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A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez

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Examples of imagery, simile, allusion, metaphor, symbolism, and magical realism in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Márquez


In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Márquez employs various literary devices: Imagery describes the dilapidated setting; similes compare the old man to a "drenched great-grandfather"; allusions reference biblical angels; metaphors depict the old man as a fallen creature; symbolism is seen in the wings representing freedom and burden; and magical realism blends the mundane with the fantastical, creating a surreal narrative.

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What examples of imagery, simile, allusion, and metaphor from "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" relate to magical realism?

"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” contains examples of imagery, simile, allusion, and metaphor related to magical realism. Magical realism is a literary genre of fiction where a story takes place in a realistic world, but magical and dreamlike events occur without disrupting the narrative. Writers like this short story’s author, Gabriel García Márquez, weave fantastical elements into an ordinary narrative and describe them in a matter-of-fact tone.

Figurative language in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” incorporates elements of magical realism. Márquez presents vivid visual, tactile, and olfactory imagery that blends a natural setting with mystical details:

The sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.

Plain sand is personified as “glimmering” and compared to “powdered light” in a simile. The reader can envision it shimmering with a fairy-dust-like glow. The thick, wet “stew of mud” and smelly “rotten shellfish,” though, bring the scene back to earth.

Márquez’s description of the titular man deflates the character’s supposed angelic appearance:

There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth.

Instead of being an ethereal cherub, the character is an elderly, balding man with few teeth left. Instead of powerful wings with pristine white feathers, he possesses

wings … strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.

Márquez undercuts the old man’s status as an angel; he looks like a dirty, disheveled, failure of an angel. The simile “he was dressed like a ragpicker” further reduces him; he is not only mortal, but also poor. This description exemplifies magical realism by grounding this supposedly heavenly creature. When Father Gonzaga first spots the old man, he sees a

pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens.

This simile portrays the man/angel as a ridiculous animal; he is a gargantuan creature that even surprises and mesmerizes chickens! Finally, Márquez employs multiple similes in a row to comically describe the old man’s magical powers gone awry:

the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.

Instead of being miraculously cured, the blind man, paralytic, and leper gain other bizarre, unhelpful powers.

Márquez also uses metaphors to combine the magical with the mundane. He describes the old man as having the

condition of a drenched great-grandfather [that] took away any sense of grandeur he might have had.

When the man appears on the beach, he resembles an ancient, waterlogged grandfather whose “grandeur” or dignity is washed away. Later, when the old man/angel attracts attention, the yard of Pelayo and Elisenda assumes “the bustle of a marketplace.” This description may exaggerate the chaotic energy of the scene; nonetheless, Márquez's equating of the private, previously quiet yard to a noisy commercial venue foreshadows the way the couple commercializes their farmyard. They turn it and the old man/angel into an exhibition from which they profit handsomely.

In less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter still reached beyond the horizon.

Money is a metaphor for the actual boarders who rent out all the rooms. The boarders come from all over and are “pilgrims” searching for something sacred like the angel.

Márquez emphasizes the spider woman’s grotesque body and somber nature through metaphor:

She was a frightful tarantula the size of a ram and with the head of a sad maiden.

In addition to being a grasping monster who captures everyone’s attention, the spider woman is unnaturally huge yet feminine and melancholy.

Finally, Márquez presents biblical allusions that combine magical and realistic elements. For example, the invasion of crabs recalls the plague of frogs in the Old Testament. A proliferation of crabs is believable (and does occur in places like Christmas Island, Australia) but macabre.

The old man himself is an angel—but not a fallen one like Satan. In fact, he is able to fly by the end. He also is Christlike in that he first arrives in March (Easter) in a tortured state before being seemingly reborn with new feathers to fly away in December (Christmas). Another allusion is to Job from the Bible:

His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing.

Like Job, he is tested and suffers but bears it all with patience. The expression “patience of Job” emphasizes Job’s incredible forbearance in the face of challenges and adversity. Similarly, the old man/angel withstands the townspeople’s curious and bullying behavior.

Finally, Elisenda is portrayed as evil in her greed. When spectators flock to her yard,

Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.

Her “twisted” body resembles Leviathan the serpent, which symbolizes chaos. Elisenda invites chaos into her yard purely for profit. The idea of twisting in the Bible means distortion of scripture. Here, Elisenda is twisting or distorting the blessing of an angel for money.

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What examples of magical realism exist in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Márquez?

