The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World | Study Guide

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


The Discovery

A group of children see a "dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea," which they first believe is an enemy ship approaching. They realize that the shape does not have flags or masts, though, and they believe it might be a whale. The shape finally washes ashore, and the children remove the seaweed, jellyfish, and bits of fish and flotsam stuck to it, revealing a drowned man. The children play with the dead man's body all afternoon, until someone discovers them and alerts the village. The men who carry the dead man's body back to the village notice that he weighs as much as a horse and that he is taller than any other man they've known. They conjecture that perhaps the ability to keep growing after death is what happens after someone drowns. They can also tell before they even clean him up that he is a stranger, because the village is small and every man in it is accounted for.

The Mystery

That night the men do not go out to work at sea but instead visit neighboring villages to find out if anyone is missing. The women in the village take care of the drowned man by cleaning him up. They notice that the vegetation clinging to his body seems to come from distant oceans and that "his clothes were in tatters, as if he had sailed through labyrinths of coral." They also see that "he bore his death with pride," because he looks neither as lonely as other bodies that have come out of the sea nor needy like the look of men who drown in rivers. After the man's body is cleaned, he takes the women's breath away.

Naming the Drowned Man

The people of the village can't find a bed large enough or a table solid enough on which to lay him. Nor can they find clothes that will fit him. The women decide to make him pants from a large piece of a ship's sail and a shirt from leftover bridal linen. As the women sew, they wonder aloud at what it would have been like if the man had lived among them, comparing him to their own men and believing he would have had the happiest wife. The oldest woman present declares that the man "has the face of someone called Esteban." The other women agree; after his face is covered with a handkerchief, the man looks so much like their men "that the first furrows of tears opened in their hearts," and they begin weeping. When the men return and tell the women that the drowned man is not from any of the neighboring villages, the women rejoice, because it means he is theirs now.

The men, eager to be done with the burial of the drowned man, fashion a platform on which to carry his enormous body back to the sea. But the women delay the burial, adding tributes and religious relics to the drowned man. Finally, a woman who is frustrated with the attitude of the men removes the handkerchief from the drowned man's face. Suddenly the men, too, realize that he can only be Esteban, and they are struck by his "sincerity."

The Funeral

The village inhabitants then hold "the most splendid funeral they could ever conceive of for an abandoned drowned man." Some of the women go to get flowers from neighboring villages and return with other women who bring even more flowers. Everyone finds it so painful to return him to the sea as an orphan that they designate a mother and father and other family members for the drowned man. In the face of his handsomeness the people begin to realize how desolate their homes and towns are, as well as "the narrowness of their dreams." They drop him into the sea without an anchor so that he can come back whenever he wishes. The people know that everything will be different from now on and that their houses will have wider doors, higher ceilings, and stronger floors in Esteban's memory. They plan to create a garden on the cliffs so that in the future, passengers on great ships will notice it and that ships' captains will have to tell them that it is Esteban's village.


Interpretations and Meaning

The significance of the drowned man is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to the townspeople who discover the body. From the moment the children spot the corpse in the waves, perceptions and interpretations vary: is it an enemy ship? a whale? By shifting both the villagers' and the reader's first impression of the drowned man, García Márquez comments on the nature of symbolism and interpretation itself. Over the course of the story, the drowned man goes from being an unknown stranger, not even quite human—the town's men even refer to him as "meat"—to a man named Esteban who profoundly changes the way the town sees itself and its future. As a "nobody," the drowned man becomes a symbol on which all who encounter him project their hopes and dreams. For the children, he is a plaything. For the women, he is the handsomest, kindest man in the world. Eventually, even the men come to accept Esteban as full of "sincerity."

The story also illustrates the human tendency to create myths and legends in an attempt to explain the unknown. The story has the feeling of a myth or folktale, given its unbelievable elements that require the reader's suspension of disbelief. Even as they release the drowned man's body back to the ocean, the villagers begin to reimagine their town as a place to which he might someday return. Houses are brightly painted and their doors enlarged to accommodate his size, and flowers are planted in homage to his memory. García Márquez is suggesting the transformational potential that myths offer communities, inspiring people both to be better and to do better. The residents also ensure that the legacy of the myth will survive by making sure the ships that pass by know it as "Esteban's village."

The Effects of Magical Realism

True to the style of magical realism, García Márquez weaves in ordinary details alongside magical or fantastical ones. He is careful not to offer any explanations about the magical qualities of the story, nor to have the characters puzzle over them. For example, the fact that the drowned man is enormous incites possible disbelief on the reader's part, but for the characters, it is only a problem to be solved when it comes to his funeral.

The notion that the drowned man's name is Esteban originates with one old woman. "He has the face of someone called Esteban," she sighs, and the other women immediately agree with her. This belief is further cemented when the men finally see the drowned man's face and his name becomes fact among them. García Márquez again offers no explanation for the significance of the name or for the notion that it would be so quickly and widely accepted among the townspeople. As is typical of magical realism, García Márquez leaves the meaning behind the drowned man's name and where he came from open to interpretation and ambiguity. Although the way the drowned man is describes seems fantastical, García Márquez presents the fascination of the townspeople as ordinary. Because his arrival and appearance seem unexplainable to them, they invent an almost mythological story about his origins.

The Significance of Setting

The story is set in a time and place that is never disclosed to the reader, who must piece together clues from the imagery the narrator provides. Although the town is at first depicted as a small, barren, desertlike place on a cliff over the sea, the town's inhabitants begin to imagine a different way of life upon the arrival of the drowned man. As a result, the future of the town transforms. The possibility of the setting's transformation also reflects the transformation of the townspeople's perception of the drowned man. At first he is an inconvenience, a heavy burden, a "nobody" that is nothing more than a piece of "meat." Yet, anyone who sees his face is immediately moved by his apparent sincerity.

In this view García Márquez casts the setting of the story as a character itself that transforms over the course of the story. The fact that there are few individuals aside from the drowned man mentioned in the story underscores the depiction of the townsfolk as a single entity that transforms together. Just as the inhabitants appear dull and bored before the drowned man's arrival, the way the town as a setting transforms mirrors the awe and compassion the townspeople feel for the drowned man.

The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The children see something floating on the sea.

Rising Action

2 The drowned man washes ashore.

3 The men visit other villages to see if anyone is missing.

4 The women clean the drowned man.


5 The villagers named the drowned man Esteban.

Falling Action

6 The village holds a funeral for the drowned man.


7 The villagers imagine their future.

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