What does Esteban symbolize in "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World"? Why?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Esteban symbolizes the "larger than life" paradigm of a person who is so extraordinary that he ordinary, in turn, becomes too much for him. This is why, when it comes to ordinary and everyday people of the village, the "much larger, much bigger, and much awesomer" Esteban is also "much sadder, much more unfortunate, and much more depressed" than everyone else.

Esteban is compared visually, imaginatively, and spiritually with the most important characters of Spanish mythology: Estevanico, Lautaro, and Quetzalcoatl (the leader of the Aztecs and founder of the Aztec civilization). Hence, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's views: When something so extraordinary as Esteban resides among the ordinary, that person or thing may not be in the right place: This world belongs to those who are to transform themselves, gradually, through the journey of life, into something better. What is god-like and supreme, should reside somewhere else.

epollock | Student


In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, This island setting is no ordinary prosaic location—it is a strange fantasy world that has left more than one reader “puzzled as to what is going on here.”

On a strange island—with a few wooden houses on the edge of a barren cape and with so little land that mothers were afraid “the wind would carry off their children” and with dead villagers thrown off the cliffs for lack of ground to bury them.

A corpse washes up on the beach weighing “almost as much as a horse,” with the villagers thinking “that maybe the ability to keep on growing after death was part of the nature of certain drowned men.” The body washed up on the beach “wore his death with pride.” And so on. 

The tale has a deceptive surface simplicity reminiscent of a folk tale, with the kind of wonderment and naive explanations that we might expect in a tale told to children. The children help us get into the spirit of innocent, playful wonder that we need if we are not going to reject the story as strange or preposterous.

The people live in a small, isolated fishing village, with desolate streets, barren courtyards, and narrow dreams. Their island is surrounded by a shark-infested ocean, and men feel “the bitterness of endless nights at sea.”

It could a miracle that such a beautiful, larger-than-life person would come to such a desolate, cramped place and transform the outlook and lives of the villagers. Alternately, the miracle is that a dead man brings the village to life, bringing the people excitement, adventure, and ultimately hope.

Ever stop to wonder how much parents or other people close to you have meant in your life? If you were to lose them tomorrow, would you feel there were many things that you needed to tell them? We should not take anything for granted, and we should learn from the villagers and start to change and be appreciative of everything that we have in our lives.

In the face of the “splendor and beauty” of the drowned man, the villagers become “aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards,” and “the narrowness of their dreams.” The corpse is a symbol of a fuller life—with a richer environment, more spacious
buildings, and abundant flowers. The villagers “knew that everything would be different from then on.” The central transformation is a change in attitude, a change in expectations. The dead man inspires a change toward a more affirmative and joyful attitude toward life.

Passengers on ocean liners passing by in the future will marvel at the rich fragrance of the flowers and at the bright sun bathing the island. What happened here is not going to be a localized epiphany; the spiritual regeneration experienced by the villagers will spread beyond the island.

It is paradoxical that a dead, bloated body would inspire fantasy, adventure, excitement, and hope.

mizzmelanie | Student

The drowned man represents any number of mythological or epic historical figures.

jennoside10 | Student

I think he represents celebrities and the way we portray them from their looks alone. Because he was dead the villagers had no indication of Estebans character so they made him a perfect person to reflect the way he looked on the outside. We in our society put a lot of emphasis in looks and I think Esteban is symbolic in that way because often we think people are better and more capable from the first impression and if they please us aesthetically.

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