For days, “the world had been sad”: Pelayo’s newborn has a fever, crabs are infesting the house, the stench of rotting shellfish is in the air, and they’ve had three days of rain. When Pelayo goes to toss the rotting crab carcasses into the sea to calm the stench, he sees something “moving and groaning” in his courtyard. It’s an old man, face-down in the mud, who has enormous wings.
Márquez instantly presents the reader with a drab town in which the inhabitants lead mundane lives without much aim or ambition. There is a strong sense of sickness and decay. With the appearance of the winged old man, suddenly there is an event that might shake the town out of its stupor. Márquez places the miraculous right in the middle of the mundane, giving the sense that miracles might not be wholly extraordinary. This is a good example of the magic realism technique, when an author places a fantastical element within a realistic setting.
Pelayo finds his wife Elisenda and together they examine the man: he’s “dressed like a ragpicker,” nearly bald, with few teeth—he’s in the “pitiful condition” of a “drenched great-grandfather,” which diminishes “any sense of grandeur he might have had.” His “buzzard wings” are “dirty” and “half-plucked,” and once Pelayo and Elisenda overcome their surprise, they find the man quite “familiar.”
Though the old man has his wings, his other attributes don’t match what Pelayo and Elisenda expect an angel to be like. He seems too familiar and human to be angel, even if he does have extraordinary wings on his back. These wings are dirty and threadbare, again making him different from the majesty and purity traditionally associated with angels. Because of this, they find him confusing and difficult to appreciate.
Pelayo and Elisenda try to speak to the man, but he responds in an “incomprehensible dialect” with a voice that sounds like a sailor’s. Disregarding his wings, they conclude that he’s a shipwrecked foreign sailor, but they consult their wise neighbor to be sure. The neighbor tells them their “mistake”: the man is an angel who must have been “coming for the child” when he was knocked down by the storm.
The angel cannot speak the same language as Pelayo and Elisenda, which strengthens their sense that he is an “other” from a foreign land. That the angel was probably coming to take the sick child to heaven is a very important aspect of the story that Márquez deliberately underplays, mimicking the way in which the characters fail to notice that the angel might come to have more effect on the sick child then they realize.
While the neighbor believes that they should club the angel to death because angels are “fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy,” Pelayo and Elisenda don’t “have the heart” for that. Instead, Pelayo carries the club and watches the angel through the window all day, then locks him in the chicken coop before bedtime.
Instead of trying to take good care of the angel, or thinking that perhaps he is there to help them, Pelayo and Elisenda watch over the angel with the threat of violence. They imprison him because they don’t understand him, which is the opposite of how Christianity tells its followers to treat those in need.
A few hours later, the sick child’s appetite returns and this good fortune makes Pelayo and Elisenda feel “magnanimous”: they decide that the next day they will put the angel on a raft and push him out to sea. However, in the morning they find all their neighbors crowded around the chicken coop having a blast. They’re tossing food scraps into the cage “as if he weren’t a supernatural being but a circus animal.”
The child begins to make a miraculous recovery, yet nobody attributes this to the angel, showing that the townspeople aren’t noticing what’s going on in front of their eyes. Pelayo and Elisenda’s plan to push the angel out to sea doesn’t really come from kidness; it’s just the best way to get rid of the angel without actually having to kill him. The spectacle of the angel is too tempting and rare a thing to hold back the town’s inhabitants, and they are no better at kindness and empathy than Pelayo and Eilsenda. They want entertainment, and at this moment the angel is the most entertaining thing in town.
By 7pm that evening, the local priest, Father Gonzaga, arrives. By now, all kinds of wild theories about the angel are being put forward by the townspeople, including that he should be made “mayor of the world.” Father Gonzaga, determined to figure out what the nature of the old man is, examines him closely and tries to speak with him in Latin. The priest decides that, despite his wings, the old man is not an authentic angel, and he warns the townspeople about being fooled by circus tricks. He also writes to his own church authorities for further guidance.
The reader might expect the local priest to help the angel, but instead he proves to be utterly ineffectual. He is too wrapped up in the bureaucracy of his church and in determining whether the angel is “authentic” to appreciate that there is an angel before him. Father Gonzaga is supposed to be a representative of his religion, but when confronted with a physical manifestation of his beliefs, he does not know how to handle it. In fact, he causes the angel more harm than good by likening him to a circus act, further emphasizing his “otherness.” With religious leaders like that, it’s almost understandable that the townspeople can’t find much sympathy for the angel.
