By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ is a 1968 short story by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014). Like much of his fiction, this story is an example of magic realism (which we’ll say more about below).
Subtitled ‘A Tale for Children’, ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ is about an elderly man with large wings who crashes into the home of a man whose son is ill. The townsfolk gather around to see the man, who some believe is an angel fallen from heaven. Before we offer an analysis of García Márquez’s story, here’s a brief summary of its plot.
‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’: plot summary
The story begins with the titular old man with enormous wings crashing into the muddy yard outside the house of Pelayo, a man who lives with his wife, Elisenda, and their sick son. When the elderly man speaks, it is in a dialect they do not recognise and his accent is that of a sailor’s.
Their female neighbour tells them that the man is an angel who must have been coming for their son, but the incessant rain knocked him off-course. The next day, word spreads, and the whole neighbourhood turns up to take a look at the ‘angel’. By this time, Pelayo has confined the old man to his chicken coop and his son’s fever has abated. They had considered putting the old man on a raft with some food and pushing him out to sea, when their neighbours showed up to see the supposed angel in their midst.
As the day develops, the townsfolk begin to suggest what the fate of this old man should be: one thinks he should become mayor of the world, another reckons he should be made a five-star general, while one thinks he should be ‘put to stud’ so that he could sire a race of superhuman creatures.
The local priest then arrives to inspect the angel, and when the old man doesn’t understand the Latin the priest speaks, Father Gonzaga concludes that the man cannot be a true angel at all. His wings are too filthy, and he lacks the dignity one would expect from an angel. But the townspeople do not believe him, and continue to show up in greater numbers, wanting to see this angel for themselves.
Elisenda, spying an opportunity, decides to charge each of them an admittance fee of five cents if they wish to see the old man with wings. Over the next week, they make a fortune charging people to visit the angel, and their home becomes a site of pilgrimage visited by people with the strangest of afflictions. Speculation continues concerning the ‘angelic’ (or non-angelic) nature of the mysterious old man.
But then a travelling show arrives in town: a woman who was turned into a spider (a tarantula as large as a ram, but with a woman’s head) because she disobeyed her parents. Because the fee to see this ‘act’ is lower than the five cents being charged to see the angel, many townsfolk stop queuing to see the old man with enormous wings and instead go to see the spider-woman, who is also happy to answer all manner of questions about her unusual condition.
Although the queue of people waiting to see the angel disappears as the spider-woman lures away all of the waiting crowd, Pelayo and Elisenda are happy because they can use the money they’ve already made to build a better house. However, the continued presence of the angel in their yard becomes an annoyance to them. Their son spends time with the angel in his chicken coop, and both of them fall ill with chicken pox. They fear that the angel is going to die, but in time he recovers and flies away.
‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’: analysis
The subtitle which Gabriel García Márquez appended to ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ identifies this short story as ‘a tale for children’, and in many ways, the story might be analysed as a kind of fairy tale. Indeed, its central figure, the old man who may or may not be a genuine angel or some other strange supernatural being, can be viewed as a ‘fairy’ of sorts, whose arrival coincides with the improvement of Pelayo’s son’s health.
Like most good fairy tales, this story also fuses myth or fantasy with more everyday or realistic elements. This combination is also common, however, in works of magic realism: a literary movement with which Gabriel García Márquez was closely associated. In magic realist fiction, we are given a realistic view of the world but there are additional magical elements in the narrative as well.
In ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’, the key magic realist elements are obvious enough: a woman who has been transformed into a giant spider; a man who, angel or otherwise, has wings and is capable of flight.
These two beings are at the heart of the story and its meaning, which is as much about how groups of people respond to unusual elements within a society as it is about the two individuals themselves. Indeed, the old man with his enormous wings is something of a cipher: nobody knows what he thinks about anything because they cannot understand the language he speaks.
His main virtue, we learn, is patience, and he seems content to wait in the chicken coop and does not ask for much from Pelayo and Elisenda (who become very rich from him in a short space of time). The spider-woman, by contrast, was subjected to her supernatural fate because of disobedience – or, to put it another way, because of impatience, in that she wanted to go out to a dance but her parents forbade it, presumably on the grounds that she was too young.
These two special individuals – one very old, the other young; one male, one female; one patient and the other flighty; one capable of flight and the other earthbound – represent polar opposites in many respects. Indeed, whereas the old man is turned into a reluctant circus spectacle by his hosts, the spider-woman arrives as part of a travelling show, and intends to sell her story (as we’d say nowadays) and court public interest.
They also represent very different things. The townsfolk are sceptical of whether the old man is really an angel from heaven, but even after Father Gonzaga tells them outright that the man is no angel, they continue to turn up at the house so they can catch a glimpse of the mysterious figure. The spider-woman clearly has been transformed into an arachnid, as they can see this with their own eyes, but there are no heavenly claims made about her fate.
One question a reader of ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ might ask is whether the old man’s claims to ‘angelhood’ actually matter: if he is not angelic but merely a strange winged man, does that make him any less of a spectacle worthy of study and speculation? Clearly the ‘freakish’ elements of spider-woman’s affliction are enough in themselves to warrant crowds of people flocking (and paying) to see her.