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The Magical Absurdity in a Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

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A Crab, a Spider, and the Noisy Stars Above: An Analysis of the Magical Absurdity in Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

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A multitude of literary devices can ultimately sway the interpretation of a literary work in one direction or another. Authors employ symbols, gaps, motifs, and cruxes to either dilute or emphasize a grand—or sometimes not-so-grand—message for the reader to internalize and solicit meaning. The interpretation of these meanings, however, relies on heavy subjectivity from the reader and often varies from one critical analysis to the next, particularly when examining a text from a Formalist perspective. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, exemplifies the imprecise science behind textual analysis by distorting the separations between the supernatural and the conventions of human experience. Marquez bonds the realms of magic and the physical universe in such a manner that both the characters and the reader must struggle to decipher the meanings that circumscribe the juxtaposed reality within the story. From a Formalist perspective, Marquez summons dramatic images of the grotesque, exercises irony and juxtaposition, and challenges the credentials of humanity to make “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” a parody of the process of literary interpretation.

Frances K Barasch defines the grotesque as a moment, or recurrence of moments, manifested in an image or series of images that yields an inherent conflict between disgust and humor (4). These images, usually characterized by “ludicrous-horror”, leave the reader torn between laughter and disgust (5). Marquez clearly frames his narrative in this manner, and instances of the grotesque and the ridiculous routinely appear throughout the text, often simultaneously. The contrast makes the solicitation of meaning difficult for the reader. For example, Marquez does not grant the obvious and expected “angelic” characteristics to the old man. Rather than furnish his angel with the iconic qualities of youth, majesty, or heraldry, Marquez introduces an abomination complete with dirty, half-plucked “buzzard wings” and an inability to overcome the force of the rain (Barnet et al. 177). Furthermore, Pelayo and Elisenda demonstrate their own grotesque behavior by locking the old man with the fowl in their chicken coop. This, too, is unexpected, and casts the story in both horror and humor. Marquez acknowledges the absurdity of his angel’s condition, allowing his narrator to comment that the angel is not “a supernatural creature but a circus animal” (177). The angel, however, is not the only grotesque image Marquez provides. The woman who changes from a human into a spider is equally split between the revolting and the ridiculous, again emerging as parody and ultimately relegated to the status of “carnival attraction” (179). It is these contrasting paradigms of light and dark that Marquez calls forth to confuse the reader, effectively creating a farce not only within the confines of the text, but also within the intrinsic processes of textual interpretation.

Much like the vacillating inclusion of the absurd and grotesque, the images, characters, and behaviors exhibited in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” often result in verbal or contextual irony. Marquez frequently applies these various forms of irony to redirect the interpretation of the text. Elisenda and her husband, for example, fail to make the initial connection to the supernatural and, instead, determine the odd visitor to be an old sailor. Considering that Elisenda’s name derives from the root name Elizabeth, which translates to “consecrated to God”, it is odd that she fails to see the truth, instead ceding the epiphany to one of her neighbors (Kenyon 343). In addition, Father Gonzaga—the spiritual expert in the town—suspends judgment on the man’s identity. The community, on the other hand, puts their faith in the words of the old woman, lighting sacramental candles and holding vigil over the chicken coop. Furthermore, Marquez dispenses irony in the “consolation miracles” attributed to the angel’s presence. None of the miracles actually cure any of the afflicted, and the arrival of the spider-woman abomination essentially “ruined the angel’s reputation” (Barnet et al. 179). The manner in which Marquez recurrently devalues the iconographic meaning or potential of the angel becomes laughable; therefore, his grand symbol is essentially made lame. Additionally, his characters find the story of the spider-woman, “a spectacle…full of so much human truth…” to be more believable than the arrival of an angel, despite the infinite absurdity linked to her origin (179). Once the spider-woman wins the affections of the townspeople, the story successfully juxtaposes the human institutions of faith and truth. In his debasement of the evangelical symbols wrought throughout the text, Marquez forces the reader to carefully consider the intrinsic worth of his own themes, as well as the modalities of reader-response.

In addition to his frequent deployment of irony and images of the grotesque, Marquez tests the soundness of his characters’ credentials and, in doing so, successfully compels the reader to examine his or her own. In the text, Pelayo and his wife confront their visitor from the perspective of lost convenience. His appearance in no way incites either of them to assess faith, God, or the supernatural. The old man’s wings bear no indication of either a supernatural or heavenly affiliation. However, rather than seek immediate assistance from the town’s parish or intelligentsia, Pelayo and Elisenda turn to their neighbor, the woman of cliché “who knew everything about life and death”, for her professional consultation (177). She determines that the man is an angel, was trying to take the sick child but could not overcome the vigor of the rain, and, accordingly, cannot be a wayward sailor. This quick conclusion stands in contrast to Father Gonzaga’s pseudo-scientific suspension of judgment regarding the man’s true nature. Furthermore, the town’s people seem to reject any formal assumption, opting to assign him arbitrary identities such as “mayor of the world” or the harbinger of a new “race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe” (177). Yet despite the lofty expectations gleaned from his sudden appearance, the characters accept his captivity in the coop and treat him accordingly. Even Rome’s response to Gonzaga fails to elicit any kind of formal edict; conversely, church officials concern themselves with pseudo-scientific minutia. Thus, through his use of role confusion amongst his characters, Marquez again disguises the meaning behind his plot and character interaction. A formal interpretation of the textual message becomes difficult and, furthermore, seems to indicate that Marquez purposely confounds the conventions of social roles, values, and mores. The resulting conflict between the expected truths and actual truths within the text alludes to a connection in the process of interpretation: the reader must question the credibility of his or her own perspective.

Indeed, Marquez offers little clemency for those seeking a finite explication of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. The reader is forced to find meaning among a jumble of contrasting images, themes, and social prescriptions. The absurd magic Marquez orchestrates throughout his story causes a rift between the expected response and an altruistic reader-response. The text in a sense teaches critics that their own analytical processes are illusory. In this way Marquez’s story is both comedy and fable, warning that we, too, will be unable to recognize the arrival of the messiah text if we take ourselves too seriously.

Works Cited

Barasch, Frances K. “The Grotesque as a Comic Genre.” Modern Language Studies.

15,1 (1985): 4-5. JSTOR. UMUC’s Information and Library Services. 4 Oct 2008.


Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Character Naming Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2005.

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Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” An Introduction to Literature, 15th Ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnet et al. New York: Longman, 2008. 176-81.

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