A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1968
Written in 1968, “Un seiior muy viejo con alas enormes” (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”) is typical of a style known as “magic realism,” which is closely associated with its author, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This imaginative style combines realistic, everyday details with elements of fantasy, blurring the reader’s usual distinctions between reality and magic. But unlike other works of the imagination such as fairy tales or folk legends, stories of magic realism lead to no clear morals or simple truths; they present a rich and vivid world of magical possibilities, while frustrating and complicating the reader’s efforts to fix a definite meaning to events.
Very simply stated, this is the story of what happens when an angel comes to town. But while it is subtitled “A Tale for Children,” it is by no means a simple story. The setting is no ordinary town, and its visitor is no ordinary angel—indeed, he may very well not be an angel at all. In most respects, he seems disappointingly ordinary and human, despite his extraordinary appearance. Because he contradicts their expectations, the characters we meet seem thoroughly incapable of understanding him; their conventional wisdom and superstitious beliefs lead them into absurd explanations for his sudden visit, and they treat him in a manner that seems cruel, unjust, and ignorant.
Magic realism has been a popular and influential form, attracting a wide readership and a great Page 321 | Top of Articledeal of interest from literary scholars. Drawing on the stories and legends of his rural South American childhood, as well as his study of the sophisticated techniques of modernist writers, Garcia Marquez creates a rich and suggestive fictional landscape that challenges traditional modes of thought and focuses the reader’s attention on the difficult, elusive work of making sense of the world.
Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez was born on March 6, 1928, in Aracataca, Colombia, a small town in a farming region near the Caribbean coast. His birth came just as this region entered a sudden economic decline after twenty years of relative prosperity. His father, an out-of-work telegraph operator, relocated, leaving young Gabriel to be raised by his grandparents for the first eight years of his life.
These early circumstances are significant, for they seem to have had a profound influence on the mature writer’s work. Garcia Marquez has said that he had learned everything important in his life by the time he was eight years old, and that nothing in his writing is purely a product of “fantasy.” As a boy, he delighted in his grandfather’s storytelling, from which he heard local legends and history; from his grandmother and the other villagers, he absorbed a wealth of traditions, superstitions, and folk beliefs. Drawing heavily on such sources, Garcia Marquez has developed an imaginative style literary critics call “magic realism.” Many of his stories, including the celebrated epic novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967), are set in a fictional village named “Macondo”—which seems to be based on Aracataca, and in some ways reflects the rich, confusing world of childhood as well. Like the unnamed villages in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” Macondo seems to be half-real and half-mythical, a place where dreams and the supernatural are blended with the details of everyday life, and where the most extraordinary events are somehow accepted as “normal,” even if they can’t be adequately explained. Old men, like the winged gentleman in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” are frequent characters in Garcia Marquez’s writing, leading critics to speculate that they may all be derived, in part, from the author’s own grandfather.
Garcia Marquez rejoined his family in Bogota, moving from a tropical village to a cold city high in the Andes mountains; he graduated from high school in 1946, and entered the National University in Bogota as a law student in 1947. However, the following year marked the beginning of la violencia, a decade-long period of civil warfare in Colombia, which would disrupt his life in many ways. When violence in Bogota caused the university to close, Garcia Marquez transferred to the University of Cartagena (near Aracataca on the northern coast) to continue his law studies. While there he also took a job as a journalist and began to write fiction seriously. In 1950 he dropped out of law school and moved to nearby Barranquilla. He found newspaper work and joined a circle of local writers who admired the work of European and American modernist authors (including James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway), and who sought to apply their styles and techniques to Latin American settings and themes in their own writings. Garcia Márquez has acknowledged the particular influence of Faulkner and Hemingway on his own early work, and critics often compare his fictional creation of “Macondo” to that of Yoknapatawpha County, the recurring setting for many of Faulkner’s novels and short stories.
For fifteen years, Garcia Marquez made a modest living as a journalist and published several short stories. His first novella, La hojarasca, was published in 1955; it was translated into English in 1972 as the title piece in Leaf Storm and Other Stories, which included a translation of the story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” That same year a Bogota newspaper, El Espectador, sent him to Switzerland as a correspondent, but the paper was soon shut down by the military government, stranding Garcia Marquez in Europe for several years in relative poverty. A second novel, El colonel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), was published in 1961, followed by a collection of short stories, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande (Big Mama’s Funeral), in 1962. By this time, his writing had received some critical approval but had made very little impact outside of Colombia, and Garcia Márquez apparently resolved not to write any more fiction. However, three years later he began working on One Hundred Years of Solitude. When it was published in April, 1967, it became an international sensation: after years of frustration, Garcia Márquez was an “overnight success.” In the process, he not only found a vast audience for his own writing, but helped spark a Page 322 | Top of Articleboom-period for Latin American literature in general. Western critics took a new interest in the region and began to recognize the achievements of such writers as Julio Cortazar, Ernesto Sabato, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa—all of whom came to enjoy much wider readership than they had found before Garcia Marquez’s breakthrough. A second story collection, La increible y triste historia de la candida Erendira y de su abuela desalmada (The Incredible and Sad Story of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother), which includes “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” was published in 1972. Garcia Márquez’s later novels include El otoño delpatriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975), Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1981), El amor en los timepos del colera (Love in the Time of Cholera, 1985), and El general en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth, 1989). Among his many honors is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1982.
While Garcia Marquez makes no divisions in the text, this discussion will consider the plot in four separate stages. The story begins with the “old man’s” arrival and ends with his departure. The intervening period, which covers several years, may be divided into two stages: the brief sensation caused by his appearance and a long period of declining interest in which the strange visitor is all but forgotten.
The setting is an unnamed coastal village, at an unspecified time in the past. A long rainstorm has washed crabs up from the beach into Pelayo’s house, creating an odor he thinks may be affecting his sick newborn child. Disposing of their carcasses, he sees a figure groaning on the ground in his courtyard; as he moves closer, he discovers it to be “an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.” Staring at this pitiful “bird-man,” Pelayo and his wife Elisenda begin to overcome their amazement, and even find him familiar, despite those mysterious wings. While they can’t understand his language, he seems to have “a strong sailor’s voice,” and at first they decide he is a shipwrecked foreign sailor, somehow managing to overlook the need to explain his wings. But a neighbor soon “corrects” them, stating confidently that he is an angel. Assuming he is nothing but trouble, she advises them to kill him. Not having the heart for it, Pelayo instead locks the old man in his chicken coop, still planning to dispose of him, only now by setting him to sea on a raft. He and Elisenda wake the next morning to find a crowd of neighbors in the courtyard and a far more complicated situation on their hands; suddenly, “everyone knew that a flesh-and-blood angel was held captive in Pelayo’s house.”
The villagers treat the old man like a “circus animal”; they toss him food and speculate about what should be done with him. Some think he should be made “mayor of the world,” others want him to be a “five-star general in order to win all wars,” and still others hope he will father a super-race of “winged wise men who could take charge of the universe.” The village priest arrives to inspect the captive, and presumably to make a more reasoned judgment on his nature. Father Gonzaga suspects “an impostor” at once and finds the old man’s pathetic appearance to be strongly at odds with the church’s traditional image of heavenly messengers. Finding the old man smelly and decrepit, his battered wings infested with insects, and showing no knowledge of church etiquette, the priest concludes that “nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.” Despite his skepticism, he refuses to give a definitive ruling on the old man, choosing instead to write letters to his church superiors and wait for a written verdict from scholars in the Vatican. In the meantime, he warns the villagers against reaching any rash conclusions.
