Study Guide

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings Suffering

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On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. (1)

The story opens with stinky deluge and a sick kid. It may not be hardcore suffering, but it's definitely unpleasant, and it lets us know to expect more suffering to come. If you came here looking for Madagascar III—sorry.

The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. (1)

Our first glimpse of the angel isn't even of a man—it's of a moving and groaning pile of "it." Yep, this is going to be good.

He was lying in a corner drying his open wings in the sunlight among the fruit peels and breakfast leftovers that the early risers had thrown him. (5)

The angel's day-to-day existence is kind of a low-grade suffering: being locked in a chicken coop, eating scraps that people throw at him, getting poked by the kid. Maybe not torture, but pretty bad.

He spent his time trying to get comfortable in his borrowed nest, befuddled by the hellish heat of the oil lamps and sacramental candles that had been placed along the wire. (8)

This quote gives us a nice contrast between the religious, holy candles that people looking for miracles put near the angel's cage and the way he experiences the light: hellish.

His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing. (8)

Brain snack: the Latin root of the word "patience" is "patior," meaning "suffering." Being "patient" actually means "suffering." Yeah, yeah, we know that this is an English translation we're reading. But guess what word we get in the original Spanish, a Romance language derived from Latin? "La paciencia." Patience. Suffering. BOOM.

The only time they succeeded in arousing him was when they burned his side with an iron for branding steers, for he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. (8)

The townspeople aren't willing to let him suffer in peace. They came to see a show, by golly, and they're going to get a show. Even if it requires branding irons. (Who brings a branding iron to see an angel, anyway?)

Although many thought that his reaction had been one not of rage but of pain, from then on they were careful not to annoy him, because the majority understood that his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but that of a cataclysm in repose. (8)

After the angel freaks out in reaction to the branding iron, the crowds develop a little healthy fear. They start to see a connection between his suffering and his power—that is, his power comes from his suffering.

The chicken coop was the only thing that didn't receive any attention. If they washed it down with creolin and burned tears of myrrh inside it every so often, it was not in homage to the angel but to drive away the dungheap stench that still hung everywhere like a ghost and was turning the new house into an old one. (11)

Eventually, the angel's own suffering starts to cause Pelayo and Elisenda to suffer. They don't keep him or his coop clean, so they have to deal with the smell. It's called karma, man.

The angel went dragging himself about here and there like a stray dying man. They would drive him out of the bedroom with a broom and a moment later find him in the kitchen.

At this point, the angel and his suffering have become such an ordinary part of life that Elisenda and Pelayo just find it mildly annoying instead tragic. We bet the old man doesn't feel the same way.

He seemed to be in so many places at the same time that they grew to think that he'd been duplicated, that he was reproducing himself all through the house, and the exasperated and unhinged Elisenda shouted that it was awful living in that hell full of angels. (12)

Another contrast between religious images. Usually a place full of angels would be called "heaven," not "hell." Not here. His suffering has made what could be heaven into hell.

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