Magical realism, a genre of literature that uses magical elements to make a point about reality, allows for the presentation of magical and fantastical elements which ultimately puts into question the standard structure of reality in modern day society. The short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” written by a famous Latin American author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fulfills every aspect of magical realism, while pivoting off of the authors experiences of poverty and hardship during the Columbian Civil War. The short story tells the story of a poor couple, Paylo and Elisenda who find an old man with wings that had been weathered down and show his poor condition, in their courtyard after a rainstorm. The old man seemed to have fallen from the sky, and the old couple who had been taking care of a very sick child at the time, sought out a neighbors advice, who said that the man was an angel who was coming down to take the sick child when the storm hit. The poor couple decide to let the angel go until they recognized the profit that the old man’s popularity could bring in. The author uses the concept of exploitation to portray how greed leads to the corruption of society. Through the use of biblical allusions, magical symbolism and intense imagery depicted through the setting, and the duality represented by the mans wings, the author Gabriel Marquez is able to portray humanity’s natural instincts of greed through the exploitation of spiritual beings to further commercial capitalism.
A number of symbols in, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” contribute to the author’s development of the theme of corruption. The old man’s wings pose significant symbolism as they emphasize the old man’s lack of magical powers and uncanny resemblance to a normal human being. However, these wings specifically set the man apart from the old couple making the idea of him being from another world not so hard to believe, therefore the label of an “angel” seemed plausible. The duality represented by the old man’s wings embody the aspects of magical realism and portray a theme of appearance versus reality, and the idea that magic is often present in those that seem to lack it. The duality of the wings also label the old man as a Christ figure. As news of an “angel” spread across the town, townspeople came in crowds to see the spectacle. They came eagerly and willing to pay money to see the old man, but were disappointed at the sight of a beaten down, sickly looking old man with, “ huge buzzard wings, dirty and half plucked… forever entangled in the mud.” (Marquez 1).
A priest, Father Gonzaga, even declared that the “angel” was, “up close… much too human,” (Marquez 2) and even accused the old man of being a carnival trick that the devil sent to con innocent humans. Simmarly in the bible the Pharisees made an accusation that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24), and most of the Jewish race at the time rejected Jesus and his faith because he was not what they had imagined a god or someone worthy of the title would be like. The believed that their Messiah, their savior, would lead them out of the oppressive power of Rome, not die on a cross. However, the old man falls from glory into a pitiful state, reminiscent of Philippians 2:6-8, “Christ Jesus…made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”, further implying that the old man does in fact hold some religious significance. Perhaps, one of the most obvious allusions to Christ in the story is when the old man is branded with a hot iron, similar to the punishment that Jesus received while he was pierced by a spear while on the cross (John 19:34).
Marquez continues to illustrate the theme of societal corruption with magical realism through the use of symbolism and imagery. The short story opens with the use of powerful imagery to describe the setting of the story, “The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.” (Marquez 1). The weather in Macondo directly reflects the society’s corrupt state of being. The constant dark and rainy weather reflect the people living in the town, who are dreary, dark, and full of corrupt values. However, Marquez suggests that the town has not always been but had overtime, “ become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.” (Marquez 1), ultimately implying that the people living in the town hadn’t always been evil and corrupt, but greed has taken over any sense of morality that they had. Another apparent symbol within the story is the infestation of crabs. In the beginning of the story, Marquez uses intense imagery to depict the significant amounts of crab making its way into their home, “ On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea.” (Marquez 1).
The crabs in the story symbolize the family’s dire state of poverty, and the instinct that all animals have to survive under the most harsh conditions. Similar to the crabs, the old man has a will to live even through the cruel and unfair treatment he received. The will to live is a natural instinct driven by the idea of Social Darwinism. This desire to be the last one standing significantly contributes to the corruption of society because it drives greed and competition. It was this specific desire that drove the family to exploit the old man’s magical appearances for money. In the bible crabs often represent the consequences of negative peer pressure, and if you, “Go down to the fish market and look into the crab barrel. They never have to put a lid on it because if one crab starts to crawl out, the others will grab onto him and pull him back down.” ( Ben Carson 1) . Marquez uses this symbolism of the crabs to further demonstrate how the whole town of Macondo became corrupt.
Marquez illustrates corruption everywhere throughout his short story, however, the most apparent form of corruption is shown directly within the townspeople, and their complete willingness to exploit magical or religious beings for personal gain. This idea is most apparent in the story when the old couple recognize that they can make money off of showing the “angel” to the public, and started charging admissions to see the old man whom was advertised as a magical being. The old couple were not the only people in the story found guilty of exploitation for personal gain. Many of the townspeople came to see the “angel” to fulfill some kind of personal vendetta, “…the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing” (Marquez 2). Some of the people went as far as branding the old man with a metal iron, just to try and get a reaction out of him. The people in the society took out their anger on the old man and placed the blame for all of their failures on him. Throughout the entire story the people of the town refuse to take responsibility for the corruption of the town and refuse to acknowledge their own corruption. Perhaps, making the most corrupt part of this story, the people’s complete denial of their own evil.
Through the use of magical realism, Marquez is able to highlight the theme of corruption caused by exploitation through the symbolism of the crabs, the in depth imagery of the weather, and allusions to the bible. Famous english writer, E. Digby Baltzell once said, “The downfall of every civilization comes, not from the moral corruption of the common man but rather from the moral complacency of common men in high places,” ultimately suggesting that the desire to be the best or the richest (greediest), will lead to the downfall of every civilization. Similarly through the use of magical realism, Marquez emphasizes that the exploitation of a magical being, in order to achieve wealth, will lead to the corruption of no one individual, but the entire society.