But word of the “angel” has already traveled too far, drawing fantastic crowds and creating a carnival atmosphere; events unfold quickly, described in language that suggests the exaggerated, dreamlike world of fairy-tales.
Surrounded by all this hectic activity, the old man takes “no part in his own act,” keeping to himself and tolerating the abuses and indignities of his treatment with a patience that seems to be “[h]is only supernatural virtue.” Drawn by the crowds, traveling circuses and carnivals arrive in town—including Page 323 | Top of Articleone that provides formidable competition for the puzzling attraction of “a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.”
The new sensation is “the spider-woman,” whose fantastic nature includes none of the majesty we associate with angels; she represents a kind of “magic” familiar from fairy-tales and folk legends. When still a girl, she once disobeyed her parents by going dancing; later, on the way home, she was struck by lightning and changed into a giant tarantula, retaining her human head. As a spectacle, she appeals to the crowd in ways the old man cannot, and even charges a lower admission price. Significantly, she speaks to her visitors, explaining the meaning of her monstrous appearance; her sad story is easy to understand, and points to a clear moral (children should obey their parents), one her audience already believes to be true. In contrast, the old man does nothing to explain himself, teaches nothing, and doesn’t even entertain people; rather than confirming their beliefs, his mysterious nature challenges all the expectations it creates. He does perform some miracles, but they are equally puzzling, seeming to be either practical jokes or the result of some “mental disorder.” These disappointing miracles “had already ruined the angel’s reputation, when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.” The crowds disappear from Pelayo and Elisenda’s courtyard as suddenly as they had come, and the unexplained mystery of the “bird-man” is quickly forgotten.
Still, thanks to the now-departed paying customers, Pelayo and Elisenda are now wealthy. They rebuild their home as “a two-story mansion with balconies and gardens and high netting so that crabs wouldn’t get in during the winter, and with iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in,” and settle into a life of luxury. But the ruined chicken coop and its ancient captive remain; as the years pass, the couple’s growing child plays in the courtyard with the old man, who stubbornly survives despite his infirmities and neglect. When a doctor comes to examine him, he is amazed that the old man is still alive, and also by “the logic of his wings,” which seem so natural that the doctor wonders why everyone doesn’t have them. Even the bird-man’s mystery and wonder grow so familiar that he eventually becomes a simple nuisance: a
disagreeable old man, “dragging himself about here and there,” always underfoot. Elisenda seems to find him everywhere in the house, as if he were duplicating himself just to annoy her; at one point she grows so “exasperated and unhinged” she screams that she is living in a “hell full of angels.” Finally the old man’s health deteriorates even further, and he seems to be near death.
As winter gives way to the sunny days of spring, the old man’s condition begins to improve. He seems to sense a change taking place in himself, and to know what it means. He tries to stay out of the family’s sight, sitting motionless for days in the corner of the courtyard; at night, he quietly sings sailor’s songs to himself. Stiff new feathers begin to grow from his wings, and one morning Elisenda sees him trying them out in the courtyard. His first efforts to fly are clumsy, consisting of “ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn’t get a grip on the air,” but he finally manages to take off. Elisenda sighs with relief, “for herself and for him,” as she watches him disappear, “no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.”
See Very old man with enormous wings
In her marriage to Pelayo, Elisenda takes an active part in decision-making. Her husband runs to get her as soon as he discovers the old man, and they try to make sense of him together, apparently sharing the same reactions. It is she who first conceives of charging the villagers admission to see the “angel,” an idea which makes the couple wealthy. At the end of the story, she is the mistress of an impressive mansion, dressed in the finest fashions. Yet the old man seems to be a constant annoyance to her, a feeling that only intensifies over time. He is useless and infuriating to her, “dragging himself about here and there like a stray dying man”; she seems to be constantly shooing him out of her way. She eventually grows so “exasperated and unhinged” that she screams that she is living in a “hell full of angels.” Elisenda is also the only witness to the old man’s departure, watching silently from the kitchen window as he tries out his newly regrown wings. Her reaction as he disappears over the horizon shows a measure of sympathy for the “senile vulture,” as well as her hope that her own life will return to normal: she lets out a sigh of relief “for herself, and for him.”
A former woodcutter, Father Gonzaga is the village priest whose religious training and standing in the community make him a moral and intellectual authority. Of all the characters, he seems uniquely qualified to pass judgment on the strange visitor and to determine whether he is really one of God’s angels or “just a Norwegian with wings.” However, his understanding of church doctrine leads him to no solid conclusions. He counsels the villagers to withhold their own judgment until he can receive a definitive answer from scholars in the Vatican. Father Gonzaga is never able to provide an explanation, and he loses sleep over the mystery until his parishioners eventually lose interest in the old man entirely.
Examining the angel-like creature, Father Gonzaga immediately suspects that he is “an impostor.” The old man’s unbearable odor, his derelict condition, and his undignified appearance all make him seem “much too human” to accept as a perfect immortal or member of a divine race. But rather than make a judgment from the evidence of his senses (and knowing that the devil likes to trick people with appearances), he applies a series of tests to the old man, presumably based on church teachings about the nature of angels. First, he greets the old man in Latin; the lack of a response is yet another suspicious sign, for it shows that the “angel” doesn’t “understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers.” A series of letters from higher church authorities results in further “tests” of divinity (Does the old man have a belly-button? Does his language seem related to the biblical dialect of Aramaic?) but fail to lead him to any final judgment. Unable to provide the answer that they seek from him, the Father can only warn his flock not to jump to any conclusions—a warning which they ignore with enthusiasm.
As a comic authority figure Father Gonzaga is open to a variety of interpretations. He is clearly ineffective in his role as a spiritual authority and as a source of wisdom and enlightenment. His superiors in the church hierarchy prove no more helpful and seem to be obsessed with obscure theological abstractions, such as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Such factors suggest at least a mildly satirical view of the Catholic Church and perhaps of organized religion in general. To some critics, Father Gonzaga’s means of inquiry are also a parody of the scientific method, while his fruitless correspondence with church scholars reflects the useless-ness of bureaucracies everywhere. And other critics even see a reflection of themselves—the figure of the cultural authority, whose profession makes him unwilling to admit the obvious limits of his understanding.
See Very old man with enormous wings
It is Pelayo, the town bailiff, who discovers the old man with wings struggling face down in the courtyard of his home after a storm. As the strange visitor begins to attract crowds, Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, exhibit him as a carnival attraction. Though the old man proves to be only a temporary sensation, he creates a highly profitable windfall for the young couple. In “less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money” from paid admissions; they quickly earn enough to rebuild their house as a mansion and to live in luxury by village standards. Pelayo quits his job and sets up a rabbit warren on Page 325 | Top of Articlethe edge of town, trading a minor administrative position for the leisurely life of a gamekeeping squire. While Pelayo’s discovery of the winged being brings him great fortune, it also brings confusion and complication into his life. It is not the sort of luck he hopes to see repeated. When he and Elisenda design their new home, they are careful to include “iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in.”
