The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World -
Gabriel García Márquez
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Exploring questions of perception, imagination, family, and belonging, this short story begins with some children noticing something in the sea; first thinking it is an enemy ship, then a whale, eventually they realize it is a drowned man. They play with him in the sand until the men in the village take him away. The men carrying the drowned man notice he is heavier than expected, and when they lay him down they see there is hardly room for him in the house; they suggest maybe the water got into his bones to make him weigh more, and maybe it is the ability of some drowned men to keep growing after death.
This village is so small that they know right away that the drowned man is not one of them. While the men go to neighboring villages to ask if he belongs to any of them, the women clean him off in preparation for burial. They discover that “he bore his death with pride” on his face, and that he was “the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they had ever seen.” So handsome is he that the women start to fantasize as they sew clothing for his burial “so he could continue through his death with dignity” (but no clothes in the village are large enough for him); they begin dismiss their own men as the weakest, meanest, and most useless creatures on earth.” Their musing is halted when an older woman, filled with “more compassion than passion,” utters, “He has the face of someone called Esteban.”
All the women realize she is right. From there they imagine how challengling life must have been for such a large, handsome man. When the men return from their inquiries with the news that no one village is missing this drowned man, the exclamation is “Priase the Lord,… he’s ours!” The men at first think the “fuss was only womanish frivolity,” but once the veil is removed from the face of the drowned man, “the men were left breathless too.” The striking sincerity on this drowned man’s face deeply moves both the women and men of the village
“That was how they came to hold the most splendid funeral they could ever conceive of for an abandoned drowned man,” the narrator recounts. The women bring flowers from other village (this village had no flowers until Esteban came to it), and other women from neighboring villages come in curiosity and return to fetch more flowers and more women. Because they do not want to send him to sea as an orphan, the people chose family members for Esteban, “so that through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen.”
From “a piece of cold Wednesday meat,” this drowned man has become the esteemed Esteban, the man everyone sought to be worthy of. The people quarrel over who will have “the privilege of carrying him on their shoulders along the steep escarpment by the cliffs”; at this point everyone realizes something: “men and women became aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams as they faced the splendor and beauty of their drowned man.” These villagers now improve their surroundings, making houses with “wider doors, higher celings, and stronger floors,” so that Esteban’s memory can still dwell with them; they plant so many flowers that passengers and captains on oceangoing vessels smell the fragrance and know what a special place they pass by.
Why can the village people not find a bed large enough to lay the drowned man on, nor “a table solid enough to use for his wake”?
Why do the women say, upon finding out that the drowned man does not belong to any of the neighboring villages, ‘Praise the Lord,… he’s ours!”?
What does it mean that “even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination”?
Ocean and Underworld - Chapters 5, 9-12 from Odyssey by Homer; Aristophanes, The Frogs; Lucian, A True Story; Virgil, Aeneid - Books 3, 4, 5, 6; Cervantes, Don Quixote - The Cave of Montesinos; Dante, Inferno (selections); Shakespeare, The Tempest; Melville, Moby Dick (selections); T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland