One of this story’s difficult aspects is the sense of uncertainty it creates by leaving important facts unresolved 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.
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 has 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. Characters Bird-Man See Very old man with enormous wings Elisenda
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 heological 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 Pelayo 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 the 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.
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. Media Adaptations ·“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” was adapted, with some modifications, as a film with the same title in 1988, in a Spanish production directed by Fernando Birri. Starring Daisy Granados, Asdrubal Melendez, and Luis Alberto Ramiriz, the film is available with English subtitles on Fox/Lorber Home Video, Facets Multimedia, Inc. or from Ingram International Films.
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. Arrival 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. ” Sensation 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 one that provides formidable competition for the puzzling attraction of “a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals. ” Decline 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. Departure 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. ” Style Imagery 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 rational, 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.