'Strange Pilgrims' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Summary and Analysis of Major Themes

Strange Pilgrims , written by Marquez , is based on the literary technique called magic realism. Magic realism blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. In magic realism, the irrational is real and real is irrational. Magic realism often examines the character of human existence and makes an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite.

Magic realism

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the leading exponents of magic realism in the arena of literature. Garcia Marquez emerges as a master of magical realism. Based on the notion that there is no inherent driven between the natural and supernatural, magical realism juxtaposes detailed descriptions of mundane events with fantastical occurrences. 

In his writing, Marquez interweaves realistic ordinary events and descriptive details with fantastic and dreamlike elements as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales. In Strange Pilgrims Marquez also represents dreamlike magical events in a way that even the descriptive details achieve magical touch of brilliant imagination. The twelve stories of this volume embrace life’s oddness, its poetic incongruities whether they are joyous, disastrous or bewildering. The most effective of these stories feature the combination of fantasy, reality and tongue-in cheek hyperbole that characterizes the best of Garcia Marquez’s fiction.

Crisis in life

In Strange Pilgrims, Garcia-Marquez seems to write about ordinary people whose lives take strange twists and as a result they face the deep crisis in their life. The worlds his characters inhabit, the people around them, the very fabric of their existence seem to me utterly fantastic. Here the characters suddenly find themselves in situations that totally unbelievable.

Theme of exile

If there is a theme that connects all the twelve stories is the fact that all the stories seem to deal with Latin Americans traveling in Europe for one reason or another. Each of the stories touches on the theme of dislocation, and the strangeness of life in a foreign land, although quite what "foreign" means is one of Mr Garcia Marquez's central questions in this book. The protagonists of the twelve stories that compose Strange Pilgrims are all Latin Americans living abroad, but they are prey to the same demons, natural and supernatural, that haunted them at home. Political tyrants and careless bureaucrats take their places next to apparitions, wraiths, and specters in this bizarre world, where everything is larger than life and there is no real distinction between the real and the magical. Here Garcia Marquez shows how his Latin American characters try their best to survive on European soil. 

Their inspiration comes from Mr. Garcia Marquez's own life as a young man, and as an exile in Europe. All the stories are tales of transplanted South Americans or people from the Caribbean. This dislocation brings with it a particular haunting atmosphere -- of impermanence and strangeness, of nostalgia and regret -- that imbues even the slightest tales. They are set in Geneva and Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Naples and Vienna, cosmopolitan cities filled with transients and tourists, where the characters inhabit cheap hotels or miserable lodgings, and gather with fellow nationals in corner bistros and bars to bicker and chat. 

Strange beings

In Strange Pilgrims, Marquez tells the stories of some ordinary Latin Americans travelling in Europe. But the way he presents their life, Marquez most of the time turns his characters into strange beings.
Theme of death

Most of these marvellously eerie tales revolve around death: two boys get their wish when their martinet German governess is murdered; a new bride expires from a cut finger after a long car ride; and an aging prostitute plans her funeral after a prophetic dream. Set in Paris, Barcelona, Vienna and Geneva, the stories explore through the idea that death is the real home.

"Bon Voyage, Mr. President," 
Major themes:  Strange being,theme of exile, death, disease, old age, corruption of the Latin American rulers contrasted with the kind heartedness of the poor.

In "Bon Voyage, Mr. President," Homero and Lazara, a poor couple from the Caribbean living in Switzerland, befriend an ailing compatriot politician who is in Geneva for medical treatments. Homero, an ambulance driver for the hospital in which the corrupt deposed president is being cured, has arranged with a funeral parlor to hawk its services to mortally ill patients and plans to sell the former politician a complete package, "including embalming and repatriation." However, it soon becomes clear not only that the president will hang on a while but that he is dirt poor. 

