Is it or is it not Magical Realism?
When speaking about García Márquez’s inventive narratives, Spiller (1999) a professor of Renaissance literature, notes that his use of magical realism (MR) demands that the reader “ accommodate both fantasy and reality within a single narrative structure” (475, para. 2). Magical realism is similar to (or perhaps the same as) fantasy and science fiction because the reader is asked to do the same thing; that is accept fantasy as reality. Gene Wolfe (science fiction and fantasy author) was asked to explain the difference between science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. He explained that the difference is “ Plausibility. . . . Science fiction is what you can make people believe; fantasy is what people have to suspend disbelief for. . . . Magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.” (Baber, 2007, 132) Perhaps he is correct; it is possible that magical realism is not a genre that can stand alone due to its similarities with both fantasy and science fiction which are both established genre in the world of literary fiction.
On the other hand, Goodwin, a professor of literature at the University of Liecaster, suggests that the most important them from ‘ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ has been mostly overlooked. He explains how the short story is not at all a work of magical realism but instead it is a sophisticated use of narrative voice to create social commentary. The short story
was published in 1955 which was in the middle of a terrible time in Columbia’s history known as The Violence, La Violencia. The decade after1948 was a time of killing and civil war which saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Columbians. (Goodwin, 2006, 118)
This paper analyzes the short story by García Márquez titled A very old man with enormous wings: A tale for children in order to decide if it is a work of magical realism or not. The argument made here is that the story contains elements of magical realism but the genre of social criticism would be a better categorization of the short story.
The religious people and parish priest
The story starts with an annoying situation for Pelayo who is carrying dead crabs out of his house and throwing them into the sea; a dark cloudy storm chased all the crabs into the house; Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, have killed so many invading crabs that their house stinks of dead crabs; their infant son has a fever and they blame the terrible smell for making the baby ill. García Márquez does not write the setting in the first paragraph with such a dry and direct style as in the above sentence. He writes beautifully with great imagination so the reader barely notices the smell or in spite of the smell wants to read more. By the end of the first paragraph Pelayo has found something extraordinary in his yard “ 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” (para. 1).
The man with the wings is ugly and dirty; his wings are in a terrible condition. Pelayo and Elisenda notice the wings but unable to come up with any reasonable explanation for them, “ they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway form some foreign ship wrecked by the storm” (para. 2). This is an unusual element for MR because in MR the abnormal is accepted as a natural everyday occurrence by both the characters and the reader, never ignored. Their neighbor woman identifies the man with the enormous wings as an angel but she does not have any great love or admiration for angels because she is suspicious of them. She regards angels “ in those times” as “ the fugitive survivors of a spiritual conspiracy” (para. 4). In fact she recommends they beat the old man to death immediately. Later the neighbor woman suggests that angels like to eat mothballs, which sounds like another attempt to kill the man with the wings (para. 8). These are two hints that dislike of the church, religion or some part of religious spirituality plays a part in the story.
The Catholic Church has a strong, powerful position in Latin American society. García Márquez may be writing about his home, Columbia, and commenting about the relationship between the church and the people. Other parts of the story confirm the theory that the social criticism is about the church in general and the lack of Christianity self-proclaimed religious people demonstrate. For example, instead of showing kindness Pelayo shuts the man up with the hens. Elisenda charges people to see the man with the wings. When the child recovers from the fever the couple is feeling more generous but they are thinking of showing generosity in a way that is really the opposite of sensitivity, generosity and kindness. “. . . The child woke up without a fever and with a desire to eat. 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” (para. 4). The crowds that come out of curiosity to see the man with the enormous wings aren’t kind to him either. They did not treat him as if he was a highly admired messenger from God. They even throw rocks at him so he would stand up. They treat him like “ a circus animal” (para. 4)
“ The parish priest (Father Gonzaga) had his first suspicion that the man was not an angel at all but an imposter when he saw that stranger did not understand the language of God (Latin) or know how to greet his (God’s) ministers” (para. 5). The parish priest was sure of what an angel should be and since this man with wings was not the priest’s perception of an angel, the stranger must be an imposter although the man had never said who he was or what he was doing there. The parish priest makes the assumption that the man is suspicious and passes judgment simply based on his own assumption.
