The Coexistence of Cruelty and Compassion

“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.

Read about the related theme of the predatory nature of humanity in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

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.”

Read about the similar theme of the limits of sympathy in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.