Wings: The Tragedy of Freedom
When most individuals conceptualize the idea of a human with wings, they immediately recall angels. Likewise, when most individuals envision the appearance of an animal with wings they generally imagine birds. In regards to symbolism, angels and birds are usually associated with the concept of freedom and much of this is due to the fact that they both share one common trait: wings. Possessing this biological component greatly diminishes the physical constraints of gravity, and it also provides the entity with an impressive aerial view of the landscape’s geography. One could imagine birds soaring through the vast, open skies or angels floating through the soft, airy clouds. Very few individuals would envision the intimidating imagery of buzzards, vultures, or bats, but Gabriel García Márquez exhibits these metaphors in his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Through the consistent depictions of wings in the passage, the narrative is expressing an ulterior message on the nature of freedom and the series of complications that accompany it.
Some references of wings in the text portray elements of hindrance and obligation, leading to the idea that with great freedom comes great responsibility. Alternatively, there are instances where the author perceives freedom itself as being a disadvantageous vice, for the old man in the story, “in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings” (García Márquez 365). The next mention of the elder’s feathered limbs can be found at the middle of the second paragraph, where his “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud” (García Márquez 365). Both references depict the massive scale of his aerial components as more of an impediment than a virtue. The family likewise observes no significance on his biological deviation from the way “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” (García Márquez 365). The short story appears to devalue the stature of wings and one could infer that the author is portraying freedom as being excessively idealized in society with a lack of attention being directed to its pitfalls and shortcomings.
Other references to wings in the literary piece emphasize their ordinary traits rather than their extraordinary qualities, further supported by the fifth paragraph. The passage claims that the old man’s “wings [were] strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds” (García Márquez 366). Interestingly enough, the author places slight emphasis on parasites through its next reference found in the seventh paragraph, where “the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings” (García Márquez 367). These symbols impart an underlying idea that societal freedom is in a fractured state and that there are concealed forces at work attempting to sabotage it further. The short story also depicts wings not as an exalted privilege bestowed upon majestic beings, but rather as an important element lacking in typical human physiology. The doctor thought that they “seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too” (García Márquez 368). This could be analogous to freedom being either a repressed aspect of human nature, or a basic human right that has only been reserved for the select few.
Arguably, the most interesting phenomenon that occurs in the short story is how the author referenced various bird species in relation to the different contexts facilitated by the literary piece. Each bird species mentioned in the text appears to represent a fatal flaw of freedom; when García Márquez mentioned vultures in the narrative, he symbolized it as the loss of freedom that occurs when one ages past a certain point in their life, further supported by the passage in which the elder was described as having “the risky flapping of a senile vulture” (García Márquez 369) and the associations of vultures and aging with death or loss. On another instance, the author depicted buzzards as the representation of the burdensome and disturbing aspects of freedom, based on how he stated that the man’s “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud” (García Márquez 365). Another bird species that was mentioned was the chicken. According to García Márquez, the winged man “looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens” (García Márquez 366), and this reference to the hen could represent the attributes of freedom that render one distinct from the crowd, garnering immediate attention from onlookers nearby. The author also mentioned the sidereal bat, which represents a lesser form of freedom bound by many external limitations, restrictions, and constraints. García Márquez realized that this lesser form of freedom is incomparable to absolute freedom in the perspective of society, for when the flying acrobat with the inferior bat-like wings buzzed over the crowd, “no one paid any attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat” (García Márquez 366). Finally, the author questions the significance of freedom as a whole through contrasting the major differences between a bird species and a mechanical unit, for the priest “argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels” (García Márquez 366). One possible interpretation for this could be that freedom comes in many different forms, but if freedom is the main criterion for someone’s success or happiness, then that becomes the basis for a logical fallacy. These symbols primarily portray the negative facets of freedom, and the short story appears to list more methods in which it can harm, rather than help society as a whole.
To conclude, García Márquez understands that there is a common association of wings with freedom, and he decides to utilize it on his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, with the intention of expressing a subliminal message that pertains to the shortcomings and pitfalls of this libertarian ideal. Some references to the wings capitalize on its massive stature and size, a characteristic which could be interpreted as strength or dominance upon first impression. However, as objects grow in scale, they also consume more space and carry excessive weight, a phenomenon that can be attributed to various events in the story when the old man was hindered by his enormous wings. Other references to the angel’s aerial components focus on their feeble condition, based on the wide array of graphic descriptions that involved blood-sucking parasites puncturing the elderly man’s flesh, half-plucked feathers that were ruffled on his bare wings, and sedimentary particles that festered on his quills like grime. The author also utilized various species of birds with the purpose of representing the different flaws of freedom in society. The vulture symbolizes the loss or death of freedom, while the buzzard represents the unappealing aspects of freedom. The hen exemplifies freedom that deviates from the normalcy, whereas the chickens illustrate freedom that follows social norms. The sidereal bat demonstrates freedom with limitations, and the comparison between the hawk, the airplane, and the angel highlights the true diversity of freedom and its insignificance on determining the life satisfaction of individuals. Overall, the author expresses an arguably controversial outlook on the concept of freedom and he either emphasizes the faults and flaws of this libertarian ideal or devalues its significance on positively influencing the lives of people. To García Márquez, freedom is just another romanticized idea spread around by society. Similar to the hyped notions of wealth and fame, freedom has many hidden vices that are frequently overlooked, and the author is trying to inform society of these pitfalls through his recurring symbolism of wings in his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”.