The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World

by Gabriel García Márquez

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

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The figure of the drowned man crops up in a number of mythologies. Reference is made to him in this regard by T. S. Eliot in his famous poem "The Waste Land." In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," the women of the village decide to call the victim of drowning "Esteban," which some scholars have suggested refers to the mythological figure of Estevanico. According to ancient folklore, this slave was the first man born in Africa to set foot in the Americas. Over centuries, the legendary figure of Estevanico was endowed with all manner of incredible skills and powers, including the ability to speak many languages.

Esteban comes to represent an almost godlike figure for the villagers. He arrived to them from another world (in this case, the sea); he's worshiped by them, especially the womenfolk of the village; and he completely changes everyone's lives. That being the case, one could argue that Esteban symbolizes the need for people to have some kind of deity in their lives, however broadly one defines the term. Or, in more worldly terms, he represents the deep psychological need that all communities have for some kind of hero who, among other things, inspires ordinary people to become extraordinary.

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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.

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