Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is an exemplary exploration of faith and the dichotomy of compassion/cruelty. The titular “angel” is viewed in opposition to more historically consistent versions of angels, and in bringing him “down to earth” Marquez lets the reader view something supernatural through the lens of everyday ordinariness. The key to understanding this story is presented through the pitiful girl who has been transformed into a spider for disobeying her parents and sneaking out to a dance. The spider-girl requires little more than pity to earn the spectators’ faith in her story, while the old man is persistently doubted, tormented, and seen as a repulsive abomination.
This is a story about human nature, and the detriments of it. We never truly find out if the Old Man is an angel, but the clarification isn’t really necessary for the story. What’s important here is how the villagers treat him as a freak and an outsider when he won’t “be” an angel.
What’s interesting to note is that, once Pelayo and Elisenda are told by the wise neighbor that the old man is indeed an angel, their reactions are not quite what you’d expect. Instead of the typical awe (even if he is in a pitiful state), the couple displays almost indifference to his possibly celestial origins. The neighbor woman actually tells them to club him to death, as angels are seen in this region as “fugitive survivors of a spiritual conspiracy” (166). This is the beginning of Marquez turning the readers expectations on their head, and makes it harder to anticipate what will come next in the story. Using this kind of antithesis of anticipations, the reader is more easily drawn into the magical realism the story evokes.
This continues when the first “unfortunate invalids” arrive in hope of being cured by the angel. Their ailments, as opposed to being the more traditional blindness or leprosy, are instead mostly mental conditions that are almost comical in nature, “a poor woman who since childhood has 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”. (168) The ragged shadow of an angel seems to attract the shadows of true suffering. The crowd becomes incensed by the fact that the angel is disparate icon than what they expect, what they demand. The people have made him into their martyr, their savior, and when he won’t deliver they treat him as an abomination. The image when “even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing,” evoked mean spirited children at a city zoo.
And yet all the while, despite his dirty demeanor, the angel “was the only one who took no part in his own act” (168). His only divine virtue seems to be that of patience, of which he seems to have boundless amounts in the face of such revolting humanity. The appearance of the spider-woman drives home Marquez’s commentary about religion. Faith in the angel requires no expectations of explanation—he simply is, and you must take the truth as it is. But the spider-woman tells a tale that inspires pity (she can communicate freely), she answers all questions (submissive to their wants), and must rely on onlookers for nourishment and pity (making her beneath their station). They pity the woman, but in doing so they can feel better about themselves. The old man requires an enigmatic suspension of belief, faith in the truest definition, which doesn’t include any “payoff” for the onlookers. Even after Pelayo and Elisenda have filled their house with riches, the old man is continually treated as a lowly beast and receives almost no upkeep as the couple builds a mansion around him.
The juxtaposition of the spider-woman is the key to the story. Her appearance illustrates man’s inhumane tendencies historically directed at outsiders, but also denotes that if the outsider is a more shameful person than the onlooker, then they may be accepted. I’m reminded of this somewhat crass but incredibly honest bit Louis CK performed on his Beacon Theater special:
This is the fundamental point I think Marquez is trying to get across. Humans are fickle, especially when it comes to ideology and faith, and the one phrase that kept running through my head as I read (even though I’m not remotely religious) was, “Judge not lest ye be judged”.