“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” Write Up by Audrey Germany

In the short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez, a drowned man washes up on the shore of an island village where children are playing. The children could only recognize him as a drowned man once they had removed the sea matter on his body. They played with the drowned man in the sand until someone saw them and spread the alarm to the rest of the village. As the men carried the drowned man to the village, they noticed that he weighed so much that they were sure the water had filled his bones.  They knew that he was a stranger because the village had very few people, and they only had to look at each other to know everyone was there and alive. Instead of working the night, the men went to find if anyone was missing from the neighboring villages. The women stayed with the man and cleaned him up. Once he was scrubbed & bare, the women were breathless at the drowned man’s build and handsomeness. He was the most beautiful man they had ever seen. They made clothes for him because nothing from their own village would fit, and as they sewed they noticed that the wind and shore had never seemed so calm before that night. They thought the serenity was due to the man, and they thought that if the man had lived in the village he would have the best & biggest house. They believed he would have been the most prosperous in the village, and they began to compare their men to him. The village men seemed so incapable and useless when matched with the handsome drowned man. The oldest woman of the bunch said, “He has the face of someone called Esteban,” and everyone realized the same. The women pitied him for having to be so large and pictured his life at such a size; how he would react to others and what a kind, handsome fool he would’ve been. They covered his face with a handkerchief in the morning and they were overcome with grief and began to weep for him. The men returned and told the women that the other villages had no one missing, so the women were extremely happy to have their own handsome drowned man. As the day went on and the women continued to dote over the drowned man, giving him good luck charms and scapulars, the men complained about them spending too much time on some dead washed up man. One of the women removed the man’s handkerchief and the men were breathless at his beauty too. The men understood he was Esteban at first sight. They knew that he was ashamed of his size and was sorry for not drowning in a more discreet place. Even the most mistrustful men knew that Esteban had sincerity. They held a grand & beautiful funeral for Esteban. The women went to the neighboring villages to get flowers and came back with more women, and the women that saw Esteban went to get flowers too and brought back even more women. Some of the villagers became the drowned man’s substitute family. The village let Esteban into the sea without attaching an anchor so he could come back whenever he wished. The villagers were no longer all present, and they would never be. They knew everything would be bigger and wider so Esteban’s memory could visit without bumping into anything. Their land would forevermore be called Esteban’s village.

I picked “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” to present on mostly because of the good things I had heard about it from other teachers, but also because of the intriguing devices the author used in the story. I loved the bizarre outside-characterization of the drowned man and the descriptions, although I didn’t track the latter because of the unrestrained description used in the characterization. Instead, I tracked characterization and setting because of the important role the characterization had on the setting, and the descriptions in the story regarded both of these things. I also included the villagers as part of the setting technique because it’s easier to pinpoint the difference between them and Esteban this way. Another thing I enjoyed about this story were the “architectural marvel” sentences (I’ve realized that I’ve seriously come to appreciate ridiculously long sentences in pieces, and I’m so glad that this is an actual acceptable syntax in writing) and the high level vocabulary (i.e. virile, blunderbuss, jubilation). They add so much to the plot and they’re so beautifully written. Speaking of which, I love the plot too, but we will discuss that as we talk about the techniques.

Esteban arrives to the village as a drowned man and leaves as a drowned man, so it is impossible for the author to characterize him through actions. Instead, the author must use the other’s thoughts and actions to characterize Esteban, and he does so through the assumptions they make about his life. Even before the villagers are aware of his beauty, they knew that “he was a stranger” and that

…he bore his death with pride, for 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.

Without even knowing the setting, the reader can tell they have a limited population and that they have had drowned people wash up around their village more than once. They also mention later that

They wanted to tie the anchor from a cargo ship to him so that he would sink easily into the deepest waves, where fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia, and bad currents would not bring him back to shore, as had happened with other bodies.

This could also answer the question of “why this day,” perhaps because such drowning events are common and signify why this certain drowned man was important. Seguing back to the outside characterization, the women cleaned Esteban and realized that

Not only was he the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they had ever seen, but even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination.

