Study Guide

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Old Age

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Old Age

He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn't get up, impeded by his enormous wings. (1)

And here's proof that age isn't just a number: the first thing we notice about the angel character isn't that he's got wings; it's that he's a very old man. In other words, his old age is more important than his wings.

There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had. (2)

The narrator lays it right out for us: old age is not pretty, it's not sexy, and it's definitely not very angelic. In fact, it's downright ugly and mortal. (In the worst sense. The sense where you die.)

"He's an angel," she told them. "He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down." (3)

Even if the old man is an angel, he's a victim of old age just like any regular human: he gets weak, and isn't able to do his job or drive in the rain. And what do we do with people like that? Well, we don't stick them in chicken coops—yeah, you can take a minute to pat yourselves on the back—but we do like to stick them in nursing homes.

He turned down the papal lunches that the penitents brought him, and they never found out whether it was because he was an angel or because he was an old man that in the end he ate nothing but eggplant mush. (8)

The condition of being a geezer is just as confusing to the crowds as the condition of being an angel. Old people, just like angels, have their own way of doing things, including eating kind of nasty food.

The angel was no less standoffish with [the child] than with other mortals, but he tolerated the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions. (11)

Here, the angel is kind of like a grandpa who takes a lot of roughhousing from his grandkids. Cute, right? Except that the narrator compares him to an old dog. Not very flattering.

The doctor who took care of the child couldn't resist the temptation to listen to the angel's heart, and he found so much whistling in the heart and so many sounds in his kidneys that it seemed impossible for him to be alive. (11)

The angel, just like a human being, has a body that breaks down with age. This brings him closer to humanity—at least for the doctor.

The angel went dragging himself about here and there like a stray dying man. (12)

As the angel spends more time with the family and grows older, his condition gets more and more pitiful. Eventually, they all just wish he would just go away. That's not exactly a PC reaction to the elderly, but it's—we hate to say it—probably something familiar to anyone who's had to take care of a very elderly and sick family member.

He could scarcely eat and his antiquarian eyes had also become so foggy that he went about bumping into posts. All he had left were the bare cannulae of his last feathers. (12)

It's hard to imagine an angel growing old like a human, but this one does it just like the best of our great-grandfathers: he goes blind, and loses almost all his hair.

He remained motionless for several days in the farthest corner of the courtyard, where no one would see him, and at the beginning of December some large, stiff feathers began to grow on his wings, the feathers of a scarecrow, which looked more like another misfortune of decrepitude. (13)

Even when the angel starts to get some new feathers in, they just look like another part of his aging process. Lucky for him, this lets him fly—LOL—under the radar, and he's eventually able to escape—or die?—in peace.

Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she saw him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. (13)

Elisenda isn't even wowed that his guy finally upped and flew away. In fact, she just thinks of him as "senile." Wow, Elisenda. You get your satin pumps thanks to this guy, and the best you can come up with is "senile." (Oh, and, hey—will you guys remind us to call our grandmother to thank her for that birthday check?)

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