In his short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez leaves readers to wonder whether one of the central characters is actually an angel. There is no clear answer to this question because the old man remains a rather mysterious figure throughout the story, and the open ending makes him even more ambiguous. However, I think that Marquez intentionally leaves it for everyone to decide whether this character is an angel or not, and this decision is meant to reveal people for who they truly are.
The old man is not wholly developed because there is no possibility to get an insight into his character. He allows the absolute freedom of interpretation to other characters and readers alike because he never attempts to speak for himself. Nor does he try to act independently until the very end of the story when he decides to fly away. His inability to communicate with other characters relies on the fact that he does not speak the local language, Spanish. Apparently, he is not willing to learn as he communicates only in his native language: “Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice” (Garcia Marquez 2). This makes him even more of a stranger than he already is. Basically, he appeared out of nowhere, he has no ties to anyone in the village, and he has no apparent goal. There is not much to learn about him throughout the story, except for the most apparent aspects.
Since the old man does not explain himself, others may only rely on how he looks like and evaluate him accordingly to these physical characteristics. It is a known fact that people tend to understand the same things differently due to such various factors as their bias, personal beliefs, previous experiences, personalities, education, social circles, and so on. Although the same man is presented, he can be seen and comprehended differently by everyone who sees him. Thus, it is important to point out his main characteristics in order to determine how they can be interpreted. His description in the story is the following:
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 had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud (Garcia Marquez 2).
The contradictory parts of this description are the wings and the overall weary appearance. On the one hand, if the old man has wings, he is supposed to be an angel or some other divine creature. On the other hand, there is nothing divine about the rest of his characteristics as Garcia Marquez specifically uses such analogies as “ragpicker” to depict the most degraded of human states. At the same time, there is an implication of a supernatural connection between the old man and Pelayo’s and Elisenda’s child. The child is very sick until the old man appears in the patio, and then the fever disappears. Moreover, as the old man remains in the village for a few years until the child grows and starts to attend school, it may be assumed that the man has been there all this time as a guardian angel. In a way, he brought positive influence in the child’s life by his mere presence. He left the child healthy, in a flourishing house, with prosperous parents, although he appeared when everything was considerably worse. This contradictory complexity creates even more space for interpretation.
The ways in which other people treat the old man reveal them for who they truly are. He may be seen as an angel to be respected and revered. He may be perceived as a freak to gape at and exploit. He may be seen as a homeless stranger to be pitied. There is no way to determine which option is right because this rightness is decided individually, depending on each character’s goals and characteristics. For instance, this is how the villagers reacted to the old man for the first time: “[…] the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal” (4). This scene depicts the villagers as cruel and ignorant people who mainly care about their own amusement. The church officials, on the other hand, are highly inquisitive in their attempts to reveal who the old man truly is: “They spent their time 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” (9). This reaction depicts them as intellectuals who always seek answers and are not satisfied with leaving strange phenomena as they are. As the characters treat the old man differently, readers may also have their personal opinions in this matter, and thus uncover something new about their own selves judging by their reactions.
All in all, Garcia Marquez does not fully develop the character of the old man to use him as a mirror for other characters and even readers. The old man’s appearance is composed of such contradictory elements that he can be perceived and interpreted differently. Thus, it is difficult to tell whether he is an angel, a freak of nature, or a homeless madman. Possibly, he is all of these things or something else entirely. The truth about him is never revealed, but the ways in which other people react to him are the determinants of their personalities.