Father Gonzaga wrote to his bishop so his bishop could write to the bishop’s primate so that the primate could write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to “ get the final verdict from the highest courts” (para. 5). The author describes the parish priest as a maidservant in this way “ Father Gonzaga held back the crowd’s frivolity with formulas of maidservant inspiration” (para. 8). This could be an unflattering way to indicate that the parish priest was nothing more than a maidservant of the Catholic Church, no more than a ‘ virgin clerk’ (para. 9). Father Gonzaga spent his time “ awaiting the final judgment on the nature of the captive. But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency” (para. 9). The parish priest was not of much practical use; only as a courier of news from the Vatican to the town. But even that was not a task for him because the Highest Courts at the Vatican, the Supreme Pontiff, the bishop’s primate or even the Bishop answered his letter about the man with the wings. Another failing of the church this demonstrates is the inefficiency of the too many levels of hierarchy, so many that decisions are never made and tasks are never complete.
The reality and the fantastical
Magical realism gives the reader the ability to perceive the fantastical as the ordinary. The story has a lot of descriptions that are the opposite of expectations but not very fanciful. The man has wings but he does not fly and he is so weak that rain can knock him down. But he does have a quality that seemed quite extraordinary. “ His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience” (para. 8) Patience is a virtue that is not commonly observed in daily life but is a real life human characteristic not something unreal wrapped into the story as if it were real.
When a doctor is finally called to check on the man, the doctor “. . . noticed the logic of the wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them, too” (para. 11) In MR we expect the magical to seem ordinary. For the doctor the magical or fanciful seems normal.
There are descriptions that seem like magical realism. The ailments of people who came to see if the angel could cure their problems seemed to have the characteristics of MR. They are imaginative and encourage the reader to imagine what “ the less serious ailments” may have been.
The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars kept him awake; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious ailments. (para. 6)
Although I don’t agree with Rubén Pelayo, professor of Spanish language and literature at Southern Connecticut State University, that this story is definitely magic realism, he does make two good points about the narrative design. The plot is “ ambiguous mainly because the main theme is left open-ended” (81).
The plot in García Márquez’s short stories appears ambiguous, not only in its creation of mood (the creation of a state of mind based on the narrative’s information), but also in the way in which the story is told. Although the plot is seen as the plan of the short story, representing the order in which events are told, the reader must also pay close attention to casualty (what incites the characters to do what they do). Although the main characters play a unifying role, the omniscient narrator and the reader are the ones who must put the plot together. (Pelayo, 2001, 64)
Gloria S. Meléndez, a professor of Spanish language and literature at Brigham Young University has described the use of magical realism using the fantasy novel, Mencia, by Amado Nervo as an example. “ The most important feature is the prefiguration of Magical-Realism in the treatment of the questions of dream versus reality and the nature of time.” (Meléndez, 1986, 48-49)
Goodwin (2006) has explained how the short story is a social commentary of about the events during The Violence. The story
. . . speaks volumes about the expectations for the and treatment of the ‘ angel’ by the villagers; (substituting) ‘ Columbians’ for ‘ the villagers’ and ‘ religion’ for ‘ the angel,’ a picture of a global, theocratic government emerges. The opinions of the villagers reveal an idealized view of religion as government; their treatment of the angel, however, betrays their reaction to rule by religious authorities. (Goodwin, 2006, 118-119)
Goodwin is explaining that is isn’t the representative of the church, the parish priest or the church bureaucracy that the disdain of the villagers is put upon. It is the angel as a representative of theocratic government that is treated so cruelly. This is a description of the true feelings of the
people towards religious authorities. Goodwin suggests that the narrator is outside the story observing so the various cruel ways religion (in the form of the angel) is treated by the different characters and villages in the story. (Goodwin, 2006, 120)
The sickly old man with the dirty and featherless enormous wings was a catalyst for the narrative and the action in the short story. After the angel (or sailor off course arrived) the real personalities of the characters emerge. Unfortunately they do not behave with kindness or behave in any way like one would expect Christians to behave, with generosity and goodwill. They behave outrageously badly going so far as to brand the angel to make sure he is not dead (para. 8). There are elements of magical realism in the short story but this story turns out to be a social commentary of the villagers and their feelings toward their religious leaders. Although I theorized that the story was a social critique, I suggested that the criticisms were targeted at the entity of the Catholic Church. Goodwin makes a much better argument that the criticism is of the villagers’ bad behavior and that their behavior is targeting the religious leaders in the Columbian Catholic Church.
