A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez

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How does the author use irony in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?

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In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” irony appears in the disparity between the old man’s appearance and his identification as an angel, in the villagers’ harsh treatment of this “angel,” and in the horrendous mistreatment of the man even if he is not really an angel.

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The irony in the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings ” lies first in the identification of the mysterious man as an angel. Except for his wings, he is far from looking the part. He is ragged and dirty, pitiful with his wings missing feathers and covered...

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in mud. He does not interact with Pelayo and Elisenda nor with any of the people who come to stare at him, and not even with the parish priest. If the man is an angel, he is certainly an ironic one, for his appearance does not match reality.

Further irony appears in the way the people of the village treat this mysterious “angel.” If they really believe the old man to be an angel, they certainly don’t behave like it. Pelayo and Elisenda keep him locked up in a chicken coop and later in an old shed. They want little to do with him although (again ironically) they are pleased enough with the money they make off him.

The villagers throw things at the old man, trying to get him to respond. They even burn him with a steer branding iron. This is certainly not the way people, especially those who claim to have faith in God, should behave if they really believe they are in the presence of an angel, God’s messenger; yet ironically, the villagers do exactly that.

Finally, there is a stark irony in the treatment of the old man even if he is not an actual angel. He is still a human being (presumably) who should be treated with respect and dignity. Yet no one does this, not even the parish priest, who never once objects to the villagers’ treatment of the old man. No one cares for him, cleans him up, or tries to speak to him with respect. They treat him like a mere object of profit or curiosity.

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What metaphor is there in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?

The eponymous old man with enormous wings, who some think is a fallen angel and others think might be a Norwegian, is arguably a metaphor representing difference, which would make this story one about how we respond to difference.

The first reaction to the winged man is fear. Pelayo is at first frightened and stands over the winged man "with his bailiff's club," before locking him up "with the hens in the wire chicken coop." The fear provoked by the winged man's appearance reflects the fear that often, unfortunately but perhaps naturally enough, is the first reaction to difference. This is evident in all kinds of different ways, and throughout all eras, whether it be the fear of immigrants or refugees that we see today, the fear of people with a different skin color that characterized the European colonization of Africa in the nineteenth century, or the fear of disabled people which in the sixteenth century led the likes of Luther and John Calvin to declare that disabled people were possessed by evil spirits.

Once the characters in the story overcome their initial reaction of fear, they decide to put the winged man on display. Pelayo and Elisenda, whose home the winged man crashes into, make a small fortune, "charging five cents admission to see the angel." The so-called angel is thus exhibited and accordingly poked and prodded by the curious crowds. This part of the story represents another familiar way in which we respond to differences and treat those who are different. It is reminiscent of the so-called freak shows which were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the most famous proponents of the freak show was P. T. Barnum, who, in the nineteenth century, took his freak show around America, showcasing bearded women, a four-legged girl, a living human skeleton, and many others. In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the winged man becomes the equivalent of one of these so-called freaks.

At the end of the story, the crowds stop coming to poke and prod the winged man and instead flock to see "the woman who had been changed into a spider." Forgotten and no longer on show, the winged man learns to fly again and eventually flies away. The metaphorical meaning here is that we eventually become desensitized to difference, or at least we become desensitized to one difference when another comes along to replace it. The fact that the winged man can fly away again, once he is no longer treated like a freak, suggests that making an exhibit of someone's difference is a form of oppression. When we isolate and separate those who are different and proclaim them as other than and alien to ourselves, we also keep them metaphorically chained and unable to, as it were, fly away.

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What metaphor is there in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?

The overarching metaphor is that of the fallen angel, the old, decrepit being who arrives on Pelayo and Elisenda's farm. His degenerative state is a reflective metaphor for the impoverished state of their faith. Marquez writes:

There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.

A miraculous being has landed in their midst, yet the couple soon treats the angel like a sideshow attraction rather than a servant of God. Like Eve before her, Elisenda sees a way to exploit her situation:

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.

Never cognizant of the miracle, and because they cannot connect their expectations of God's ways to reality, the angel leaves. The couple is no more enlightened than before the angel came. Soon Pelayo and Elisenda will descend into a pit of mortality. As the old angel finally flies away, Elisenda observes his departure and "let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him." It's too hard, she seems to say, to deal with God's expectations.

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What is the allegory and irony of the story "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings"?

I think one of the joys of this short story is that it defies interpretation. You need to note how the villagers are often exposed as foolish and gullible in their beliefs, and also how they try to make sense of the world. They stick fast to "facts" even though they are clearly ridiculous, such as the fact that angels eat mothballs, and they jump to impossible conclusions, for example when some argue that the old man should be proclaimed "mayor of the world." It is almost as if once they have conceived of an idea they make reality "fit" to support that idea despite any protestations to the contrary - or until a "better" version of the "truth" comes along and then the process beings again. Of course, the villagers, although they can be said to be figures of fun in this sense, contain many characteristics which we can identify whatever our time or culture - for example the unquestioning belief in their own wisdom and their stubborn clinging to their own ideas are aspects which we can all identify.

It is clear though that while there are a few hints into this story as to the "meaning" or "allegory" there are no conclusive pointers that give one definitive explanation. We are left, much like the villagers therefore, to try and make some sort of meaning from these strange and bizarre events. The last laugh seems to be with Marquez, however, as we prove ourselves to be like the villagers trying to make sense of this story and coming up with very different and ridiculous answers. Therefore, if there is a "meaning", it is that there is no "meaning" - it is more about the process by which we make "meaning" and how we support our conclusions.

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