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” magical realism is embodied in the title character. On the one hand, the old man is a magical figure, a creature from some kind of fantasy world. At the same time, there is an awful lot about him that's ordinary and commonplace, the kind of things we'd expect to see in someone we know, such as an old relative.

If we look at the title of the story, the “Very Old Man” is the realistic element, whereas the “Enormous Wings” supply the magic. For an old man to have enormous wings is, of course, magical. Old men—or old women, come to that—don't have wings, large or otherwise.

But, despite these magical appendages, the old man is recognizably realistic all the same. With his almost completely bald head and very few teeth, he could be anyone's grandpa. It is this realistic element to the story's central character that makes the old man such a fascinating, ambiguous figure.

With his extremely large wings, it's not surprising that so many people think he's an angel. At the same time, the disheveled state of those wings, not to mention all the physical features one would normally associate with an old man, makes it entirely reasonable to suppose that he's actually nothing more than a charlatan.

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What examples of magical realism exist in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Márquez?

Magical realism is a genre in which literary realism and magical elements are combined; in addition, the magical elements of the texts are typically narrated in a manner that is consistent with realism. When the story begins, Pelayo has been dealing with the effects of three days of rain, and the narrator tells us that "sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing." There is no Romantic idealization of nature here. Pelayo has been killing the crabs that have come up from the water into the house, and his wife, Elisenda, has been applying cool compresses to their sick child's forehead to soothe him. Details such as these are all quite realistic. These elements of the story are rather mundane and everyday, all things that most readers can imagine and relate to.

However, the fact that Pelayo encounters a very old man with "enormous wings" when he goes to chuck out the crabs is certainly an example of the kind of "magical" or supernatural or surreal things that can occur in a work of magical realism. The neighbor woman takes one look at the strange being and declares that he is an angel, though he is described in incredibly realistic, rather than idealistic, ways. He is "dressed like a ragpicker," and he has just "a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth." He is in a "pitiful condition" with his muddy "buzzard wings." The angel, something quite magical and outside the realm of typical realist texts, is described in an incredibly realistic way, another mark of this peculiar and fascinating genre.

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What examples of magical realism exist in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Márquez?

Magical Realism is the blending of fantasy and reality. This style is a cultural aspect of Marquez's native Columbia and is a notable genre in other Hispanic cultures. In this story, the blending of fantasy and reality serves to question notions of truth and fiction. 

Marquez plays with uncertainty and this mix of the miraculous with the "every day" gives the reader a challenge in trying to make sense of what is real and what is not. In the end, there is no clear indication of the differentiation between reality and fantasy. This literary style allows the author to stretch the imagination and gives the reader an unconventional reading experience wherein he/she must deal with the uncertainties. Thus, the reader is forced to "wonder" and this is 'wonder'fully imaginative but also frustrating for a reader who wants things spelled out logically. 

In the story, the couple and the people of the town debate whether or not the old man is an angel. They seem to ignore the fact that, regardless of whether or not he is an angel, there is an old man with wings. In fact, the doctor thinks that the man's wings are so "natural" that he wonders why more people don't have them: 

What surprised the doctor most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too. 

In the end, the old man's monetary cache is trumped by a spider woman, another instance of magical realism. 

Here is one interpretation that deals with a way that magical realism is used in a critical respect. If this story is interpreted as a critique of commercialism and materialism, the elements of magical realism illustrate how mindlessly people pursue monetary gain. Even though they have a miracle (angel or 'natural' man with wings) on their hands, they treat him as an annoyance unless he is bringing them money. This shows how single-minded people can be and how they might miss miraculous things in life, not to mention the opportunity to be generous and caring. 

Portraying the old man as an angel or winged, Marquez shows how thoughtless and unimaginative people can be when they are too concerned with the trivial things. 

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What details in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" illustrate fantastic elements characteristic of magical realism?Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"

In addition to the fantastic elements mentioned, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" has several creatures come after the news of the captive angel spereads throughout the area.  One visitor is a flying acrobat "who buzzed over the crowd several times," but, the narrator remarks with irony, no one pays attention because the acrobat has "sidereal bat wings" rather than angel wings.

That the old man could be neglected and somehow molt into a creature capable of again flying is also an example of magical realism.  While he go through this metamorphosis, he also sings sea chanteys under the stars and is "delirious with the tongue twisters of an old Norwegian."