Father Gonzaga’s warnings fall on deaf ears. People flock in such numbers to see the strange angelic creature that troops with bayonets have to come to disperse the crowd. Elisenda, frustrated with cleaning up the trash left by the crowd, has the idea to fence in the yard and start charging people five cents to see the angel.
Greed takes over Elisenda as she senses an opportunity to make some quick money. She has displayed little moral fiber so far, and is corrupted by the chance to generate an easy income. In a way, this income is another of the angel’s “miracles,” though no-one acknowledges this or makes an effort to treat him better. All of the detritus left behind by the crowd—and the angel’s own filth—further contrasts the sacred with the mundane: they are literally lying side by side. Márquez is making a wider point, too, suggesting that religious ideas themselves are frequently corrupted by individuals looking for financial gain (for example, the selling of “holy” relics to members of the public).
People travel from all around to get a glimpse of the angel. A carnival comes along, trying to capitalize on the crowd that has gathered, but they aren’t entertaining enough to distract from the angel. All sorts of people come to see the angel hoping for a miracle, including a woman who “since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers” and “a sleep walker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake.” Pelayo and Elisenda make a lot of money from charging admission fees: they stuff their rooms full of cash as the crowd queues beyond the horizon.
The crowd only grows bigger and bigger as other entertainers come from all around trying to capitalize on the size of the captive audience. People make pilgrimages from far away to seek a miracle from the angel. Meanwhile the money keeps rolling in for Pelayo and Elisenda. In all of the above, it’s always people wanting something from the angel—they never ask themselves what they can do for him.
Amidst all this commotion, the angel doesn’t pay attention to the crowds. He is just trying to get comfortable in his imprisonment, confused by the oil lamps and candles placed near him and by the strange food the crowd tries to feed him (including mothballs). The only thing he’ll eat is “eggplant mush.” He bears everything with remarkable patience: hens peck at him, cripples pull out his feathers hoping they have magical properties, and people throw stones at him. When all of these fail to rouse the angel, they even brand him with a hot iron to check if he’s still alive. The angel, understandably, is very distressed—he tearfully rants at the townspeople in his incomprehensible language, flapping his wings and causing filth and dust to go everywhere. After this, the townspeople get scared and are more hesitant to approach him.
Despite the stress they place him under, the angel never shows any aggression towards the townspeople. He is an incredible embodiment of patience, which is an important idea in the Christian faith. The townspeople, however, show no patience at all, expecting entertainment and miraculous favors from the angel. In this way, the angel holds up a mirror to the society in which he temporarily inhabits. Unfortunately, though, nobody is looking in the mirror; they can’t see beyond their own individual desires. When the townspeople finally manage to raise the temper of the angel, the sheer force with which he flaps his wings frightens them, reminding them (and the reader) of the power of the unknown.
Around this time, a spectacular new carnival attraction arrives in town: a woman who has been changed into a spider. She still has her normal head, but her body is that of a ram-sized tarantula. She recounts her tragic tale to the public, telling them that she was punished for sneaking out of her parents’ house at a young age to go to a dance. She becomes a much more popular spectacle than the angel, because a “spectacle like that is full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, bound to defeat without even trying a haughty angel who scarcely deigns to look at mortals.”
Despite all the attention thrust upon the angel, the reader is quickly reminded how fickle and superficial that kind of attention can be. Now that the townspeople have been somewhat frightened by the angel, the tale of the young woman is a much more appealing prospect. She is more relatable because, despite her huge spider body, she can speak their language and has a simple moral message. The angel is too mysterious, and accordingly the townspeople start to lose interest in him as quickly as they had found it.
Meanwhile, the angel annoys the public through his “consolation miracles”: a blind man grows three new teeth, a paralytic “nearly” wins the lottery, and the sores of a leper sprout sunflowers. Between the townspeople’s annoyance at the angel and their distraction by the spider-woman, they stop paying much attention to the winged old man. At long last, Father Gonzaga can get a proper night’s sleep again without worrying about whether the old man is an angel or not. Pelayo’s courtyard goes back to being as empty as it ever was.
The angel’s miracles don’t impress the townspeople: they are too bizarre and the townspeople interpret them as mocking. As the attention dies down, Father Gonzaga is no longer needed to make sense of the situation. After all of the commotion, it is clear that nobody in the town has learned anything from the angel, and nothing of the town’s mundanity has changed.
