The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World Essays and Criticism
by Gabriel García Márquez

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Marquez's Use of Magic Realism

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez published his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, both the author and the writing technique he used, magic realism, were catapulted into the international spotlight. Magic realism (the term was first used in 1925 by a German art critic, and about twenty-five years later, it was rediscovered by a Caribbean writer) explores the overlap between fantasy and reality and thus reveals the mysterious elements hidden in day-to-day life. As a literary style, it was born in Latin America where writers such as Garcia Marquez, who were raised hearing tales of mystical folklore, were open to viewing the world through a more imaginative, less rigid lens than ''realistic'' writers. Magic realism creates a different type of background for the events of the day to play themselves out against, one in which the inhabitants are accepting of extraordinary occurrences and thus forge amongst themselves a new set of shared beliefs. Combining elements of the fantastic and magical, the mythic, the imaginative, and the religious, magic realism expands human perceptions of reality.

Much of the power of magic realism derives from the way it blends the fantastic and the everyday by depicting incredible events, supporting them with realistic details, and chronicling everything in a matter-of-fact tone. According to Morton P. Levitt in "The Meticulous Modernist Fictions of Garcia Marquez," Garcia Marquez, who was a journalist, says that his style derives from his grandmother, who ''told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness." Garcia Marquez grew up in a small town that had little to offer except for a sense of the past, according to Levitt: "like so many Latin American towns [it] lived on remembrances, myth, solitude and nostalgia." Garcia Marquez presents this multiple reality in his stories; one reality is that of the fantastic, but another reality is the author's (and the reader's) complete acceptance of the fantastic. Garcia Marquez's use of tone shows the events he narrates to be credible—things that could happen at any time. The fantastic becomes utterly natural.

In addition to One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez's short story "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" highlights his talents at using magic realism to draw the reader into a world unlike one in which most people dwell. Since its first publication in a collection of short stories in 1972, the work has won attention and drawn praise from critics based far from Garcia Marquez's native Colombia, including reviewers for Time and John Updike writing for The New Yorker. Alfred Kazin, in a review of Leaf Storm and Other Stories in Critical Essays on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, refers to "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World'' as one of the author's "beautiful early stories" in which his vision "expresses itself with perfect charm," and V.S. Pritchett notes in New Statesman that the story "easily leaps into the comical and exuberant."

In the story, Garcia Marquez presents a tiny coastal town filled with people who seem unremarkable in any way except in their ability to accept the fantastic and thus enrich their own lives. At the story's beginning, the emptiness of the villager's lives can be seen in their surroundings. The town is built on a stony cliff upon which nothing grows. Their homes, which are spread out on a "desert-like cape," have "stone courtyards with no flowers." The villagers have very little space in which to cultivate themselves. Even the dead must be tossed out, over the side of the cliffs.

Because the villagers naturally accept the fantastic, an enormous drowned man who washes upon their shore does not frighten them nor do they reject him. Instead of being freakish for his size, he is ''the tallest, strongest, most virile and best built man they had ever seen." The drowned man, whom they come to call Esteban, has more ideal qualities than just the physical. He is compassionate, recognizing the...

(The entire section is 4,154 words.)