The centerpiece of a traveling carnival, the “woman who had been changed into a spider for disobeying her parents” proves to be a more popular attraction than the old man, causing the villagers to lose interest in him and putting an end to Pelayo and Elisenda’s profitable courtyard business. As a young girl, she had once gone dancing all night against her parents’ wishes; later, while walking home, she was allegedly struck by lightning and transformed into “a frightful tarantula the size of a ram. . . with the head of a sad maiden.” Compared to the baffling old man, the spider-woman provides a far more satisfying spectacle. While she is at least as grotesque and fantastic as the “bird-man,” she charges a lower admission price; more importantly, she is willing to communicate freely with her visitors, recounting her sad experience and inspiring sympathy for her fate. The “meaning” of her story is easy to grasp and teaches a clear moral lesson— one that confirms the villagers’ conventional beliefs. In contrast, the old man makes no attempt to explain himself and seems to contradict all religious and folk beliefs about the nature of angels. His very existence raises disturbing questions, but he offers no reassuring answers.
Very old man with enormous wings
The old man is the story’s central character and its central mystery. He is given no name but is precisely described in the title, which includes everything that can be said about him with any assurance: he is an extremely old man, in failing health, with all the frailties and limitations of human old age, and he has a huge pair of bird’s wings growing from his back. We follow the other characters in their comic efforts to explain him, to assign some “meaning” to his sudden appearance, and finally to just put up with his annoying presence, but when he flies away at the story’s end, the mystery remains.
The very idea of a “winged humanoid” evokes the image of angels, and most of the “wise” villagers quickly assume that he is an angel. But everything
about him seems to contradict traditional stereotypes of heavenly power and immortal perfection. When Pelayo first finds him in the courtyard, apparently blown out of the sky by a strong rainstorm, his condition is pathetic: he lies “face down in the mud,” “dressed like a ragpicker,” and tangled in his half-plucked, bug-infested wings. The narrator tells us directly that this “pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had,” and Father Gonzaga underscores the point later, when he observes that “nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.” Nor do the villagers allow him any dignity or respect; throughout the story, they treat him “without the slightest reverence.” He is displayed like a circus animal or sideshow freak; poked, plucked, and prodded; branded with a hot iron; pelted with stones and garbage; and held prisoner for years in a filthy, battered chicken coop, exposed to the elements. Though he is the source of the family’s great fortune, Elisenda comes to find him an intolerable annoyance, becoming “exasperated and unhinged” by his presence. He is understandably “standoffish” toward people, tolerating only the company of the couple’s young child, and the villagers come to think of him as “a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.” Given his cruel captivity, the reader can only agree when the narrator observes that his “only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience.” Even this virtue is later deprived of any otherworldly greatness; it becomes merely “the patience of a dog who had no illusions.”
The old man is described in imagery of earthly poverty and human weakness, contradicting traditional heavenly stereotypes. Even the birds with which he is compared to are ignoble ones (“buzzard wings,” “a huge decrepit hen,” “a senile vulture”). Yet there is clearly something of the magical about him beyond his unexplained wings and mysterious origin. He does, after all, perform miracles—but they, too, fail to satisfy expectations. The blind man’s sight isn’t restored, but he suddenly grows three new teeth; the leper’s sores aren’t cured, but sunflowers begin growing from them. These are “consolation miracles,” which show “a certain mental disorder,” as if senility had caused his magic powers to misfire. Alternately, they could be practical jokes, a form of “mocking fun” to avenge his abuse by the crowd. Their sick child recovers when Pelayo and Elisenda take in the old man, but this could be coincidence, or perhaps another case of failed magic (if, as the neighbor woman believes, he is an angel of death sent to take the baby). And, despite his obvious infirmities, he is possessed of a surprising inner strength. His health seems to be in irreversible decline throughout; a doctor’s examination finds it “impossible for him to be alive,” and very late in the story his death appears imminent. Yet with the coming of spring, after years of uselessness, his wings grow new feathers and regain their strength, allowing him to escape the village forever.
Although his wings make him a creature of the sky and he is clearly not at home on land, the old man also has some association with the sea. He comes from the sea (or at least from over it), washed up with a tide of crabs by a three-day storm; his first attempts to fly away are accompanied by “a wind that seemed to come from the high seas.” Pelayo and Elisenda first take him for a foreign sailor (perhaps because they detect “a strong sailor’s voice” in his incomprehensible speech), and an early plan called for him to be set out to sea on a raft with provisions. As his wings begin to regenerate, he sings “sea chanteys” under the stars. Critics disagree in their interpretations of this connection and in their judgments on its significance. But in Garcia Marquez’s other works, they often find the sea to be an important theme or symbol, both as a natural force of great power (equally capable of bringing rich gifts or terrible destruction), and as a force associated with the supernatural. Several of his stories include episodes where unusual strangers from the “outside world” appear in a small town and have a strong effect on its people. Very often, these remarkable visitors arrive by sea.
The old man is also connected in some way with Pelayo and Elisenda’s child. The newborn is ill when he first appears, but quickly recovers when the “angel” takes up residence. The “wise neighbor woman” believes that he was sent to takes the child’s life. Both the child and the old man come down with chicken pox at the same time, and the old man uncharacteristically allows the child to play with and around him, tolerating “ingenious infamies” with patience. But beyond these details, the connection or bond between the two is not developed.
Because the old man is a misunderstood outsider subjected to cruel mistreatment, he becomes primarily a figure of pity—a strange emotion for an “angel” to inspire. He has enough magical qualities to let the reader see him, at least potentially, as a figure of wonder, but his very human vulnerability keeps this from being much more than a suggestion. Finally, there is at least an equal suggestion of a potential “dark side.” Pelayo’s first impression is that of having seen a “nightmare,” and the “mental disorder” of the old man’s miracles suggests that his “magic powers” are uncontrollable, making him dangerous. When burned with a branding iron, his startled wing-flapping creates “a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust,” “a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world.” It is almost a moment of terror; when he calms down, the villagers regard him with renewed caution and fear: “his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease, but that of a cataclysm in repose.” And though his visit brings truly miraculous results for Pelayo and Elisenda by making them fabulously wealthy, it also seems to be a frightful and unnerving experience for them. Elisenda comes to feel that she lives in “a hell full of angels,” and when they design their dream home, the couple make sure to “angel-proof ” it with iron bars.
Doubt and Ambiguity
One of this story’s difficult aspects is the sense of uncertainty it creates by leaving important facts Page 327 | Top of Articleunresolved 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 “storylike,” 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.”
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.
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 Page 328 | Top of Articlehas 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.
In establishing the character of the old man, Garcia Marquez plays against traditional stereotypes of angels. Angels are supernatural creatures and are expected them to be presented in images that convey grandeur, perfection, wisdom, and grace. By definition, angels are contrasted with humans; though they resemble humans physically, they are super-human in every conceivable way. But like Father Gonzaga, the reader’s first response to the old man is likely to be that he is “much too human.” Instead of presenting a majestic, awe-inspiring figure, Garcia Marquez describes a creature with mortal weaknesses and senility (“a drenched great-grandfather”), in circumstances without any trace of reverence or dignity. While his feathered wings invite comparisons with birds, even this imagery is common and debased; he is “a senile vulture” or a “decrepit hen,” not a soaring eagle or an elegant swan. While the villagers face the problem of understanding an apparent “angel” who fits none of their expectations for the type, the reader finds himself placed by the author in the same position.
Also unusual is the way Garcia Marquez combines different types of imagery. The opening line reveals that it is “the third day of rain,” and a few lines later this information is repeated in another form: “The world had been sad since Tuesday.” One is a direct statement of fact, which might appear in a weather report; the other is a poetic image, projecting human emotions onto the weather and individual feelings onto the entire world. Expressed in other terms, the reader accepts the first version as “real,” while the second version (if taken at face value) is “magical,” involving a logically-impossible connection between human feelings and the weather. Both attitudes are familiar to readers, who know to read a factual account in a Page 329 | Top of Articlerational, literal frame of mind, and to suspend disbelief in a more imaginative story, where descriptions are expected to be used for their creative, suggestive effects. But Garcia Marquez never allows the reader to settle comfortably into one attitude or the other; throughout the story, realistic and magical details are combined, seeming to suggest that both attitudes are valid, and that neither one is sufficient by itself.