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What details in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" illustrate fantastic elements characteristic of magical realism?Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"

One detail in "A Very Old man with Enormous Wings" is finding a very old man face down in the mud struggling under the weight of enormous wings. Another fantastic detail that is part of magical realism is the Spider-woman, a girl (now a woman) who was turned into a tarantula spider because she disobeyed her parents by going dancing and now travels in a circus teaching children to obey their parents.

Yet another detail of fantastic magical realism is that the old man could be confined in the chicken coop and neglected and yet survive through various seasons until the time came that he could grow new feathers and fly away.

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In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," how does Marquez use symbolism and magical realism to challenge religious beliefs?

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the story seems to be a parallel to the story of Christ. Symbolically, Father Gonzaga represents the high priests that do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They tested Jesus often to prove that he was anything but the promised deliverer for which the Jews had waited so long. We see Gonzaga's suspicions when the priest tries to speak to the old man with the wings—deciding eventually that because the old man didn't look like an angel, he could certainly not be one.

Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an impostor when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen up close he was much too human...

This is very similar to the story of Christ. He did not act the way the Pharisees and priests of the Sanhedrin expected of him; when they asked questions, he answered with questions of his own. He did not condone the actions of the wealthy priests, and he consorted with tax collectors and harlots. Because he did not act as they expected he should, the religious leaders of the time rejected Jesus.

This kind of rejection is also seen in the old woman who comes to see the old man. She believes he is an angel, but shows him no deference or respect. The townspeople do the same—

...when they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren't a supernatural creature but a circus animal.

The people symbolize those who rejected Christ and demanded that he be put to death.

Magic realism...

...incorporates magical or supernatural events into realistic narrative without questioning the improbability of these events...

It seems that the townspeople already believe that a woman in the circus was changed into a tarantula for failing to obey her parents. The priest warns the people that...

...the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary.

The people want to believe in the supernatural and the magical; sick people come to see the "angel-man," with hopes of healing. Even so, the old man does nothing to validate their beliefs in him.

His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience.

The people torture him, like Christ was tortured with the crown of thorns and the whipping. They burn his side thinking that he is dead. He is roused—with tears in his eyes—and he flaps his wings. If he is indeed an angel, no one treats him as such.

Perhaps the challenge of religion here is the same challenge Christ faced with the people of his time. This story may not be so much about a challenge to religion, but may reflect the challenge of the world against things related to religion: people find it easier to believe in the magical rather than the divine. Things supernatural and/or magical (like the "spider woman") are taken more seriously than the angel. And as a piece of magical realism, the supernatural presence of the "spider" woman is accepted, without real concerns with regard to how she can even exist.

The problem is not religion, but the people's lack of faith.

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In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," how does Marquez use symbolism and magical realism to challenge religious beliefs?

This is an excellent question. Clearly, the main person or character who stands for religion in this story is Father Gonzaga, whose career as a woodcutter before becoming a priest gives him rather a robust and no nonsense view of life. Note how he responds to the mysterious figure after he fails to respond to his greeting in Latin:

The parish priest had his first suspicion of an impostor when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up, he was much too human...

The obvious inability of Father Gonzaga to successfully interpret the presence of this mysterious figure shows the ignorance of the church in understanding and interpreting what lies beyond the realm of its experience. Marquez is playfully parodying the church through Father Gonzago and the symbolism of the man with enormous wings. The story shows that the church, just like the other villagers, is incapable of coming to a logical and sensible conclusion about what the man might represent. Religious belief is shown to rely of ignorance and the fear of how ignorance might be perceived just as much as the other beliefs of the villagers.

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In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings", how does Marquez use fantasy to reveal a human truth?

In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" Marquez uses fantasy to reveal human truths about the new beginnings and the value of humanity. In the story, the two most prominent characters are the fantastical Spider-woman and the very old man with enormous wings.

Spider-woman had a fall from her position in life and was in fact turned into a tarantula spider, with her own head and brain function. She, although in captivity of sorts in the circus (actually it may be a more protective environment for her...), found a way to establish a new beginning, and one of worth, by telling her story and teaching children to do what she failed to do, which is to obey their parents. The old man makes a new beginning, after his captivity, when his wings grow new, healthy feathers and he relearns how to fly and thus embarks on a new beginning.

Fantasy is used to symbolically reveal the value of humanity by imbuing the repulsive marginalized old, ill, dirty, disabled man with a majesty and greatness through the agency of his enormous wings and his angel status. Even though he is repulsive as a marginalized--unacceptable--person, few dare to deny that he embodies qualities of worthwhile value.

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