own experience with instant celebrity; or, in a more general way, as a commentary on the position of the creative artist in modern culture. In this reading, the ‘‘old man’’ is the artist, while his "wings" stand for transcendence, greatness, truth, beauty—whatever elusive qualities we think of as being valuable in art. The villagers, in turn, are ‘‘the public,’’ who are greedy for whatever ''magic'' he might bring them—but who insist on having it on their own terms. Rather than accepting him as he is, with all his quirks and contradictions, they treat him as a carnival attraction and look for ways to profit from his odd celebrity. They misunderstand him completely, yet confidently ''explain'' him with wild, illogical speculations. And given a choice, they prefer the kind of magic offered by sensations like the spider-woman—flashy and easy to understand, fitting in comfortably with their beliefs, presenting no awkward difficulties or mysteries. However ''magical'' they may be, such creatures as artists and angels just aren't made for everyday life; ultimately, they are an annoyance and an embarrassment to the rest of us. This is, of course, only one of many possible interpretations, for a story that seems designed to resist any single, clear explanation. But it does show another way in which context (cultural, historical, and personal) can find its way into a story which seems, on the surface, to have been written from no particular time or place.

Literary Style

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Imagery
In establishing the character of the old man, Garcia Marquez plays against traditional stereotypes of angels. Angels are supernatural creatures and are expected then to be presented in images that convey grandeur, perfection, wisdom, and grace. By definition, angels are contrasted with humans; though they resemble humans physically, they are superhuman in every conceivable way. But like Father Gonzaga, the reader's first response to the old man is likely to be that he is ‘‘much too human.’’ Instead of presenting a majestic, awe-inspiring figure, Garcia Marquez describes a creature with mortal weaknesses and senility (‘‘a drenched great-grandfather’’), in circumstances without any trace of reverence or dignity. While his feathered wings invite comparisons with birds, even this imagery is common and debased; he is ''a senile vulture'' or a ''decrepit hen,'' not a soaring eagle or an elegant swan. While the villagers face the problem of understanding an apparent "angel" who fits none of their expectations for the type, the reader finds himself placed by the author in the same position.

Also unusual is the way Garcia Marquez combines different types of imagery. The opening line reveals that it is ''the third day of rain,'' and a few lines later this information is repeated in another form: ‘‘The world had been sad since Tuesday.’’ One is a direct statement of fact, which might appear in a weather report; the other is a poetic image, projecting human emotions onto the weather and individual feelings onto the entire world. Expressed in other terms, the reader accepts the first version as "real," while the second version (if taken at face value) is "magical," involving a logically impossible connection between human feelings and the weather. Both attitudes are familiar to readers, who know to read a factual account in a rational, literal frame of mind, and to suspend disbelief in a more imaginative story, where descriptions are expected to be used for their creative, suggestive effects. But Garcia Marquez never allows the reader to settle comfortably into one attitude or the other; throughout the story, realistic and magical details are combined, seeming to suggest that both attitudes are valid, and that neither one is sufficient by itself.

Narration
The ambiguity within the story is reinforced by inconsistencies in the narrative voice. The narrator is, after all, the "person" presenting all this odd imagery to the reader, and readers habitually look to the narrator for clues to help find a proper interpretation. For example, when the narrator states that Father Gonzaga's letters to his church superiors ''might have come and gone until the end of time'' without reaching a conclusion, he confirms the reader's suspicion that the priest's approach is futile, despite his confident assurances to the crowd. Narrators don't just present facts; they also give direction as to ‘‘how to take’’ the information we receive.

This narrator, however, seems to direct the reader all over the map and to be inconsistent in his own attitude to events. The villagers' wild ideas about the old man are often presented as obvious delusions, characterized as "frivolous" or ‘‘simple'' by the narrator. But at other times, he seems no more skeptical than the villagers. For example, the story of the spiderwoman seems far more fantastic than that of an old man with wings, but the narrator gives no suggestion that her transformation is particularly unusual and seems to expect the reader to accept this frankly ''magical'' event as if it presented no mystery at all. Though they are wise in ways the villagers are not, and see through the various fanciful interpretations of the visitor, readers come to feel that the narrator may not fully understand the old man himself. Such an unreliable storyteller makes a mystery even more mysterious, complicating efforts to fix a definite meaning to the tale.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Interested in writing as a young child, Gabriel Garcia Marquez first began his writing career as a journalist. He eventually turned to fiction, writing a novel and a collection of short stories, which included "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Like in many of his later fictional works, Garcia Marquez employed the literary technique of magic realism inside this tale. Garcia Marquez eventually received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

1. Look into other forms of "fantastic" literature, such as fairy tales, science fiction, mythology, superhero comics, or folk legends. Choosing specific works of at least two different types, how do their styles and techniques compare to those of "magic realism" as represented by this story?