This could almost be seen as a power switch. First it was the women, who were cleaning, tending to, and curious about this random dead man who, being revealed, had the ability to almost control their thoughts. He caused so much surprise that now they couldn’t help but focus on him and where he came from. I believe this is how the author is able to characterize the drowned man so much, even giving him a name. The way the author delves into the women’s thoughts allows the reader to see how the men in the village are and what the village is usually like:

As they sewed, sitting in a circle and gazing at the corpse between stitches, it seemed to them that the wind had never been so steady nor the sea so restless as on that night and they supposed that the change had something to do with the dead man.

This drowned man has brought some peace to the island. This foreshadows what happens to the village and villagers themselves later in the story, and it mentions how the seas are usually calm at night. And it brings up an important question about the handsome drowned man; is this guy some sort of mythological figure, fairytale, legend or something? The reader is definitely curious about who this man is, which could be questioned before this line, but this is the first part in the story where Esteban’s presence affected something more than the villagers. This question will be brought up later. The women keep thinking about this man and begin to picture his life with them in the village. In their eyes, his extraordinary looks would match his life:

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. They thought that he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names and that he would have put so much work into his land that springs would have burst forth from among the rocks so that he would have been able to plant flowers on the cliffs.

Strongly based on his appearance, the women believed that the drowned man would’ve made a wonderful villager. They compare him to their own men, and think that

for all their lives theirs were incapable of doing what he could do in one night, and they ended up dismissing them deep in their hearts as the weakest, meanest and most useless creatures on earth.

Despite us not knowing too much about the male villagers, we can conclude that this thought from the women seems irrational. Why would they dismiss the men completely just because of what they imagined one dead man could do, which he did none of? First reading this part of the story, I assumed that this was the shallow part in all of us that saw one person as perfect based solely on their appearance, and the affect that had on what we thought about the less adequate people in our lives. However, reading through the story again, I realize that the men in the village were the only men the women truly knew, not counting the men in the neighboring villages. From this perspective, the drowned man could, once again, be seen as a fable, even if it’s just based on his amazing figure.

Next, the eldest women, sighed:

“He has the face of someone called Esteban.”

Finally, the women had appointed to this drowned man the ultimate form of identity; a name. I believe this switches the power back to the women villagers, now that they can completely “understand” his life. In the next few lines, we can start to see the technical setting. This was a Wednesday, and some of the younger women first wanted to name Esteban “Lautaro.” Lautaro was an indigenous native of Chile who tried to stop the Spanish Conquest. This reveals matters of location, which is most likely in Chile, the South American coast. This also reveals to me that the place they live is not an island at all, but I’m too lazy to go back and change all the words. Surprise, it is not an island. The man has travelled far to be in the South Pacific Ocean. Back to the story’s plot, the women think something amazing. They picture Esteban, but not just him in general, they picture him as a breathing human with dialogue and emotion and he’s having an interaction with another human. There is a complete scene of Esteban that captures what they think of him perfectly:

It was then that they understood how unhappy he must have been with that huge body since it bothered him even after death. They could see him in life, condemned to going through doors sideways, cracking his head on crossbeams, remaining on his feet during visits, not knowing what to do with his soft, pink, sea lion hands while the lady of the house looked for her most resistant chair and begged him, frightened to death, sit here, Esteban, please, and he, leaning against the wall, smiling, don’t bother, ma’am, I’m fine where I am, his heels raw and his back roasted from having done the same thing so many times whenever he paid a visit, don’t bother, ma’am, I’m fine where I am, just to avoid the embarrassment of breaking up the chair, and 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.

