The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World

by Gabriel García Márquez

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How does Esteban from "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" enrich the villagers' lives?

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In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," Esteban enriches the lives of the villagers by giving them a more magical view of reality. As a character, Esteban can be read as a representation of how magical realism, the genre, enriches reality by exposing "magical" elements underlying the ordinary. Just as Esteban changes the villagers' perspectives by giving them an outlet for their imaginations, so too does magical realism enrich reader perspective by exploring the possibility of the supernatural operating behind physical reality.

Magical realism operates by using imagination to color events in a story in a way that could be considered extraordinary. Sometimes, this strategy leads to some supernatural element being treated normally. For example, in a story where an angel falls from the sky, characters who encounter the angel may treat him as if he were little more than a roadside attraction. Such is the case in Marquez's "A Very Large Man with Enormous Wings." Magical realism may also take a more plausible event, such as a drowned sailor being found, and exaggerate the impact of the occurrence in order to point to unseen, magical elements in the narrative.

In one regard, Esteban is just a sailor who has drowned. In the villagers' reality, the dead are regularly disposed of in the sea, so the event of finding a dead body in the ocean should not be very shocking to the villagers. The narrator explains, "There was so little land that . . . the few dead that the years had caused among them had to be thrown off the cliffs." Despite the event being relatively ordinary, the women who clean Esteban's body begin to imagine that he was no ordinary person, and what they imagine about him begins to color their views of their own reality.

For example, as the women are sewing clothes for Esteban, they begin to superimpose magical elements regarding the impact of his death on the world around them: "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." As they take note of the wind and sea, they come to believe that the dead man has somehow had a hand in how nature is behaving. This elevates Esteban from normal drowned sailor to a mythic status. He is almost depicted as a sea god.

Having no idea who the sailor is, the women begin to imagine what kind of man he was. Because his build is larger than normal, and because his features are more handsome than the average man's, they imagine that he also had a larger-than-life moral character. They say Esteban was probably honest, polite, and never willing to burden anyone, even for a moment. They say, for instance, that had he known he would be imposing on the villagers as a corpse, he would have thrown himself off of a cliff with something heavy around him to prevent such rudeness.

What the women imagine about Esteban continues to color their views of reality as they discuss him in comparison with their own husbands. They attribute to Esteban a superhuman presence and the ability to achieve superhuman tasks in life as well. As they project these characteristics onto the dead man, they give him a name worthy of all the characteristics they are conjuring:

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. They secretly compared him to their own men, thinking 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. They were wandering through that maze of fantasy when the oldest woman, who as the oldest had looked upon the drowned man with more compassion than passion, sighed: "He has the face of someone called Esteban."

Esteban loosely means "Crown," and it is derived from the name "Stephen," who was the New Testament's first martyr. It seems that Esteban's death, like the death of a martyr, has the power to bring unifying religious beliefs to the people who have witnessed or heard of the martyrdom.

At first, the children play with the body, showing that their imaginations are stimulated. Then, of course, the women's imaginations cause them to hold beliefs about Esteban that lead to ritualistic reverence. The men are the last to see Esteban the way the others see him. At first, they are annoyed at how royally the women are treating Esteban in death. But they eventually come to share their women's supernatural beliefs about the stranger. The villagers' shared beliefs about Esteban unite them all. As a village, they adopt Esteban as their own, as they are unwilling to let him "return to the waters as an orphan." During the funeral, "the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen."

Esteban changes the village. The story ends with the narrator saying that the villagers are changed, and that change is one of perspective. There is talk of building bigger doors in the future—doors that Esteban could fit through. This is symbolic of how readers of the magical realism genre may broaden the doorways of their own perspectives to allow for the supernatural within the ordinary.

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The process of finding the body of Esteban immediately unites the village in a common purpose.  As time passes, though, that unity becomes more significant and long-lasting.  The woman are united in their effort to protect and pay respects to this handsome man with the obliging features.  The men are united first in their attempt to find his identity and then in their attempt to get rid of him.  Finally, all the people are united in their desire to give Esteban a proper funeral.

Not only this, but also having seen a man with such beauty and force laying dead in their midst, the villagers gain a new appreciation for life.  They realize that life is short and that it is beautiful and they set to make the most of it.  They plan to clean up their village, planting and cultivating it - to ''break their backs digging for springs among the stones and planting flowers on the cliffs."

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