Short Story Discussion: “A Very Old Man with
Author Introduction: Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel José García
Márquez was born on March
6, 1928 in a small coastal
village in Colombia. The
eldest of twelve children,
García Márquez was reared
by maternal grandparents.
He grew up with an
extended family of aunts
and great aunts who, like his
grandmother, were constant
storytellers of local myth,
superstition, and legend.
García Márquez’s literary development occurred
concurrently with his career as a journalist. In 1954, he
returned to Bogotá, where he worked for El
Espectador and wrote short stories in his spare time.
One of them, “Un día después del sábado” (“One Day
After Saturday”), won for García Márquez a
competition sponsored by the Association of Artists
and Writers of Bogotá. In 1955, his first novel was
published. La hojarasca (1955; Leaf Storm and Other
Stories, 1972) presents life in the fictional town of
Macondo from 1900 to 1930. García Márquez’s fiction
did not attract significant attention outside literary
circles until the publication of his masterpiece, Cien
años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of
The time and place of this story are undetermined.
The characters' names suggest a Spanish-speaking
country, and a reference to airplanes indicates that
we are somewhere in the twentieth century; but
beyond these minor details, the setting is
fantastical. The narrator tells of events in the past,
using the phrase ''in those times'' in a manner
common to myths and legends. These associations
help prepare the reader for the story's "magical"
elements by suggesting that this is not a factual
history to be taken literally, but a tale of the
imagination where the usual rules may be
The Garcia Marquez ''boom'' was fueled by a number of
developments, both in popular culture and in critical
scholarship, which made it easier for many readers to
embrace a work of ‘‘magic realism,’’ and an author from
a non-Western culture. The late 1960s are characterized
as a period of intense cultural change, in which
traditional values of all kinds were challenged. College
campuses were a particular focus for this controversy
(occasionally via violent confrontations between law
enforcement and student political protesters), but it also
found expression through passionate debates within the
scholarly disciplines, debates in which the most basic
assumptions were questioned, and apparently radical
changes were given serious consideration.
In literature departments, one result was an effort to
expand the ''canon''—the list of ''classic'' works whose
study is traditionally considered to form the necessary
basis of a liberal arts education. Critics charged that,
with few if any exceptions, the canon had excluded
women and people of color from the roll of ''great
authors,'' as well as writers from poor or working-class
backgrounds and those from non-European cultures.
Efforts to expand the canon, to include a more diverse
blend of cultural voices among the works considered
worthy of serious scholarship, have continued for over
thirty years. Garcia Marquez can be seen as an early
beneficiary of this trend.
Finally, much like the last two stories we have discussed,
this story has a context within Garcia Marquez's own career.
It was written in 1968, a year after his sudden fame.
One reading of ‘‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings''
sees it as a satirical account of his own encounter with
instant fame, as a commentary on the position of the
creative artist in modern culture. Here, the ‘‘old man’’ is the
artist, while his "wings" stand for transcendence, greatness,
truth, beauty—that which is valuable in art. The villagers are
‘‘the public,’’ greedy for whatever ''magic'' he might bring
them—but who insist on having it on their own terms. Rather
than accepting him as he is, they treat him as a carnival
attraction and look for ways to profit from his odd celebrity.
Style: Magical Realism
Magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in
which magical elements are merged with a realistic
environment in order to access a deeper understanding of
reality. These magical elements are often explained like
they are normal occurrences; this allows the "real" and the
"fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought. In
combining fantastic elements with realistic details, a writer
like García Márquez can create a fictional “world” where
the miraculous and the everyday live side-by-side—where
fact and illusion, science and folklore, history and dream,
seem equally “real,” and are often hard to distinguish. The
form clearly allows writers to stretch the limits of possibility,
and to be richly inventive.
Magical Realism Continued
The uncertainty (or ambiguity) of magical realism applies not
just to the old man, but evidently to life itself, as it is lived in
this timeless, nameless village. It seems to be a place where
just about anything can happen (for example, a young
woman can be changed into a spider for disobeying her
parents)—or at least, it is a place where everyone is quite
willing to believe such things happen, and to act as though
they do happen. This impression is partly a result of García
Márquez's use of narrative voice.
For the most part, the story seems to be told by an
“omniscient observer” of third-person fiction—a narrator
who knows all the necessary facts, and can be trusted to
present them reliably. When this kind of narrator gives the
reader information, the reader generally believes him or
However, in this case, the inconsistencies in the narrative
voice reinforces the ambiguity within the story. The narrator
is, after all, the "person" presenting all this odd imagery to
the reader, and readers habitually look to the narrator for
clues to help find a proper interpretation.
Readers rely on a narrator for clues about “how to take”
elements in the story that may be unclear. But this
narrator seems determined to be untrustworthy, and
leaves us uncertain about important events. Without
telling us how, he treats everything that happens as
though it “makes sense.” Though he is habitually ironic
in his view of the “wise” villagers' beliefs, at other times,
he seems no more skeptical than the villagers. For
example, the story of the spiderwoman seems at least
as fantastic as that of an old man with wings, but the
narrator gives no suggestion that her transformation is
particularly unusual and seems to expect the reader to
accept this ''magical'' event as if it presented no
mystery at all.
Reliable or Not?
Are we to conclude that this fantastic
transformation from human to spider actually
happened? Or that the narrator is now as
deluded as the villagers? Or even that he is
purposely lying to us? As the label “magic
realism” suggests, some elements of the
story seem meant to be approached with the
simplistic “logic” of fantasy, while others are
depicted with all the complexity and
imperfection that mark “real life.”
Speculate on the identity of the “old
1. The Old Man’s identity is probably that of an
ordinary human being, albeit one with wings…
2. The old man is up for speculation. It appears that he
is simply an old man with wings that appeared
before Pelayo, Elisenda and their family.
3. After finishing the short story, I concluded that the
old man with the enormous wings may have been
Daedalus flying in from Crete, or perhaps one of
Milton’s fallen angels from “Paradise Lost.”
How does the manner in which Garcia Marquez treats the
traditional idea of angels in "A Very Old Man with Enormous
Wings" compare with the way angels are represented or
interpreted elsewhere, in some other work or media?
1. Angels are depicted as glowing, bright, clean and pure beings as
opposed to the smelly old man with wings in this story. [. . .] Another
difference between how angels are represented in pop culture and
some religions, is the way people treated the old man. If an actual
angel was living on earth, would people throw things at it or demand
something more from it further than it’s mere existence?
2. He writes ironically: We often think of sweet and innocent cherubs, or
celestial conquerors like the angel Gabriel. However, Marquez
creates an angel character closer to the personification of death ‒
muddled, molting, decrepit, and wings of a vulture, rather than a
Discuss trauma in the story. Who
suffers it? How and why?
Multiple characters in the story experience trauma
and exhibit a variety of methods to cope with it. [. . .]
As Elisenda watches [the old man] depart “until it
was no longer possible for her to see him,” I
couldn’t help but wonder if her trauma is just
starting rather than concluding as she begins to
realize her missed opportunities for a deeper
understanding of divinity
1. Q; What does the old man bring to Pelayo and Elisenda’s life? [Is
the] impact [. . .]positive or negative?
2. Q: Why was Pelayo and Elisenda so irritated, borederline cruel
with old man with wings when he had brought them so much
good fortune and “cured” their child?
3. Q: Is the [story] “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”
portraying human behavior in the way they look down on others?
4. Q: To what degree does the story criticize religion and/or the
religious? What is the purpose of the angel’s arrival in a town full
of amoral charlatans?
5. What makes Marquez’s short story successful?