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Conflict Between a Person and Society in the Short Story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My favorite quote of an unknown author that was found by me in the internet is the following: “We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us and wealth classified us.” (Humanistdaily.com, 2015) I cannot but totally agree with it. Nowadays, people put more and more significance on the person’s race and appearance, religion and origin, style and clothing, traditions and culture, wealth and social status. These reactions are based on the different kinds of stereotypes and prejudice that are dictated by the society and its distorted norms.
Unfortunately, such responses to the other person distinction are not a novelty and can result in various conflicts. The main character of the short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, written and published by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1955, becomes a victim of village people because of not fitting into the world of their narrow minds. With the help of magical realism Marquez tries to reveal the flaws of the society that are still relevant in the nowadays community.
Gabriel Marquez is an outstanding Colombian writer and one of the representatives of a literary movement known as magic realism. The significant feature of magic realism is a mixture of different cultural customs and traditions, of ancient myths and realities of modern life with the moral norms of the society. This literary movement presents an interdependent combination of fantastic and realistic features, of mythological and domestic outlook on life. This very conflict between imaginary and rational world serves as a basis to the short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
The action takes place in the usual village, where unusual things happen. On the courtyard of an ordinary family of Elisenda and Pelayo appears an out of ordinary man with enormous wings. The village people knew neither where the old man came from nor who he is and why he has two enormous wings on his back. That is the place where magical realism is used in all its beauty.
The conflict in the short story arises between a person and society that can be seen in the treatment of the village people towards the man with the wings. Their attitude causes a storm of readers’ resentment and indignation as the winged man is innocent and does no harm to others: “His only angelic virtue seemed to be patience. The hens pecked at him, and injured visitors pulled out feathers to touch their broken limbs with. Even kind people threw stones at him, trying to get him to stand up.” (Marquez, 2015)
The people, who gathered to see the new creature, immediately begin to judge the man by his appearance: “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 and sense of grandeur he might have had.” (Marquez, 2015) The author gives a very realistic description of a man that makes the villagers as well as the reader to imagine an ordinary person. The image of an old beggar emerges in the mind. But Marquez bewilders everybody by the following specification: “His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked were forever entangled in the mud.” (Marquez, 2015) One of the neighbors supposes that it is an angel, because he has wings. The opinions divided, but the attitude towards the old man is one and the same – he is different, not like them, so does not deserve a proper attention.
The village people, not being able to distinguish the origin of the man, decide to address the priest. With such a decision of the people Gabriel Marquez highlights the inability of the society to accept a person without consulting a higher instance or referring to particular norms approved by the majority. The silliness of the actions and words of the Father Gonzaga and the fully trust of the village people in them emphasize on the people’s blind faith and passivity: “He reminded them that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary. He argued that if wings were not an essential element in determining the different between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.” (Marquez, 2015) Even priest is not sure of his own words and promises to “write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to get the final verdict from the highest courts.” (Marquez, 2015) That fact that the old man did not communicate and what the worst – could not speak Latin. It seemed very strange and suspicious to Father Gonzaga, as he insisted that Latin is the language of God and angels should know it, too. It is obvious that nobody knows with what language God communicates, and He, actually, does not need a language.
In such a context the angel may bare a different meaning and symbol. John Goodwin in his article Marquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wing and Bambara’s The Lesson makes an assumption that Marquez “presented multiple reactions to religion. The “angel” represents religion and the villagers display the reactions. This allows readers to decide for themselves which character or characters they identify with.” (Goodwin, 2006)
On the other hand, the old man may represent people, who are always treated badly by the society they try to fit in. The reasons of such an attitude can be various, but, in my opinion, the main one is jealousy. People tend to be envious of the things they do not have. In this case the wings are an object of jealousy.
The only person, who is sincerely surprised with the old man’s wings, is a doctor. The wings “seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” (Marquez, 2015) With such a response Marquez is intendent to say that not all the people in the society are cruel and hypocritical. There is still left a small amount of people, who are ready to accept a different person with all his defects and otherness, unlikeness in views, culture or religion.
But unfortunately, the minority cannot influence the majority, so the old man is put in the wire chicken coop. At the beginning the village people tried to make a use of the angel. “The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: 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; and many others with less serious ailments.” (Marquez, 2015) Such a reaction of “the most unfortunate invalids” proves the fact that people, who feel in the society like a fish out of water, usually try to stick together. But even they may be cruel to a newcomer, as he becomes a new target of taunts and mockery.
With the old man gaining popularity, the wife of Pelayo, who keeps this angel, decides to make money by exploiting him to the people in their courtyard. The couple never thought to inquire about his spiritualism or where he came from, they even thought of him as a nuisance: “The couple who kept him never tried to clean him up and help him, instead they put him on display as if he were soulless.” (Marquez, 2015) Such a scene from a story is designed to show that within the society the stronger over has a power of the weaker and always makes a use of him.
It should be mentioned that the winged old man is harmful and submissive. Moreover, he remains as an inactive character through the whole story. Having caused a range of important events in story, he is the only one who did not participate in them. Such permanence gives an opportunity to the reader to reveal the real intentions and nature of the village people and their society with its norms. Marques, in such a way, shows that people are losing the ability to comprehend miracles and wonders. They are focused on everyday life and routine. They try to make a use of everything and are unable to perceive the winged man as an angel, as a message from heaven. Ronald McFarland in his article Community and Interpretive Communities in Stories by Hawthorne, Kafka and Garcia Marquez states that people “should be less concerned with the departure from normalcy than with how the community responds to it.” (McFarland, 1992)
People have a hard time accepting others when they are different; instead they judge them and segregate according to what their ideas are. The townspeople, even the people who travelled from afar to see him, did not accept the old man as an angel. They treated him with indifference because he was not like them. He did not talk like them, look like them, or act like them. He smelled horrible and had parasites in his wings. He was an outsider and therefore could never fit into their society or culture.
Soon, the winged man loses the interest of the society, as with the flow of time he partially adjusts in it. The angel becomes an object of their everyday life and remains constant, that is why he is not worth their attention any more. The villagers have a new amusement now – “the town the traveling show of the woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents.” (Marquez, 2015) In comparison to the old man, this woman speaks and tells stories, so immediately becomes a number one attraction.
Some words should be spoken about the winged man. In the short story he stands out a combination of imaginary and real. Because of a cruel treatment from the side of the village people, he feels an outcast as he is unwanted. That is why in the end of the story he leaves that place the same way he appeared – without any words.
Marquez leaves the reader without the explanation of who the origin of the old man and the cause he appeared in that village on that very day. So everyone can interpret the text in their own way and cannot find the right answer on those questions. The short story is full of conflicts that remain unresolved. In such a way he author gives every reader an opportunity to interpret and find the solution to the problem on his own.
In my opinion, the lack of spirituality affected the whole town’s way of thinking. If only these people were closer to God, they would accept this old man as an angel sent down from the heavens. They would have asked why he was sent, tried to communicate with him, treated him as a heavenly being. Because they did none of these of things, the story reveals the town’s lack of faith. If they truly had faith they would not have mistreated this man or judged him by his current appearance. Instead of ostracizing him and belittling him they would have fixed him up, fed him, praised him and treated him with respect and honor. They would have tried to get to know him, insisted the other people have respect for him as well. They would not have kept him in a chicken coop for years to live like an animal. Perhaps the old man would have stayed if he had been treated like the special being that he was and the town would have been blessed somehow.