“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is the story of a decaying angel who falls to earth and is kept in a backyard chicken coop by a family who is annoyed by his presence. Márquez’s characters do not consider the angel’s arrival to be miraculous or even remarkable. Instead, they accept the supernatural aspect of the angel’s presence without question, focusing instead on what the angel can do for them and concluding, ultimately, that he is unimpressive. Márquez’s portrayal of an angel as an utterly mundane aspect of everyday life—a being the characters mistreat and disregard due to their perception that his strangeness is banal—suggests that the sacred is inseparable from the mundane, and that failures of human perception are to blame for everyday life not seeming miraculous.
From the beginning of the story, Márquez gives the sense that the townspeople perceive their everyday lives as being dreary. For example, he immediately describes the stench of rotting crabs pervading the town and the relentless rains they’re experiencing. From the rains, Márquez extrapolates that the “world had been sad,” which suggests that the dreary conditions have permeated the townspeople’s sense of their entire world.
While the townspeople seem desperate for an interruption to their mundane lives, the angel’s arrival—despite being mysterious and supernatural—is not the interruption they wanted. The townspeople find the angel a disappointment because he is “much too human.” Instead of resembling exalted depictions of angels in religious art, this angel is dressed “like a ragpicker” and his “pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had.” Furthermore, the angel has parasites, his wings are fraying, and he smells bad—he doesn’t distract the townspeople from their everyday lives, but rather reminds them of the very tedium and shabbiness they wish to forget. The more the angel has in common with the townspeople, therefore, the less they are able to treat him with compassion or reverence. Because of this, they relegate him to a dreadful existence of living in filth in the chicken coop and subsisting on scraps.
In spite of the townspeople’s conviction that the angel is nothing special, Márquez hints that this visiting creature is sacred and sublime. His apparent ability to perform miracles is what most distinguishes him from humans, but the miracles that he performs either go unnoticed or unappreciated by the townspeople. “The few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder,” Márquez writes in the sneering voice of the townspeople, “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.” While the townspeople wanted miracles that would change their lives, the angel’s miracles seem simply to remind them that their lives are already extraordinary. Márquez suggests that rather than feeling awed by their proximity to a miracle, the townspeople felt mocked by these “consolation miracles,” since they were not the miracles that the people wanted or expected.
Even the angel’s sole traditional miracle goes unappreciated. Pelayo and Elisenda’s child is gripped by a dire fever at the story’s opening. While the couple had assumed at first that the angel was coming to take the ailing child (presumably to the afterlife), the angel’s arrival coincides with the child’s sudden recovery. Instead of connecting the two events, however, Pelayo and Elisenda assume that the angel is utterly ineffectual, which hints that it’s their inability to perceive miracles—rather than the absence of the miraculous in their lives—that plagues them.
Since the angel isn’t giving the townspeople what they want, they quickly move on to a more interesting distraction: the spider woman. Ironically, though, the spider woman is much more mundane than the angel; the townspeople seem to like her better simply because her miraculousness is easier to comprehend. For example, she combines traditionally frightening elements (a spider body) with beautiful ones (the head of a maiden), which makes her presence titillating and sensational, rather than confounding and pathetic. She also speaks the same language as the townspeople (unlike the angel, whose speech is utterly foreign), which makes her more accessible to them. Furthermore, the meaning of her existence is clear, since it fits tidily into human moral narratives. This contrasts the mysterious angel, whose existence cannot be explained and whose value the townspeople find difficult to locate. The fact that the townspeople love the spider woman but find the angel revolting and disappointing indicates that, even though they profess to find their lives mundane (and even though they profess to be disappointed in the angel because he is too human), they are not imaginative or perceptive enough to appreciate what is truly extraordinary. When confronted with a being that is mysterious, supernatural, and exotic, they are not excited or awed; instead, they seem to prefer the spider woman, who is a dressed-up version of the lives they already have. In this way, the story suggests that recognizing the miraculous in the everyday is a matter of perception and imagination, but most people simply lack the ability to see extraordinary things, even—and especially—when those things are right in front of them.
The Sacred and the Mundane ThemeTracker
The Sacred and the Mundane Quotes in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday.
He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his 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.
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.
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.