The last paragraph of "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is probably the best place to look to get a handle on Márquez's tone. As the villagers imagine the way their world has changed, and consider the things they will do differently in the future, the text renders their dreams touching, even sublime. There's no skepticism or mocking here, and as readers we don't doubt the sincerity of the villagers and their dreams. Throughout the whole story, in fact, this sort of reverent tone can be seen, from the description of the women's tears to the moment the drowned man's body falls off the cliff.
Make that "Magical Realism squared." As we talk about in our Overview, Márquez is the master of this genre. He helped launch it to fame with his novel 100 Years of Solitude, and "The Handsomest Drowned Man" follows suit.
So what is magical realism? As you might expect, we're talking about a mix between realism and magic. In this story, magic meets realism when the drowned man, a figure of mythic proportions (literally), arrives at the ordinary village from the edge of the sea. It's important to note that we're not talking about fantasy here; the story operates on the same basic rules that our real world does.
When you think about it, nothing unrealistic happens in this story. A dead body washes up on shore, and the villagers decide to hold a funeral for the drowned man. Yet there are elements of the fantastic to be found in this very real world. The dead man seems, somehow, to be enormous, magnificent, something from another time or reality. And the villagers, rather than skeptically reject this possibility as unrealistic, are more than accepting of the idea. Sometimes, in real life, fantastic things happen.
And that's exactly what's so darn cool about this genre: the fantastic is made into the possible. When we read "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," we don't find ourselves saying, "That's impossible!" or "That would never happen!" We suspend our normal rational senses. The world Márquez creates is close enough to reality for us to identify with it, but not far enough to become preposterous.
Everywhere in the story we can find this blending of the real with the magic, or more specific to this story, the mythological. The drowned man is a shade of several different mythological figures (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"), but he's also just a dead "piece […] of meat," a "big boob" who's too clunky to even fit through doorways. The setting of the village seems to be magically transformed by the dead man's arrival, and yet Márquez keeps reminding us that it's Wednesday. Wednesday is something we can relate to; it's ordinary and it's part of the normal world. Generally, mythology doesn't have realistic details like this. Imagine Homer writing that Odysseus sailed home to Ithaca…on a Tuesday afternoon around 3:20. See what we mean?
The main part of the title is fairly straightforward. This is the story of a handsome drowned man and the impact he has on a small fishing village. The drowned man is the focus of the tale; so he gets the focus of the title. The subtitle, however, is not so straightforward. Is this really a tale for children? One interpretation, though not a very popular one, is that yes, this is just a tale for children. Márquez wrote it for parents to read to their kids before bedtime, and that's that.
It's far more likely that there's more going on here. The themes in "The Handsomest Drowned Man" are by no means childish or simple, and there are big ideas to be considered by all ages (see "Why Should I Care?", or tell us what the big ideas are). So it could be that the title is ironic; it may seem on the surface like a tale for children, but it's really not for children at all.
Another way to approach the title is to think about what the story has to say on the topic of mythology. On the one hand, myths are bedtime stories for children, ("and then Santa comes down the chimney…"). On the other hand, all throughout history, adults have embraced myths as ways to explain the unexplainable. In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," the adults of the village speculate that the drowned man is any number of ancient mythological figures. Myths force us to suspend our cynicism, and to believe in the fantastic; so maybe myths make children of us all.
In "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," we talk about the flowers which crop up noticeably at four different points in the story. First, we hear that the village is flowerless. Next, the women imagine that the drowned man would have planted flowers everywhere if he were alive. At the funeral, the village is filled with flowers the women brought from neighboring villages. And finally, there is the vision the locals have of their future, where their homes and courtyards are filled with flowers, springs, and bright colors.
What this shows us is that the villagers have been completely transformed by the arrival of the drowned man. Before he showed up, they were content. They didn't think about digging springs or planting flowers or painting their houses bright colors. They were an arid, desert-like village, and they were fine with being they way they were.
The drowned man is, on his own, an extraordinary thing. Remember, he's "the tallest, strongest, more virile, and best built" man they've ever seen (3). But that doesn't have anything to do with the ordinary village – not, that is, until they claim him for their own. When the men return to announce that no one can claim the drowned man, the women exclaim: "Praise the Lord […]. He's ours" (7). This is why, at the funeral, the women weep when they look upon "the splendor and beauty of their drowned man" (12). He belongs to them.
