Instead of treating the angel with reverence or sympathy, the townspeople are cruel to him; they keep him in wretched conditions, hurt him in order to rouse him into more entertaining behavior, and exploit his suffering by turning him into a ticketed spectacle. While the townspeople’s behavior towards the angel is unambiguously cruel, Márquez does not suggest that this is because they are singularly bad people. Instead, he shows how an accumulation of small transgressions—beginning with a failure to empathize—can precipitate a once unthinkable moral decline.
From the beginning of the story, the townspeople “other” the angel, or perceive him as being fundamentally different from them, which shows their lack of empathy. Pelayo and Elisanda initially believe that he is a foreign sailor, for example, which (at least in their mind) justifies Pelayo keeping the angel under armed guard in the filth of the chicken coop. As the story progresses, the characters’ lack of empathy leads to outright violence. For instance, the townspeople, who have flocked to the chicken coop wanting to see something miraculous, provoke the angel cruelly: they pluck feathers from his wings, throw stones, and even burn him with an iron in order to make him do something exciting. This behavior, which would be obviously abhorrent if done to a human, demonstrates the extent to which they have othered the angel, and it also shows how group psychology can normalize behaviors that would usually be considered immoral.
The townspeople’s othering of the angel leads them not just to violence, but also to exploitation when Elisenda begins charging admission to see the angel’s wretched existence in the chicken coop. At first, the angel is a popular attraction: “in less than a week [Pelayo and Elisenda] had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter still reached beyond the horizon.” However, none of these people ever raises questions about whether it’s appropriate to profit off of or be entertained by the angel’s suffering, or whether his terrible conditions are cruel. Instead, they see him “as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.” This is true even of the priest, Father Gonzaga, who should be the angel’s protector.
Indeed, the spectacle comes to an end not because anybody stands up for the angel, but rather because a new spectacle—the spider woman—is deemed more exciting, and the townspeople no longer want to pay to see the angel. “A spectacle like that,” Márquez writes of the spider woman, “full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.” This quote suggests that the townspeople justify their exploitation and subsequent abandonment of the angel on the grounds that it’s the “haughty” angel, not them, who is behaving immorally. Again, this shows a lack of empathy, as the angel is clearly not haughty; instead, he seems pathetic and wretched. Furthermore, it’s absurd to suggest that he should respect the people torturing him, and it’s not even clear that he knows that’s what they want from him.
Although the townspeople sarcastically believe that the angel’s “only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience,” the angel’s patience actually makes him the most virtuous character in the story. The angel never lashes out at Pelayo, Elisanda, or the public, even though they treat him so terribly—he bears their maltreatment with stoic grace, while they can’t even be bothered to continue exploiting him once a more exciting spectacle comes to town. Márquez, then, seems to connect patience with the miraculous, suggesting that it is the impatience of modern life that disables people’s ability to perceive the extraordinary in the everyday. The Bible notes that “lack of patience can cause you to miss blessings,” and Márquez shows this to be literally true. Not only does the impatience of the townspeople cause them to miss the lessons that the angel could teach them about the extraordinary nature of their lives, but also the angel’s patience is what gives him the ultimate blessing: after suffering patiently, the angel finally regains his strength and flies away.
Patience, Empathy, and Cruelty ThemeTracker
Patience, Empathy, and Cruelty Quotes in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings
He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm.
Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels.
The curious came from far away. A traveling carnival arrived with a flying acrobat who buzzed over the crowd several times, but no one paid any attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat.
Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing. The only time they succeeded in arousing him was when they burned his side with an iron for branding steers, for he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. He awoke with a start, ranting in his hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and he flapped his wings a couple of times, which brought on a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust and a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world.
A spectacle like that, full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals. Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers. Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.
At first, when the child learned to walk, they were careful that he not get too close to the chicken coop. But then they began to lose their fears and got used to the smell, and before they child got his second teeth he’d gone inside the chicken coop to play, where the wires were falling apart. The angel was no less standoffish with him than with the other mortals, but he tolerated the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions.
The doctor who took care of the child couldn’t resist the temptation to listen to the angel’s heart, and he found so much whistling in the heart and so many sounds in his kidneys that it seemed impossible for him to be alive. What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.
Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she watched him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.