When Gabriel Garcia Marquez published his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, both the author and the writing technique he used, magic realism, were catapulted into the international spotlight. Magic realism (the term was first used in 1925 by a German art critic, and about twenty-five years later, it was rediscovered by a Caribbean writer) explores the overlap between fantasy and reality and thus reveals the mysterious elements hidden in day-to-day life. As a literary style, it was born in Latin America where writers such as Garcia Marquez, who were raised hearing tales of mystical folklore, were open to viewing the world through a more imaginative, less rigid lens than “realistic” writers. Magic realism creates a different type of background for the events of the day to play themselves out against, one in which the inhabitants are accepting of extraordinary occurrences and thus forge amongst themselves a new set of shared beliefs. Combining elements of the fantastic and magical, the mythic, the imaginative, and the religious, magic realism expands human perceptions of reality.
Much of the power of magic realism derives from the way it blends the fantastic and the everyday by depicting incredible events, supporting them with realistic details, and chronicling everything in a matter-of-fact tone. According to Morton P. Levitt in “The Meticulous Modernist Fictions of Garcia Marquez,” Garcia Marquez, who was a journalist, says that his style derives from his grandmother, who “told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.” Garcia Marquez grew up in a small town that had little to offer except for a sense of the past, according to Levitt: “like so many Latin American towns [it] lived on remembrances, myth, solitude and nostalgia.” Garcia Marquez presents this multiple reality in his stories; one reality is that of the fantastic, but another reality is the author’s (and the reader’s) complete acceptance of the fantastic. Garcia Marquez’s use of tone shows the events he narrates to be credible—things that could happen at any time. The fantastic becomes utterly natural.
In addition to One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” highlights his talents at using magic realism to draw the reader into a world unlike one in which most people dwell. Since its first publication in a collection of short stories in 1972, the work has won attention and drawn praise from critics based far from Garcia Marquez’s native Colombia, including reviewers for Time and John Updike writing for The New Yorker. Alfred Kazin, in a review of Leaf Storm and Other Stories in Critical Essays on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, refers to “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” as one of the author’s “beautiful early stories” in which his vision “expresses itself with perfect charm,” and V.S. Pritchett notes in New Statesman that the story “easily leaps into the comical and exuberant.”
In the story, Garcia Marquez presents a tiny coastal town filled with people who seem unremarkable in any way except in their ability to accept the fantastic and thus enrich their own lives. At the story’s beginning, the emptiness of the villagers’s lives can be seen in their surroundings. The town is built on a stony cliff upon which nothing grows. Their homes, which are spread out on a “desertlike cape,” have “stone courtyards with no flowers.” The villagers have very little space in which to cultivate themselves. Even the dead must be tossed out, over the side of the cliffs.
Because the villagers naturally accept the fantastic, an enormous drowned man who washes upon their shore does not frighten them nor do they reject him. Instead of being freakish for his size, he is “the tallest, strongest, most virile and best built man they had ever seen.” The drowned man, whom they come to call Esteban, has more ideal qualities than just the physical. He is compassionate, recognizing the anxiety that his size causes and possessing the awful knowledge that “the lady of the house looked for her most resistant chair and begged him, frightened to death, sit here.” He feels shame at being such a bother to the villagers; had he known he was going to drown, “he would have looked for a more discreet place.” While others might have turned on him for his unusual characteristics, the villagers not only show him kindness but actually embrace him. He becomes their model and they will better their village and their lives in his honor.
The villagers live in a land where mystical things can happen and where intuition and magic count for more than strict reality. Their partiality for the imaginative is apparent even before they are touched by Esteban, in the mother’s fears that”the wind would carry off their children.” Their calm acceptance of the phenomenal, however, is most clearly apparent when they regard Esteban. He weighs almost as much as a horse “and they said to each other that maybe … the water had gotten into his bones.” He hardly fits inside the house, and “they thought that maybe the ability to keep on growing after death was part of the nature of certain drowned men.” These comments on the nature of his size are not rationalizations; the villagers are not bothered by his size, they simply do not need to explain his physical state. Their comments are spoken as asides, noting unimportant yet interesting details.
Because the villagers do not spend their time wondering how Esteban came to exist, they can concentrate on what is important: the man. Looking in his face they see that”he did not have the lonely look of other drowned men who came out of the sea or that haggard, needy look of men who drowned in rivers.” When they realize that he will have to be dragged to his funeral (no one can carry him), they understand the shame and awkwardness his size caused him in life. Not only do they understand how Esteban feels, but they begin to understand a bit more about their own lives. As the women sit up all night, sewing an outfit for Esteban,”it seemed to them that the wind had never been so steady nor the sea so restless… and they supposed that the change had something to do with the dead man.” Already their lives, fed by the “calm and bountiful” sea, are changing.
The lives of the villagers will continue to change over the next twenty-four hours and on into the future. To honor Esteban’s memory, the villagers will build larger homes so that he can pass through freely without shame at his size. They will paint the houses bright colors and “break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs.” In the future, passengers on great oceanliners will smell the villagers’s gardens and be told “that’s Esteban’s village.” What Esteban’s visit has made them realize is how terribly empty their lives had been. Though they knew that “they were no longer present, that they would never be,” by making their home a place good enough for Esteban, they are enriching themselves as well.
The use of another element of magic realism helps justify the monumental effect Esteban had: the mythic. His very name, Spanish for Stephen, invokes St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Esteban also may recall Estevanico (a diminutive form of the name), an African slave who explored Florida and the Southwest United States in the 1500s. He was the first African many Indians had ever seen, and they thought he might be a god and gave him many gifts. As with Esteban, his appearance led him to be revered as something more than an ordinary man; just as the villagers would strive “to make Esteban’s memory eternal,” legends were passed down for generations, right until the present day, about Estevanico.
Esteban also unites the village and himself through a connection to different myths and mythical figures. The village women become as powerful as figures of Greek mythology when “sailors who heard [their] weeping … went off course and people heard of one who had himself tied to the mainmast, remembering ancient fables about sirens.” This allusion to Homer’s Odyssey also brings to mind that epic’s hero, Odysseus, who, during his ten-year voyage, washed up on the shore of several islands and effected sometimes radical changes on their inhabitants. Esteban is also tied to the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatl who arrived from the sea. He had a civilizing effect on the Aztec people, leading them from the sacrifice of others to self-sacrifice in order to achieve their goals. Because of his close tie with the sea, his statue in the Aztec In the personage of Esteban are shades of heroes from different cultures and time periods.” capital showed him covered in snail shells and flowers, much like Esteban, who washed up on shore “covered with a crust of mud and scales.” The defeated Quetzalcoatl left his people, again by the sea, but according to legend he returns periodically to bring about change and revolution. Esteban could very well be the villagers’s personal Quetzalcoatl.
If all these references need to be interpreted in order to understand the story, what then is to be made of the subtitle (“A Tale for Children”) which sometimes accompanies the story? Perhaps it is not really necessary to know how the story works, only that it does work. It can exist as a fairy tale without drawing criticism for its lack of reality. As a children’s story, it is allowed to simply entertain. The story may best be seen as presenting the multiple realities that are inherent to magic realism. Just as the villagers have to be open to possibilities in order to reap the benefits of Esteban’s visit, so must readers suspend their disbelief.
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.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.