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Gabriel García Márquez was known for the way he would create vast woven plots and tightly knit narratives within his works. His world is mostly that of provincial Colombia, where medieval and modern practices and beliefs clash both comically and tragically. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, there are several different themes that can be taken from the story. Márquez made the theme of cruelty and compassion coexisting through the actions of Elisenda, Pelayo, and the old man and the theme of patience evident through the actions of the old man.
Pelayo and Elisenda were starting their day killing crabs because it had been raining for several days. They thought the stench of the crabs were causing their child to be sick. It is then as Pelayo was crossing his courtyard that he discovers the old man. All that Pelayo knows is that the man has very large wings, is apparently senile, speaks an unintelligible language, disoriented, and homeless. Pelayo and Elisenda make comments and consult a neighbor that tells the reader what they believe, the old man is an angel. It is their first thoughts of what to do with the old man that start to show the theme of cruelty and compassion coexisting.
The theme of cruelty and compassion is established right away with the narrator’s description of how Pelayo, Elisenda, and the town first handle their interaction with the angel. Against the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death. They felt magnanimous and decided to put the angel on a raft with fresh water and provisions for three days and leave him to his fate on the high seas. When they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.
Pelayo and Elisenda are given many opportunities to lean more to the side of compassion, letting the old man go and be on his way. Instead of leaning more to compassion they go deeper into the realm of cruelty and even into greed. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel. The town and surrounding area did nothing to help the old man but yet even made the cruelty and greed even worse. The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious ailments.
Even through all of this, Márquez shows the elements of compassion and patience more relevant within the old man. The angel was the only one who took no part in his own act. Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing. Even after all of this, the old man did nothing but sits there and let the people do what they wanted to him. The reader can discover that he could only feel compassion for them and they knew not what they do. His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. It was through his patience that the reader can see that the old man was rewarded and that even Pelayo and Elisenda found their compassion. Pelayo threw a blanket over him and extended him the charity of letting him sleep in the shed, and only then did they notice that he had a temperature at night, and was delirious with the tongue twisters of an Old Norwegian. Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she saw him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture.
To me, this story has shown me that compassion and cruelty can be shown in many different ways. It is very easy for both to be present as you are cruel to a person, they show you compassion for your cruelty. If an old man with wings can show so much patience and compassion after what he was put through by the people in the village, I can take the time to do the same to the people around me. I also learned that with the compassion and patience you give, there could be an award for you in the end. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a great example of how cruelty and compassion can coexist within a group of people.
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