The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World
The Drowned Man
The drowned man is at every moment characterized by superlatives. He weighs "more than any dead man they [have] ever known," he is "the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they [have] ever seen," "his house would have had the widest doors, the highest ceiling, and the strongest floor, his bedstead would have been made from a midship frame held together by iron bolts, and his wife would have been the happiest woman" (2, 3, 4). Even when the content of characterization changes, the degree is still the same: "he was the most destitute, most peaceful, and most obliging man on earth, poor Esteban" (7).
Everything the drowned man is, he is to a mythical degree, whether it be his size, his heart, his potential, his abilities, his downfalls, or his sadness. What we're seeing is that the drowned man is a larger-than-life myth that comes to the real life of these villagers. And indeed, the drowned man takes on the role of more than one mythical or epic historical figure. He is compared to: Estevanico, Lautaro, or Quetzalcoatl. We go through each of these figures in detail in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," so check there for more info on these guys.
The fact that the drowned man is mythic and extraordinary, while the village is realistic and ordinary, is one of the major themes in "The Handsomest Drowned Man." As we discuss in "Genre," Marquez uses magical realism to explore the cross-over between fantasy and reality. In this case, the drowned man is the fantasy, and the villagers are the reality. In the "Character Analysis" for the villagers, we'll talk about what does happen in this story when the mythic meets the mundane.
Meanwhile, back to the drowned man. Take a closer look at those superlative-oozing descriptions of the drowned man. In the first half of the story, the women can't talk enough about how amazing Esteban is, how wonderful, and how unique. They even "secretly compare him to their own men, thinking that for all their lives theirs were incapable of doing what he could do in one night" (4). Then there is important switch about halfway through the text, when the women suddenly understand "how unhappy he must have been with that huge body," when they envision him "going through doors sideways, cracking his head on crossbeams, remaining on his feet during visits" (7). Now all of a sudden, he is not just handsome, beautiful, and strong; he is also "destitute, […], obliging," sincere (7). Whereas before the women thought of Esteban as entirely different from their husbands, now he looks "so much like their men that the first furrows of tears open in their hearts" (7).
So what exactly happened in this switch, and why is it important for the story? Go back to that same idea of myth and reality. At first, the women made the drowned man into a pure figure of myth. He was untouchable, infallible, and flawless. This is the drowned man as he might exist in a mythical world. Except the drowned man doesn't exist in a mythical world; he exists in the real world of the villagers. And he is essentially incompatible with that real world; doors are too small, chairs are too weak, his body too awkward to function well. By placing Esteban in the context of reality, Marquez reminds us that things and people that seem larger-than-life are often too large for life. There just isn't a place for them.
And yet, it is not until the villagers take the drowned man out of their mythical imaginings and place him in the context of reality that he is able to so profoundly change them. As we discuss in "What's Up with the Ending?", it is the drowned man's physical greatness that inspires the villagers to create greatness in themselves. They realize that such mythical magnificence can exist in the real world – the drowned man is evidence of it. And so they aspire to reach the same heights themselves, to become a part of Esteban's mythical world even while remaining in their own reality. Amazingly, they already start to do this as they hold Esteban's funeral; the sailors going by in the distance think the women of the village are sirens – mythical creatures.