Interpreting the Theme of “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”

by Louis-Jean Trudeau

The main theme of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ story deals with human beings’ complete inability to appreciate the marvellous. This concept is first illustrated by the different reactions of the characters that come in contact with the fallen angel. The first people to take notice of his presence are Pelayo and Elisenda, a couple who find the winged oddity in their courtyard in the middle of a storm. After witnessing the old man struggle to make it out of a pool of mud, the couple dismisses him as a foreign castaway with the appearance of a decrepit rag-picker. Despite the revelation of a local wise woman that this shoddy old man is nothing less than an angel, Pelayo and his wife remain unimpressed and throw him in with the hens in their chicken coop. In short, they strip him of any remaining dignity and treat him like a farm animal.

Following the angel’s imprisonment, the whole neighbourhood hears about the unorthodox story and tries to have a peek at the creature: “But when they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighbourhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings of the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus anima.” (p.553, Garcia Marquez) Later in the story, the locals’ attitude towards the angel goes from complete irreverence to plain cruelty, as they try to wake him from his slumber by burning him with a branding iron. The angel’s fall from grace continues when he meets with Father Gonzaga, a respected priest from the neighbourhood. After examining the creature, the religious man decides he does not fit the stereotypes of a proper angel and declares him an imposter: “The parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up, he was much too human…” (p.553, Garcia Marquez)

The sudden arrival of a carnival attraction highlights the townsfolk’s issues with the marvellous. This new attraction, a young girl transformed into a giant spider by the Gods for disobeying her parents, brings all of the attention to herself, and does so quite easily. In contrast with the mysterious old man, who has no clear background and speaks a foreign dialect, the spider girl’s story is much easier to relate to for the townspeople. The fallen angel offers too much of a challenge to the neighbourhood, as his supernatural nature is very much open for interpretation. The people’s uncertainty towards his character exposes the darker side of humanity: cruelty, stereotyping and lack of spirituality.