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“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” functions as a satirical piece that mocks both the Catholic Church and human nature in general. García Márquez criticizes the church through Father Gonzaga’s superiors in Rome, who seem to be in no hurry to discover the truth about the bedraggled, so-called angel. Instead, they ask Father Gonzaga to study the old man’s unintelligible dialect to see whether it has any relation to Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They also ask Gonzaga to determine how many times the old man can fit on the head of a pin, another dig at Catholicism referencing an arcane medieval theory once thought to prove God’s omnipotence. Their final conclusion that the old man with wings may in fact be a stranded Norwegian sailor only makes the church sound absurdly literal-minded and out of touch with even the most basic elements of reality. In the end, the church’s wait-and-see tactic pays off when the old man simply flies away—a rib from García Márquez implying that the “wisdom” of the church has never really been needed at all.
Read about the another work that uses satire to point out hypocrisies of the Church, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Such criticisms of the church are only part of García Márquez’s critique of human beings in general, who never seem to understand the greater significance of life. There is a narrowness of vision that afflicts everyone from the wise neighbor woman, with her unthinking know-it-all ways, to the kindly Father Gonzaga, who is desperate for a procedure to follow, to the crowds of onlookers and pilgrims with their selfish concerns. Elisenda too is more focused on keeping her kitchen and living room angel-free than on considering the odd beauty of her unwelcome guest. She, however, seems to have a moment of realization and almost of regret at the end of the story, when she watches the old man disappear from her life forever. Just as the proverbial lost hiker who can’t see the wilderness for the trees, García Márquez suggests that most people live their lives unaware of their significance in the world.
Read about the related theme of the transience of human life in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.