Angels are one of the most primordial archetypes of the supernatural realm, identical to humans in almost every except for having wings, thus setting up an unavoidable moment of recognition: when an angel appears in this world, ye shall know him by his wings. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” author Gabriel Garcia Marquez plays upon this recognition to use his title character to challenge cultural assumptions about deeply held religious traditions and spiritual beliefs. His story of a winged man appearing in a village with no explanation reveals the shallowness of the actual faith that lies beneath the thin shiny veneer of ritual; Garcia Marquez’s villagers become a collective symbol for the cruelty with which people treat things that are foreign to the narrow-minded values they used to define their culture.
The true nature of the title character is purposely left ambiguous by the author in order to place that decision fully upon the villagers. Although the true nature and purpose of the old man is never revealed, his action clearly indicate a lack of desire, will or capacity to do harm. By eliminating the possibility that old man with wings represents a threat capable of causing conflict within their culture, his arrival transforms into moral instruction on the subject of how mistreatment of a foreigner can be stimulated when a community comes into conflict with their own cultural assumptions through unexpectedly facing a challenge to their cultural expectations. The theme of alienation runs through the story from the beginning, but before long it is clear that this is a distinctive kind of alienation. Although physically repellant and with a bearing completely at odds with traditional artistic representations of angels, the true nature of this theme only becomes apparent when the town priest expresses suspicion that the utterly unique creature with wings is probably an imposter because “he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers.” This assumption is only confirmed among the villagers upon his rejection of mothballs and their blind acceptance of the shaky premise that they are “food prescribed for angels.” Gradually, it becomes clear that this obscure creature is not alienated by the villagers because of unexplainable unfamiliarity, but because of his explainable unfamiliarity. Unable to resolve the contradiction of a man with wings not conforming to the angel they know, they can rationalize a moral justice to their rejection on the basis of what he definitely is not rather than what may possibly be.
Deemed to be a stranger and something that is alien to constructed cultural values, the old man can without guilt be unceremoniously dumped into a chicken coop as a reward for not being clubbed to death. By that point, the entire town in aware and thus complicit. This dehumanization of a possible winged angel by forcing him into into a coop built for winged food becomes an example of responding to alienation through ethnic prejudice “an ideology which makes an incomprehensible world intelligible by imposing upon that world a simplified and categorical `answer system’” (Seeman, 1959). The answer system in this case involves “finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.” Ethnic prejudice creates a system in which the next best thing to proving the old man is an angel and is proving that he’s not. And since it incomprehensible that a real angel could diverge so sharply from their assumptions, the only intelligible answer is that he is not an angel. The only logical conclusion that can be extrapolated from the determination that he is not an angel is that his wings are evidence that he is either a fraud or freak. Either way, his mere existence is an abomination in the face of everything they hold sacred. Since an abomination is by definition alien to God’s natural world, any cruelty and mistreatment directed toward him is justified through faith. Such treatment may even perhaps be nothing less than God’s will.
The establishment of the old man as an abomination justifies the villagers’ alienation and eradicates the risk that mistreatment can be categorized as inhumane, since his wings prove that he is not human. While he hasn’t actually been proven not to be an angel, either, he has proven a threat to the community. Not through any exhibition of desire to do harm, but as a threat to the cultural foundation upon which the community has constructed its definition of itself. The villagers may have failed in their effort to prove beyond all doubt that the old man is not an angel in any sense, but they can be satisfied that they have proven he’s not an angel specific to the narrow conception of what such a creature would be. That narrow chasm of difference can be filled by their collective absence of empathy and the totality of their indifference to his suffering.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” has been classified as an example of the Magical Realism literary genre, in which the supernatural fits comfortably with the natural world. As a result, the story can end with the image of the stranger using his wings to take flight without necessitating a final resolution to the mystery of his origin or nature. That unexplained nature has already placed the villager in conflict with the villagers’ own cultural expectations and the result has been the decision to alienate the stranger in their midst because of the incomprehensibility of angelic nature as defined within their restricted worldview. As the old man flies away from the village, his mystery is transferred to readers, who now must bring their own cultural assumptions into play as they interpret for themselves whether they would recognize an angel by his wings when he appears in the world.
Seeman, M. (1959). On the meaning of alienation. American Sociological Review, 24(6), 783-791. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2088565