The Pale King – Chapter 5


Dear Dave,

One of my favorite short stories to teach in AP Literature is Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”[1]  It’s a great example of the magical realism genre for which Garcia-Marquez is most famous, as well as a practically textbook illustration of the Christ-figure literary archetype.  While my students tend to get hung up on the Christ-figure element,[2]I try to get them to see that the point of the story is not so much about this very old man being a Christ-figure as much as it is about the townspeople’s response to this Christ-figure.  At first they don’t know what to do with the old, worn-out angel.  Then they see him as a sort of circus sideshow, swarming to him like moth to a flame.  Then after the novelty has worn off, they pack up and move on to the next oddity or spectacle.

In a way, I wonder if chapter[3] 5 of The Pale King is sort of like “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  Like the Old Man, Leonard is – to put it lightly – somewhat of a human oddity.  He is all that is good and virtuous taken to the extreme of a caricature.[4]  No one can possibly be that nice and kind-hearted all the time like Leonard is.  Seriously, what kid would forego a trip to Dairy Queen in favor of donating the ice cream money to charity?  Or refuses to name the bullies who beat him to the point of hospitalization, and then writes them letters of forgiveness afterward?  Leonard is human kindness taken to an absurd extreme.

But like “AVOMWEW,” I wonder if the point of this chapter… section… part of the novel is not so much to stand and gawk at this adolescent freak of nature.  I wonder if the point is to look at how everyone else in the story responds to him.  The carpool drivers who jokingly pretend to swerve in his direction while he is attending to his crossing guard duties.  His father with a facial tic.  His mother who ends up in Critical Care after an “accident” with the oven.  The principal who dreams of committing horrible acts of violence against him.  Everyone who ducks for cover when they see him heading their direction.

What is it about this good kid that they find so utterly repulsive?  Or more importantly, what is it within each of them that causes them to be so utterly repulsed by this caricature of human virtue?  Why do they feel the need to hurt him or themselves by just the mere thought of him?  Why is that their natural response?

It frightens me a bit to take the next logical step in this train of thought.  In “AVOMWEW” the townspeople’s responses to the very old man are meant to mirror our human response to the first Christ-figure.  The townspeople are the First Century Galileans who are us.  So by extension, could the carpool drivers, and parents, and classmates, and teachers, and principal be portraits of us?  Perhaps like Leonard, they are also extreme caricatures of ourselves.  No one would actually go to the extent of violence that some of these characters do, but I’d imagine there is a bit of truth buried beneath what we read.  If so, what is it that causes us to duck and cover or run and hide when we see a Leonard heading our direction?  Why do we find ourselves so repulsed by these walking examples of virtue and goodness?


[1] I would assume that you read it at some point, but for my blog readers I will provide a brief synopsis: during a terrible storm, a very old man with enormous wings (hence the title) lands in the courtyard of a poor family.  At first they think this weakened being is the angel of death coming to take their feverish baby.  The husband puts this mysterious guest into the chicken coop, and they find that perhaps this old man is a good omen as the child’s fever soon breaks and is on her way to a full recovery.  Word of this strange, old creature spreads throughout the town, and soon all the neighbors are lining up to see it.  The family capitalizes on their newfound fame and begins charging the visitors admission to see the decrepit angel.  But time wears on and the novelty of this spectacle wears off, and the old man in the chicken coop becomes more of a nuisance than anything.  The family hardly pays him any attention anymore, and then one day as suddenly as the wind blew him in, he takes flight and is never seen again.[back]

[2] Teaching at a private Christian school, my students tend to naturally gravitate toward this sort of thing.  While I do try to point out the biblical truths found in the literature we read, some of them take this to an extreme.  These students have the keen ability to find Jesus hiding in every story and poem.[back]

[3] I still haven’t quite figured out, are they called chapters?  sections?  What is the appropriate title for the divisions of this book?[back]

[4] Having grown up in the church and having attended Christian schools through elementary and high school, I have met a few individuals reminiscent of Leonard – although not nearly to this extreme.  Some were pretty obviously putting up a façade, always giving the “good Christian” response to every situation or conversation.  But others were just genuinely good-hearted people who never had anything but a kind word for everyone whose path they crossed.  Maybe not to the extreme of Leonard here, but as close as humanly possible.[back]

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2 thoughts on “The Pale King – Chapter 5

  1. I think your right to say that it is more important to look at what it is within the other characters which make them so repulsed at the “good” kid. But still, one can also ask whether there isn’t something repulsive in Leonard himself. One can ask whether there is not in fact a subtle selfishness in him–perhaps similar to Avril in IJ, who (at least according to that weird letter by Orin’s friend) is more concerned with her self-image as perfect Mom, than with her children.

    • You make a really good point. It does invite the question of Leonard’s motives in this. Is he truly an incarnation of human virtue? Or is there some ulterior, selfish motive behind all this? That exploration, especially in light of other works, is probably worth a post all its own.

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