By belonging to the village, the extraordinary drowned man makes that village extraordinary. Or rather, he gives them the possibility of being extraordinary. He makes them look at their own lives in the light of his greatness. What they find when they look is "the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams" (12). This new possibility of greatness takes root in the villagers. Notice that we end the story not with the funeral of the dead man, but with the rebirth of the village. We end with a vision of the future:
They did not need to look at one another to realize that they were no longer all present, that they would never be. But they also knew that everything would be different from then on, that their houses would have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors so that Esteban's memory could go everywhere […], because they were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban's memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs. (12)
It's also worth taking a look at the final few sentences, where we see that it is indeed this sense of being worthy of Esteban that has so inspired the villagers:
In future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas, and the captain would have to come down […] and, pointing to the promontory of roses on the horizon, he would say in fourteen languages, look there, where the wind is so peaceful now that it's gone to sleep beneath the beds, over there, where the sun's so bright that the sunflowers don't know which way to turn, yes, that's Esteban's village. (12)
Remember from our discussion of "Narrator Point of View" the story is told in a limited omniscience. We are stuck in the minds of the villagers, though we do get to jump from villager to villager (the children, the women, the men, etc). This final paragraph is not something that actually happens in the text; it's what the villagers are imagining will happen some time in the future. Notice that this vision doesn't come from any one local in particular; Esteban unites the villagers, who now share this common vision for their common future. Together, they are going to make themselves extraordinary.
Márquez never specifies the time or place of his story, but if you're familiar with his other works you can guess that the action takes place somewhere in Latin America. Given the villager's mythological associations (like Estevanico), this doesn't seem like a bad guess. We know that we're dealing with an isolated village, with no real modern technology, that relies on fishing for its livelihood.
It's important to note the way the scenery changes from start to end. At the story's beginning, the village is simply a "desertlike cape" with "no flowers." Later we're told that it's "arid" and "windless" (9). This is a dry, ordinary, boring place to live. It's so ordinary, in fact, that the drowned man, a truly extraordinary guy, has no place in it. Esteban is incompatible with the village as it first exists. And so with his arrival, Esteban transforms the village into a place as extraordinary as he is. The villagers' plans at the story's conclusion are just that: to be worthy of the drowned man. Make sure you check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more.
The style of "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is in itself fairly simple. Most of the sentence constructions are straightforward; most of the sentences are short. But it's also clear that the words are chosen carefully, and the sentences are constructed with specific intention. Consider the description of the drowned man's funeral. Márquez writes that it took the body "a fraction of a century" to fall. Not three seconds, not a few moments – a fraction of a century. Through these words we're reminded of the sense of timelessness of this village, of the mythological implications of the drowned man's arrival, and of the importance his presence holds for the village.
"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is full of sea imagery, from the title on forward. When the dead body first approaches the shore, the kids playing think he is a whale; then, a ship. He even looks like some sort of funky sea monster: "when [his body] washed up on the beach, they removed the clumps of seaweed, the jellyfish tentacles, and the remains of fish and flotsam, and only then did they see that it was a drowned man" (1). And shortly after, we're told that "he had the smell of the sea about him and only his shape gave one to suppose that it was the corpse of a human being, because the skin was covered with a crust of mud and scales" (2). The women use a sail to make him a shirt. They suppose that, if he were alive, "he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names" (4). And later they imagine "his soft, pink, sea lion hands" as he's "stretched out like a sperm whale" (7, 11).
What we see is that the drowned man is an object of the sea. He comes from it at the start of the story, and he is returned at the end to the sea, "where the fish are blind and the divers die of nostalgia" (9). The connection between the drowned man and the sea highlights his role as an almost supernatural figure of mythology. He doesn't quite belong in this world, our world.
The drowned man represents any number of mythological or epic historical figures, and we'll go through them one by one. First off is the name the villagers assign him: Esteban. Who is this Esteban? As it turns out, Esteban is another name for Estevanico, a slave from the early 1500s who was supposedly the first man born in Africa to set foot in the Americas. Estevanico (or Esteban) became a legendary figure in Latin America, and was later given a set of incredible skills – he mastered dozens of languages, knew everything about medicine, was even considered by some to be a deity, or so the story goes.
When the women of the village call the drowned man Esteban, they might very well be referring to this Estevanico. (At the end of the story, the women imagine a captain speaking of Esteban's village "in fourteen languages" (12). This may be a reference to the myth that Estevanico spoke so many languages fluently.)
When the oldest women calls the drowned man Esteban, Márquez writes that some of the younger women hoped it might be Lautaro. In the mid 1500s a war occurred in what today is Chile between the colonizing Spaniards and the native Mapuche people. In this conflict, Lautaro was a military leader of the natives. The drowned man's handsomeness and sheer masculinity inspires the young women to fantasize that he is this famed leader. There are some interesting questions to consider here: why is it that the older women's thoughts turn to the Esteban, while the younger women think of Lautaro? And why is it that, once they get a better look at the drowned man, everyone agrees that it is Esteban, rather than Lautaro?
