by Ralph Monday
Archetypes are Jungian patterns of human experience that are universally applicable to all people in every time and geographic locale. Jung names many of them in his works: the trickster figure, wise old man/woman, shadow, the mother and father image. These archetypes serve as symbolic psychological primal patterns of experience that attest to deep human needs. One such archetypal pattern that repeatedly occurs in human culture is that of the savior or messiah symbol. Marquez’s “The Drowned Man” depicts the raw power that such a primordial image can project onto the imaginations of a childishly eager fishing village in Latin America so that their psychological lives, at least in their imaginations, is greatly enhanced.
The first such inkling of the power that the symbol of the drowned man exhibits is evidenced by:
When they laid him on the floor they said he’d been taller than all other men because there was barely enough room for him in the house, but they thought that maybe the ability to keep on growing after death was part of the nature of certain drowned men. (Marquez 247)
In the villager’s minds, even after death, the drowned man continues to grow and enlarge. Of course, since Marquez comes from a Latin American Catholic background the archetypal parallel to the story of Christ, and its enormous growth over the ancient Roman empire, and expansion into much of the present day western world is readily apparent. In the imagination a dead man can grow and continue to exhibit enormous influence on the psychological realities of individuals as Christ and the drowned man do. The villagers are entranced by this motif for, …”they become aware of the kind of man he was and it left them breathless…even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination” (248). The drowned man has superseded all semblance of reality and is transfigured into a mythical image, larger than life, that will continually affect their psyches.
Furthermore, as the villagers gaze upon his still and eternally silent physical body, in their minds, he is capable of miracles: “They thought that he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names…that springs would have burst forth from among the rocks” (248). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14:13-21 where with only five loaves of bread and two fish the meager food supply is miraculously multiplied and nourishes the gathered hoard. For Marquez this is most likely equivalent to his epigram “A Tale for Children,” in that the feeding of the five thousand is commonly taught to children in Sunday School (247). Only children or childish minds could believe such a fantastic story, but this is exactly what the villagers do: make a living, miraculous story in their minds of a dead man unable to accomplish any real task or feat other than that manifested in the group psychology exhibited in the village. The drowned man has no power other than the energy given him by the group.
The transubstantiation of the mind is complete when the women begin to decorate the body with religious imagery:
…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…so that the men finally exploded with since when has there ever been such a fuss over a drifting corpse, a drowned nobody, a piece of cold Wednesday meat. (249)
The men are angry at this waste of time and resources, until they see the face of the drowned man, and then they, too, are swept into the panorama of the religious messiah, the archetypal hunger apparently inherent in human beings for some experience outside of themselves, grander than their own meager lives, that will triumphantly deliver them into a transcendent tomorrow simply by the power of belief. The mundane here and now is conquered by such an event. From this moment forward their lives are pointed toward paradise.
As an exclamation point to reinforce this archetypal symbolism, Marquez concludes his fairy tale with literally brilliant imagery. The all encompassing transcendent light which messiah motifs invariably embrace:
…in future years at dawn the passengers on great liners would awaken, suffocated by the smell of gardens of the high seas…he [the captain] would say in fourteen languages…over there, where the sun’s so bright that the sunflowers don’t know which way to turn, yes, that’s Esteban’s village. (251)
In death the drowned man’s triumph is symbolized by this great light emanating from the village where the villagers await his return, for the name Esteban means Crown of Victory, which is exactly what a savior archetype symbolizes, the ascent of the light over the darkness; whether it is only in the mind’s hopes and dreams is of no importance to the believer, for like Neo in The Matrix, the drowned man becomes the One.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Discovering Literature, third edition. Ed. Hans P. Guth, Gabriele Rico. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. 247-251.