The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Marquez

The Short Story Is a Moving Tale of Transformation

colombian-fishing-village-by-Mark-Rowland.jpg
Image courtesy of Mark Rowland.

Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, he his best known for his novels, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

With its juxtaposition of ordinary details and extraordinary events, his short story "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is an example of the style for which García Márquez is famous: magic realism.

The story was originally written in 1968 and was translated into English in 1972.

Plot

In the story, the body of a drowned man washes up in a small, remote town by the ocean. As the people of the town attempt to discover his identity and prepare his body for burial, they discover that he is taller, stronger and more handsome than any man they have ever seen. By the end of the story, his presence has influenced them to make their own village and their own lives better than they had previously imagined possible.

The Eye of the Beholder

From the beginning, the drowned man seems to take on the shape of whatever his viewers want to see.

As his body approaches the shore, the children who see him imagine he is an enemy ship. When they realize he has no masts and therefore can't be a ship, they imagine he might be a whale. Even after they realize he is a drowned man, they treat him as a plaything because that’s what they wanted him to be.

Though the man does seem to have some distinctive physical characteristics on which everyone agrees -- namely his size and beauty -- the villagers also speculate extensively about his personality and history.

They reach agreement about details -- like his name -- that they couldn't possibly know. Their certainty seems to be both a part of the "magic" of magic realism and a product of their collective need to feel that they know him and that he belongs to them.

From Awe to Compassion

At first, the women who tend to the body are in awe of the man they imagine he once was. They tell themselves that "if that magnificent man had lived in the village… his wife would have been the happiest woman" and "that he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names."

The real men of the village -- fishermen, all -- pale in comparison to this unrealistic vision of the stranger. It seems that the women aren't entirely happy with their lives, but they do not realistically hope for any improvement -- they just fantasize about the unattainable happiness that could have been delivered to them only by this now-dead, mythical stranger.

But an important transformation takes place when the women consider how the drowned man's heavy body will have to be dragged across the ground because it is so large. Instead of seeing the benefits of his enormous strength, they begin to consider that his large body might have been a terrible liability in life, both physically and socially.

They begin to see him as vulnerable and want to protect him, and their awe is replaced by empathy. He begins to seem "so defenseless, so much like their men that the first furrows of tears opened in their hearts," and their tenderness for him, also equates to tenderness for their own husbands who have begun to seem lacking in comparison to the stranger.

Their compassion for him and their desire to protect him put them in a more active role, making them feel capable of changing their own lives rather than believing they need a superhero to save them.

Flowers

In the story, flowers come to symbolize the lives of the villagers and their own sense of efficacy in improving their lives.

We are told at the beginning of the story that the houses in the village "had stone courtyards with no flowers and which were spread about on the end of a desertlike cape." This creates a barren and desolate image.

When the women are in awe of the drowned man, they passively imagine that he could bring improvement to their lives. They speculate

"that he would have put so much work into his land that springs would have burst forth from among the rocks so that he would have been able to plant flowers on the cliffs."

But there is no suggestion that they themselves -- or their husbands -- could put forth this kind of effort and change their village.

But that's before their compassion allows them to see their own ability to act.

It takes a group effort to clean the body, to sew large enough clothes for it, to carry the body, and to stage an elaborate funeral. They even have to enlist the help of neighboring towns to get flowers.

Further, because they do not want him to be orphaned, they choose family members for him, and "through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen." So not only have they worked as a group, they have also become more emotionally committed to each other.

Through Esteban, the townspeople are united. They are cooperative. And they are inspired. They plan to paint their houses "gay colors" and dig springs so they can plant flowers.

But by the end of the story, the houses have yet to be painted and the flowers have yet to be planted. But what's important is that the villagers have stopped accepting “the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams.” They are determined to work hard and make improvements, they are convinced that they are capable of doing so, and they are united in their commitment to realize this new vision.

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Sustana, Catherine. "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Marquez." ThoughtCo, Nov. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/analysis-handsomest-drowned-man-in-world-2990480. Sustana, Catherine. (2017, November 4). The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Marquez. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-handsomest-drowned-man-in-world-2990480 Sustana, Catherine. "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Marquez." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-handsomest-drowned-man-in-world-2990480 (accessed November 22, 2017).