Homero easily succumbs to the president's charisma and finesse, but his practical, tough-minded wife remains skeptical. Lazara is a Puerto Rican-born Yoruba princess with a fierce belief in the stars and uncanny insight. When, at a dinner the couple gives for him, the politician makes a point of showing his contempt for power, Lazara sees right through his pretense. But Lazara has a good heart, and she knows that the old man's days are numbered. In the end, they wind up nursing the president through his illness, even dipping into their meager savings to provide for his needs. Eventually, when the president's death seems imminent, they arrange for him to make a final trip home. The irony is that instead of dying, the president recovers enough to make a stab at returning to politics, attributing his opportunity for a second chance to his providential stay in Geneva. 

The Saint 

Major themes: Magical happenings, death, theme of exile,criticism of Roman Church, kind heartedness of the poor

In this volume, as in many of his early stories, Garcia Marquez often focuses on the innate goodness of the poor and the cynicism of the elite. Margarito Duarte, protagonist of "The Saint," is a native of the Colombian Andes who loses his seven-year-old daughter to a fever. Miraculously, the body does not decompose, and when the girl is disinterred, she is completely weightless and the coffin still smells of the roses with which she was buried. Convinced that his daughter is a saint, Margarito hauls the coffin to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life trying to convince the censorious Vatican bureaucracy to consider canonizing the girl. Garcia Marquez draws a sharp contrast between the devout, steadfast Colombian peasant, whose profound faith enables him to accept miracles unquestioningly, and the skeptical, scornful bureaucrats, who are reluctant to give him an audience. In the end, the narrator concludes that the saint is really Margarito, whose perseverance, patience, and undying hope make him a model of Christian virtue.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane

Major themes: Strange being,tongue in check humor,

Not all of these tales have such obvious political or sociological overtones. Many capture the magic of everyday existence--the enchantment of summer, the mystery of a suggestive glance, the beauty of a sleeping woman. In "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane," a Latin traveler is captivated by an exquisite, undefinable young woman who "could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean." The flight is delayed because of a snowstorm, and after spending hours contemplating Beauty in the lounge, the Latin American is thrilled to learn, when the passengers finally board, that he has been seated right next to her. However, the minute she settles in, the young woman takes two golden pills and falls into a deep sleep from which she does not awaken until the plane lands. Finding his designs thwarted, the traveler resigns himself to watching over her, pondering her enigmatic loveliness.

I Sell My Dreams

Major themes: Theme of death, Strange being,theme of exile.

Psychics, oracles, clairvoyants, and mystics abound in Garcia Marquez's writing. In "I Sell My Dreams," Frau Frieda is a Colombian woman raised in Austria, whose ability to foresee the future through dreams is her most marketable skill. During World War II, she makes a living by dreaming at night about her employer's family and determining the members' daily activities in accordance with her findings. After the war she holds a number of other positions in which her only duty is to dream. The charm of the story resides in the absolute naturalness with which Frieda and everyone else accepts her gift and in Frieda's combination of hard-nosed financial acumen and extrasensory powers.

"I Only Came to Use the Phone"

Major themes :Magical happenings, Crisis in life, grotesque and bizarre happenings

The bizarre turns grotesque in "I Only Came to Use the Phone," the hair-raising story of a young Mexican woman named Maria de la Luz Cervantes whose car breaks down in the desert on the road to Barcelona. After hitching a ride in a ramshackle bus full of women, she makes her way to a gloomy building where she asks to use the phone to call for help. The building turns out to be a hospital for female mental patients, and once inside, Maria is herded along with the other women by an Amazonian guard who silences her protests with a mighty blow. The realism with which Garcia Marquez describes the prison, the guards, the doctors, and the young Mexican woman herself intensify the nightmarish quality of this story, making Maria's never-ending ordeal seem completely plausible.

The Ghosts of August

Major themes- Strange happenings, ghost and apparition, death, children  

Whereas Garcia Marquez's adult protagonists sometimes strive to be rational, the children are usually joyfully intuitive and open-minded. In "The Ghosts of August," a Latin American couple and their children visit a Renaissance castle in Tuscany owned by the Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva. The husband and wife pooh-pooh the idea that the place is haunted, but their two young sons thrill to the idea of meeting some authentic ghosts.

