What happens if a talented author’s popular and intriguing novel is criticized for its “lack of a clear moral”? Though I can’t comment on what other authors would have done, Gabriel Garcia Marquez counters the criticism through a short story - in his trademark magical realist and symbolic style, this story’s moral is “Why should a story have a (clear) moral?”I must accept that I have taken the help of a commentary (second essay in the commentary is more relevant) in understanding this beautifully symbolic story. In fact it was because of reading this that I started reading the story. It was a part of my still unfinished collection of his short stories. As many of the thirty odd stories were rather like essays, I am yet to read even half of them. But this one story is enough reason to buy the book! Of course after reading the story I realized that commentary or no commentary, the symbolism was so strong that I would have got it after some time.
The novel in question is “One hundred years of solitude” and the short story is “A very old man with enormous wings” (and intriguingly subtitled “A tale for children”). It goes like this. An old man with big wings is suddenly found in a fishing hamlet. The people there initially think he is an angel, but he doesn’t possess any trait of an angel other than his wings – he is old and dirty, wings are broken, he speaks a language which no body understands and though he does some miracles they are rather weird (like making flowers to grow on a leper's wounds). However there is a general curiosity and people from nearby places visit him and the couple who found him become rich. Meanwhile, another strange thing happens in the village. A huge spider with the head of a girl arrives in the village. It is told that the girl was turned into a spider by a flash of lightning since she had disobeyed her parents and gone dancing all through the night. The girl speaks and tells her pitiable story and now people are more amused by the girl than by the old man. Quite soon nobody cares for the old man, including the couple who gained from him. Nobody thinks he is an angel because he doesn’t look like one. This is another theme in the story – what is stranger, an angel appearing or an angel which doesn’t look like an angel appearing? The story ends with the old man, after some years, suddenly growing his wings again and flying away.Now you can try to guess the symbolism yourself before reading ahead. It shouldn’t be all that difficult since it is quite intended. If your interpretation is sufficiently different from what I have given below, do leave a comment.
The first obvious part is that the girl represents a story (or work of literature) which is very simple to understand and gives easy morals for everyone to understand. On the other hand the old man represents the artfully created, complex story (like “One hundred years of solitude”), that ultimately has more moral than a simplistic story but has to be understood with effort. Though this story speaks a language not easily understandable to people and has apparently weird morals, its nature (of being equivalent to that of an angel) can’t be questioned because of this – if the people had probed more than ignoring the old man they would have learnt more from a true angel. Also Marquez seems to say that the popularity of the book was due to a curiosity and not many understood it sincerely (something which I always doubted!). If I extend the symbolism even more, he seems to say that those who benefited most from the work (publishing houses?) have done nothing to study it seriously.I have myself thought the lack of a clear moral to be a defect in the novel, but now I don’t feel strongly so, after realizing how important and relevant to real life some of the themes in the novel are. Though the latter points in the interpretation of symbolism may be a bit far-fetched, the former points are strongly implied. When I realized that this story was his defense symbolically, I couldn’t help being amazed at his intellectual prowess!