Esteban is now so easy to pity with the thought of him practically begging a woman to let him stand so he may not ruin her chair. Esteban is a kind man, embarrassed by his huge height & weight, and he wishes to not cause anyone unhappiness or discomfort. What brings complete harmony between the women villagers and Esteban, though, is when they cover his face in the morning and observe him again:

…he looked so forever dead, so defenseless, so much like their men that the first furrows of tears opened in their hearts. It was one of the younger ones who began the weeping. The others, coming to, went from sighs to wails, and the more they sobbed the more they felt like weeping, because the drowned man was becoming all the more Esteban for them, and so they wept so much, for he was the more destitute, most peaceful, and most obliging man on earth, poor Esteban.

Without the beautiful face, he was just like their men. This allows them to open their hearts and weep for Esteban. This is the final straw for the women, and they now wish for him to be one of theirs, which is granted when the men come back with the news of no one missing. The men are understandably upset at the women for caring so much about “such fuss over a drifting corpse, a drowned nobody, a piece of cold Wednesday meat.” The women only have to show the men Esteban’s astonishing face, and they understand, too. Despite the seemingly shallow theme of a beautiful face changing one’s entire outlook on a person, I find something so beautiful about how one can spontaneously care for another. I think this story displays that spontaneity well. The men create a personality for Esteban as well:

They only had to take the handkerchief off his face to see that he was ashamed, that it was not his fault that he was so big or so heavy or so handsome, and if he had known that this was going to happen, he would have looked for a more discreet place to drown in, seriously, I even would have tied the anchor off a galleon around my neck and staggered off a cliff like someone who doesn’t like things in order not to be upsetting people now with this Wednesday dead body, as you people say, in order not to be bothering anyone with this filthy piece of cold meat that doesn’t have anything to do with me. There was so much truth in his manner that even the most mistrustful men, the ones who felt the bitterness of endless nights at sea fearing that their women would tire of dreaming about them and begin to dream of drowned men, even they and others who were harder still shuddered in the marrow of their bones at Esteban’s sincerity.

Notice the “I” in that quote? That sincerely surprised me. Is this story not third person omniscient?

This finalizes the village’s love for Esteban, and they hold a grand funeral. There are so many flowers and people that it is hard to walk. They continue to give Esteban more identity, by appointing him a mother and father and a huge family. The villagers are now revealed as dynamic characters:

While they fought for the privilege of carrying him on their shoulders along the steep escarpment by the cliffs, 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. They let him go without an anchor so that he could come back if he wished and whenever he wished, and they all held their breath for the fraction of centuries the body took to fall into the abyss. They did not need to look at one another to realize that they were no longer all present, that they would never be. But they also knew that everything would be different from then on, that their houses would have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors so that Esteban’s memory could go everywhere without bumping into beams and so that no one in the future would dare whisper the big boob finally died, too bad, the handsome fool has finally died, because they were going to paint their house fronts gay colors to make Esteban’s memory eternal and they were going to break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs so that in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens on the high seas, and the captain would have to come down from the bridge in his dress uniform, with his astrolabe, his pole star, and his row of war medals and, pointing to the promontory of roses on the horizon, he would say in fourteen languages, look there, where the wind is so peaceful now that it’s gone to sleep beneath the beds, over there, where the sun’s so bright that the sunflowers don’t know which way to turn, yes, over there, that’s Esteban’s village.

The village practically became Esteban in the end. There was a part of the villagers in Esteban that was taken to the sea, and Esteban left the widened bed posts and door frames and overwhelming smell of flowers on the cliffs. The handsomest drowned man in the world, Esteban, whose story was completely invented by the villagers, now gave identity to the village itself.

What I could take from this story and put in my own writing is learn how to change characters over time from the protagonist’s point of view. Doing first person has always been difficult for me, especially in characterization of others without loading on a pile of exposition, but complete images and guesses like the ones the villagers did could help a lot in making the story more effective and help it flow easier. I could also use this story to show how my characters affect the setting more, which has always been bland in my stories. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” has taught me a lot about writing, and I am very fortunate to be able to analyze it like this.

Questions:

Why do the children first meet the drowned man and not the male or female villagers?

Is Esteban human?

Who is the “I”?

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