Study Guide

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Foreignness & 'The Other'

By Gabriel García Márquez

Foreignness & 'The Other'

They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor's voice. (2)

So close—Pelayo and Elisenda are just about to accept the angel when he speaks. And, unfortunately for him, it's not Spanish. If he'd just invested in some Rosetta Stone lessons, maybe Pelayo and Elisenda would have been a lot kinder to him.

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. (2)

Languages define communities. The way that the angel speaks is more important than the fact that he has wings for explaining where he comes from. Don't believe us? Think about the way your parents have to use UrbanDictionary.com to figure out what your community is talking about.

Then they felt magnanimous and decided to put the angel on a raft with fresh water and provisions for three days and leave him to his fate on the high seas. (4)

Because the angel comes from elsewhere, the most sensible solution that Pelayo and Elisenda can come up with is just setting him loose on the seas. Seriously, this is the best they can do.

But when they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren't a supernatural creature but a circus animal. (4)

And here we get the sad but all too real way that most people react to a foreign element: they treat it like a freak show. (How does your school treat exchange students, hm?)

Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an impostor when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. (5)

The language divide gets complicated here, because the angel doesn't speak Spanish, the local language, but he also doesn't speak Latin, a language that would be foreign to most of the townspeople but is used in religious ceremonies. What does that tell us about the distance between the people and their religious leaders? Who's the real foreigner here?

He awoke with a start, ranting in his hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and he flapped his wings a couple of times, which brought on a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust and a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world. (8)

Look at the way that Gárcia Márquez brings all kind of foreignness into this one sentence, jackhammering it into the reader's brain that this guy is an Other: "hermetic language," "lunar dust," and "panic" from out of this world. Okay, okay, Gabo: we get it.

They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn't just a Norwegian with wings. (9)

The religious officials are baffled about the origins of the old man, and the effect of comparing their two options for him (either a holy being or "just" Norwegian with wings) is comical. And that bit about the head of a pin? It's an old joke about pointless arguments.

Pelayo threw a blanket over him and extended him the charity of letting him sleep in the shed, and only then did they notice that he had a temperature at night, and was delirious with the tongue twisters of an old Norwegian. (12)

You might wonder why Norway is the default option for winged strangers in the story, but if you think about it, Colombia (equatorial, tropical, Spanish-speaking) and Norway (arctic, freezing, Scandinavian) are about as different as you can get.

But he must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them, that no one should hear the sea chanteys that he sometimes sang under the stars. (12)

Super important moment, Shmoopers. For the first time, the old man seems to be self-conscious. He isn't relating to anyone else, but we do see that he himself understands his own language—and that it really has a meaning.

She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea. (13)

Whew! Now that the angel is gone, Elisenda can go back to her boring old life, pretending that nothing strange or foreign exists. It's a lot easier that way—even if it does smell a lot like onions.