The ambiguity within the story is reinforced by inconsistencies in the narrative voice. The narrator is, after all, the “person” presenting all this odd imagery to the reader, and readers habitually look to the narrator for clues to help find a proper interpretation. For example, when the narrator states that Father Gonzaga’s letters to his church superiors “might have come and gone until the end of time” without reaching a conclusion, he confirms the reader’s suspicion that the priest’s approach is futile, despite his confident assurances to the crowd. Narrators don’t just present facts; they also give direction as to “how to take” the information we receive
This narrator, however, seems to direct the reader all over the map and to be inconsistent in his own attitude to events. The villagers” wild ideas about the old man are often presented as obvious delusions, characterized as “frivolous” or “simple” by the narrator. But at other times, he seems no more skeptical than the villagers. For example, the story of the spider-woman seems far more fantastic than that of an old man with wings, but the narrator gives no suggestion that her transformation is particularly unusual and seems to expect the reader to accept this frankly “magical” event as if it presented no mystery at all. Though they are wise in ways the villagers are not, and see through the various fanciful interpretations of the visitor, readers come to feel that the narrator may not fully understand the old man himself. Such an unreliable storyteller makes a mystery even more mysterious, complicating efforts to fix a definite meaning to the tale.
The Lack of a Context
The time and place of this story are undetermined. The characters” names suggest a Spanish-speaking country, and a reference to airplanes indicates that we are somewhere in the twentieth century; but beyond these minor details, we seem to be in the “once-upon-a-time” world of fairy tales. The narrator tells of events in the past, using the phrase “in those times” in a manner common to myths and legends. These associations help prepare the reader for the story’s “magical” elements by suggesting that this is not a factual history to be taken literally, but a tale of the imagination where the usual rules may be suspended.
Such an “undetermined” setting is common in Garcia Marquez’s fiction. While he is often outspoken in his journalism and takes a public stand on many political issues, references to contemporary history in his fiction tend to be indirect and uncertain. Critics have tried to trace such connections (for example, by suggesting that a character in one of his novels is modeled on a certain South American dictator), but the author’s decision to write in this manner indicates that such “messages” are not his primary concern. By its nature, the story is not tied to any particular time or place; like legends from a mythical golden age in the past, it calls our attention to timeless, universal themes, applying in a general way to all times and places.
The Context of Reception
While the story shows no direct evidence of historical context, it was, of course, written in a particular time and place. And like all artistic productions, its “success” has depended not only on its artistic merits, but on its ability to attract an audience and to gain acceptance from critics and scholars. Unlike the writing itself, the reception of a work involves factors largely outside the author’s control, factors usually having much to do with historical and cultural context.
The extremes of popular and critical reception can be seen in the stereotype of the “starving artist,” who works without reward for years then suddenly (perhaps only in death) receives widespread, long-overdue recognition. This is the “tragic genius,” ahead of his time—“the world was not ready” for the work he produced. The type does not fit Garcia Marquez exactly, but he did labor in relative obscurity for many years, then suddenly became an international phenomenon: a best-selling author who was also praised by prominent intellectuals, even being heralded as the vanguard of a revolution in Latin American literature. Such sudden enthusiasm, for however deserving an artist, indicates that the world somehow was ready for Garcia Marquez in 1967, when the publication of Page 330 | Top of ArticleOne Hundred Years of Solitude brought him instant fame, as well as intense scrutiny.
The Garcia Marquez “boom” was fueled by a number of developments, both in popular culture and in critical scholarship, which made it easier for many readers to embrace a work of “magic realism,” and an author from a non-Western culture. The late 1960s are usually characterized as a period of intense cultural change, in which traditional values of all kinds were challenged, and alternative ways of living were widely explored. College campuses were a particular focus for this controversy, most famously in occasional violent confrontations between law enforcement and student political protesters. But it also found expression through passionate debates within the scholarly disciplines, debates in which the most basic assumptions were questioned, and apparently radical changes were given serious consideration. In literature departments, one result was an effort to expand the “canon”—the list of “classic” works (sometimes listed in an official document, sometimes found in the unspoken, shared assumptions of faculty members) whose study is traditionally considered to form the necessary basis of a liberal arts education. Critics charged that, with few if any exceptions, the canon had excluded women and people of color from the roll of “great authors,” as well as writers from poor or working-class backgrounds and those from non-European cultures. Efforts to expand the canon, to include a more diverse blend of cultural voices among the works considered worthy of serious scholarship, have continued for over thirty years. Garcia Marquez can be seen as an early beneficiary of this trend; Latin American writers had long been neglected, and his work could be shown to include many of the elements critics had praised in European and North American works. He thus made an early “test case” for expanding the canon, an example of a non-Western writer who deserved to be honored on a level equal to his Western contemporaries. His recognition encouraged the “discovery” of many more Latin American authors and contributed to an explosion of scholarship on the region’s literary heritage.
Finally, this story has a context within Garcia Marquez’s own career. It was written in 1968, a year after his sudden fame. One interpretation of “A Very Old Man widi Enormous Wings” sees it as an exaggerated, satirical account of his own experience with instant celebrity; or, in a more general way, as a commentary on the position of the creative artist in modern culture. In this reading, the “old man” is the artist, while his “wings” stand for transcendence, greatness, truth, beauty—whatever elusive qualities we think of as being valuable in art. The villagers, in turn, are “the public,” who are greedy for whatever “magic” he might bring them— but who insist on having it on their own terms. Rather than accepting him as he is, with all his quirks and contradictions, they treat him as a carnival attraction and look for ways to profit from his odd celebrity. They misunderstand him completely, yet confidently “explain” him with wild, illogical speculations. And given a choice, they prefer the kind of magic offered by sensations like the spider-woman—flashy and easy to understand, fitting in comfortably with their beliefs, presenting no awkward difficulties or mysteries. However “magical” they may be, such creatures as artists and angels just aren’t made for everyday life; ultimately, they are an annoyance and an embarrassment to the rest of us. This is, of course, only one of many possible interpretations, for a story that seems designed to resist any single, clear explanation. But it does show another way in which context (cultural, historical, and personal) can find its way into a story which seems, on the surface, to have been written from no particular time or place.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” was written in 1968, in the wake of its author’s sudden fame. The story’s timing has led some critics to suggest that it may, at least in part, be a comic treatment of Garcia Marquez’s own experience as a writer, or an allegory for the condition of creative artists in general. In this reading, the old man represents the artist, and his experience in the village is a satirical account of the way a work is received by the public. While his wings mark him as extraordinary, in other ways he fails to meet the villagers” impossible expectations; and while they feel a need to account for him, this proves to be a difficult, complex, and uncertain task. Instead, they misinterpret him wildly, and abuse and exploit him as a carnival freak. By insisting on simple, dramatic “miracles” that fit comfortably with their beliefs, they give up all chance of understanding whatever “magic” he does possess and soon lose interest in him. However, it must be stressed that this is only one possible interpretation for this complex story. Other critics have argued that, however appealing, it is far too simple, “neat,” and logical to fully Page 331 | Top of Articleaccount for a tale so rich in invention and suggestion; and even those who advance such a reading point out that is just one of several levels on which meaning can be found.
