In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," how does the villagers' treatment of the man compare to the villagers' treatment of the old man in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez employs magical realism in both "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" in order illustrate the varying attitudes that people can have towards those who are different.
The villagers in "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" idealize the body that washes ashore, that of a man described as being "from elsewhere." The women of the village are described as being "fascinated by his disproportion and beauty," and they ponder his greatness as they clothe him and prepare his body for burial. They become so attached to him that they name him Esteban, convinced he is somehow theirs. The village men find their attachment frivolous at first, but eventually they too begin to idolize this huge stranger who has interrupted their lives. In an effort to give Esteban the grand funeral they believe he deserves, the village itself is transformed and comes back to life with new flowers, fresh coats of paint, and renewed joy.
In "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the response to the visitor is starkly different. The story opens with a sick child and a town overrun by crabs and their stench. When the parents of the sick child find an old man with enormous wings in their backyard, they try to talk to him. Unable to understand each other, a neighbor determines he must be an angel. Rather than treat him as such, though, they build him a chicken coop where he is kept while the villagers gather to gawk at him. They wonder about him and try to determine why he is there and whether or not he is an angel. Eventually, the fervor in the village over the visitor dies down, and the villagers move on. After almost dying, the man with the enormous wings gains strength and eventually flies away.
Esteban is idealized in the first story, while the old man with enormous wings is disrespected in the other story. Magical realism is employed in the sense that both villages come across an intruder of mysterious origins. Esteban inspires the village to be better than they were before, while the man with enormous wings brings about no change in his. While the intruders are treated in opposing ways, in both cases they are not treated as equals.
Both of these short stories feature supernatural individuals who burst into the lives of two separate villagers. However, what is fascinating is the way that the villagers react very differently to these individuals. In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," for example, the enormous drowned man is given a name and a personality that causes the villagers to hold a splendid funeral for him and change their very way of living:
...they were going to paint their house fronts gay colours 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...
The villagers find in Esteban a mythic hero who gives them meaning and purpose in life. This is of course contrasted with the poor angelic figure in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," who is treated as little more than a freak, a curiosity that allow others to profit from him and to speculate about his identity. Elisenda, the wife of the family who comes to profit most from this angelic figure, is frankly relieved when he flies off at the end:
She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.
The difference between these two men is explained by how Marquez challenges human attitudes. In the first story, he explores the human tendency to mythologise and find meaning in life through attaching stories and legends on to events and personages. In the second, he focuses on the way that humanity's desire to find meaning is often self-defeating and renders them ludicrous. So much attention is placed on the attempts of the villagers to explain the presence of the figure in their midst that the actual angel figure is almost ignored. Meaning, Marquez subtley argues, becomes too much of an end goal for humans when is some cases there is little meaning to be found in the complex events that befall humans in life.