Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” begins when the children of a small coastal village see an unfamiliar bulge in the sea. When it washes up on the beach they realize it is a drowned man. For the rest of the afternoon they play with the corpse until another villager sees them and tells the rest of the villagers. The men of the village then carry the body to the nearest house, remarking that he weighs almost as much as a horse. He is also taller than other men and barely fits in the house.
The tiny village sits on the cliff of a sparsely vegetated cape. The villagers twenty or so houses have stone courtyards in which no flowers grow. That evening the men travel to neighboring villages to see if any of them will claim the dead stranger. While they are gone the women of the village care for the drowned man, noticing that the vegetation growing on him comes from distant oceans and that his clothes are tattered. He also seems proud. Not until they finish cleaning the body do the women see how awesome a man he is. He is the most supreme example of a man they have ever seen—the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built.
He is so large that nothing in the village will fit him: not a bed, a table, nor a set of clothes. The women decide to make him pants from a sail and a shirt from fine bridal linen so they can bury him with dignity. As they sew, they begin to create a fantasy about the man. They think that if such a man lived among them, doors would be wider, ceilings higher, floors and bedsteads stronger, and his wife would be the happiest woman. The man could call fish out of the sea and make flowers grow on the dry cliffs. Even now, because of him, the wind is steadier than ever and the sea more restless. The women secretly compare him to their own men, who suddenly seem the weakest, meanest, and most useless people.
They name him Esteban, further personalizing him. They realize that he will have to be dragged along the ground to be buried in the sea. That is when they realize how unhappy he must have been with his body while he was alive. He would have been forever ducking under doorways and hitting his head on the ceiling. When visiting people, he would have had to stand in order not to break his guests’ furniture, and he would have never known if people were being polite to him simply because they feared his size. When the women cover his face with a handkerchief he looks so irrevocably dead—and so much like their own men would look—that they cry for him, and he becomes the most destitute, most peaceful, and most obliging man on earth.
The men return at dawn with the news that Esteban is not from any of the neighboring villages, and the women rejoice that he belongs to them. The men want to throw the body into the sea and get rid of the intruder, but the more they hurry, the more excuses the women come up with to keep him. One of the men finally expresses anger that the women are making such a fuss over a stranger, and the women remove the handkerchief covering Esteban’s face. With one look, the men can see Esteban’s shame at his size and for disrupting them. The villagers, now united, hold a splendid funeral for Esteban. The village is filled with flowers and neighbors who have heard of the drowned man. Saddened at having to lose him, the villagers choose a family for him and make everyone his kin. Their sadness is so powerful that sailors at sea who hear their weeping run off course. After Esteban is gone, they know there will always be one missing among them.
The villagers now see the barrenness of their village and their lives. After the funeral, they decide to change things: they will build bigger houses so Esteban’s memory will have no trouble visiting; they will paint their homes to honor his memory; and they will plant flowers on the cliffs so that in the future passengers on ocean liners will smell the aroma and the captains of the ships will point to their roses and say: “That’s Esteban’s village.”
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.