A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

by Gabriel García Márquez
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A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Themes

The main themes in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" are doubt, ambiguity, and the problem of interpretation.

  • Doubt and ambiguity: A variety of theories about the old man are presented: some believe he's an angel, while others view him as a member of a new race. Marquez leaves the answer unclear, reinforcing the ambiguity of life.

  • The problem of interpretation: Since no one is able to communicate directly with the old man, he is unable to define himself and is therefore subject to the interpretations of others. These interpretations allow people like Pelayo to justify their mistreatment of the man.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

Doubt and Ambiguity
One of this story's difficult aspects is the sense of uncertainty it creates by leaving important facts unresolved and seeming to offer several possible interpretations for its events. The reader is never allowed to doubt that the old man and his strange wings are as ''real'' as anything else in the story; yet the reader can never be sure just what he is—a heavenly angel, a sad human who happens to have wings, or perhaps some other, unexplained possibility. This deliberate uncertainty can leave readers feeling a bit cheated—particularly in what seems to be a fairy tale. Stories are expected to have clear-cut meanings, and the author is expected to reveal them to the reader; if not, there is a tendency to feel he has failed in his storytelling, or that his audience has failed as readers. But in works of realism (and many other forms), ambiguity is often used as an intentional effect, to make a story seem less ‘‘story-like,’’ and more like life itself. It reflects the understanding that real life is far more uncertain than the stories in books, and often forces readers to choose among several, equally possible explanations of events. As characters in daily life, readers seldom know ‘‘the whole story’’—but it is traditional to expect writers to tie all tales neatly together for our understanding. While it complicates the task of the reader, the skillful, suggestive use of ambiguity is often admired by critics, and is usually considered to be one of the most appealing features of ‘‘magic realism.’’

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Even in stories dealing with magic or the supernatural, there are rules a writer is expected to follow—for example, that there must always be a clear distinction between magical events and ''normal'' ones, and that the nature and significance of all characters is eventually made known to the reader. But as a magic realist, Garcia Marquez insists on breaking these rules as well. Without its fantastic elements, there is no story; yet the reader is never sure just how to take them, and how far to trust the narrator. Sometimes, he makes it obvious that the villagers' magical beliefs are in fact ridiculous delusions; but at other times, the reader seems expected to take logically impossible events at face value. The changing of a human into a giant spider, a man who can't sleep because ‘‘the noise of the stars’’ disturbs him—are these things that ‘‘really happened?'' Can they be dismissed as mere hallucinations? Are they poetic images, meant to be interpreted on some level beyond their literal meaning? Like the old man with his miracles, Garcia Marquez may be suspected of having a kind of ‘‘mocking fun'' with the reader, suggesting all sorts of miraculous possibilities, then stubbornly contradicting all the expectations he creates. In appreciating such a story, it may be necessary to limit one's reliance on clear meanings and moral lessons, and to be prepared to enjoy the sheer wealth of possibility and comic misunderstanding that is presented.

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The Problem of Interpretation
One effect of ambiguity is to focus attention on the uncertain nature of all efforts to assign meaning to events. The troublesome nature of interpretation has been a matter of intense interest for literary critics in the years since this story was written—which may be one reason Garcia Marquez remains a popular subject of scholarly attention. Many theorists stress that all ''readings'' (whether of texts, or of life itself) are strongly influenced by their context, and by the specific interests and point of view of the person making the judgment. While one may detect such influence in the opinions of others, it usually operates unconsciously in the self; the assumptions behind one's own thinking are so familiar that one tends not to even recognize them as assumptions. Some critics go so far as to suggest that all explanations are actually inventions, and that ''true meanings'' can never be reliably determined. While one may not choose to embrace so extreme a position, the speculation serves as a reminder that confident pronouncements about the world are seldom, if ever, as rational or disinterested as one believes them to be. The villagers' quirky thought patterns may be seen as a parody of this universal human tendency. They ‘‘talk themselves into’’ all kinds of wild speculations, clinging to irrational notions (such as the "fact" that mothballs are the proper food for angels) and leaping to impossible conclusions (for example, that the old man should be named ‘‘mayor of the world.’’) It seems that, once they get an idea into their heads, they willfully convince themselves of its truth and ignore any evidence to the contrary—unless a more appealing version of the truth comes along. Their folly is a kind of exaggerated ignorance, which Garcia Marquez uses consistently for comic effect; but in their unquestioning application of ‘‘conventional wisdom,’’ and their stubborn faith in their own ideas, they reflect habits of mind that can be recognized in all cultures.

On another level, the author may be seen as placing the reader in much the same position—forcing the reader to accept interpretations that seem absurd, or to give up any hope of understanding events. In this sense, it might be said that the story's meaning lies in the manner it denies any clear meanings, complicating the reader's efforts to understand, and showing usual means of determining the truth in a strange, uncertain light. The context of literature may tempt one to ''read into'' these odd characters, looking for symbolic meanings and creatively coded messages from the author. Nothing prevents the reader from doing so, but there are few clues or hints to help and no obvious way to confirm or deny any interpretation one may construct. The reader can't be sure if he is finding the story's meaning or making one up; he may even wonder if the story has a meaning at all. Garcia Marquez presents a rich mystery, which engages the reader's thinking and seems to ''make sense'' in the manner of fairy tales; then he leaves the reader to decide its meaning for himself. However one goes about the job, he is never allowed to escape the suspicion that he may, in his own way, wind up being as foolish and gullible as the villagers.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” treats two issues: interpretation and invention/imagination. After the discovery of the stranger, six interpretations of his significance arise within the story. Once Pelayo recovers from his initial astonishment, he concludes that the old man is a lonely castaway. The basis for his conclusion is that the man speaks in a strong “sailor’s voice.” This explanation is merely arbitrary, however, because basic logic rejects the interpretation and makes Pelayo’s explanation merely humorous. The second interpretation is made by a neighbor woman who is thought to know “everything about life and death.” The humor of her interpretation arises in the certainty with which she pronounces that the old man is an angel.

The next three interpretations are proposed by various innocent and ingenuous villagers. According to them, the stranger may be either the mayor of the world, a five-star general, or the first of a race of winged wise men who will take charge of the universe. Although Father Gonzaga believes that the old man is not an angel, it is noteworthy that as the “official” interpreter in the town, he is the only one who refuses to offer a concrete interpretation; instead he merely sends a letter to the pope.

In the final analysis, the text offers no rational explanation for the enigmatic man. If fact, the text defies rational explanation or analysis. It is suggested, however, that the old man may be purely imaginary because he is described as disappearing in an “imaginary dot” on the horizon at the end of the story. Although critics have argued that the old man leaves because of his disillusionment with the exploitation surrounding his visit, at no time is this interpretation substantiated within the narrative itself.

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” thus becomes a parody of the interpretive process itself. Appearing as the first story in the volume La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada (1972; Innocent Erendira, and Other Stories, 1979), it also functions as a kind of warning to the reader. The story’s implication is that one must take extreme care when attributing rational laws of cause and effect to innately irrational occurrences. The story also affirms Gabriel García Márquez’s right to invention, to the creative process, and to the life-affirming value of the human imagination.

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Section Summaries