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The storybook “A very old Man with Enormous Wings”, by Garcia Marquez, is an example of magical realism. This style combines imagination and realism, whereby the common real-life events are presented with some elements of fantasy, blurring the reader’s conceptions of magic and reality.
Magical realism, unlike other literary works such as folk tales, ends with no clear moral lessons or truths (Zamora and Faris 79); instead, they present vivid magical stories that frustrate the reader and complicate the reader’s conception of the meaning of events.
This story describes an angel visitation into a town. The town is not like any other common town, and the visiting angel is not an ordinary angel. In many aspects, the visitor appears human and natural, in spite of his extraordinary physique. As a result, this visitor contradicts the expectations of the town’s inhabitants, and by extension, they are unable to understand the visitor.
Their superstitious beliefs and wisdom only drives them to making incorrect explanations for the visitor’s presence in the town. Subsequently, they treat the visitor with cruelty and injustice, which reflects their ignorance. Although the story is subtitled, “A Tale for Children”, the characters, and the settings are not ordinary. It is a story where reality and fantasy are split concerning the reader’s expectations about the angel’s arrival and departure.
The major Themes in the Story
The story describes two crucial supernatural events viz. “the old man with enormous wings” and the “girl who turned into a spider” (Marquez 446). The characters in the story regard the old man as a supernatural oddity who appears frail, and this perception raises an endless debate over his status as an angel.
In Father Gonzaga’s opinion, the old man does not qualify as an angel because he has neither dignity nor splendor (Marquez 446). However, the old man displays a supernatural characteristic: incredible patience despite the cruelty from the people.
By contrast, the spider girl’s status as a spider does not generate much debate: her status being accepted as the result of her disobedience to her parents. This shows satire whereby straightforward morality stories are accepted as true (as exemplified by the spider-girl) while frailty and complexity (the old man character) is ridiculed (Marquez 448).
By using the two supernatural characters, the writer identifies the misperception of the old man in the town (reality) and ridicules the society’s appreciation of the simpler supernatural explanation of the spider-girl.
The distinction between supernatural and natural is also unclear. Pelayo regards the invasion by angels or crabs as equal nuisances. He does not see any distinction between a supernatural oddity (angels) and a natural one (crabs). In fact, Pelayo and Elsienda construct their mansion purposely to keep a way angels and crabs. The arrival of the Old Man is described in vivid details; “his angelic wings were in mud and crippled” (Marquez 449).
At one point, he is described as “an old vulture” and as “large decrepit hen in the midst of chickens” (Marquez 449). These statements largely blur the boundary between the supernatural and natural phenomena. In this regard, Marquez may be implying that such a distinction is not necessary, giving rise to different interpretations of the phenomena.
The Old Man is described both as a human and as an animal. For father Gonzaga, the Old Man is not a real angel as he lacks dignity expected of angels. By contrast, Pelayo and Elisenda believe he is a sailor. Although the Old Man bears some human characteristics, the people subject him to inhumane treatment. He is kept in a chicken pen and feeds on chicken mush (Marquez 451). By contrast, the spider-girl, whose features are far from human, is more appealing to the people because her story is simpler and moralizing.
The story starts with strange references to time. The statements, “on the third day of the rainy season” and the “world had been unhappy since Tuesday” (Marquez 452), conflate the weather and time in a mythical way. Furthermore, the world appears supernatural rather than real. The invasion by crabs and angels appear supernatural.
The people respond to the invasions with anger and confusion especially with regard to the Old Man. He appears an angel with unusually ordinary features. In this case, Marquez uses surreal techniques to combine the profane and the holy. Additionally, Marquez combines many real and supernatural elements in this story. For instance, Pelayo and Elisenda, at first were shocked by the man’s appearance, but “later overcame their surprise and considered him familiar”.
However, Marquez offers no reason the sudden change of heart. This technique is common in legendary tales where largely supernatural events happen with no causal explanation (Charters 185). Marquez‘s use of this technique is to balance realistic details and the mythical lack of causal explanation.
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In this context, the realistic and magical coexist, a phenomenon that blurs the distinction between the two. The author also uses other motifs such as the angel’s language to combine realism and magic. The angel’s dialect resembles that of sailors; however, no one understands him and consequently mistreats him. In other words, they respond to divinity with indifference, which blurs the distinction between realism and magic.
The story presents the different human interpretations of supernatural and natural events. The visit by the Old Man is interpreted in many ways by the characters in the book. They try to interpret the old man in terms of their own lives. The author uses motifs that blur the distinction between realism and magic in the interpretations of the Old Man and the Spider-girl.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer Compact: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford, 2010.
Marquez, Gabriel. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” In Ann Charters (Ed), The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp. 446-452). Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.
Zamora, Parkinson, and Wendy Faris. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. London: Duke University Press, 1995.