ENGL 101 K- Paper 5
5 Dec. 2005
A Tale of Obscured Perception
In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" the people were faced with the dilemma of what to think about a man
with features they have never seen for themselves but have probably been raised reading about. This man had wings, automatically
bringing to mind the religious depiction of an angel. Religion is undoubtedly an overlaying theme in this story, as is the
tolerance of the unfamiliar. Through the action of this story's characters a link is formed between the two. Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's story reflects that religion as a whole does not promote tolerance or respect for differences except for those it
recognizes as divine.
The religious hierarchy deemed the old man to be mortal because he did not fit all their qualifications. He did not perform
any substantial miracles, he had a naval, he didn't speak any of the languages of the church, and he certainly didn't look
very holy. The people had automatically made the assumption that he was an angel because he had wings, yet once the church
told them he was mortal, his differences made him something to be mocked and feared. The local priest, who had no notable
qualities justifying his position as a religious leader, warned that the old man may be a trick of the devil. "He reminded
them that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary" (Marquez).
The old woman provided a different side to how religious views affected how one regarded this unusual man. She believed
he was an angel, but she had the belief that any angel that was there with them must be one with evil intentions. "Against
the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angles in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy,
they did not have the heart to club him to death" (Marquez). Of course, it must be taken into account that she also
believed angels ate mothballs, a belief that has very little support.
One of the churches responses to the letters Father Gonzaga sent to the Vatican asked how many times the old man could
fit on the head of a pin, a reference to an old intellectual argument over whether angels have physical bodies or not. "Hence
the frequently recounted tale of Scholastics arguing about how many angels could fit on a pinhead; if angels possess physical
bodies, the answer is 'at most a finite number', if they do not, then we rule out any finite number greater than zero as the
answer" (Angel). The question seems ridiculous and beside the point, considering the church did not offer an answer to
this debate and could therefore not use it as a determining factor in the divinity of this winged man either way. This question
is believed in fact to never have really been considered, but simply used "as a rhetorical illustration to demonstrate
the futility of out-of-touch theological debates" (Collins).
These pieces of information offered by supposedly wide and knowledgeable sources are superfluous and have no real support,
exhibiting how religion can influence people to act or speak illogically when it comes to dealing with something they are
Unlike the old man with wings, the girl who had been changed into a spider was able to communicate to the people a divine
lesson and therefore earned respect. They were able to understand how she became this way. A "lightening bolt of brimstone"
such as the one she was struck with can be assumed to have been sent by God based on the traditional relation between brimstone
and damnation. "English translations of this commonly refer to sulfur as 'brimstone', giving rise to the name of 'Fire
and brimstone' sermons, which are sermons where hell and eternal damnation for sinners is stressed" (Sulfur). Her ability
to communicate the message she likely was meant by God to spread earned her reverence as well as sympathy despite her very
odd appearance. "A spectacle like that, full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat
without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals" (Marquez). The winged elder's differences
were not tolerable because he didn't seem to serve any holy purpose, he wasn't able to perform any advantageous miracles or
convey any message.
None of this very old man's qualities fit with the traditional views of a holy being, apart from his wings. The people
therefore viewed him as an abnormal man who was of no use to him and treated him without respect or kindness. Had the people
been left up to make they're own assumptions about the man, if they had not been raised to relate wings with celestial figures,
they may have accepted the man with less turmoil. After all, the wings "seemed so natural on that completely human organism
that he [a doctor] couldn't understand why other men didn't have them too" (Marquez). The relation of those wings to
religion opened up a door through which preconceived notions of what was worthy of respect or not determined the treatment
of this creature.
"Angel". Wikipedia. 5 Dec. 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel>
Collins, Ken. "Angles Dancing on the Head of a Pin." 1 Dec. 2005. <http://www.kencollins.com/poll-06.htm>
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." <http://portlandwt.com/101oldman.htm>
"Sulfur". Wikipedia. 3 Dec. 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur>