The arrival of a large drowned man on their shores inspires the imagination of the inhabitants of a tiny fishing village.
Point of View
The simplicity with which “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” is told conceals a rather complex narrative technique. The villagers, finding a drowned man on their beach, begin to admire and then love him as they prepare him for proper burial. The third-person narrator, however, only describes the man through the eyes of the villagers. It is their conceptualization of the drowned man, not any objective viewpoint, that the reader receives. Furthermore, the point of view shifts away from the villagers at certain times in the narrative, such as when the imaginary hostess worries about her chair and he “never knowing perhaps that the ones who said don’t go, Esteban, at least wait till the coffee’s ready, were the ones who later on would whisper the big boob finally left, how nice, the handsome fool has gone.” This complex approach to narration provides cues not only about Esteban, but about the villagers themselves as they view him in the context of their own lives.
The setting of the story is also more complex than it first seems. Because no exact location is named and the villagers appear to be isolated from the outside world, the village has the feel of a faraway land. The village does not have modern technology; they use a primitive, wheelless sled to convey Esteban to his funeral. Thus the story occupies a timeless, prehistoric era. Nevertheless, the seaside village is very similar to the coastal areas near Garcia Marquez’s childhood home, and the ocean liners mentioned at the end of the story verify that this is an actual location in the present day which can be reached. The village, then, exists both as a faraway, mythical place, and as an actual locale. It represents something magic or mythical, but also something real.
Although the term was first used to refer to a modern type of painting in the 1920s, magic realism later became associated with a particular type of fiction, especially that written by Latin Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Magic realist fiction incorporates both fantastic events and realistic details. The arrival of a “Wednesday dead body” on the shore of a fishing village is not necessarily a magical event. What brings the story into the realm of the fabulous is the reaction of the villagers, whose response to his arrival is anything but ordinary. That a dead man can have so much influence on a village full of people who seem used to finding drowning victims on their beach creates a sense that this event is something extraordinary. The mythical namelessness of the village and the historically vague setting add to this perception. At the same time, details such as the ocean liner at the end of the story ground it firmly in a real place and time. Thus the story is neither fantasy, nor reality, but a combination of the two. The impulse behind magic realism is often attributed to several factors, including the superstition of Latin America’s indigenous populations. In the case of Garcia Marquez, credit is also given to the influence of his maternal grandmother, a storyteller whose magical tales affected Garcia Marquez’s imagination very early in life.
Allusion in literature occurs when an aspect in a story implies or makes an indirect reference to something outside of the story. Garcia Marquez is well-known for his ability to blend native South American legends with European myths and stories. Even in a story as short as “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” one can find allusions to the biblical story of Jonah (through the children’s assumption that the form washing ashore is a beached whale), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (in which a shipwrecked man washes ashore in a country full of tiny people), and even the Greek god Zeus, whose sexual prowess highlights many Greek myths. More obvious allusions include the notion that Esteban connotes the ancient god Quetzalcoatl, who in Aztec myth emphasizes peacefulness and self-sacrifice when he comes from the sea. Like Esteban, Quetzalcoatl leaves via the sea, promising a return that leaves a lasting expectation in those he leaves behind. Esteban’s name alludes to two historical figures: St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose name is the English translation of Esteban; and Estevanico, an African who explored parts of the New World in the 1500s.
Garcia Marquez also makes an allusion to the Greek warrior Odysseus, whose adventures are chronicled in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s seafaring adventures include a voyage past the Sirens, whose irresistible singing could not be heard by any man without him abandoning his destination and turning toward them. The women’s crying at Esteban’s funeral has a similar effect: “Some sailors who heard the weeping from a distance went off course and people heard of one who had himself tied to the mainmast, remembering ancient fables about sirens.” The abundant allusions in the story suggest that the various cultures that Garcia Marquez refers to are more closely related than is often imagined. Every culture has its saints and its heroes; “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” demonstrates the process through which these figures become important in their respective cultures.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Published by Gale, 1997.