This short story was written in 1968 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia, and protests discrimination symbolically through the story of a corpse that changes the lives of the villagers it encounters. Let's dig into it!
The story begins when a drowned man's body is found on the beach, near a small fishing village. This village is a coastal town with only about 20 houses between them, and the people who live there are very superstitious. The body is much larger than that of an average human, and no one in the village can identify the drowned man.
As the women observe the body, they realize he is very strong and beautiful—they grow attached to him very quickly, even naming him "Esteban". When the men announce that no one from the neighboring towns can identify or claim the corpse, the women celebrate and say that he now "belongs to them". The men don't understand why until they see the drowned man's face—they are also stunned to see his beauty and masculinity and believe that in life he must have struggled internally because of his size.
In this way, Esteban evolves from a simple bundle to become a precious idol of the community. Together, the town prepares a grand funeral for him. When they finally drop his body off a cliff to return it to the waves, they vow to change the way they live.
They promise to build their houses stronger and bigger to be big enough for a man like Esteban, and swear to paint their walls brighter colors, plant more flowers, and live more colorful lives in general.
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The 1960s were a time of political instability and drastic societal changes in Latin America. The youth had grown weary of systemic oppression present in many countries, and were speaking out about issues like discrimination and the suppression of basic freedoms by the military dictatorships that ruled many of the countries then.
Marquez was one such revolutionary, and expressed his radical ideas through his work—in this short story too, Marquez criticizes societal norms, the government, and the rampant discrimination present.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in 1927 in Colombia and worked for many years as a journalist in Latin America and Europe before settling in Mexico. He utilized many well-known traits of literature in his era, such as magical realism. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
García Márquez was exiled from Colombia for most of his adult life (mostly self-imposed) due to his anger and frustration over the widespread violence. He was a socialist and supported Fidel Castro—he maintained personal ties with the communist party in Colombia. He was repeatedly denied tourist visas to the United States because of his leftist leanings.
In 1975, Augustin Pinochet, the dictator, assumed control in Chile. García Márquez made a solemn vow that he would refrain from writing any new novels until Pinochet's regime was toppled. Unfortunately, Pinochet's oppressive rule endured for a daunting 17 years, and by 1981, García Márquez came to the realization that he had inadvertently let Pinochet's censorship stifle his creative expression.
The translation of the title itself points towards the theme of transformation—"El ahogado más hermoso del mundo" literally means "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World". The drowned man, initially a lifeless body washed ashore, becomes something extraordinary and captivating in the villagers' eyes. García Márquez uses this transformation as a symbol of the power of imagination and the potential for individuals or communities to change their perspectives when faced with the unfamiliar.
The discovery of Esteban's body brings the villagers together in a collective response. Despite being strangers to the drowned man, they unite to provide him with a dignified burial, reflecting their sense of communal responsibility and compassion. This shared experience reinforces the interconnectedness of the community, highlighting the power of collective action and solidarity during times of uncertainty and tragedy.
Esteban's presence fills a void in the villagers' lives, and he becomes a symbol of the missing piece that can complete them emotionally and spiritually. The villagers feel a strong emotional attachment to him, despite knowing nothing about his background, family, or personality. This highlights the human need for connection and belonging, even with someone who was initially perceived as an outsider.
The village and its inhabitants transform dramatically as the story progresses. In the beginning, the place is desolate-- there are no customs or traditions, or tangible culture present. As a result, the dissatisfaction in the lives of the residents is visible, which is why everyone is so enamored with the corpse when it washes up on the shore.
However, the residents see how much Esteban has changed them, and how much happier they are now in comparison to before he came to them. The residents vow to start living a more colorful life, and to start doing things that make them happy like painting their houses, planting flowers, etc.
There are several literary terms you can become familiar with, but here are some to get you started!
Hyperbole: "Si todos juntos de puntillas se hubieran puesto encima de él, apenas habrían podido tocarle la barba" - "If they had all stood on tiptoe, barely reaching up to his beard, they would not have been able to touch the drowned man."
García Márquez employs hyperbolic language to emphasize the magnitude of certain events or characteristics. This literary device adds a touch of exaggeration and drama to the narrative, and creates a surreal and enchanting atmosphere while exploring profound themes about human nature and the power of imagination.
Symbolism: "Encontraron a un ahogado, alto, blanco, con los ojos abiertos, mirando el fondo del mar donde habían crecido los pulpos más grandes del mundo" - "They found a drowned man, tall, with the eyes open, staring at the depths of the sea where the largest octopuses in the world swam."
García Márquez uses various such symbols to convey deeper meanings throughout the story. One prominent symbol is the sea, which represents both life and death, as well as the unknown and the potential for transformation.
García Márquez's masterful storytelling and his characteristic magical realism are evident in this story, which beautifully captures the complexities of human nature, the universal need for belonging, and the communal response to the extraordinary. Through this poignant tale, he weaves elements of fantasy and reality, inviting readers to contemplate the nature of perception, identity, and the impact of a stranger's presence on an isolated community.