Garcia Marquez and Otherness Essay

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" is a work written in the author's signature mode of magical realism: the story has the logic of a fable or a dream, even though it is narrated in the most matter-of-fact way possible. In this brief story, told with almost no directly quoted dialogue, we learn of the sudden appearance and sudden disappearance of the title character -- who is, quite literally, what the title describes -- in a small South American seaside village. However I hope to demonstrate through a close reading of several elements of the story -- through the descriptions of the old man (and what is presented as the literal truth of the story), through the reactions of the local priest Father Gonzaga (and the implied religious elements), and through the comparison with the spider girl in the second half of the story -- that in fact Garcia Marquez may be suggesting a potential post-colonial reading of his brief tale, by establishing the old man as an archetypal "Other."

The direct descriptions of the old man within the story itself seem to establish the old man's otherness distinctly. Leaving aside for the moment the question of his wings -- which is the most obvious sign of his otherness, but also the story's most clearly magical element -- it is worth noting that the most obvious sign of difference among people is present here, which is language. The old man does not speak the Spanish of Pelayo and his wife Elisenda, or the other villagers, a fact that we learn in the second paragraph: "Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor's voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm." (Garcia Marquez 1). It is worth noting that the language here is connected by Garcia Marquez with the more obvious physical sign of otherness, the wings. Indeed the "incomprehensible dialect" spoken by the old man is actually given as the chief reason why Pelayo and Elisenda are able to "skip over the inconvenience of the wings." It is worth examining this moment in closer detail, however. For a start, Garcia Marquez clearly intends it to be humorous: he is not mocking the villagers, but instead giving us some glimpse into the hard facts of their lives, perhaps, when they respond to this utterly implausible event with the most straightforward realism they can summon. It is also possible that Garcia Marquez is suggesting here that the couple are actually trying to find some reason to ignore the wings: obviously the old man's "strong sailor's voice" reminds them of something they are familiar with (sailors) but it also seems likely that, if a person actually did have to fly and communicate over the noise of wind and ocean, he might very well develop the same loud clear tones that sailors speak in. Obviously the old man's otherness is of an entirely different order than that of a foreigner, however the cultural understanding of foreigners is generally the first way of approaching an idea of otherness at all. But the fact that Garcia Marquez intends to understand the old man as a kind of archetypal "Other" is evident with the next two immediate explanations offered: one supernatural, when the neighbor woman (in the story's only example of directly quoted dialogue) opines that the old man is an angel, and one more sinister, when the same neighbor woman suggests that the villagers "club him to death" (Garcia Marquez 1). Instead, the immediate response -- to turn the old man into a half-prisoner, half-animal by locking him in the chicken coop -- is one that confirms the old man's otherness. It marks him as being either not quite human, or not quite fit for the society of the villagers.

It is worth recalling about the very concept of "otherness," however, that it does not necessarily mean "inferior." Obviously in practice, a society may construct its archetypal "other" as being inferior in many ways, but otherness can also have a superior or transcendent aspect as well -- we might think of the way in which Native Americans are not only depicted as savage, but also depicted as a heroic ideal of freedom or virtue (as when the Boston Tea Partiers dressed up in Native American costume). An actual angel, for example, would definitely qualify as completely alien to human experience, but would not be considered sub-human. Garcia Marquez is deliberately ambiguous about whether the reader is intended to think of the old man as an angel, however -- indeed, most of the physical details (the elderly physicality, the smell, the missing feathers, the parasites on the wings) seem more like poverty than otherworldly transcendence. But nevertheless the issue of the old man's possibly angelic nature -- first raised by the neighbor early in the story -- is expanded when the local priest Father Gonzaga comes to investigate the old man. Here we understand that the supernatural claims of religion are not even of interest to a religious official -- instead, Father Gonzaga responds to the old man in terms of the priest's own social station in the community, and the old man's failure to recognize it. Garcia Marquez tells us that "the parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers" (Garcia Marquez 2). In other words, the angel's failure to know Latin -- then the official language of the Catholic Church -- or more particularly to show respect to a parish priest is the reason why the priest doubts this is really an angel. The priest has a cautious response -- he suspends judgment and volunteers to contact his superiors at the Vatican, because clearly the old man's presence is, in some way, a supernatural event -- but he refuses to sanction anything miraculous. Indeed, the priest's reaction to the old man is largely governed by the man's "smell of the outdoors" and "parasites" which is seen as not "measur[ing] up to the proud dignity of angels" (Garcia Marquez 2). It seems quite possible that Garcia Marquez is intending some irony here, though -- in a religion supposedly based on the teachings of Christ, who spoke of compassion for the poor, these signs of human poverty (uncleanliness, parasites, lack of physical dignity) are actually seen by the priest as distasteful. Whatever we think about the priest's response to the old man, it hardly seems Christian on the most basic levels.

But the more important representation of the old man's supernatural or religious nature arguably comes in the second half of the story, when he is implicitly compared with a similarly bizarre figure, the spider girl. The spider girl has a crucial role in the plot because her introduction into the story -- once the old man has become a sort of freak-show spectacle on display -- is to demonstrate that even the most outlandish forms of novelty quickly become boring to the social group that observes them. Once the old man is no longer a new phenomenon, the villagers lose interest. However, the fact that the spider girl becomes the new object of interest also has a deeper meaning implied by Garcia Marquez. We are told that the spider girl was "a frightful tarantula the size of a ram and with the head of a sad maiden," which is no more or less bizarre as the old man with the enormous wings (Garcia Marquez 3). Indeed the real difference is not the magical aspects of these two bizarre beings, but the implied sense of meaning: we are told that, for the villagers, "what was most heartrending, however, was not her outlandish shape but the sincere affliction with which she recounted the details of her misfortune." (Garcia Marquez 3). She explains that she defied her parents to attend a dance, and then as a result a "lightning bolt of brimstone…changed her into a spider" (Garcia Marquez 3). As a result we are told that "a spectacle like [the girl], 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" (Garcia Marquez 3). What is important here is not the magical element, but the meaning ascribed to it. Nobody in the story seems to know what, exactly, the meaning of the old man is -- but the girl, who speaks in the same language as the villagers, can narrate the symbolic meaning of her own story to them. It has a conservative moral -- that children should obey their parents, or that young girls should not attend dances -- and this is why she proves more popular than the old…[continue]

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