2. How does the manner in which Garcia Marquez treats the traditional idea of angels in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" compare with the way angels are represented or interpreted elsewhere, in some other work or media? Consider using potential sources such as feature films, television shows, religious or inspirational literature, or advertising in your research.

3. Be an amateur "magic realist," loosely following the formula Garcia Marquez employed for "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." For this assignment, your "village" is any other story you have already studied; the "angel" will be another character you introduce from "outside" the story, chosen because he or she seems totally alien to the sense of the story as you have come to know it. It could be a character from outside literature: a pop culture celebrity, a representative from another time or culture— anyone who seems not to belong at all in the world constructed by the author of your story. Rewrite or outline the story, incorporating the viewpoint of your new character and making the other characters respond to their ill-fitting new companion.

4. Many critics have noticed similarities between "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and H. G. Wells's The Wonderful Visit, a story about the wounding and capture of an angel by rural English villagers. Compare and contrast the similarities and differences in the story, particularly the attitude of the villagers in both works toward the angel.

Literary Precedents

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After Garcia Marquez's birth in Aracataca, Colombia, this region entered a sudden economic decline after twenty years of relative prosperity. His father, an out-of-work telegraph operator, relocated, leaving young Gabriel to be raised by his grandparents for the first eight years of his life. These early circumstances are significant, for they seem to have had a profound influence on the mature writer's work. Garcia Marquez has said that he had learned everything important in his life by the time he was eight years old, and that nothing in his writing is purely a product of "fantasy." As a boy, he delighted in his grandfather's storytelling, from which he heard local legends and history; from his grandmother and the other villagers, he absorbed a wealth of traditions, superstitions, and folk beliefs. Drawing heavily on such sources, Garcia Marquez developed an imaginative style literary critics call "magic realism."

Many of his stories, including the celebrated epic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, are set in a fictional village named "Macondo," which seems to be based on Aracataca, and in some ways reflects the rich, confusing world of childhood as well. Like the unnamed villages in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," Macondo seems to be half-real and half mythical. It is a place where dreams and the supernatural are blended with the details of everyday life, and where the most extraordinary events are somehow accepted as "normal," even if they cannot be adequately explained. Old men, like the winged gentleman in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," are frequent characters in

Garcia Marquez's writing, leading critics to speculate that they may all be derived, in part, from the author's own grandfather. Garcia Marquez rejoined his family in Bogota, moving from a tropical village to a cold city high in the Andes mountains. After graduating from high school in 1946, he entered the National University in Bogota as a law student in 1947. When la violencia, a decade-long period of civil warfare began the next year, unrest in the capital city forced the university to close. Garcia Marquez transferred to the University of Cartagena (near Aracataca on the northern coast) to continue his law studies. While there, he also took a job as a journalist and began to write fiction seriously. In 1950, he dropped out of law school and moved to nearby Barranquilla. He found newspaper work and joined a circle of local writers who admired the work of European and American modernist authors, including James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, and who sought to apply their styles and techniques to Latin American settings and themes in their own writings. Garcia Marquez has acknowledged the particular influence of Faulkner and Hemingway on his own early work; critics often compare his fictional creation of "Macondo" to that of Yoknapatawpha County, the recurring setting for many of Faulkner's novels.

Adaptations

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"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 directed by Fernando Birri. Starring Daisy Granados, Asdrubal Melendez, and Luis Alberto Ramirez, the film is available with English subtitles on Fox/Lorber Home Video, Facets Multimedia, Inc., or from Ingram International Films.

Media Adaptations

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''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 directed by Fernando Birri. Starring Daisy Granados, Asdrubal Melendez, and Luis Alberto Ramiriz, the film is available with English subtitles on Fox/Lorber Home Video, Facets Multimedia, Inc., or from Ingram International Films.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
BellVillada, Gene H., Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
BellVillada explores various aspects of Garcia Marquez's work, with chapters focusing on his short fiction, his early development as a writer, and his novels.

Williams, Raymond, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Twayne Publishers, 1984.
A volume of criticism covering Garcia Marquez's career up to the time of its publication, including chapters analyzing each of his novels and most of the short stories. Williams also includes a biographical introduction, and a survey of the author's work as a journalist.

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