An Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

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Doubt and Ambiguity
One of this story’s difficult aspects is the sense of uncertainty it creates by leaving important facts unresolved and seeming to offer several possible interpretations for its events. The reader is never allowed to doubt that the old man and his strange wings are as “real” as anything else in the story; yet the reader can never be sure just what he is — a heavenly angel, a sad human who happens to have wings, or perhaps some other, unexplained possibility. This deliberate uncertainty can leave readers feeling a bit cheated — particularly in what seems to be a fairy tale. Stories are expected to have clear-cut meanings, and the author is expected to reveal them to the reader; if not, there is a tendency to feel he has failed in his storytelling, or that his audience has failed as readers. But in works of realism (and many other forms), ambiguity is often used as an intentional effect, to make a story seem less “storylike,” and more like life itself. It reflects the understanding that real life is far more uncertain than the stories in books, and often forces readers to choose among several, equally possible explanations of events. As characters in daily life, readers seldom know “the whole story” — but it is traditional to expect writers to tie all tales neatly together for our understanding. While it complicates the task of the reader, the skillful, suggestive use of ambiguity is often admired by critics, and is usually considered to be one of the most appealing features of “magic realism.” Even in stories dealing with magic or the supernatural, there are rules a writer is expected to follow — for example, that there must always be a clear distinction between magical events and “normal” ones, and that the nature and significance of all characters is eventually made known to the reader. But as a magic realist, Garcia Marquez insists on breaking these rules as well. Without its fantastic elements, there is no story; yet the reader is never sure just how to take them, and how far to trust the narrator. Sometimes, he makes it obvious that the villagers” magical beliefs are in fact ridiculous delusions; but at other times, the reader seems expected to take logically impossible events at face value. The changing of a human into a giant spider, a man who can’t sleep because “the noise of the stars” disturbs him — are these things that “really happened?” Can they be dismissed as mere hallucinations? Are they poetic images, meant to be interpreted on some level beyond their literal meaning? Like the old man with his miracles, Garcia Marquez may be suspected of having a kind of “mocking fun” with the reader, suggesting all sorts of miraculous possibilities, then stubbornly contradicting all the expectations he creates. In appreciating such a story, it may be necessary to limit one’s reliance on clear meanings and moral lessons, and to be prepared to enjoy the sheer wealth of possibility and comic misunderstanding that is presented. The Problem of Interpretation

One effect of ambiguity is to focus attention on the uncertain nature of all efforts to assign meaning to events. The troublesome nature of interpretation has been a matter of intense interest for literary critics in the years since this story was written — which may be one reason Garcia Marquez remains a popular subject of scholarly attention. Many theorists stress that all “readings” (whether of texts, or of life itself) are strongly influenced by their context, and by the specific interests and point of view of the person making the judgment. While one may detect such influence in the opinions of others, it usually operates unconsciously in the self; the assumptions behind one’s own thinking are so familiar that one tends not to even recognize them as assumptions. Some critics go so far as to suggest that all explanations are actually inventions, and that “true meanings” can never be reliably determined. While one may not choose to embrace so...
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