A rainstorm drives legions of crabs into Pelayo and Elisendra's house. After killing the crabs and dragging them to the sea, Pelayo returns to find a very old man in his courtyard, struggling to get up but held down by huge, mud-soaked wings. Pelayo calls Elisenda, who was attending to their feverish baby, and they both attempt to speak to the old man. He replies in a dialect they do not understand. The two try to explain his wings away, guessing that he must be shipwrecked sailor, before fetching a neighbor woman who "knows everything about life and death." This neighbor woman declares that the old man is an angel who was likely coming for the soul of their sick child but foundered in the rainstorm. The neighbor woman advises that Pelayo and Elisenda club the old man to death, but they lack the heart to do it; instead they lock the old man with wings in the chicken coop.
The rain stops in the night, while Pelayo and Elisenda continue to kill crabs. Their child awakes hungry the next morning, his fever gone, and Pelayo and Elisendra, grateful for their child's health, decide to put the angel on a raft with enough supplies for three days. When they go to the chicken coop, however, they find the whole neighborhood gathered before the angel. Some joke with him as though he were a carnival attraction; others have more serious responses, suggesting for instance that the angel be made a five-star general or used to breed a race of winged men. Father Gonzaga, the local priest, responds to the old man from a Catholic point of view. He confronts the angel, speaking Latin, which he considers to be the language of god, but the angel does not understand. Father Gonzaga also objects to the angel's shabby appearance. He decides that the angel must be an imposter, and warns the people not to follow him, while promising meanwhile to write his bishop for a final verdict on the old man's angelic status.
The crowd continues to grow as news of a captured angel spreads throughout the country. Troop with bayonets are called in to control the crowd before they knock Pelayo and Elisenda's house down. Elisenda spends so much time sweeping up after mob that her spine curves. She gets the idea to charge an admission price of five cents to see the angel.
The story begins with odd, quasi-allegorical references to time. "On the third day of rain," "The world had been sad since Tuesday," and other statements conflate time, the weather and human emotion in a way that seems mythic and magical. On top of this, the world behaves strangely, supernaturally. The swarms of crabs that must be killed, the darkness at noon-these strange events seem to foreshadow the eerie arrival of the otherworldly visitor, the Angel. Note, however, that this supernatural setting does not greatly affect the people in the story, who respond to the crabs with mere annoyance, and to the angel with less awe than confusion. He is a curiosity, yes, but also very ordinary. His wings are choked with mud. This image in itself captures the balance of sublimity and crudity that dominates the story. The old man is an angel, yes, but a decayed, aged angel. He is a surreal coupling of the holy and the profane, and this trend continues throughout the story.
Surreal techniques permeate aspects of the story beyond these images. Marquez's narrative language also combines realistic and unrealistic elements. For instance, he writes that Pelayo and Elisenda were surprised by the man's appearance at first, but "very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar." Marquez does not provide us with a reason why they find him "familiar" so quickly; he just tells us that they do. This is a technique familiar in legendary literatures-like the Bible, where events seem to happen "out of time" and without causal explanation. Marquez's very language, thus, balances a concern with realistic detail and characterization with a mythic lack of concern for causality and natural law. The miraculous and the realistic coexist, thus, at the level of both image and language.
Other motifs, such as the angel's speech, cement this surreal coupling of "magic" and "realism." The angel speaks in a dialect like a sailor's, though no one understands him. He may well be speaking the language of God, but to human ears it sounds crude. Father Gonzaga believes dogmatically that if the angel were a heavenly creature he would speak the official language of the Catholic Church-Latin-and when he doesn't the priest assumes that he must be an imposter. Each character interprets the angel's language differently, thus, without ever speaking the angel's language. No one has any curiosity to learn the dialect and communicate with the angel-in other words, to understand the angel's own perspective-they are happy rather to interpret events and write the angel off. Again, they respond to signs of divinity with surreal indifference.
Many other motifs convey this same balance, such as the neighbor woman, who is both convinced that the angel is an angel, and suggests clubbing him to death; she senses the angel's otherworldly power and yet proposes a brutal and undignified end for the being. In general, people experience the angel very differently and suggest very different responses-some treat him as a mere carnival freak, others as a potential general or breeder of superior beings-but respond in a uniformly sedate manner. No one is particularly awestruck by a besmirched old man in a chicken coop, wings or no wings. Marquez thus suggests that the presentation of an object-its staging-is more important than the object itself. If the angel were clean, dressed in white and seated on a throne, folks would be far more likely to venerate him rather than adjudicate him.
In addition, causal connections between what people perceive and how they respond are left purposefully vague. For instance, we never learn why the neighbor woman thinks the angel is a danger and recommends killing him. Nor do we learn in detail why Pelayo and Elisenda's baby was cured-whether by the angel, or because the angel failed to take the baby's soul away, or by the natural course of the illness. Ambiguity reigns, and the people in the story-like the readers of the story-merely interpret events, never understanding them. Thus the story defies attempts at interpretation even as it stages the human need to interpret. In short, it is more concerned with the fact that we interpret than with what we interpret. It's a fairy tale without an interpretation; rather, it's a fairy tale about interpretation.