While Garcia Marquez’s early short stories, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were generally considered unsuccessful for their overly self-conscious use of unconventional narrative techniques, his later stories employ many of the same narrative strategies that have made Garcia Marquez one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors, prompting critics to compare him to the likes of William Faulkner and Franz Kafka.
A freelance writer and copy editor, Faulkner is pursuing an M.A. in English at Wayne State University. In the following essay, he explores the peculiar effects of magic realism as a literary style employed in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”
The style of writing referred to as “magic realism” is marked by its imaginative content, vivid effects, and lingering mystery. In combining fantastic elements with realistic details, a writer like Garcia Marquez can create a fictional “world” where the miraculous and the everyday live side-by-side— where fact and illusion, science and folklore, history and dream, seem equally “real,” and are often hard to distinguish. The form clearly allows writers to stretch the limits of possibility and to be richly inventive; however, it involves more than the creation of attractive fantasies. The village in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” may be appealing in some ways, but it is also a complex, difficult, even disturbing fantasy. Beyond imagination, the successful creation of such a world in the reader’s mind requires skillful use of the same tools and techniques familiar in more conventional, less “magical” types of fiction. Garcia Marquez not only combines realistic details with fantastic ones, but seems to give them both equal weight, an equal claim to reality or truth in the reader’s mind.
In the character of the “bird-man,” we can see this style at work and experience the charming (but unsettling) effect it often has on readers. His mysterious nature is the story’s central “problem,” the source of its energy and tension. We know, of course, that human beings don’t have wings; logically, such a character must be either a monster or a miracle—if he exists at all. Yet when the doctor examines the old man, what most impresses him is “the logic of his wings,” which “seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” Logic and science insist that such a creature must be supernatural, but Garcia Marquez presents him as entirely “natural”; much like the doctor, once we’ve “seen” him, it’s as if winged old men were common, even unremarkable, visitors. We see how, despite “the inconvenience of the wings,” Pelayo and Elisenda “very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.” As readers, we are guided to the same kind of acceptance. No one questions the old man’s existence, or the reality of his wings, not even the narrator (except, perhaps, in the final line, when the old man becomes “an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea”). He may or may not be an angel, but he is unquestionably an old man with wings, as “real” as anyone else in the story.
Several techniques contribute to the old man’s vivid “existence.” Detailed sensory imagery is a standard means for writers to reinforce a character’s “reality” to the reader, and Garcia Marquez not only makes us “see” the old man (right down to the “few faded hairs left on his bald skull” and the parasites picking through his ruined feathers), but also “smell” him, “feel” the texture of his wings, and “hear” his whistling heartbeat. The rich imagery also works to undermine supernatural stereotypes, contradicting our usual ideas about angels and denying the old man any of the heroic or exalted qualities we expect. He is described not only in human, earthly terms, but in terms of extreme weakness and poverty (“dressed like a ragpicker,” “his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather”). When he is compared to birds, they are not exotic eagles or dazzling peacocks, but common species with less-than-noble reputations (his “buzzard wings,” “a decrepit hen,” “a senile vulture”). As Father Gonzaga observes (and by the author’s design), “nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.” He thus becomes real the more we see him as human, a creature closer to our own experience and understanding—not a shining, mythical being but a frail, suffering, even pathetic fellow, who happens to have a few physical quirks.
The problem Garcia Marquez presents us is not just “What if angels were real?” but “What if they were real, and nothing like we expect them to be?”
He creates a tension between the old man’s magical and human qualities, leaving us unable to fit the character into a comfortable mental category. The old man is far too human and decrepit to match our cultural image of angels: perfect, powerful, majestic, immortal. Nor does he appear to be a heavenly messenger, sent by God as a sign of momentous changes; his presence seems to be purely an accident of the weather, without purpose or meaning. Nonetheless, he certainly has his magical qualities, and is even credited with miracles (though, like everything else about him, they are disturbing, and fail to satisfy expectations). However miraculous his nature, origins, or abilities may be, he is stranded here, and relatively powerless—an exile from his former life, at the mercy of strangers. The villagers must somehow account for him, and because no one understands his language, he is unable (and apparently unwilling) to explain himself. Several possible interpretations arise, but most of them are clearly Page 333 | Top of Articleabsurd, telling us more about the villagers’ superstitions and beliefs than about the old man’s “true nature.” They are rendered with playful humor, ensuring that the reader will appreciate the irrational and illusory basis of such “folk wisdom.” Yet our “superior,” conventional methods of logic and reason don’t seem any more useful in reaching a secure explanation. The old man remains a stubborn, intriguing mystery, both magical and ordinary, impossible to decipher but undeniably there.
This uncertainty (or ambiguity) applies not just to the old man, but evidently to life itself, as it is lived in this timeless, nameless village. It seems to be a place where just about anything can happen (for example, a young woman can be changed into a spider for disobeying her parents)—or at least, it is a place where everyone is quite willing to believe such things happen and to act as though they do happen. This impression is partly a result of Garcia Marquez’s use of narrative voice. For the most part, the story seems to be told by the standard “omniscient observer” of third person fiction—a narrator who knows all the necessary facts, and can be trusted to present them reliably. When such narration expresses an opinion, the reader tends to accept it as a correct interpretation. This narrator may seem to fit the type at first, but later appears to change his point of view, and even his opinions of events. The narrator seems to endorse the villagers’ thinking at times (for example, reporting without comment that the old man has a “strong sailor’s voice,” even though we have no evidence for this assumption of Pelayo and Elisenda’s), but at other times, he seems almost contemptuous of their irrational ideas. (A few lines later, when he describes how the couple “skipped over the inconvenience of the wings” and “quite intelligently” decided that he was nothing but a sailor, the intent seems to be strongly sarcastic.) We might entertain hope that Father Gonzaga’s correspondence with church leaders will eventually produce an explanation—until the narrator comments that those “meager letters might have come and gone until the end of time” without result. In such ways, readers come to rely on the narrator for clues about “how to take” elements in the story that may be unclear. But this narrator seems determined to be untrustworthy, and leaves us uncertain about important events. Without telling us how, he treats everything that happens as though it “makes sense.” Though he is habitually ironic in his view of the “wise” villagers’ beliefs, he describes the supernatural experience of the “spider-woman” in simple factual terms, seeming to accept it as readily as his characters do. Are we to conclude that this fantastic transformation from human to spider actually happened? Or that the narrator is now as deluded as the villagers? Or even that he is purposely lying to us? At such moments, the narration seems to parody the style of traditional fairy tales; as the label “magic realism” suggests, some elements of the story seem meant to be approached with the simplistic “logic” of fantasy, while others are depicted with all the complexity and imperfection that mark “real life.”
Garcia Marquez not only combines realistic details with fantastic ones, but seems to give them both equal weight, an equal claim to “reality” or “truth” in the reader’s mind. Dreamlike, poetic descriptions are presented matter-of-factly; like winged old men who fall from the sky, they are treated more as everyday realities than as bizarre impossibilities. When we learn that a character is deprived of sleep “because the noise of the stars disturbed him,” it seems to be merely a symptom quoted from his medical chart, perhaps even a common cause of insomnia, not an obvious delusion or a feat of supernatural hearing. As in the similar case of the “poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers,” the narrator gives no indication that any particular explanation is required, almost assuming that the reader will accept these odd riddles without question. Traditionally, we aren’t meant to take such language literally (as a description of factual events), but poetically (or figuratively), as a creative key to some idea or state of mind, which we must interpret for ourselves. (The insomniac, for example, might be said to “really” be experiencing hallucinations due to mental illness, or perhaps a feeling of isolation and insignificance in the cosmos—but not actually listening to stars.) But here, such “magical” descriptions seem to be offered as straightforward accounts of “normal” (if rare and unusual) occurrences (his ears are sensitive, and those stars are just too loud!)—events whose “real meaning” need not, or cannot, be determined, but which must nonetheless be accepted as “real.”
