A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: the Significance of the Duality of Child and Parent Within the Old Man
By labelling his story “a tale for children,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez leads his readers to consider traits of stories often found in children’s literature, and to contemplate how “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” satisfies, or rather manipulates, these expectant, inadvertent criteria. Perhaps most common of these traits are a light-hearted tone, a moral lesson of some sort, a happy ending, and most importantly, children characters. In contrast, Marquez’s bleak tone and setting, his focus on adult characters, and his melancholic conclusion have readers questioning what aspects of his short story would appeal to children. It is thus his statement declaring the genre of the story that introduces irony: the subtitle is not necessarily meant to indicate that the story be read by children. Instead, it can be used as a clue for adults; to keep them looking for traits within the text that fall into the category of children’s literature. By doing so, readers may find that the old man in the story replaces the role of a main child character, with child-like traits completely overshadowing Elisenda and Pelayo’s real child. It is only by realizing this resemblance that readers can appreciate the complexity and symbolism disguised in the old man’s character. The old man significantly impacts Elisenda and Pelayo’s lives, introducing to them an escape out of poverty into a life of security, while also burdening them with the responsibility of caring after an unwanted guest. It is in this sense that he indirectly represents the role of a providing parent while simultaneously representing the role of an unwanted child, reflecting two opposing – yet dependent – stages of life within one character. This duality within the old man serves to highlight both sides of the inevitable surprises in life that may initially be seen as curses but are in the end truly blessings in disguise.
Children characters are usually the essence of any piece of literature within the children’s genre. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” Marquez does not completely ignore this expectation. He does indeed include a child character, despite the fact that he remains nameless and rather insignificant throughout the story. It is important to note however, that his insignificance is true only in regard to the plot of the story. Elisenda and Pelayo’s child plays a vital, and rather ironic, role in introducing the symbolism of a child in who is undeniably the essence of Marquez’s story – the old man. Marquez uses Elisenda and Pelayo’s son several times throughout the story in accordance with the old man; perhaps to subtly introduce their similar roles within the family, writing statements such as “they both came down with chicken pox at the same time,” and “before the child got his second teeth he’d gone inside the chicken coop to play [with the old man]” (111). Creating sentences with such associations between Elisenda and Pelayo’s son and the old man makes it appear as though the old man is playing the part of another child. Further evidence of child-like similarities consist of initial descriptions of the old man including “there were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth…,” the fact that “in spite of his tremendous efforts, [he] couldn’t get up,” (105) as well as his preferred diet of “eggplant mush” (108); descriptions that may naturally invoke images of a newborn to some. Elisenda and Pelayo also play an important role in the old man’s representation of a child; albeit a neglected one. They take him in when his chicken coup collapses, where he is an even greater nuisance to Elisenda, and worry about him when he becomes ill. However, it is important to note that Elisenda and Pelayo’s concern is not necessarily centered around the wellbeing of the old man. Their concern is rather selfish: they do not wish for him to get sick and die because they would “not know what to do with dead angels” (111). Elisenda and Pelayo’s motivations are a particularly important indicator in their perception of the old man as a curse, despite the ways that he helps their family.
The opening scene of the story indicates that Elisenda and Pelayo are perhaps not in the best financial situation; killing many crabs that managed to get into their home due to the rain. This financial situation drastically changes when the old man enters their lives. Charging everyone in the neighbourhood five cents to see him, Elisenda and Pelayo become richer than they have ever been. Another misfortune seemingly resolved by the arrival of the old man involved the illness of their son, provoking discussions around the neighbourhood about whether it is possible that the old man is an angel. Although they later rejected this idea, it is undeniable that both wealth and wellbeing arrived to Elisenda and Pelayo’s family with the arrival of the old man. The old man himself shares no parental characteristics; readers cannot even tell if he is truly human. It is thus not his character but rather the consequences that arise because of his character that resemble the actions of a parent. The consequences of his arrival are therefore the “blessing” disguised in what is continuously and obliviously perceived by Elisenda and Pelayo as a “curse.” It is typical for a good parent to provide for a home, to help their child feel better when they are ill, and to help them achieve their goals; all of which the arrival of the old man accomplishes. Pelayo “set up a rabbit warren close to town and gave up his job as bailiff for good, and Elisenda bought some satin pumps with high heels and many dresses of iridescent silk, the kind worn on Sunday by the most desirable women in those times” (110). Both parents were officially able to pursue their goals and enjoy their lives of financial security because of the old man. Much like the stereotypical teenager, Elisenda and Pelayo are ignorant of the luxury and health the old man has provided for them. They seem to take him for granted until the last scene, as the old man takes back to the sky, when readers are finally able to see some emotion from Elisenda.
