A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Summary and Analysis of the second half of the story


Countless people arrive-invalids come to be healed, a carnival arrives-and everyone pays to see the angel. In less than a week, Elisenda and Pelayo have crammed their rooms with money. The angel, however, seems aloof from the events. He eats nothing but eggplant mush and exhibits "supernatural" patience as he is paraded for profit before the crowds, appearing indifferent as chickens peck him and troublemakers pelt him with rocks. He only exhibits anger when they attempt to brand him. Father Gonzaga tries to control the somewhat unruly crowd while awaiting word from Rome about the old man's possibly angelic status.

A carnival attraction arrives in town, featuring the Spider-Girl, a girl who was turned into a spider by brimstone from heaven after sneaking out of her house for a dance against her parents' order. The carnival charges less than to see the old man, and the Spider-Girl responds from questioning from the crowd. This spectacle, full of 'human truth and with such a fearful lesson' draws the people away from the 'haughty' angel. The angel's reputation had already begun to decline because the miracles associated with him-a blind man regained not his sight but three teeth; a lame man came close to winning the lottery after visiting the angel-were second-rate at best. The courtyard deserted again, Father Gonzaga is cured of his insomnia.

Pelayo and Elisenda build a mansion with their new fortune, specifying that neither crabs nor angels can invade it. Pelayo also quite his job as bailiff and set up a rabbit warren, and Elisenda bought fashionable clothes. Meanwhile, they neglect the chicken coop and the angel, merely washing it occasionally to lessen its horrible smell. Over time, their child learns to walk, and though at first they keep him away from the chicken coop, they grow accustomed to the angel and the smell and allow their child to play with the angel. A doctor examines the angel and finds his vital signs very weak indeed; the practicality of the angel's wings impresses the doctor and he feels that all humans should have them.

The neglected chicken coop collapses, freeing the angel to roam about their house. Elisenda becomes very irritated at chasing the angel from room to room. She notes that he seems to be everywhere at once. The angel grows more and more ill, barely eating. He molts his feathers and gets a fever. On the verge of death-the prospect of which worries Pelayo and Elisenda, because they don't know what to do with a dead angel-the angel recovers. He grows new feathers in December, keeping his improvement a secret and singing sea shanties to the moon at night. One morning, as Elisenda cuts onions in the kitchen, the angel tests his wings. He appears clumsy at first, but eventually flies off to the horizon, leaving Elisenda very relieved indeed.


The surreal, comic tendency of human beings to greet the miraculous with indifference or ennui continues as the Angel is displayed for money. For instance, an acrobat with wings arrives, but he's ignored because his are batwings, not birdwings. People in general behave as though the Angel-and the other miraculous oddities of the world-owe them something. Invalids come to be healed, even of illusionary diseases (such as the woman counting her heartbeats, or the sleepwalker who undoes his day's activities by night). These details are not only funny, they also comment on human greed. It's not enough to be an Angel: you have to be a healing Angel who benefits the absurd and ignorant humans who keep you captive. Even then, the Angel is treated worse than an animal. He's like a cow, kept in a pen and milked for money and miracles.

The crowd, meanwhile, treats the Angel like a puzzle. They try to determine his identity by provoking him-by feeding him different foods, by pelting him with rocks. They never, notice, try to learn his language. Instead, they attempt to assert ownership, even violently, as when they brand him, the only event that draws a violent response from the Angel. To consider this attempt to "brand" the Angel more closely, one very fruitful way to read this story is as an allegory for the reception of an artist. Garcia Marquez wrote the story after achieving fame for One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that provoked enormous critical and public debate. He possibly relates to the Angel, a divine being who is penned up and "branded" by society. The artist, too, is prodded, interpreted, provoked by critics and moralists and religious authorities, and "branded" as "Marxist," "Feminist," "Latin-American," "Realistic," "Magical-Realistic"... Marquez resists such simple branding, and so does the Angel. Both speak a strange, magical language that people don't even attempt to learn. Both sing strange, secret songs. Both patiently endure the prodding of humanity-until they bring out the branding iron.

Along these lines, the arrival of the Spider-Girl is a kind of a literary joke. The Spider-Girl, unlike the Angel, invites clear, moralistic interpretation. She may represent the moralistic weaver of tales (the spider image is associated with storytelling in mythology, as in the story of Arachne or the African figure Ananse) who offers audiences reductive proverbs rather than complex human truths. The audience, in turn, rewards her with their business, abandoning the difficult, "haughty" Angel and his paradoxical miracles for the simple, watered-down moral lesson of the Spider-Girl. Whether you agree with this allegorical reading of the Angel and Spider-Girl as two different kinds of artists, it's clear that her simple pandering is preferred to the Angel's mysterious privacy and patience.

After the Angel has made their fortune, Pelayo and Elisenda neglect him pointedly and horribly. They leave him in the pen, stinking and ill, until the structure collapses. Indeed, by specifying that they want their new mansion to be both crab and angel-proof, they conflate the miraculous appearance of the Angel (who made them a lot of money, after all) with the surreal annoyance of the crabs. They never understood the Angel, merely exploited him. Their child, on the other hand, seems to understand the Angel. They play together intimately. Perhaps the Angel merely tolerates the child, perhaps they have an honest connection. But the child certainly behaves toward the Angel with an openness that the adults lack. The tale, after all, is subtitled "A Tale for Children," perhaps suggesting that children read Angels better than adults. They experience such beings, perhaps, rather than interpreting them through their own selfish concerns.

The close of the story reiterates the balance of the mundane and the supernatural that Marquez has developed throughout. The Angel's appearance everywhere at once in the mansion is one such ambiguity-perhaps this ubiquity represents the presence of divine forces, or angels, everywhere in our lives; perhaps not. At any rate, Elisenda responds to the Angel's presence with typical shallowness, chasing him out of her life like a mere nuisance. His sickness and recovery are similarly ambiguous. The causality of his illness is unclear-could be the chickenpox (a joke, by the way, given that the Angel was caged with the chickens), could be something else. Causal relationships are ambiguous throughout the story. But his near-death and resurrection has a Messianic ring to it. Again, Marquez stimulates our instinct to interpret without offering us clear interpretations.

During the Angel's recovery, he emphasizes his own privacy. He grows his feathers back in secret and sings mournful shanties to the moon. The reader might be reminded in these moments of how little we know about the Angel. He seems to have an intense private life, to miss his home country, and no one in the country has explored this life at all, though all of their actions have centered on him. When he finally spreads his wings and leaves, Elisenda manages to feel nothing but relief. Again, Marquez juxtaposes the miracle of a flying being with the mundane details of Elisenda's superficial relief as she chops onions.

But in Elisenda's defense, the end of the story makes it clear that taking care of a supernatural being-when that supernatural being is a feeble old man with diseases and molting problems-truly is a mundane task. Perhaps rather than see the Angel as the artist, we are invited to see Elisenda as an artist of sorts. A work of the imagination, while it is being written, takes on mundaneness quite unsuited to its ultimately ephemeral being. A writer has to worry about dull details-how does so-and-so enter the room? what is she wearing? what do they have for dinner?-before the work takes on a completeness, a poetics that identifies it as art. Just so, Elisenda has had to clean up after the Angel, chase him from room to room, until he finally takes off. Maybe the Angel is the art-arriving uninvited in the courtyard-and the husband and wife the artists. Perhaps the Angel never belonged among people-he was never an Angel at all as a real body, but becomes divine only as an idea. At any rate, the Angel flies off into the horizon, vanishing from reality, becoming purely imagined and remembered. Which, as a piece of the divine, and as a piece of Marquez's own imagination, is exactly where he belongs.