When a large drowned man washes up on the beach of a tiny fishing village, his presence inspires the villagers to create fantastic stories about him and to improve their own lives as well.
Myth and the Human Condition
“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” illustrates the collective human tendency to create myths. The form of the story makes clear that the “long ago and far away” setting of the story takes precedence over a reading of the story that places the village in an exact location or time period. Myths often center around heroic figures whose special powers or deeds create an ideal that members of that society may attempt to live up to. Esteban becomes such an ideal for the villagers, who are so inspired by him that they plant beautiful gardens and improve their homes “so that Esteban’s memory could go everywhere without bumping into beams.” Thus, this once dirty and diminished drowned man inspires an entire village to strive for something better and more beautiful. Such myths last through time and across cultures, as demonstrated at the end of the story when it is predicted that captains of passenger ships will identify “Esteban’s village” for curious passengers.
That the human imagination seeks explanations for the unknown is the focus of the tale. Much of the story involves village women creating stories about Esteban’s life and what it would be like to share it with him: “They thought that if that magnificent man had lived in the village, 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.” Through their imagination Esteban is first admirable, then lovable, and finally cherished by all. He becomes representative of the whole village, and at his funeral they choose relatives for him in such a way “that through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen.” This act highlights another aspect of the human condition: the need to reach out to others and become connected in some way. By casting Esteban back into the sea from which he came, the villagers recognize the ocean as a bond, a connection between other people and other lands, including the faraway land from which the drowned man originated.
Beauty and Aesthetics
The importance of the drowned man to the village is in direct proportion to the villagers’ perception of his beauty. When he first washes onto the beach, covered with seaweed and grime, the children of the village think of him as no more than a novel plaything. It is only after the women of the village begin to clean him off that they appreciate his strength and beauty. They are so amazed at his physical being that “there was no room for him in their imagination.” But soon they do use their imaginations, attributing to him not only pride and authority, but also obliging tenderness and consideration. Esteban’s beauty gains him a sympathetic viewpoint in their imaginations. His beauty and size contrast with not only their men—who by comparison are “the weakest, meanest, and most useless creatures on earth”—but with the village itself. Their hastily constructed homes and empty courtyards on a tiny, bare strip of land reflect the villagers themselves, who have little understanding of or imagination for things outside of their own subsistence. Esteban, by bringing beauty into the village, initiates a permanent change of character for the villagers. Their willingness to reach out to Esteban and claim him as one of their own in order to “lose” him at the funeral has created a sense that there is something more for them than life and death: there is beauty, something entirely extraordinary. Thus the story of Esteban becomes, for the villagers, the story about the power of beauty to enter and change their lives.
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.