A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Themes
The main themes in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” are cruelty toward the “other,” true versus false religiosity, and magic and reality.
- Cruelty toward the “other”: Pelayo, Elisenda, and their neighbors “other” the old man and, in so doing, justify their cruel and neglectful treatment of him.
- True versus false religiosity: Although the townspeople and the priest are nominally Christians, most of them exhibit a marked lack of Christian charity.
- Magic and reality: Through the old man and the spider woman, Márquez’s magical realist tale blurs the lines between the real and the fantastical.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Cruelty Toward the “Other”
From the outset, the humans in the story treat the old man poorly because they are unable to understand him. When Pelayo discovers him facedown in the mud, struggling to get up, he immediately classifies the old man as a “nightmare.” Instead of helping the old man up, Pelayo runs to get Elisenda, and the couple stare at the old man in a “mute stupor.” Instead of focusing on what is wonderful about the old man—“the inconvenience of his wings”—they fixate on his “incomprehensible dialect.” Tellingly, they conclude that he is a castaway from a “foreign ship.” “Foreign” is an interesting word here, because it shows how Pelayo and Elisenda other the old man. Once they turn him into an “other”—a figure profoundly different from them—they can justify their apathy and cruelty toward him. The old man does not fit their notion of an angel, since angels are supposed to be strong, young, and beautiful. The old man is helpless, with only a “few faded hairs left on his bald head.” He is thus judged for his appearance, which defies expectation, in a sharp allegory of how people in the real world judge those who look different from them.
Apart from the old man’s strange appearance, his lack of a language familiar to the townspeople further sets him apart. The priest notes that he speaks no Latin or Armaic, let alone the local dialect. For Father Gonzaga, this makes the old man an instant object of suspicion and perhaps even the devil, who “had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary.” Through this ironic set of events, the story critiques the real-world Eurocentric notion that those who speak a different and non-canonical language are to be regarded with wariness and caution. The cruelty to which the old man is subjected is a blistering commentary on the way people can treat those whom they regard as different, be it other species or other people. A running motif in the text is the people’s tendency to compare the old man to a bird, whether a hen, buzzard, or vulture. Similarly, he is treated as subhuman, with Pelayo dragging him into the chicken coop and locking him up. The townspeople do not respect his advanced age, “tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.” They even violate him physically, placing candles in the coop so he swelters in the heat and then plucking his feathers and branding him with an iron used to mark cattle. The narrative often uses words like “mocking” to describe the town’s treatment of the old man, suggesting the extreme degree to which people objectify him.
The actual miracles the old man may be performing—the wealth he brings the couple who grudgingly house him, and the health he may bring their child—are misunderstood, and fake miracles are attributed to him, signifying a breakdown of human understanding. Thus, the text constantly emphasizes the truth that many people find it easy to demonize those whom they deem foreign or cannot understand. In the case of the old man, the demonization is literal, since townspeople like the neighbor and Father Gonzaga suggest he may be the devil in disguise. If the townspeople would have looked beyond their prejudices, they would have seen the old man was miraculous in his own way, just by virtue of having wings and being patient—even if he was not an angel.
True versus False Religiosity
Satire and irony form crucial elements...
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in the narrative of the tale, and one of the notions Márquez satirizes is that of false piousness. Although it is not explicitly stated that the townsfolk are Christians, this idea is strongly suggested through the introduction of characters like the wise neighbor and Father Gonzaga. It is clear that both the neighbor and the cleric are regarded as knowledgeable; yet their knowledge proves ineffectual and false. They may even think of themselves as good Christians or godly people, but their treatment of the old man shows they are far from practicing the Christian values of brotherhood and charity. For instance, the neighbor “who knew everything about life and death” suggests the old man be clubbed to death, as he could be a fallen angel or the devil in disguise. Father Gonzaga, too, cautions the townspeople not to regard the old man as wonderful, as he may be an impostor. Father Gonzaga—and the authorities in Rome—do not judge someone an angel by their virtues, but by superficial standards like knowing Latin and Aramaic.