The mixture of different kinds of imagery, and different narrative attitudes, serves to heighten the reader’s uncertainty. Realistic and magical descriptions are often combined, as if they are inseparable aspects of the same events. Thus, we are not only told that it is “the third day of rain,” but also, a few lines later, that “[t]he world had been sad since Tuesday.” By combining factual and imaginative Page 334 | Top of Articledescriptions, and seeming to treat them with equal credibility, the author suggests that both “ways of knowing” are valid, perhaps even necessary to achieving a balanced understanding. Magic seems to lie just beneath the surface of the story, waiting to break through, almost beyond the narrator’s control. For example, a description of the old man’s undignified captivity lingers over factual, everyday details (his diet of eggplant mush, the crowd tossing stones to get him to react, the hens pecking through his feathers); but the insects infesting his wings are suddenly described as “stellar parasites”—a poetic image, not a “factual” one (at least until there is any evidence of insects living on stars). If we approach the story expecting to be charmed by a fairy tale, the factual descriptions seem “too real;” they spoil the “magical” effect we hope for, by allowing the unpleasant and inconvenient details of everyday life to intrude on our imaginative landscape. But if we read with a “realistic” frame of mind, looking for solid facts and logical explanations, the strange poetic images only frustrate us, and may cause us to question other apparent “facts.” The magical touches may dazzle us, but they can also make us feel like the old man in his early efforts to fly: that we are “slip[ping] on the light,” unable to “get a grip on the air.” We must somehow accept the events our narrator presents (at least temporarily), in order to continue reading at all, and have any hope of making sense of the tale. But we are never sure whether to “accept” them as real events, mass hallucinations, symbolic stand-ins for some “other” story the author has in mind, or the unreal “magic” of legends and fairy tales. We cannot choose between reality and magic; Garcia Marquez insists on giving us both, even in the most minor details. When the startled bird-man suddenly flaps his wings, he creates a “whirlwind” in the courtyard, with a dustcloud composed of both (earthly) chicken dung and (heavenly) “lunar dust”: even the dirt on the ground is shown to be both humble and marvelous at once.
Typical of the style, this story’s tone seems both playful and serious. The striking images and sudden surprises stimulate the reader’s senses and imagination, but also frustrate and complicate our efforts to fix a definite meaning to events. Works of magic realism are both praised and criticized for their “childlike wonder,” their depiction of a world of almost-infinite possibilities, where the supernatural and the everyday take on the same vivid intensity. But they are not fairy tales or two-dimensional fantasies; they offer no clear lessons, simple events, or sharp distinctions between reality and magic. “Wondering” includes both delight and confusion, the struggle to comprehend experiences that challenge our understanding, and don’t fit our accustomed map of reality. Far more things are possible in the world of magic realism, including miracles, contradictions, and logical impossibilities—but this also means that more meanings are possible, and that all meanings will be elusive and uncertain.
Source: Tom Faulkner, Overview of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Millington is Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Nottingham, England. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of the symmetrical structure of the stories in The Incredible and Sad Story of the Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother, including “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” detailing the opening of each story with the arrival of an invading presence which causes widespread change in the life patterns of the characters, and the conclusion with a departure which completes the natural cycle. Millington also focuses on the narrative structure of the stories, which incorporates cultural knowledge frames and partial narrator authority to emphasize the relation between the narrative world and the actual world.
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Source: Mark Millington, “Aspects of Narrative Structure in The Incredible and Sad Story of the Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother” in Gabriel Garcia Marquez: New Readings, edited by Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 117-33.
In the following excerpt, Gerlach examines “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” as a fantasy in which Garcia Marquez employs language, similes, and satire to both destroy and evoke an appropriate reaction to a mythic subject. Gerlach also offers his interpretation of the role of the narrator, asserting that the narrator uses two levels of distortion to contrast the human folly of the villagers with the more desirable traits (such as patience) of the old man.
Is fantasy dependent on certain themes, and, if so, might these themes be exhausted? My own response to one story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a story in which theme and the atmosphere of a fantasy that emerges from the theme are, if anything, negatively correlated, leads me to suspect that fantasy is not closely tied to theme, so that fantasies may be created in any age, without reference to theme.
The story might best be described by starting at the end. At the conclusion, an old man flaps like a senile vulture away from the village where for years he has been held captive. The woman who has grudgingly taken care of him watches him open a furrow in the vegetable patch with his fingernails in his first attempt to rise. She sees him nearly knock down a shed with his “ungainly flapping.” As he gains altitude and begins to disappear, she watches “until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot.” George McMurray, in his recent study of Gabriel Garcia Marquez [Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1977], focuses on this final image and concludes that for the reader (and the villagers) the story is a “cathartic destruction of antiquated myths.” My own reaction was quite different: I had the prescribed catharsis, but I came away with my taste for myth and the supernatural intact. I could see how McMurray arrived at his conclusion, because this particular Icarus, with his “few faded hairs left on his bald skull” and the air of a “drenched great-grandfather,” would hardly seem to inspire wonder. But I felt as if I had witnessed the beginning of a myth, not its end, and the story had evoked for me the sense of wonder and marvel that one associates with myth at its inception.
Whether the story is best designated as a myth or as a fantasy is another matter. Myths present “supernatural episodes as a means of interpreting natural events in an effort to make concrete and particular a special perception of man or a cosmic view,” as [C. Hugh Holman, in his 1972] A Handbook to Literature would have it. The old man of Garcia Marquez’s story does not stimulate the villagers to interpret anything. He is dropped into their existence unexplained, and leaves unexplained, clarifying nothing. It would be more accurate to consider the work a fantasy on the grounds that the story deals, to use the handbook’s terms again, with an Page 339 | Top of Article“incredible and unreal character.” I will eventually apply a more contemporary definition of fantasy to the story, [Tzvetan] Todorov’s definition [in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard, 1973], but for the moment I prefer to pursue further the consequences of McMurray’s approach. His view implies that the subject of myth, or, as I will have it, fantasy, determines our reactions. If the text parodies a mythic subject, then the reader would appropriately respond, not with an elevated sense of wonder, but with amusement at the exposure of nonsense. Since the subject matter in Garcia Marquez’s story does not diminish my own appreciation of the marvelous, I am left to conclude either that McMurray has misread the text or that the effect of a fantasy is not dependent on the subject. I have concluded that both propositions are true. McMurray has misrepresented the text, and, even so, something other than theme or subject matter creates what the reader responds to in a fantasy. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” can be used to show that, as Todorov has predicted, the manner of telling, not the matter, creates the fantasy.
