Themes and Meanings
It is easy, in a cynical fashion, to make fun of the villagers in this little story, which Gabriel García Márquez wrote shortly after finishing his great masterpiece, Cien anios de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970). One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles the rise and decline of Macondo, a mythical city representing Latin American society in the period of independence. In some ways, the fishing village in this story is a stripped-down Macondo: The villagers are even more backward, provincial, ignorant, and gullible than the inhabitants of Macondo. Their village is the center of the universe, so instead of moving to a more promising location, they resolve to “break their backs” to turn a rocky promontory into a rose garden. They are inspired by a waterlogged corpse and led by emotional women. For all they know, the drowned man was a scoundrel, and there is no guarantee that their resolutions will ever lead to anything, that the rose garden will become a reality. If One Hundred Years of Solitude mirrors the history of Latin America’s big hopes and bigger failures, is this story a boiled-down version of how the historical cycle begins?
The answer is no. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” is not so much a repetition of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a coda with a counterpoint theme. The story takes an even more unpromising situation than the one in Macondo and proposes a solution. The solution is the imagination, which might be circumscribed by circumstances but can be stimulated by outside influences, represented by the drowned man. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, an obsession with incest suggests cultural inbreeding and degeneracy; here, the villagers become kinsmen only through their imagined relationships with the corpse. What does it matter that the corpse is waterlogged, possibly a former scoundrel? He still inspires the villagers to see their desolate lives and try to fill them with beauty. He is the poor villagers’ Grecian urn.
As a story about the imagination, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” has some powerful undercurrents appealing to the unconscious. The drowned man’s long journey through the ocean deeps suggests the mysterious workings of the imagination. The drowned man is also an old motif in literature, where he frequently has positive associations, representing the preferred form of death (with overtones of baptism and spiritual rebirth, as in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, 1922) or even the triumph of the imagination over death (as in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, 1611: “Those are pearls that were his eyes”). Here the drowned man’s handsome looks symbolize such a triumph, as does his effect on the villagers. The story is a reminder that most of the people who inspire the world are dead.
Finally, one does not have to know anything about Latin American history, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the unconscious, or García Márquez in order to appreciate “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” The reader can readily enjoy this story without these outside references, which merely provide its rich context. It is, at heart, a fable of the imagination. The English version of the story is appropriately subtitled “A Tale for Children,” just as it is appropriate that the village children should discover the drowned man. They show the most imagination among the villagers, followed by the women, though ultimately everyone’s imagination is sparked.
When a large drowned man washes up on the beach of a tiny fishing village, his presence inspires the villagers to create fantastic stories about him and to improve their own lives as well.
Myth and the Human Condition
''The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World'' illustrates the collective human tendency to create myths. The form of the story makes clear that the ''long ago and far away'' setting of the story takes precedence over a reading of the story that places the village in an exact location or time period....
(The entire section is 1,230 words.)