It is clear that the religiosity of the clerics and the townspeople is different from true ethics and morality. True morality requires treating others with fairness and empathy, a fact the townspeople disregard. The three people in the text who behave ethically are the old man, who is regarded as an oddity and an outsider; a child; and a doctor. In contrast, the custodians of religion behave immorally. Márquez also satirizes the tendency of organized religions to abandon morality for a pedantic, literal application of sacred texts. For example, the Roman authorities debate how many times the old man can fit on the head of a pin, which is a redundant and too-literal interpretation of a medieval argument. Because angels were considered spirits, this argument postulated that innumerable angels could dance on a space as small as the head of a pin. Instead of these meaningless debates, the authorities could focus on having the old man treated humanely, but they do not. The text shows how false religiosity can compromise ethical behavior.
The townspeople’s treatment of the old man contains many other parodies of Christian legends and practices. People superstitiously rush to him for miracles and divest him of feathers in a parody of the practice of hoping a saint’s relics will cure affliction. In doing so, their behavior echoes the cruelty of the Roman soldiers toward Jesus Christ as depicted in the Bible. Just as a soldier speared Jesus’s side with a lance, the townspeople poke the old man with a burning brand. Thus, the old man emerges as a Christlike figure. Ironically, it is this Christlike person whom the Christian townspeople mistreat. Thus, in their superstitious understanding of religion, the people forego the central humanistic tenets of their own faith.
Magic and Reality
The story never explicitly concludes that the old man is an angel. This classification is left to the reader’s interpretation. Even the story’s title maintains the suspense of the old man’s identity, insisting he is only “a very old man with enormous wings,” no more or less. Certainly, the old man’s appearance is magical, because old men with wings are an extremely rare sight. Yet, the responses of Pelayo and the other townspeople indicate that the old man does not have an angelic appearance, despite his wings. Since no one has actually seen an angel, the townspeople’s perception, too, remains unreliable. Therefore, the reader is left to their own devices to conclude whether or not the old man is a true angel.
Pedantically speaking, it is not odd that an angel appears as an ancient being, since angels are at least thousands of years old. Further, the angel does bring good luck to Pelayo, Elisenda, and the town. The dismal rain ends with his arrival, the townspeople get entertainment, Pelayo and Elisenda’s child recovers, the couple becomes rich, and so on. Later in the story, when the child contracts chicken pox, so does the old man, almost as if he has taken on the child’s illness. Fittingly, the child recovers again. The old man’s otherworldly status is confirmed by scientific evidence as well. The doctor who examines him notes that his wings are perfectly natural and that it is a miracle that the angel lives, since there is “so much whistling in the heart and so many sounds in his kidneys that it [seem] impossible for him to be alive.” Not only does the angel continue to live after the doctor’s exam, he regains enough strength to fly away.
Yet, the narrative does not explicitly state that the angel is a supernatural being. In fact, at one point, it is noted that
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.
This powerful statement shows that the old man’s supernatural qualities are human, while the humans themselves have turned inhumane. As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the old man’s seraphic status is irrelevant. He is extraordinary because of his virtuous being, his wings, and his ability to survive, regenerate, and fly. The point of the story is that these magical aspects of his existence are fascinating enough; he does not need to be an angel to command awe and wonder. He symbolizes the blurring between the real and the magical, suggesting if people were free of prejudices and short-sightedness, they would see the miracles that happen around them every day. For Pelayo, even the appearance of the crabs could be something wonderful and funny, but he chooses to see nature’s intrusion as an encumbrance and kills hundreds of crabs.
The magical aspect of reality is heightened in the figure of the old man, but it is not the only element of magical realism in the tale. In the opening paragraph, the sand of the beach is described as something that “on March nights glimmered like powdered light.” The rain has turned the sand squalid. This dualistic description shows that the real and the magical coexist, and that even the real can appear magical, if one pays attention. The spider woman is another fantastical element in the narrative. Her appearance is more bizarre than that of the old man, yet she is more palatable because her story has an easy lesson. This shows that people accept reality’s magical aspects only when it suits them.