McMurray’s points should first be dealt with in more detail. His interpretation is brief, but his argument is easily extended. Part of Garcia Marquez’s strategy, as McMurray suggests, was undeniably to diminish the grandeur of this unearthly winged creature. Similes used to describe him do not even grant him human attributes: matched with the villagers who stood around his cage he looked “like a huge decrepit hen among fascinated chickens.” Later it is said that he tolerates a child’s “ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions.” A complex simile, to be sure, for the narrator is saying not only that the old man is like a dog, but also that the dog with his patience and lack of illusions is like a human being. Nevertheless, the effect of the simile is to emphasize the analogy to an animal. The syntax of the sentence which reveals the old man’s wings also diminishes rather than ennobles him. Pelayo, the man who found him, heard something moving and groaning in the courtyard that he had recently cleaned of crabs and the stench they left behind. Pelayo “had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.” The long sentence, with its hesitations that duplicate in the reader the efforts of the old man, relegates the marvel of his wings to the terminal subordinate clause. Rhetorical decisions
such as these have just as much effect on us as the content. It would seem that both the language and the content are pushing the reader in the direction that McMurray has outlined. The supernatural is described as something ordinary or, even more precisely, foul and repellent.
McMurray’s analysis can be extended further. The narrator’s motive in telling the story would seem to be satiric rather than inspirational. The credulity of mankind and greed—Pelayo’s wife begins to charge admission to see the old man—are apparently the narrator’s targets. The church is too, for the attempts of ecclesiastical bureaucrats to discover through correspondence with the resident priest whether or not the winged creature is an angel are bogged down by their desire to find 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.” Furthermore, the narrator’s exaggerated manner of description seems to undercut even further our response to the old man. When Pelayo and his wife Elisenda first speak to the old man, “he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice.” What it is that makes the voice sound like that of a sailor is not questioned by the narrator, who simply mirrors what is presumably the illogic of Pelayo and Elisenda. The narrator’s complicity in this fabrication extends beyond mirroring. He notes that Pelayo and Elisenda “skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway.” Since wings are certainly more than an “inconvenience,” and the logical processes of Pelayo
and Elisenda are therefore something less than intelligent, we have a narrator who, instead of striving to establish the credibility of this supernatural creature, is emphasizing the credulity of the villagers.
Similes that demean, satire, playful logic—it would seem that Garcia Marquez is not about to honor a myth. Yet none of these devices totally cancels out the mystery. The diminishing suggested by these devices does not represent all of the truth about the old man and his wings. However decrepit the old man is, he does renew himself. When he arrived he seemed close to death, and several years later a doctor listening to the old man’s heart concludes that it is impossible for him to be alive; yet after his release from his cage and with the onset of sunny days, stiff feathers begin to grow on his wings. Although the narrator continues to denigrate, calling the new growth “scarecrow feathers” that look like “another misfortune of decrepitude,” the feathers do allow the old man to fly away. Something about the old man is greater than the narrator’s estimation of him.
Other devices that the narrator used to increase rather than decrease our respect for the old man also need to be considered. When compared to those around him the old man becomes the model of patience, trying the best he can to “get comfortable in his borrowed nest, befuddled by the hellish heat of the oil lamps and sacramental candles that had been placed along the wire.” He refuses to eat the mothballs that one of the villagers thinks is the “food prescribed for angels,” and subsists on eggplant mush. If he is “befuddled,” that term has ironic value, for it is those that regard him who are confused.
Contrast with what seems to be even the sanest of mortals is illustrative. Father Gonzaga is the figure presented by the narrator as the most sane. He is not, as his parishioners are, ready to make the old man the mayor of the world or a “five-star general in order to win all wars,” nor does he want to put him out to stud to create “a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe.” Father Gonzaga “had been a robust woodcutter” and so by implication is more realistic. He soberly approaches the old man and says good morning in Latin. Father Gonzaga has “his first suspicion of an imposter” when he saw that the old man “did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers,” and it is at this point we realize that Father Gonzaga is the one who fails the test, not the old man. Father Gonzaga notices that “seen close up” the old man “was much too human,” and so the priest warns his parishioners not to be taken in. In the light of Father Gonzaga’s response, the comment that the old man is “too human” is particularly telling. Gonzaga’s rationalism obscures his realization that although the winged gentleman may not meet doctrinal specifications, he still is miraculous. What begins to emerge is an image of the old man as someone possibly more human and reasonable than members of the wingless species.
The winged man’s humanity is underlined by a foil the narrator creates—a woman who has been changed into a spider. Her presence distracts the villagers, and they cease to pay attention to the old man. Her exhibit costs less, and unlike the old man, she talks about her affliction. Where the old man refused, she encourages responses, readily accepting meatballs tossed into her mouth. There is nothing ambiguous or submerged about our perception of her. The old man’s wings were slowly revealed; we are told bluntly that this woman is “a frightful tarantula the size of a ram . . . with the head of a sad maiden.” Though the narrator does not exaggerate the catalogue of her strangeness, she is in fact more grotesque than the old man.
The narrator’s description of the villagers’ response to her is familiar: once again the logic of the villagers is suspect; the crowd regards her a spectacle full of “human truth,” a “fearful lesson.” The facts of the lesson, however, are these: a lightning bolt of brimstone changed her form because she had been dancing all night without her parents’ permission. The narrator’s indirect exposure of the triviality of what the crowd considers a basic truth alters our response to the old man. We begin to admire more his silence and even his diet.
The way the villagers treat him is ultimately the best clue to how we should regard him. They poke, Page 341 | Top of Articlethey prod, and at one point they burn him with a branding iron. Up until this point pain itself has seemed unreal. Those with ailments who come to be cured have only the most fanciful of afflictions, such as that of an old man “who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him” and that of “a poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers.” But the old man with wings responds with true pain, ranting in his “hermetic language,” tears in his eyes, flapping his wings to create “a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust.” The villagers take the old man as no more than a creature of fiction, hence not subject to pain. They may not see the old man’s humanity, but the reader should.
What I hope is emerging is a more complete sense of the role of the narrator. His denigrations of the protagonist have been systematic but not exclusive. He distorts by alternately exaggerating and understating. What could be called the outer or secondary level of distortion is the product of the narrator’s supposed sympathy with the viewpoint of the villagers. This level, whose function is basically satiric, leads the narrator to call wings “inconvenient” or to exaggerate the church’s concern in terms of the medieval problem of calculating the number of angels on the head of a pin. The narrator takes the viewpoint of the villagers themselves, pretending to be alternately detached or supportive, but everywhere he exposes irrationality and superstition. Underneath this level, however, is another, an inner or primary level of distortion, which grows from one central fact—there is an old man with enormous wings. That conception embodies even in its grammatical form a paradox in the contrast between “old” and “enormous,” for we would not expect anything so powerfully endowed to be so decrepit. Beyond this paradox is a kind of simplicity and unarguable solidity. The nature of the wings themselves does not change; what changes is our perception of their naturalness. By the end of the story, a doctor examines the old man and is surprised by “the logic of his wings,” and the reader is prepared for a similar realization. These wings, as the doctor puts it, seem “so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” This old man, with his muteness, his patience, is in some ways more human, more natural, and even more believable, than anyone else in the story. The secondary level of distortion playfully exposes human folly; the primary level by contrast defines more desirable human traits.
At this point it is appropriate to define the genre of the work more precisely. The definition will allow us to see how the two levels of distortion work together to create the effects we associate with fantasy. Within the last few years, several critics, in particular W. R. Irwin [The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, 1976], Eric S. Rabkin [The Fantastic in Literature, 1976], and Tzvetan Todorov, have attempted to describe fantasy as a genre. Of the three, Todorov’s analysis provides the most instructive standards to apply to Garcia Marquez’s story. The fit is not perfect; Todorov, I believe, concludes that “fantasy” narrowly defined is hardly being written anymore. But even the divergence between “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and Todorov’s principles is in itself enlightening.
