Archetypal Essay: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a story that lends itself to an archetypal reading.  This paper will show how the literary elements of the story communicate an archetypal message.  This archetypal message is the strange way that human beings react to new things. The story begins with a focus on new things.  There is a new baby boy born to Pelayo and Elisenda, and of course, there is the Old Man who washes ashore.  By having the plot begin this way we are introduced immediately to the concept of new things and clued into the fact that they will be an important part of the story.  

The author uses characters to represent common behaviors toward new things.  The first behavior we see in the story’s characters is one of fascination.  This is true both of Pelayo and Elisenda’s preoccupation with their newborn son, and it is also true of how the townspeople react to the Old Man.  But new things are also often met with resentment or suspicion.  So we have a conflict between the way the neighbor and many of the other townspeople see the old man—as something exciting, an angel—and the way Pelayo sees him, which is as a nuisance and something he wants to be rid of.

A major theme in the story that helps drive the plot along is how fickle human nature can be given the constant battle over free will.  We see characters reacting to the Old Man in different ways from interest to disdain, and we also see how those who are interested in the Old Man grow tired of him, while those who disdained him come to exploit him.  This says something profound about how humankind tends to react to new things.  Even though a person may react one way to novelty, as they continue to process it they will show their true attitudes.  As Ruben Pelayo argues, the townspeople claim he is an angel but their later behavior indicates that they do not really believe he is, since no one would treat an angle like a circus freak (par. 29).  On the other hand, Pelayo and Elisenda who initially want him out of sight and out of mind come to later exploit him as a carnival act and charge admission for people to see him.  In both cases, we see characters fickleness on display as their sentiments change with their self-interest.

These changes in attitudes naturally raise questions about why human nature is such that our opinions about new things can change so quickly.  A possible answer to this question is that part of the state of man and human nature is that they struggle to respond to instances where their expectations are not met.  Tom Faulkner points out that saga with the old man isn’t a problem over the possibility that angels aren’t real, but over the possibility that they are, and that we have completely misunderstood them (par. 4).  So as with all new things, human beings have certain expectations about what the new thing will be like, what it is for, etc.  But when the reality does not match the expectation, people become discontent and look for something that is less disruptive.  That is why eventually the Old Man gets abandoned for the Spider Lady since she is more straightforward and pitiable than he is.  

By the time the story ends, no one cares about the Old Man at all.  He is like a Christmas toy that excited for the first hour, but by June is at the bottom of a toy chest somewhere.  It is even worse than that though; because he had such significant potential, there is a real hostility toward him on the part of some.  As a result, Elisenda is relieved when he finally flies away because now he can just be relegated to a distant memory, as though he never existed.

Works Cited

Faulkner, Tom. "An Overview of 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,'." Gale Online Encyclopedia, 2019.

Pelayo, Rubén. "The Short Stories." Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena Krstovic, vol. 162, Gale, 2012.