A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez

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How is the winged man treated in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?

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In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the winged man is generally treated as an oddity, like a circus sideshow. People come from miles around to stare at him and witness his supposedly supernatural powers. On the whole, no one seems to be interested in the old man as a person, but only for what they can get out of him.

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In a nutshell, the winged man is treated very poorly. For starters, he is imprisoned as soon as Pelayo and Elisenda find him. Instead of sticking with their initial plan to set him adrift on a raft, they decide to keep him imprisoned in a chicken coop. When the crowds start gathering, the couple realizes that this can be a money-spinner, and they make the winged man's life akin to that of an animal in a zoo.

Things go from bad to worse when the pope visits and decides that the winged man is an imposter, not an angel. The Vatican demands that the man jump through an assortment of hoops, such as verifying whether he can fit on the head of a pin and showing whether or not he has a navel. Meanwhile, the man comes under pressure to perform miracles and heal people of various ailments.

As is generally the case, the public eventually loses interest in the winged man. A woman who has been transformed into a spider becomes the new hype and sensation. However, since the winged man is too weak to fly away, he winds up living for a number of years in the home of those who had imprisoned him and profited from his abnormality.

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It isn't every day that an old man with very large wings rocks up claiming to be an angel. And so one could forgive the inhabitants of this remote coastal village and the surrounding areas from being more than a little curious to find out more about this strange creature in their midst.

People come from miles around to get a good look at the old man, curious to see what a real-life angel looks like, if indeed he really is an angel, which is by no means certain. If he is an angel, however, then he will have supernatural powers that can be used to heal all manner of ailments. Before long, the old man is deluged with visitors desperately in need of a miracle to cure some illness or other.

As we can see, no one seems to regard the old man as a human being—or an angel—in his own right. They don't value him for himself; they're simply interested in him for what they can get out of him. Initially cooped up all day in a chicken coop, the old man is treated like a strange animal rather than a human being or an angel.

Not surprisingly, the idle curiosity of the local population ensures that the old man quickly becomes part of a gigantic circus sideshow in which he's the major attraction. Even when he's let loose from the chicken coop, there's no sense in which anyone pays any serious attention to his needs and feelings. The general consensus is that he exists purely for the villagers' benefit, not his own.

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Pelayo and Elisenda initially treat him like an animal, locking him up with the hens in the coop. When their child gets better, they decide to send the old man off on a raft with small provisions. Even this is only a half-hearted attempt at kindness. They abandon this idea when they determine that they can profit from the old man. The others in the neighborhood treat the old man like a circus attraction. Even though one theory is that the old man is an angel, he is so disheveled that no one gives him any amount of reverence. Pelayo and Elisenda only see the old man as a source of money. No one considers the old man's feelings. Part of this is because no one can understand him. It is their lack of understanding, and lack of willingness to understand, that makes them treat him so terribly. Unable to get the old man to play along, they even burn him with an iron, mistaking his cries for rage instead of pain. Despite the riches that the old man brings to the couple, they still treat him like an annoyance. 

This story is an example of magical realism, the blending of the mundane with the miraculous. There is never any closure on what the man is: a human/bird hybrid, and angel, an illusion of imagination, a metaphor, and so on. This uncertainty about what he is, part of the style of the story, is also part of the theme in the story. No one knows for sure what he is. They only speculate, coming up with different theories, as if he is simply a lifeless object to be studied. Whether he is magical/spiritual or simply an annoying animal becomes irrelevant to the townspeople. They are only interested in using him for their needs and then categorizing him. Categorization, here, trumps understanding. They would rather label than understand the old man. 

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