(Short Story) The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Reaction) Drowning in Thought by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion
View other reactions on works by Garcia Marquez.
The power of myth-making and story-telling is an achievement in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World. The story begins with the discovery of a floating corpse out at sea that eventually shores on this humble village's beach. The drowned man, being not of the village, became merely a curiosity for the villagers as they inspected his remains. The villagers recognized and acknowledged him as a stranger among them, "...when they found the drowned man they simply had to look at one another to see that they were all there." None of them knew this drowned man, nor had they ever seen him before.
However, later on in the story, a change occurs in the villagers that is most definitely the product of mythologizing. "So when the men returned with the news that the drowned man was not from the neighboring villages either, the women felt an opening of jubilation in the midst of their tears. 'Praise the Lord,' they sighed, 'he's ours!'"
The question to ask, therefore, is: "Why did these villagers elate themselves over this drowned man and assume that a perfect stranger was one of them?" The answer to that question lies in the area of land the village is situated. It is said that, "[t]here was so little land that mothers always went about with the fear that the wind would carry off their children and the few dead that the years had caused among them had to be thrown off the cliffs." This then shows the lack of worldly knowledge that the villagers have.
It also shows their state of living, particularly living in fear and uncertainty. They knew nothing besides their own way of life and living. They have been confined. It is no wonder then that, "...there was no room for him in their imagination."
The drowned man could not fit into anything they owned, whether they were the beds, the houses, the doors, the clothes. True enough the drowned man did not fit in their world at all. He could be perceived as an alien of sorts, or an outsider. He became an object of mystery and curiosity, someone removed from reality. Hence he was attributed with very ideal and almost divine qualities. He is imagined as a man, quite literally, larger than life - their standard of living. "...his house would have had the widest doors, the highest ceiling, and the strongest floor..." They raised him above their own standards of how men should behave and act, "[t]hey 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." And they attributed to him the character and demeanor of the humblest and kindest of men.
They gave the drowned man a name, Esteban, a Spanish name that means "crown." Furthermore, the act of naming someone can be seen as an act of giving value or importance to another. Such as when we name our children, the name gives them a sense of importance and a sense of character. Compared to how we number our pencils, paper drafts, or innovative designs, names contain a sense of soul and life. The act of naming can also be an attribution of personal or public status, as when we name our president, or when a king dubs a knight, or when pet names are given to loved ones. To refer to the drowned man as "the drowned man" is completely different from referring to him as Esteban.
This adoration of Esteban reaches such great heights that the women practically treated him as a divine being. "...the men began to feel mistrust in their livers and started grumbling about why so many main-altar decorations for a stranger, because no matter how many nails and holy-water jars he had on him, the sharks would chew him all the same, but the women kept piling on their junk relics..." The altar in this scene has been transformed into a sort of shrine due to the attention the women have given to Esteban's corpse.
The villagers have seemed to forgotten that Esteban is merely another man. He is different, yes, but a simple man nonetheless - one of whom they really know nothing about. But this simple man, through his humble yet magnanimous appearance and the proud look on his pale face, awakened something inside the villagers, something that had long been asleep. "...men and women became aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams as they faced the splendor and beauty of their drowned man."
As with all myths, this copulation of both wonder and mystery is what often stirs the hearts of man. It is how we view celebrities, with their glamorous, yet mysterious lifestyle. We hardly know anything about them, and yet we elevate them so much in our heads. It is how we view certain politicians, sports icons, and even writers. We elevate their status above other men because they command a certain presence. Like Esteban, there is no room for these celebrities in our imagination. And when our imagination is blown away, we too often get carried away. Such is the power of myth in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's story, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.
When I look at how we, as human beings, often divinize other human beings, I am oftentimes reminded of our religious beliefs. Probably one of the most mysterious beings in the entire universe would be a creator. Stories such as these beg the question, "What can one really attribute to God?" Is God truly all-good? Is he the sum of all our noblest and grandest ideals? Or do our terms and definitions fall short?
Like God, Esteban's mere presence commands that attention. He is the handsomest. He is so huge that he cannot fit our beds, our houses - our definitions? Yet we give him attributions. We confine him within certain parameters through guess-work, reliant on nothing but faith. And even as we know that our definitions, practices, and traditions are dependent on such a loose thing as faith, we forget it. Faith is not bounded on certainty. On the contrary, faith is bounded on uncertainty. We cannot say that we have leaped off a cliff in faith if we know that it is only five feet to the nearest ledge.
This, I think, is a problem constantly faced by society. When we begin to idolize and adore celebrities, icons, or even divine revelations, we forget that we see only a glimpse of these people, these beings. All our eyes perceive are flashes. We cannot pin down one's character through a single or a few noble or scandalous acts. Sometimes one has to dig deeper to truly get to know these celebrities. And most of the time, many have to remember that they are all just normal human beings. The same, I believe, goes with the divine. To pin down something infinite within the confines of a finite reality falls short of the real thing.