By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ is a short story by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, published in his 1972 collection Leaf Storm and Other Stories. A story about acceptance, community, and honouring the dead, ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ is one of Márquez’ most powerful stories.
Before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning, here’s a brief recap of the plot.
‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’: plot summary
Some children playing on a beach see a strange bulge in the sea, and think it is an enemy ship or a whale. But when the mysterious object is washed up on the shore, they realise it is the body of a man. They play with it, burying it in the sand and digging it up again, when someone notices the body and alerts the attention of the village.
The dead man is then carried into the nearest house. He is a large man, and nobody in the village recognises him. So the men of the village head off to the neighbouring villages to find out if they’re missing a large man from their village, while the women remain behind with the drowned man, cleaning the mud from his body. They observe the strange vegetation, including coral, on his body and realise he must have travelled from some distant land.
When they have cleaned his body, the women observe that he is tallest, strongest, and most manly man they have seen. No bed or table in the village appears to be big enough for him. They set about making a pair of pants for the drowned man so he can be buried with dignity. They begin to fantasise about all the marvellous things the drowned man would be able to do if he lived in their village, and they compare their own men unfavourably with him, considering their men to be the weakest, meanest, and most useless men by comparison.
The oldest woman pronounces that the drowned man has the look of someone who would be called Esteban. They start to feel pity for him, realising how difficult a life he must have led, being so tall and big, always ducking under doorways and embarrassing people. They cover his face with a handkerchief so, even in death, he isn’t bothered by the light.
They begin to weep from him, when the men return and announce that the drowned man did not belong to any of the neighbouring villages. The women are overjoyed, declaring that he belongs to them, and the men are taken aback by their attitude. They want to bury the man at sea as soon as possible, but the women look for reasons to delay them.
The men grow annoyed with the women for being so emotionally invested in the dead body of a stranger, but when the handkerchief is removed from the drowned man’s face, the men are struck by how ashamed the dead man looks, and realise that he didn’t ask to be so big and tall, and so the men of the village come to share the women’s sympathy towards Esteban.
Together, they hold a big funeral for Esteban, and decide to rebuild their houses with wider doors and higher ceilings, so the memory of Esteban could do anywhere without having to duck. They also decide to plant lots of flowers along the cliffs, so that passing ships will smell their sweet scent and know that this village is Esteban’s village.
‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’: analysis
Gabriel García Márquez is known for writing magic realist fiction, which blends realism with fantastical or unusual elements. We can see this in ‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’: although the drowned man is not supernatural or fantastical per se, the response he inspires from the villagers is surprising, and takes the story into the realm of magic realism.
Indeed, there is something mythical about this story, as there is about so much of Márquez’ fiction, and the oversize Esteban has something of the giant of ancient folklore about him. (One wonders if he had encountered J. G. Ballard’s 1964 story ‘The Drowned Giant’, about a giant that washes up on shore but gets a quite different treatment from the locals.)
‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ can be analysed as a story about the power of the imagination. The villagers know nothing about the drowned man besides his appearance: his life, history, upbringing, and personality are all mysteries to them. But that doesn’t stop them putting themselves into his (imaginary) shoes and thinking about how he probably felt.
It starts with small details, such as the pragmatic fact that he would have to duck when passing under doorways, but it takes on a life, as it were, of its own, until the man has been given a name – Esteban – and, with it, an identity. He lives again, in the minds of the villagers.
Of course, the women, left alone with the drowned man, take him to their hearts more readily than the men, who are out there in the world of running errands and trying to discover if the man does have a literal history, a real past which will – when it comes to light – extinguish the imagined one the women have collectively dreamt into being. But when this fails to materialise and the man’s true identity remains – and looks destined to remain – a secret, the women claim him as part of their community.
The men are initially nonplussed by this, but when they come face-to-face with Esteban and see a look in the dead man’s face which they interpret as shame, they are filled with the same human sympathy for him as the women have been. We might argue that Márquez is making a point about the link between imagination and sympathy: to have compassion for someone else, we have to imagine what their life must be like.
In a sense, though, even before the men and women recognise in Esteban a symbol of human suffering, the children have taken him into their lives in their own way: their act of repeatedly burying and then digging him up out of the sand represents a strange parody of a ritual of burial and resurrection, as the men is accepted as dead and yet brought back to life through the collective imaginations of the villagers.
Analysed in this way, the children’s act of play on the beach foreshadows the ways in which the adults will adopt ‘the handsomest drowned man in the world’ and, as it were, make him live again. It is telling that they are prepared to go to the lengths of rebuilding their houses to accommodate his ‘memory’: they wish to alter reality to make room for the imaginative creation they have breathed into life.