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Intro

In A Nutshell

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a … very old man with enormous wings, and he's landing in your backyard!

Okay, so it sounds like something out of a comic book. But that's exactly the situation encountered by the characters in Gabriel García Márquez's 1968 short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings": a busy family suddenly finds an old man who just happens to have huge wings crash-landed in their patio.

The family panics, naturally. Even if it is an angel, what in the world are you supposed to do with a dirty, apparently crazy angel who's stuck in your backyard? They ask the local experts, including the town priest and a neighbor who thinks she knows everything about angels, but no one has any good advice. So, they do what any self-respecting procrastinators would do: ignore the problem until it goes away on its own.

And what, Shmoopers, is up with that?

This story is one of the clearest (and briefest) examples of magical realism. No, magical realism isn't some kooky, postmodern magic show where the magician explains the tricks behind his illusions: it's a literary genre in which extraordinary, even impossible events (like an old man with wings crash-landing in somebody's yard) are taken to be ordinary by the characters within the story.

If you've read One Hundred Years of Solitude (or checked out the Shmoop learning guide), you'll know that Gárcia Márquez (nicknamed "Gabo") is a master of the genre. He claimed that in Latin America, "magical realism" is just "realism," because supernatural and strange things happen there all the time.

Well, we can't comment on that. But we think the point of magical realism—or at least one of the points—is that, like a fable or an allegory or a parable, sometimes it's easier to swallow a lesson if it's told in a fanciful or indirect way. After all, we don't want anyone lecturing us about being careful what you wish for. We're a lot more likely to listen if the lesson comes along with a crazy story about angels and ordinary families—families who look a lot like us.

So what do you do when an angel crash-lands in your yard? Read on to find out.

 

Why Should I Care?

Everyone believes in something, and everyone has a dream: winning a state championship in track and field, asking a cute guy to prom, or solving world hunger through meat cloning.

But when dreams come true, sometimes they're not all we thought they were cracked up to be. Maybe no one remembers to treat you like a hero after you bring home the individual synchronized diving medal. Maybe that cute guy spends the entire evening talking to the head cheerleader. Maybe the cloned meat causes genetic disorders.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us, sometimes you don't actually want dreams to come true.

In Gabriel Gárcia Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the townspeople all believe in angels; they have no trouble accepting that that's what the old winged man is. The problem is that this angel is not all goodness and light. In fact:

  • He smells.
  • He can't fly.
  • He speaks a language no one understands, and doesn't even understand the priest's Latin.
  • He's bald and almost toothless.
  • His wings are filthy.

Eventually, the family has to accept the fact that their idea of an angel has nothing to do with the reality of the poor, old castaway stinking up the yard. And we may not believe in angels, but we can all understand what it's like to confront the ugly truth behind a cherished belief.

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