Many scholars have also pointed out that the drowned man is a shade of Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god. The drowned man in many ways takes on the role of a deity for the villagers. He arrives from some other world (the sea), is essentially worshipped by the villagers, and permanently changes their lives.
Mythology in this story isn't limited just to the drowned man. The entire tale is rooted in mythological history; even the villagers take on mythological roles themselves by the end of the narrative. When the women weep for the drowned man at his funeral, Márquez writes, "Some sailors who heard weeping from a distance went off course and people heard of one who had himself tied to the mainmast, remembering ancient fables about sirens" (12). This comment is an allusion to Greek mythology.
Some background on the sirens. The sirens were half-women, half-bird creatures who lived on an island. They used to sing in beautiful voices to lure sailors off their course. The sailors would head towards the voices and then crash their ships on the jagged rocks, which pretty much meant death. When Odysseus was sailing by the siren's island, he made the rest of his men plug up their ears and tie him to the mainmast. This way, he got to hear the beautiful sound of their voices without being driven to suicide. Here in "The Handsomest Drowned Man," the women weeping over Lautaro are compared to the sirens, and some sailor going by ties himself to the main mast in an attempt to mimic Odysseus. The point is that through the drowned man, the villagers enter the realm of the mythological themselves.
The allusions to Esteban, Lautaro, Quetzalcoatl, and Odysseus's sirens illustrates the magical realism we've been mentioning. (If you haven't read "Genre" yet, go ahead and take a look.) "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is exploring this mingling of the real (a little fishing village) with the mythological (a magnificent dead man).
The first thing we hear about the village is that it's made up of "twenty-odd wooden houses that had stone courtyards with no flowers […] on the end of a desertlike cape" (3). Now jump to the women's speculations about the drowned man's abilities: "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" (4). Immediately we've got contrast between the world of the villagers and that of the drowned man. His arrival is like a splash of color against their grey landscape. If the village is dry and colorless, the drowned man brings with him the possibility of lively springs and bright flowers.
And sure enough, this possibility is soon realized. As the women prepare for the drowned man's funeral, they go to get flowers from neighboring villages. They return "with other women who could not believe what they had been told, and those women went back for more flowers when they saw the dead man, and they brought more and more until there were so many flowers and so many people that it was hard to walk about" (12).
At the end of the story, notice the specific details of the villagers dream for a better future:
They were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban's memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas. (12)
This is a far cry from the "desertlike cape" we first met at the beginning of the story.
The flowers touch on one of the major themes of Márquez's story: the ability of the truly great to inspire others to greatness. What does this have to do with flowers? Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" We'll pull it all together.
It might be tempting to label this story as told from an omniscient point of view. After all, the narrative gets into the heads of many different villagers at many different times. But realize that all the information we get is from the perspective of the villagers. We are limited to their point-of-view: we know what they know, and only what they know. At first, the children playing think the drowned man is a ship, and then a whale. We don't know he's a man until they realize he's a man. The villagers never know where the drowned man came from, so neither do we. They think he is called Esteban, so for the purposes of the story, he is Esteban.
This short story starts, as short stories should, with something significant happening. We're not in the initial situation for any length of time at the start of the narrative, but from later information about the village we can infer what the initial conditions looked like. In retrospect, we're introduced to a dry, bleak little village with no ambition to be anything other than a dry, bleak little village.
This is the "something significant" that launches the story. The drowned man's arrival brings any number of conflicts or questions with it: where did he come from? To whom does he belong? Who is he? What will his arrival mean for the village?
This is no ordinary body. The various conflicts from the previous stage take on greater weight now that the drowned man is of such great importance. When the women decide that he is Esteban, the plotline is further complicated by the mythical implications of such a name.
The final paragraph of "The Handsomest Drowned Man" is a climactic one. The body is returned to the sea, and as it falls the villagers realize that they will never be the same. In this moment they "realize the narrowness of their dreams" and resolve to do better, live larger, and make their village matter.
The climax and conclusion of this story are both wrapped up together in the final paragraph. We don't really have a suspense or denouement stage.
The climax and conclusion of this story are both wrapped up together in the final paragraph. We don't really have a suspense or denouement stage.
The fantasy of the ship's captain announcing the village as Esteban's constitutes the conclusion of this story. The villagers have decided to be significant, to make their village matter, to distinguish themselves as being great, and create a village worthy of the drowned man.