According to local legend, Ludovico, a great patron of the arts and a former resident of the castle, stabbed his lover to death in one of the bedrooms, then turned his dogs on himself and was torn to bits. After midnight, Ludovico's ghost supposedly roams the corridors trying to find peace. When the foreign couple visits the bedroom where Ludovico was reputed to have committed his crime of passion, the husband is impressed by the scent of fresh strawberries that seems to hang in the air. 

After a sumptuous lunch and dinner, the children suggest wickedly that they spend the night in the castle. Despite their fears, the adults sleep well. "What foolishness," concludes the father upon awaking, "to still believe in ghosts in this day and age." But then he is shaken by the scent of strawberries and the realization that they are not in the first-floor bedroom, to which they had retired the night before, but in Ludovico's room, where the sheets are still soaked with his ladylove's blood.

MarĂ­a dos Prazeres
Major themes- strange being, death, disease, old age, crisis, theme of exile

Sometimes clairvoyants make mistakes. Maria dos Prazeres, protagonist of the story bearing her name, is another one of Garcia Marquez's earthy, energetic, no-nonsense women. A Brazilian mulatto living in Barcelona, Maria is an aging prostitute who is planning for her imminent death, which was revealed to her in a dream. She goes about the business of deciding on her funeral with matter-of-fact efficiency. She has already purchased her burial plot and taught her dog, Noi, who sheds real tears, to locate it in the cemetery and cry over her grave. She has also made arrangements for a neighbor girl to take care of him after she dies and to let him loose on Sundays so that he can visit her tomb. Then, one rainy night, she and Noi hitch a ride home to get out of the weather. Maria trembles in the darkness, certain that the mysterious man who gives them a lift and asks to come up to her apartment is the Grim Reaper himself. Then, to her delight, she realizes that he is not Death at all, but just another customer.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen 
Major themes- death, old age, strange happenings, 

Garcia Marquez's penchant for the grotesque is superbly evident in "Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen." Prudencia Linero arrives in Naples on a ship filled with Italian-born Argentines returning to their native land for a visit. On her way to Rome to see the pope, Mrs. Linero is met with a horrifying sight as she reaches Italian soil: An elegantly dressed corpse is floating face up in the water, a sight commented on with chilling indifference by one of the ship's officers. 

Much of the humor of the story derives from Garcia Marquez's wicked juxtaposition of extremes--for example, the contentment on the cadaver's face and the grandeur of his attire (his brocade vest, patent leather shoes, fresh gardenia, and the gift package he clutches) with the fact that he is dead, floating cold and abandoned in the ocean; the jubilance of relatives awaiting the arrival of their loved ones with the stench of rotting crabs; the extreme religious devotion of Mrs. Linero with the total cynicism of the ship's officers.

Although Mrs. Linero's eldest son had made arrangements for her to be met by the consul, she is abandoned at the port because, as one of the seamen informs her, "Even God goes on vacation in August." She makes her way to a small hotel, which she finds enchanting until the elevator stops at a floor where seventeen English tourists are dozing in easy chairs, "seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors:" Mrs. Linero is mortified at the "row of pink knees that [look] like slabs of pork hanging from hooks in a butcher shop" and demands to be taken to another floor.

As she waits for the chance to leave for Rome, omens accumulate and the carnivalesque atmosphere outside her window grows more intense. Finally, she is mortified once again by the sight of the seventeen Englishmen--only this time they are dead, poisoned by the oyster soup served to them at supper. 

