“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” wryly examines the human response to those who are weak, dependent, and different. There are moments of striking cruelty and callousness throughout the story. After Elisenda and Pelayo’s child recovers from his illness, for example, the parents decide to put the old man to sea on a raft with provisions for three days rather than just killing him, a concession to the old man’s difficult situation but hardly a kind act. Once they discover that they can profit from showcasing him, however, Pelayo and Elisenda imprison him in a chicken coop outside, where strangers pelt him with stones, gawk at him, and even burn him with a branding iron.
Amidst the callousness and exploitation, moments of compassion are few and far between, although perhaps all the more significant for being so rare. Even though he is taken in only grudgingly, the old man eventually becomes part of Pelayo and Elisenda’s household. By the time the old man finally flies into the sunset, Elisenda, for all her fussing, sees him go with a twinge of regret. And it is the old man’s extreme patience with the villagers that ultimately transforms Pelayo’s and Elisenda’s lives. Seen in this light, the old man’s refusal to leave might be interpreted as an act of compassion to help the impoverished couple. García Márquez may have even intended to remind readers of the advice found in Hebrews 13:2 in the Bible: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Pelayo and Elisenda’s newfound prosperity is the physical manifestation of the magic and wonder the old man brings to their lives. As the story opens, the couple lives in an almost comical state of poverty as swarms of crabs invade their home. Even worse, their young son is deathly ill. The old man, however, brings hundreds of pilgrims who don’t mind paying Pelayo and Elisenda a small fee for the privilege of seeing him. The proceeds bring Pelayo and Elisenda a new house, a new business, and more money than they know how to spend. This remarkable turn in fortune happens so gradually that Pelayo and Elisenda don’t really see how remarkable it is. Elisenda even refers to her new home as a “hell full of angels” once the old man is allowed inside after the chicken coop collapses.
Wings represent power, speed, and limitless freedom of motion. In the Christian tradition, angels are often represented as beautiful winged figures, and García Márquez plays off of this cultural symbolism because, ironically, the wings of the “angel” in the story convey only a sense of age and disease. Although the old man’s wings may be dirty, bedraggled, and bare, they are still magical enough to attract crowds of pilgrims and sightseers. When the village doctor examines the old man, he notices how naturally the wings fit in with the rest of his body. In fact, the doctor even wonders why everyone else doesn’t have wings as well. The ultimate effect is to suggest that the old man is both natural and supernatural at once, having the wings of a heavenly messenger but all the frailties of an earthly creature.
The spider woman represents the fickleness with which many self-interested people approach their own faith. After hearing of the “angel,” hundreds of villagers flock to Pelayo’s house, motivated partly by faith but also to see him perform miracles—physical evidence that their faith is justified. Not surprisingly, the old man’s reputation wanes when he proves capable of performing only minor “consolation miracles.” Instead, the spectators flock to the spider woman, who tells a heart-wrenching story with a clear, easy-to-digest lesson in morality that contrasts sharply with the obscurity of the old man’s existence and purpose. Although no less strange than the winged old man, the spider woman is easier to understand and even pity. The old man, barely conscious in his filthy chicken coop, can’t match her appeal, even though some suspect that he came from the heavens. García Márquez strongly suggests that the pilgrims’ result-oriented faith isn’t really faith at all.