“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a short story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story was published in the year 1955. In the story, a winged man crashes onto the property of a young family. Because they are unsure of who or what the man is, and because he is unable to speak to tell them this information, they decide to lock him in their chicken coup. As word gets out about the man’s existence, people begin to travel to the families home to see him for themselves. Despite many’s belief that he is an angel, a local priest openly expresses his disbelief in the man’s status as an angel for a variety of reasons. Despite this, people still come to see him from far and wide. Recognizing an opportunity, the family charges admission to see him and becomes very wealthy. Eventually, the public’s fascination runs out and nobody else comes. After this, the old man is very sickly for a time, but eventually regains his strength and flies toward the horizon.
One of the most prominent features of the story is Marquez’s frequent use of bird imagery when describing the old man. Birds are so often characterized as holding a certain freedom, being able to fly wherever they want whenever they want, holding a unique ability to simply float along the breeze. This extends past literature and into popular culture with songs such as “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. [Free Bird plays]. With this comparison, they can’t do anything about their innate need to fly, stating that they cannot be changed. With this comparison, they cannot do anything about their innate need to fly, stating that they cannot [be] change[d].” In contrast, the old man is not allowed to spread his wings and fly. The apparent angel is “locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop (paragraph 4).” The fact that it is a chicken coop is significant because chickens are essentially flightless. By caging him, the family is inhibiting his flight. Another example of this comes when Father Gonzaga examines the supposed angel for himself. He states that “the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds (paragraph 5).” Although this is stated in the context that he is essentially “too human” to be an angel, it actually does more to dehumanize him. Had his wings been shiny and pristine, he would have been hailed as a heavenly deity, greater than any man and worshipped by all. Instead, he has dirty wings and looks worse for wear, so they treat him like an animal. This is so important in the story because this man has what many would consider to be the ultimate freedom: he has wings. He can fly wherever he wants. You would expect him to be a free spirit, unable to be chained down by anything or anyone. This man that should have this freedom is locked up in a chicken coop, where he cannot spread his wings.
Another key element of the story is the religious motif that is constantly present. The old man is even referred to as an angel many times, although whether or not he truly is can be debated. Considering that the neighbor’s first assumption is that he was coming to take away the family’s sick child, it is safe to assume that the community is quite religious. So religious, in fact, that a local priest even comes to investigate whether the claims are true or not. Many of the story’s that are told in the Bible reflect the idea that people should not judge based on appearance. For example, 1 Samuel 16:7 states that one should not judge based off of appearance, but rather by the contents of their hearts. Father Gonzaga’s actions are those of a hypocrite. He is not alone in this however. It is also stated in the Bible that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). The morale of that story is essentially to not be greedy. Yet this is exactly what we see the family do. They begin charging admission to see the old man for themselves, exploiting him for their own personal gains. More than that, they are exploiting the religious nature of the community by allowing everyone to believe he is an angel. Marquez included this religious motif in order to form a commentary on the church. While religious people pride themselves on being morally righteous and hold others accountable for their actions, they often ignore these teachings when it comes to themselves.
The main takeaway from the story is that things are not always the way they seem. Although you would expect the old man to have the ultimate freedom, he is chained up for the majority of the story, and even when he is set free he doesn’t remember how to fly. The religious people that you would expect to be morally righteous are anything but and act hypocritically. The story makes it abundantly obvious that things are not always going to be as they seem, and that’s not a bad thing.