A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez

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What is satire, and how is it used in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?

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In the short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an old man with wings like a buzzard's is swept into the courtyard of the home of some villagers by a powerful rainstorm. Although a neighbor concludes that the man must be an angel, the householders, unable to communicate with him, lock him up in their chicken coop. The local priest comes to inspect the old man, but he is suspicious due to the stranger's terrible smell, parasites, and the fact that he cannot speak Latin, which the priest considers the language of God.

The householders decide to charge admission to those wishing to view the old man, which works well until a carnival arrives that features an attraction with the body of a spider but the head of a young woman. Eventually the chicken coop falls apart and the old man drags himself around the house. After some time, the old man's feathers grow back, and the woman of the house is relieved to see him fly away toward the horizon.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a satire is "a literary work holding up human vices or follies to ridicule or scorn." The Cambridge Dictionary defines satire as "a way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way, especially in order to make a political point." By these definitions, we see that satire uses the strong but sometimes humorous devices of ridicule or scorn to highlight and expose human weaknesses.

In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Marquez uses satire to expose the narrow-mindedness, pettiness, intolerance, and hypocrisy of the villagers that find and exploit the old man. They think that he might be an angel, yet they treat him as if he were no better than an animal. The priest, supposedly a representative from God, is so petty and intolerant that he thinks the old man may have been sent by the Devil because he cannot speak Latin. Whether the old man is an angel or not, he is injured and in need, and yet instead of showing compassion and caring for him, the householders in whose yard he lands cage him, make money off him, and even torture him.

In conclusion, Marquez uses exaggeration and magical realism as satirical devices to expose the selfishness and lack of sympathy of the villagers.

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In literature, satire is the use of humor or exaggeration to call attention to the faults or foolishness of people, societies, habits, and so on. For example, when you read Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” you can tell that he’s using satire, because he’s showing us this funny, highly exaggerated society in which people are so obsessed with ensuring equality among themselves that they make the most handsome people wear stupid-looking accessories, like big red clown noses. That’s ridiculous, and it shows how we’re obsessed with equality to the point of foolishness, so it’s satire.

(By the way, I’ve used “satire” as a noun so far, but it can also be a verb: we can say that Vonnegut satires society. More commonly, though, we use “satirize” as the verb, like this: “Vonnegut satirizes society in his stories.”)

Satire pops up often in stories by Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez’s story, “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” uses satire in two main ways, as I see it. The story satirizes the foolish things that members of the Catholic church do, and it satirizes the foolish things that many people in the general population do.

We see the story portraying the Catholic church as ridiculous: Father Gonzaga wastes time with correspondence with his superiors and with attempting to answer meaningless questions about the “angel” instead of trying to help him or figure out why he’s there.

They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn't just a Norwegian with wings.

And we see the story portraying regular human habits as ridiculous, too.

The “wise neighbor woman” who knows “everything about life and death” immediately tells Pelayo to club the angel to death, an act that would have been senselessly violent, not to mention hasty. This “wise” woman also wants to feed mothballs to the angel. How ridiculous! But we all make dumb suggestions from time to time, and we all pretend to know more than we actually do, and so the author is satirizing those human tendencies.

The doctor who tends to Pelayo’s sick child as well as the angel becomes so befuddled by the angel’s wings that “he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” That’s ridiculous, too, but don’t we all do that? Don’t we all counter confusion sometimes by lazily dismissing the whole mystery with an “oh, well, that’s just how it is”?

And we can all identify with Elisenda, who finds the angel “an annoyance in her life” rather than a mystery or a miracle. Here, the author satirizes our habit of dismissing what’s amazing in life, focusing instead on small, immediate, unimportant experiences, like chopping up onions for dinner.

To sum that up, the story satirizes human foolishness and the foolishness of the Catholic church by portraying both of them in a funny, exaggerated way.

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Satire means making fun of things in order to show their flaws and (ideally) improve them. Teasing someone for being new in school wouldn't be satire; it would simply be mean. However, exaggerating some social stupidity to show what was wrong with it would be satire.

In this story, my favorite example of satire is when the priest tries to speak to the "angel" in Latin, assuming that the language of the medieval church would somehow be a divine language.

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