Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a peculiar addition to the lexicon of prose dealing with issues of faith. Here the typically center stage allegories and heavy-handed metaphors are buried in obscurity, and remain a conundrum to the reader long after finishing the story. Rather than spelling everything out for the reader, Marquez mirrors in his writing the kind of ambiguity prominent in most belief systems. The story portrays the paradoxes and fickleness of faith through its characters’ interactions with the Old Man, while forcing the reader to speculate on the dichotomy of cruelty and compassion.
Marquez uses magical realism to achieve his goal of confusion, further muddling the already enigmatic story by turning the reader’s expectations on their head, and effectively jarring the audience away from otherwise clear-cut conclusions. He begins this subtly, starting with the greater setting: “The world had been sad since Tuesday,” (165). This kind of personification blurs the “rules” of writing, and makes angels and spider-girls much less out of place when the world itself can have emotions. The images of the endless crabs and strange noon-darkness also confuse the reader’s expectations of a grounded reality. Marquez then skewers the typical convention of divinity by showing the “angel” as a ragged and repulsive old man, and strips away all expected power and grace from his character:
“He was dressed like a ragpicker. 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 had taken away any sort of grandeur he might have had.” (166)
Instead of the typical awe (even if he is in a pitiful state), the couple displays almost indifference to his possibly celestial origins. The neighbor woman actually tells them to club him to death, as angels are seen in this region as “fugitive survivors of a spiritual conspiracy” (166). This kind of Lynchian dream-like quality makes it harder to anticipate what will come next in the story. Using this kind of antithesis of anticipations, the reader is more easily drawn into the strange grey area of reality that the story evokes, and can better meditate on the story’s overall meaning—which is in and of itself somewhat indecipherable.
What we are surveying through most of the story are the reasons why the Old Man isn’t an angel. Despite his wings, he is continuously viewed as some kind of imposter, because his true nature doesn’t measure up with everyone’s expectations of an angel—though most of their expectations are somewhat convoluted. He doesn’t understand Latin (but Father Gonzaga never thinks that perhaps man has gotten the divine language wrong, since Latin is a human invention). He appears too “human” (he’s decrepit, smelly, and covered with parasites—all things that seem at odds with the image of holy perfection an angel should embody). And lastly, he doesn’t measure up to the “proud dignity” of angels—though this is almost a comical expectation, since pride itself is a cardinal sin (167).
The townspeople too can’t accept the Old Man at face value—he doesn’t fit into their pre-established mold of what an angel should be. He doesn’t speak or interact with them when they expect him to heal and to help and to listen. All of their interactions are motivated by core selfishness, including the “most unfortunate invalids” who come to be healed of their neurotic nonsense disorders like “a…man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him”, or the “sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake” (168). All of the people want him to pay attention to them; not once do any of them try to console or help the Old Man. This speaks to the cruelty of human greed—all the townspeople expect something from the “angel”, but no one ever tries to help him. I’m reminded here of how no one ever asked Bartleby what it was he would prefer to be doing, and instead everyone piles on their hopes and dreams as burdens to the Old Man.
Pelayo and Elisenda are slightly removed from the rest of the gawkers, however. They might be making money from “angel” admission, but they haven’t stooped to harming or tormenting him outright (aside from blatant neglect). But even through their apathetic ignoring they profit from the Old Man’s misery, and continue to keep him in a dismal state after they’ve built a mansion.
When the spider-girl comes to town, the story comes a bit more into focus. Her background story is a clear-cut one: she disobeys her family’s wishes (sins) and is turned into a monster for it (punishment). Her story is based on clear cause-and-effect circumstances under more elementary “rules” of divinity that are easier for the crowd to accept, whereas the angel is too enigmatic for acknowledgment. Her appearance illustrates man’s inhumane tendencies historically directed at outsiders, but also denotes that if the outsider is a more shameful person than the onlooker, then they may be accepted through humiliation. By showcasing her own misery, she is elevating the station of those who pity her. By the Old Man incensing the crowds with his apathy, he is inviting torment and vividly underlining his “otherness”.
When Pelayo finally shows some compassion towards the Old Man, covering him with a blanket and letting him sleep in the barn, the small act seems to jumpstart his recuperation. This one and only act of selfless kindness eventually heals the Old Man and thus allows him to leave the family behind. However, the conundrum remains that had they cared for him from the onset they would not have become rich, and so their cruelty and indifference are the means to which they achieve wealth (another antithesis of expectations made possible by the magical realism).
In the end, the reader is left with many questions and fewer answers, but what is most clear is that this story is about the interpretation of expectations. The seemingly mish-mashed elements of the plot weave together to confuse and discombobulate the audience, so that their own questioning trains of thought eventually point inward at themselves. Whether one “gets” it is not important, but rather the key to this story is in the inquiry it inspires in the reader, giving us the opportunity to step back and evaluate from a point where perception is slightly skewed, and where even a ragged old man can be an angel of God.
1. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”. The Seagull Reader: Stories. Joseph Kelly. 2nd Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York, 2008. Pp. 165-172.