Pelayo and Elisenda are not upset that the crowds have died down—they’ve made enough money in that short time to build a big new house. It has balconies and gardens and, more importantly, iron bars and netting to keep crabs or angels from getting in. Pelayo quits his job to set up a rabbit warren. Elisenda treats herself to luxurious shoes and dresses, “the kind worn by the most desirable women in those times.” Of course, “the chicken coop was the only thing that didn’t receive any attention.” Sometimes Pelayo and Elisenda wash it down, but only because the “dungheap stench” gets so bad. Pelayo and Elisenda’s child has grown strong and learned to walk. Although his parents didn’t let him at first, he often plays in the chicken coop near the angel. The angel tolerates the child with the same stoic grace as he did the townspeople—“the patience of a dog who had no illusions.”
Though they have transcended the poverty they were in at the start of the story, Pelayo and Elisenda are still more interested in treating themselves well than in improving the lot of the angel. Elisenda adorns herself with symbols of wealth, and Pelayo gives up his work to begin looking after rabbits—ironic, since his care for the angel has been so woeful. Even if he is a supernatural creature, the angel can’t help it if the conditions of his captivity make him unhygienic and malodorous, but this “dungheap stench” is the only thing that makes Pelayo and Elisenda clean his coop. The child, who is too young to be truly greedy or superficial, shows no fear of the angel, demonstrating that the townspeople’s attitude towards him is learned behavior. Though the angel shows no particular liking for the child, he continues to behave with virtuous patience.
Both the angel and the child come down with a case of the chicken pox. A doctor comes to check on them and he is baffled by the angel; he takes a curious listen to the angel’s heart, finding so much whistling there and bizarre sounds in his kidneys that “it seemed impossible for [the angel] to be alive.” The angel’s wings seem so natural to the doctor that he can’t understand why people don’t normally grow them.
By having the angel and the child contract chicken pox at the same time, Márquez further suggests to the reader that they are more closely linked than anybody else in the story comes to realize. The doctor represents mankind’s depth of knowledge and logic—but even he can’t make any sense of the angel. In fact, the angel’s actual physiology seems perfectly natural to the doctor, further raising the question of why the townspeople proved unable to treat him with any degree of empathy. Paradoxically, the angel is too close to being human to seem truly otherworldly, and too otherworldly to seem worthy of empathy.
The child is, once again, in good health and starts attending school. Over time, the sun and the rain have caused the chicken coop to collapse. Now the angel drags himself from room to room in the house “like a stray dying man.” Though Pelayo and Elisenda drive him out of one room, he quickly reappears in another. Elisenda grows exasperated and shouts that “it’s awful living in that hell full of angels.” The angel’s condition deteriorates: he doesn’t eat much, he suffers from bad vision, and his wings are barely there anymore. One night, Pelayo throws a blanket over the angel and lets him sleep in the shed before noticing the angel has a temperature and is speaking in tongues. Pelayo and Elisenda assume he is going to die, and they worry about what do with a dead angel.
Pelayo and Elisenda’s child is now fully healthy, but his parents barely acknowledge his recovery and certainly don’t attribute it to the angel. Elisenda’s complaint that she lives in a “hell full of angels” is a funny statement—angels come from heaven, not hell. By saying this, she highlights how little she has learned from the experience, even though she now has plenty of money and a healthy child. Though the angel’s physical being is deteriorating, the patience with which he continues to bear his condition suggests that this is actually the end of his cycle of recovery.
But the angel survives the winter, and as the days get sunnier his strength improves. Feathers reappear on his wings, and, though he still keeps to himself, he seems less depressed. He even starts singing sea shanties under the stars. One morning, while Elisenda is cutting onions in the kitchen, she notices the old man making clumsy attempts at flight. Though it looks unlikely that he will succeed in taking to the air, eventually he manages to do so, and flies off beyond the horizon. As he does so, Elisenda lets out a sigh of relief—partly for him, but mostly for her. The angel is no longer “an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea”.
Against all odds, the angel’s physical and mental well-being is improving. In singing beneath the stars, he is beginning to use his energy for more than just mere survival, and this implies that he knows a change in his circumstances is coming. The way in which he departs the town is important. Elisenda is making food in the kitchen (an everyday activity) as he finally manages to take flight. Elisenda is not moved by the incredible sight of the old man taking to the skies: she is too stuck in her ways, and too narrow in her perceptions, to care. In fact, she is glad for his departure, feeling that he will no longer irritate her or cause her to have to question her life. At this point in the story, given that nobody has learned anything useful from the experience, it is evident that the angel’s meaning (for the reader) is generated by how little he means on the ground to the story’s characters. Though he has served his purpose (if, indeed, his task was to save the child), the townspeople have given him nothing in return, and they go back to life exactly as it was before the angel.