Written by Stéphanie Roy
how do the various characters respond to the events of the story? what does their response suggest about human nature and about organized society?
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” shows its characters’ responses to unusual events. These reactions reveal a lot about human nature and organized society. The reader notices how the people in the story make sense of the world around them. They do not question themselves beyond what is material. This lack of imagination might explain why the author has subtitled the story “A Tale for Children”. Let us analyse the plot in detail.
The first event is the discovery of the very old man with enormous wings. After three days of rain and lots of crabs crawling everywhere, Pelayo and Elisenda think that their baby is sick because of the smell. On his way back from throwing the crabs into the sea, Pelayo sees a man with his wings stuck in the mud. He becomes frightened and quickly gets his wife. He probably does not want to confront such a strange phenomenon by himself. He needs the reassuring presence of someone he trusts to face the new situation.
The couple stares at the newcomer with surprise. After a lengthy observation, they begin to feel that the angel is not that frightful. They start to “explain” the angel with their senses: his decrepit appearance, the texture of his wings, his smell, and his unintelligible language. He becomes familiar to them because he seems human in many ways. Nevertheless, the couple calls upon a neighbour to figure out why an angel has been sent to their house. To them, the neighbour woman represents an authority, a knowledgeable expert on life and death.
Because of the woman’s suspicion, the very old man is kept under close surveillance all day. Something new and unexplained is scary. According to the neighbour, the angel is there because Pelayo and Elisenda’s child might die. But even so, the villagers do not “. . . have the heart to club him (the angel) to death” (Fiction 100, p. 544). Maybe they fear what could happen if the angel died. In any case, they spare the newcomer’s life. Is that foreshadowing the material profit that will come from having a very old man with enormous wings at home? We shall see.
When the child gets better, Pelayo and Elisenda become more magnanimous towards the visitor. They decide to help him get away the following day. But the social group around them will make events take a different turn . . . for the worse.
In the morning, villagers are surrounding the chicken coop where the angel is kept, making all kinds of speculations about him. The priest himself, Father Gonzaga, fails to recognise that he is looking at a supernatural being. Instead, he approaches the old man in a very pragmatic, down-to-earth manner. To me, the fact that the priest used to be “a robust woodcutter” (fiction 100, p. 544) suggests he is a man who needs concrete proof in order to explain something. Since he is unable to decide whether or not he is facing an impostor, Father Gonzaga warns his parishioners of tricks the devil can play on them. He decides to write a letter to the Vatican (the authority on religious matters) about the so-called angel, but the opinion of the “experts” will never come.
The old man attracts numerous visitors to Pelayo and Elisenda’s house. Human beings have a natural and insatiable curiosity, up to the point that it becomes voyeurism. Elisenda and Pelayo take advantage of this extraordinary presence. They reap all of the benefits of fame and money. Unfortunately, the entire society in this story is blind to the magical dimension of the events. For a time, the village turns into a huge fairground.
“The angel was the only one who took no part in his own act.” (Fiction 100, p. 545)
With the profits, the family is able to improve their living conditions and their social status. Until his departure, however, the angel remains a burden, and even a nuisance to those who have received him. They have used the very old man with enormous wings just as a commodity, and now they wish that they could get rid of him. Elisenda is even relieved when she sees him fly away in the end.
There is a lot of realism and very little magic in their response to what happens!
I think it is due to the fact that the characters are grown ups, with adult concerns and no time to spend playing or imagining that life could be different from what they see. Youngsters have the leisure to do so while they are learning through play. I am not trying to diminish the importance of science in modern life, but we fall into the trap of “ordinary” more often than we would like to admit it. I am not fooling myself either. I did not notice what the story was about, even with the word “angel” written all over the text! Why did the author replace it with the expression “a very old man with enormous wings”? Because we are adults, we have blindfolded our childish innocence with worries and ambitions.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez simply wanted to demonstrate how humans fail to notice the extraordinary in daily life. Note how children, even Pelayo and Elisenda’s son, are absent from the action. I wonder what would happen if, maybe only for one day, we could stop trying to reason everything and let things and events unfold on their own to surprise us . . .
about Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
Marquez and magical realism:
Pickering, James H. Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004, p. 543 to 548.