Todorov assumes that, first, fantasies produce the effect of hesitation. The reader is never wholly sure whether he is confronting a supernatural event or something that can be rationally explained. If the reader is able to conclude the event is explicable solely on the supernatural level, the story belongs to another genre, the marvelous, and, if the reader chooses the rational explanation, the story falls into the genre of the “uncanny.” Second, the reader usually participates in the story through the medium of a character who believes in reason and order, so that the reader experiences the hesitation through the character’s eyes. Third, the reader must not be able to explain away the supernatural events by considering them allegorical or poetic. In this case the reader would conclude that the supernatural is merely a shorthand for an idea, hence not to be taken literally. One of the clues to allegory is that no one in the story takes an aberration to be unusual, and so there is no sense of hesitation.
In the case of the Garcia Marquez story, it is simpler to deal with the second point first. There is no character recounting for us his experiences. There is an implied narrator, and this narrator is a direct inversion of the sort of character that Todorov has posited. This is no rational human, but a creator of exaggerations. The hesitation that Todorov speaks of as his first point, then, derives in this story not from the doubts of a character, but from our doubts about what the narrator is saying. Todorov’s analysis allows us to see the ingenuity of what Garcia Marquez has done. Garcia Marquez has taken what would normally be the index of normality, the village folk, and made them the greatest of exaggerators. The unreal character, in contrast, begins to appear normal and harmless. Garcia Marquez has Page 342 | Top of Articlemanaged to make his central contrary-to-fact situation, the old man with wings (what I have been calling the primary level of distortion), seems altogether more rational and ordinary than the villagers. Those who follow Rabkin’s definition of fantasy should be pleased, for the effect that I have described is replete with what Rabkin calls 180-degree turns in perspective, the undermining of established expectations. As for the matter of allegory, it is possible that the wings themselves might be taken as allegorical evidence of the true dignity of man. What prevents us from taking the wings as allegory is the very insistence on the decrepitude of the old man, and elaboration of the reality of the wings, the “stellar parasites” in them. In the same way, the characters both are and are not taking the old man as unusual, so that the wings both are and are not allegorical. It is not that Garcia Marquez is making hash of Todorov’s categories. What he is doing by his exaggerations is creating the maximum doubt and hesitation about not only the supernatural but the natural as well.
We should now be able to reconsider some of the questions originally raised by McMurray’s interpretation. Although it might be possible to contend that McMurray’s reading of the text failed to take into account the double role of the narrator and the two levels of distortion, and hence he did not see the extent to which Garcia Marquez has shifted our sympathies toward the old man and located the antiquated, exhausted view in the perception of the villagers, such a view does not fully account for the energy of the story. Arriving at the truth of the story and feeling its impact do not automatically result from peeling off the secondary layer of distortion and getting at the primary. It is not possible to take either level as the ultimate truth. The positive values may seem to be vested in the primary level, for Garcia Marquez has made muteness and patience seem truly supernatural virtues, and by implication exaggeration the expression of human fallibility. But the center of the story is still an exaggeration. Men do not have wings. The process of distortion itself is the vehicle of our approach to the story. The very act of reading and interpreting the story rests not on muteness and patience, but on the appreciation of exaggeration. In reading the story the reader does not respond only to the truth of a particular idea, in the case of this story, for instance, the idea that there is an indestructible, winged aspect of man that can fly despite its own aging or the lack of appreciation from ordinary men. The story is a whole, not a set of levels, and what causes the reader to respond, in the terms that Todorov has established, is the reader’s hesitation over what is real.
This hesitation is built up from the minutest details, as can be shown in one isolated segment, the ending. Even slight distortions in language are significant. The concluding phrase states that the old man “was no longer an annoyance in [Elisenda’s] life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.” The antithesis of “annoyance” and “dot,” contrasting an abstraction with something at least barely visible, might make us grammatically uncomfortable, but the mismatch reproduces the quality of the story itself. It is as if there were a rather easy flow between our feelings and the things we find about us, so that a thought might suddenly take a substance as real as our own, or just as suddenly disappear. The energy created by unusual phrases works in the same way. The idea of modifying “dot” by the adjective “imaginary” is plausible in that the dot may be so small that it is nearly imaginary, but the conjunction of the two terms is also implausible; it has something of the force of an oxymoron, for Elisenda is simultaneously seeing and merely imagining. “Imaginary” is also apt in that the old man is by our standards rightly considered imaginary. Structurally the close is effective because it complements the opening—the character was visually constructed piece by piece for us, and now visually recedes into nothingness. Viewed from one perspective, humankind is relieved of a burden. Viewed from another, a creature more perfect, more logical than man has achieved his freedom. The fact that the old man has escaped from the perspective of the characters means to the characters that he does not exist, he may be ignored. But we have seen him endure over a period of time and can imagine him perhaps going back to whatever imaginary place it is that he lives in, one that has as much validity to it as this imaginary town into which he has fallen.
The cluster of possibilities here matches the possibilities advanced in the rest of the story. Clusters such as this give the story its power and create the effects we identify with fantasy; the clusters work much the same way as the hesitation over the natural and the supernatural. Because the effect of the story, the sense in which it is a fantasy, is created by the treatment, not by the subject or theme, the number of fantasies that can still be written should be endless. At one time myths may have been man’s way of imagining the unimaginable, but now, even though literal mythmaking is no longer used to explain the world around us, the sense of wonder that myth brings with it need not in consequence be Page 343 | Top of Articleabandoned. It does not matter that we cannot take the fanciful as literally as man might once have, nor does it matter that the subject of a myth is decrepit, toothless, and featherless. The sense of wonder that a myth or a fantasy evokes inheres not in the subject, but in the telling. Fantasy is more the how than the what.
Put in terms of Todorov’s discussion, fantasy is created initially by something significantly contrary to the ordinary. The task of the reader is to naturalize, to recuperate, that is, to make intelligible, this break from the norms of the reader’s experience. The most significant thing about the genre is that the break should not readily be bridged; the circuits must be kept open as long as possible. In Todorov’s words, the hesitation must continue. What the reader ends up recuperating is ultimately the process, the broken circuit itself. It is not what the break is about, it is that there is a continuous break that makes a fantasy. Since fantasy is a process, not a result, its resources are endless, and it is in no way dependent on the fashion of the conventions it adapts.
The final matter to consider is the effect of parody in the genre. Does the parody of a myth or fantasy make the story a last gasp, as the Russian formalists have asserted in other cases, of a genre that is about to expire or assume a new form? I think not. Parody is not central to this story. The mention of stellar bugs and scratchings is only a way for the narrator to make the mystery of the old man more, not less, incredible. There are parodic elements, but this is not a parody as such. What one ultimately grasps in a fantasy is the potential of language to construct a world partly, but not wholly, like our own. Fantasy is the logical extension, the wings, of language itself. Literature in general and fantasy in particular are the magic which our customary language so dimly represents.
Source: John Gerlach, “The Logic of Wings: Garcia Marquez, Todorov, and the Endless Resources of Fantasy,” in Bridges to Fantasy, George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 121-29.
Bell-Villada, Gene H. Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Bell-Villada explores various aspects of Garcia Marquez’s work, with chapters focusing on his short fiction, his early development as a writer, and his novels.
Williams, Raymond. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Twayne Publishers, 1984.
A volume of criticism covering Garcia Marquez’s career up to the time of its publication, including chapters analyzing each of his novels and most of the short stories. Williams also includes a biographical introduction, and a survey of the author’s work as a journalist.