García Márquez, Gabriel. “ A very old man with enormous wings: A tale for children.” Leaf Storm and Other Stories. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York, NY: Harper, 1972 pp. 105-112
Baber, Brendan. “ Gene Wolfe Interview,” Chapter 10, In Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing, Writers on Wolfe. Peter Wright (ed.), Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool Press, 2007, pp. 132-138
Peter Wright describes Gene Wolfe as one of the most important authors of the twentieth century because he is an “ author of some of the most stylistically distinct, structurally complex and intellectually invigorating imaginative fiction of recent years.” Wright’s book is full of interviews of Wolfe and essays about what and how he thinks about fiction. Wolfe writes in the genre of fantastical literature; he writes horror, science fiction and speculative fiction short stories. Wolfe’s thoughts on characteristics that are the same in magical realism such narratives taking place in unreal time and space. He has a down to earth attitude that is interesting and helpful for someone wants to learn more about writing short stories.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 1999. Print
Bloom has edited a very nice selection of essays on the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his work. Some of the essays seem intriguing because of the comparative analysis such as “ Beware of Gift-Gearing Tales: Reading Garcia Márquez According to Mauss” by Eduardo González. Many are about his use of fantasy and some compare fantasy to magical realism. One essay compares his work to the work of Faulkner. Many address how he uses time and the mortality of man as part of the texture of his books and stories. This is an interesting and enjoyable book, I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the work of García Márquez or has a scholarly interest in his work. Importantly most of the essayists are Latin American.
Goodwin, John. “‘ A very old man with enormous wings’ and Bambara’s ‘ The Lesson.’.” The Explicator. [Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 197] 64(2) Winter, 2006, pp. 118-121.
Goodwin has written a very interesting article that does not take for granted that everything that García Márquez writes falls within the category of magical realism. He critique’s Marquez’s story side-by-side with one of Toni Bambari’s short stories; he demonstrated the authors’ use of narrative voice to launch effective social commentaries. He compares the way the Bamabari uses a first person voice and García Márquez uses a third person (unknown observer) as a narrative voice. This is a good article and useful for students learning about short story analysis.
Meléndez, Gloria S. “ Reincarnation and Metempsychosis in Amado Nervo’s Fiction of Fantasy.” in Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Michael R. Collings (ed.), New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 41-49)
This paper by Meléndez was first presented at the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts of 1986. Even though that was twenty six years ago, her insights about magical realism are very informative. She uses the story Mencia, by Amado Nervo to talk about the manipulation of place and time in his story which question reality. This is a good article for understanding the way fantasy and magical realism are devised in short stories.
Pelayo, Rubén. “ The Short Stories” Chapter 5, Gabriel García Márquez: A critical companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001, 63-87. Print.
Pelayo has a chapter in the book titled “ Literary Contexts” in which he discusses the literary importance and genius of García Márquez. Although the rest of the world thinks of him as a great literary author García Márquez says that he thinks of himself as a storyteller first and a journalist second. Pelayo thoroughly discusses some of the short stories and four novels. The first chapter is devoted to a biography of García Márquez. This book is good for those with an interest in the details and comparative analysis of his work. Pelayo’s love for the works of García Márquez show in the way the book is written; but his descriptions and analyses are uninspired.
Spiller, Elizabeth A. ‘ Searching for the route of invention’: Retracing the Renaissance discovery narrative in Gabriel García Márquez . CLIO, 28(4): 475.
Spiller’s article in CLIO informs the reader about García Márquez’s reasoning for what he writes and his thoughts from his Nobel speech when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. This article is different from the sources because she addresses the issue of conquest or the effects of imperialism which make his work so important. For example, the villagers in this imaginary town of Macondo can deal with the present better when they view it through the past. This is a very interesting article which adds another facet of understanding to his work.