The ending of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is particularly important to the parallelism of child and parent occurring within the old man. Elisenda watches him from the window and catches him trying to fly for the first time. His first attempts are described as very “clumsy,” resembling a description of a child’s first steps (112). Elisenda watches the old man until he manages to get himself into the air and start to fly. She “let out a sigh of relief…when she saw him pass over the last houses,” (112) much like a metaphorical moment of a mother watching her child finally “leave the nest.” On the other hand, the old man taking flight can also be seen as the passing of a parent. Realizing that the family no longer needs him, and that he has done everything that he could do for them, the old man is free, flying off into the sky, possibly to heaven. The emotion witnessed in this scene also invokes an abundance of interpretations. Elisenda is relieved that she no longer has to endure the annoyance of the old man, but she also feels relief for him. This relief is the first pure, motiveless, maternal-like expression readers witness from Elisenda towards the old man. It is plausible that Elisenda’s relief of his escape is due to her awareness of their maltreatment toward him. The parents within the story consistently viewed the old man pessimistically, never showing any gratitude towards him or improvement in his care. Their child, on the other hand, never feared or disliked the old man, quickly accepting his presence in the family and treating him as a friend – to the extent that his parents allowed him. He was never aware of the old man’s differences, or of what the arrival of the old man had done for his family. The child was a symbol of purity – he had no motives or preconceptions. Elisenda and Pelayo, however, were on the other end of this spectrum; very much aware of the cause of their prosperity, yet continuously mistreating it. The idea of this gap in perception and age plays a significant role in the lessons within Marquez’s story; adding importance to the role of children in order to define the opposing end of the spectrum.
At a fundamental level, the old man represents the entire spectrum. Throughout the story, he symbolizes the milestones of life. He represents a person’s first steps and last steps, and he also represents what happens in between. The main difference between adults Elisenda and Pelayo, and their child, is the variation and motivation in their individual virtues of acceptance. Children tend not to need a reason to accept someone, regardless of how much they may deviate from “norms” or standards within a society; most likely because children have not yet developed this sense of norms. As they grow, they become less naïve, which is both a blessing and a curse, for with the gaining of insight and experience often comes the gaining of pessimism and the loss of open-mindedness. Elisenda and Pelayo’s narrow minds caused harm to the angel – keeping him in a chicken coup, letting their neighbours’ brand him for their own entertainment. The old man’s character brings awareness to the abuse and judgement that seems to be embedded in society and triggered by any type of deviance. The old man teaches readers that this does not have to be the case. He continuously plays the roles of both the parent and the child throughout the story. Perhaps what Marquez is ultimately implying with this duality is that adults should try to play both of these roles in their everyday lives as well. The subtitle can be further evidence of this; the story more than likely having been written for adults yet stating that it is “a tale for children.” With the sense of an adult, but the open-mindedness of a child, people can help eliminate prejudiced thoughts and acts of discrimination within their societies. They can learn to embrace the differences of others rather than isolate and shame them. The duality represented within the old man in Marquez’s short story therefore expresses some of the most important differences in the minds of children compared to those of adults. More specifically, the old man emphasizes the importance of acceptance and gratitude; two elements critical in uncovering and truly appreciating the hidden blessing in any surprise.
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