Major themes- death, strange happening, crisis

In "Tramontana," Garcia Marquez builds a sense of impending tragedy by announcing repeatedly the arrival of the tramontana, "a harsh, tenacious wind" that blows in the vicinity of Barcelona and "carries in it the seeds of madness." The story's characters define themselves by their attitudes toward the tramontana. The rowdy, vulgar, icily rational Swedish tourists mock the locals' terror of the wind, while the young Caribbean who once made his living singing Antillean songs in a fashionable bar is paralyzed with fear. Having survived the tramontana once before, the young man is convinced that the next time he is caught in it, he will die.

As a Caribbean who has witnessed raging hurricanes, he knows the power of nature and other forces beyond human control, but the cerebral Swedes are determined to cure "him by force of his African superstitions" by taking him back to Cadaques, where the windstorm is about to hit. As often occurs in Garcia Marquez's fiction, belief is more potent than reason. The tramontana achieves its deadly end, although in an unexpected way.

Forbes's Summer of Happiness  
Major themes- death, strange being, children

In "Miss Forbes's Summer of Happiness," two Colombian children spend an enchanted summer in Sicily, where the folktales and superstitions of the locals ignite their imaginations and fill their heads with mischief. Their freedom comes to an end, however, when an austere German nanny named Miss Forbes arrives to supervise their activities. Obsessive and militaristic, Miss Forbes endeavors to turn every experience into a lesson. But behind the harsh exterior, she hides a passionate nature that the boys never suspect. Finally, they discover that all the while she has been carrying on a torrid love affair.

Light is Like Water 
Major themes- strange happening, children, death

Popular belief has it that children are especially receptive to magic, and so it is not surprising that several of Garcia Marquez's stories revolve around youngsters. In "Light Is like Water" two Colombian boys living in Madrid beg for a rowboat so that they can row and skin-dive just as they did in their native Cartagena. As there are no navigable waters in the vicinity, the parents at first resist, but in the end, they buy the boat, complete with sextant and compass. The parents assume that the children will keep the gift for their return home, but the boys soon discover that by filling the apartment with electric light, they can actually float because "light is like water."

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow 
Major themes- death, theme of exile, strange happening, crisis

"The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow" depicts the opposite extreme of the social spectrum. Billy Sanchez, the spoiled son of a rich Colombian, is honeymooning with his bride, Nena Daconte, in Europe, when the girl inexplicably pricks herself with a thorn and bleeds to death. When the wound initially occurs, Billy is too self-absorbed to pay much attention, but he finally realizes that something is seriously wrong and deposits his young wife in a hospital in Paris. 

Far from his own world, in which the extraordinary and irrational are commonplace but in which he nevertheless feels perfectly in control, Billy is now thrust into the absurdities of the highly rational. (For example, the Parisians park on the side of the street with even-numbered houses on even-numbered days and on the other side on odd-numbered days; hospital visits are permitted only on Tuesdays.) Billy becomes so confused and disoriented that when Nena dies, he is wandering through Paris in a daze while doctors, ambassadors, authorities, and relatives try to locate him. 

Billy's search for a sense of direction is a step toward maturation. But Billy is more than an individual; he is an archetype of the wealthy, upper-class Latin. Billy missed out on the only significant event of his life because he was "out of touch," just as the class he represents is missing out on the changes in society because it is out of touch with the common people and with those things that really matter.


Throughout the book Garcia Marquez presents many images that are beautiful or disturbing, but often memorable.” Strange Pilgrims" is a varied collection of weird treats from a master storyteller. These 12 tales perfectly define the genre of 'magical realism’. These tales knit together Mr. Garcia Marquez's natural storytelling talents with his highly tuned radar for images that bridge the world of reality and the world of dreams. Such bizarre, hallucinatory scenes in "Strange Pilgrims" will remind the reader of the plague of insomnia and the rain of yellow blossoms in "One Hundred Years of Solitude,". By and large Mr. Garcia Marquez's sheer ability to hold and enthrall, along with the unifying theme of exile and the pervasive moody atmosphere of "abroad" that characterize "Strange Pilgrims," make it a fascinating and memorable work of magic realism.