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A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Summary and Key Themes

Gabriel García Márquez, the renowned Colombian author, presented the world with a mesmerizing tale of magical realism back in 1968 in the form of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” 

This story, then translated into English, is a captivating narrative set in a world where the extraordinary intersects with the mundane.

Full Summary

Our story unfolds with Pelayo, who is dealing with an influx of crabs brought into his home by relentless rains. In his muddy yard, he stumbles upon an extraordinary discovery: an old man with massive, tattered wings, unable to stand. 

Pelayo rushes to fetch his wife, Elisenda, who is tending to their ailing newborn.

The couple observes the old man’s pitiful state. 

Dressed in rags, with scant hairs on his bald head and few teeth, his enormous wings are in disrepair, dirty and broken. 

Despite their efforts to communicate, his replies are in an incomprehensible language. 

Though they initially mistake him for a shipwrecked sailor, a consultation with a wise neighbor leads them to a startling possibility: he might be an angel meant to take their sick child.

Rejecting the neighbor’s advice to end the old man’s life, Pelayo and Elisenda confine him to their chicken coop. 

Miraculously, their child’s health improves the next day, prompting the couple to plan the angel’s departure. However, news of the angel spreads quickly, drawing curious crowds.

As the community speculates about the angel’s earthly mission, Father Gonzaga, a local priest, conducts his own investigation, questioning the angel’s authenticity. 

Despite his skepticism, he alerts higher religious authorities for guidance.

Sensing an opportunity, Pelayo and Elisenda begin charging admission to view the caged angel. 

The angel, subjected to the spectators’ whims, endures their taunts and abuse, his plight evoking little sympathy. Father Gonzaga, meanwhile, awaits a response from Rome.

The arrival of a carnival act—a giant spider with a woman’s head, cursed for disobedience—diverts public attention from the angel. 

As the crowds dissipate, Pelayo and Elisenda luxuriate in their newfound wealth, upgrading their home.

Over time, the angel, now a tolerated but ignored presence, ages and weakens, much to Elisenda’s annoyance.

However, a transformation occurs. 

The angel regains strength, his wings sprouting new feathers. 

He even begins to sing. Then, one morning, Elisenda witnesses the old man’s triumphant flight, as he soars away, leaving her to gaze into the now-empty sky, feeling a sense of relief.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Summary and Key Themes

Key Themes

1. The Duality of Human Nature: Compassion and Cruelty

The story showcases the contrasting aspects of human nature: our capacity for both compassion and cruelty. 

Pelayo and Elisenda initially demonstrate compassion by sheltering the old man, instead of harming him as their neighbor suggests. 

However, this compassion quickly turns into exploitation for financial gain, as they charge people to see the caged old man, ignoring his dignity and well-being. This shift from compassion to greed highlights the complex and often contradictory facets of human nature.

2. The Perils of Misunderstanding and Misinterpreting the Unknown

Márquez’s tale cautions against the dangers of misunderstanding and misinterpreting what we don’t understand, leading to fear, mistreatment, or exploitation. 

The old man’s true nature is never understood by the characters; some see him as an angel, others as a fraud. 

This ambiguity leads to his mistreatment and exploitation, exemplifying how fear and ignorance can result in the poor treatment of those who are different or not understood.

3. The Transience of Human Fascination and the Fickle Nature of Society

The narrative reflects on the fleeting nature of human fascination and society’s fickle tendencies. Initially, the villagers are intensely fascinated with the old man, driven by curiosity and hope for miracles. 

However, their interest quickly diminishes when a new spectacle, the spider-woman, arrives, drawing away their attention. 

This shift demonstrates the superficiality and fickleness of societal interests, highlighting how quickly something or someone can be forgotten when the next intriguing phenomenon appears.

Final Thoughts

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a classic exploration of human nature, encompassing themes of compassion, cruelty, and the transient nature of human interest. Márquez masterfully uses magical realism to blur the lines between the real and the fantastical, prompting readers to reflect on the deeper aspects of humanity.