A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Themes

Themes

Buy Study Guide

Human Reception of the Supernatural

The two major supernatural occurrences in the story are the old man with wings and the girl who has been turned into a spider. The people in the story treat the old man as an oddity, but not as a supernatural oddity: more a freak of nature than something beyond nature. The old man appears to be nothing more than a frail human with wings, and so his status as an angel is endlessly debated. Father Gonzaga thinks that he cannot be an angel because he lacks dignity and splendor. Of course this begs the question of whether the angel lacks dignity intrinsically, or whether he lacks dignity because of the way he is treated - cooped up in a chicken cage. Perhaps it is the people who lack dignity, not the old man. The old man's other supernatural characteristic - his incredible patience in the face of his treatment - does not make much of an impression on the majority of the people, who are happy to exploit him until bored with him.

The Spider-Girl is a clear contrast with the Old Man. Whereas he is difficult - if not impossible - to interpret, the Spider-Girl delights the people with the clarity of her story. She disobeyed her parents as so was turned into a spider by god. Unlike the Angel, the people do not debate her status as a spider: it's taken for granted. This tendency of the public to accept supernatural explanations for such simple morality tales but to deny them in the case of complexity and frailty (as exemplified by the old man) may be satirical. He may identify as a writer with the confused reception of the old man while ridiculing the public's appreciation of the simple tale of the Spider-Girl - who may be read to represent simpler works of fiction.

The Blurry Distinction between Natural and Supernatural

Marquez contrasts the supernatural in the story with vivid natural details, thus conflating the supernatural and the everyday. Pelayo does not see a large difference between a natural oddity - the invasion of his house by crabs - and a supernatural one - the invasion of his house by a decrepit angel. Indeed, when Pelayo and Elisenda build their mansion, they secure it from crabs and angels alike, thus treating both as equal nuisances. Moreover, the angel's wings are described in gross, vivid detail, and when he first appears they are crippled by mud. He is described in one place as a senile vulture, in another as a 'huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens', and in paragraph four the crowds treat him as a 'circus animal instead of a supernatural creature.' These comments serve to blur the distinction between the natural and supernatural. Garcia Maquez may be suggesting that such a distinction is unnecessary, or that the people are simply blind to it. Whether it is a failure to impose the boundary or ignore it is a matter of interpretation - and the story, ultimately, invites interpretation more than it invites meaning.

What is Human?

Just as the Old Man is described in terms of his animal characteristics, so too he is described as human. Father Gonzaga thinks that he must be an imposter: he does not possess the dignity that people expect from angels. Also, in paragraph two the Old Man is described as a rag picker, and Pelayo and Elisenda decide that he must be a sailor. Despite these human characteristics, the Old Man is treated inhumanly. He is penned up with the chickens and displayed, forced to eat mush, and branded. This capacity to dehumanize a creature because of one unfamiliar characteristic - wings - quietly damns the people in the story. They see the Old Man's humanity yet don't feel the need to respond humanely.

In contrast there is the Spider-Girl. The narrator notes that the spider girl is a much more appealing attraction because her story is full of human truth. Because her story is simply and straightforwardly moral, she is appealing, whereas the old man - full of mystery and complexity - is unappealing. Garcia Marquez invites us to consider that the truly human qualities in life are the Old Man's - uncertainty, mystery, strangeness, open-endedness - whereas the trite moralizing of the Spider-Girl is actually far from human experience. It merely consoles the people, whereas the Old Man - by revealing our cruelty - shows them their true nature.

Uncertainty in the Narrator

Uncertain, ambiguity and doubt are constant throughout the story, and Marquez achieves these affects in several different ways. For instance, he uses a constantly changing narrative voice to complicate both the setting and the events in question. At first the third-person omniscient point of view, the narrator gradually reveals opinions on certain points, supporting some characters and condemning other. Marquez thus always ties his story to a teller - we aren't able to get a clean read on the situation, or even to know if it happened at all. This narrative level of uncertainty precludes a simple moral tale that pretends to speak universally.

Humans Must Interpret Events

The story illustrates the human need to interpret life's events. The Old Man, an exaggerated dramatization of any strange event, is interpreted in many different ways. Individual characters - the neighbor woman, Pelayo, Elisenda, Father Gonzaga, and all the onlookers - try to attach meaning to the Old Man, or to reduce his meaning, in terms of their own lives. Thus Garcia Marquez stages the inevitable situatedness of human experience. We see things through our own eyes, and the search for a universally applicable meaning is inevitably doomed.

Still, even though we cannot settle for a simple interpretation that applies to everyone, we can still realize that we think and feel from our own perspective. The major failure of the people in "Very Old Man" is not that they fail to interpret the Angel, but that they fail to acknowledge their own role in the interpretive process. They cannot see themselves with any perspective, in other words. Pelayo and Elisenda never seem grateful to the angel, though he makes their fortune. They simply imprison him. Similarly, other characters lack perspective on the Angel. They argue for their own interpretation of the events, then grow bored, never pausing to consider the Old Man's possible feelings, never bothering to notice their own narrow vision.