Within the machismo culture in which Yunior grew up, there is an immense amount of importance placed on physical prowess. Yunior’s strength and physical fitness are how he measures up to and distinguishes himself from men like Beto and his father. In addition, in the absence of strong intellectual ability, ambition, or a college education, physical ability is the single attribute that Yunior could use to leave New Jersey, since it could enable him to join the army. Therefore, Yunior’s physique is the personal characteristic in which he takes the most pride and finds the most hope. And yet, throughout the story, both Yunior and the men he looks up to lose their perceived strength in various ways. Yunior begins to lose his physical prowess to age, while Yunior’s father’s violent temperament and Beto’s homosexuality cause Yunior to see them as weak. This loss of strength—both in himself and in his perception of his role models—is devastating, as it signals to Yunior that he has not only lost the people that matter to him, but also the ability to escape his circumstances.
Because Yunior learned how to be a man from watching and spending time with Beto, he came to recognize physical strength as the primary way to both impress Beto and see himself as equal to Beto. As such, Yunior is preoccupied with making clear how strong he and Beto were when they were younger. For example, Yunior explains that he and Beto used to eagerly await summer nights so that they could jump the fence into the pool and mess around with the other neighborhood teenagers. Jumping the fence is, by definition, an act that requires a large amount of upper body strength, but the two boys manage it without issue. Similarly, although Yunior’s relationship with his father is complicated by his father’s cruelty and violence, he still sees his father as an example of a physically strong man and a role model. Indeed, Yunior’s father’s strength and violent temper are the reasons that Yunior continues to respect him, joking to Beto that his father’s beatings are equivalent to serving jail time. Indeed, far from questioning the severity of his father’s punishments, Yunior sees them as an integral part of masculinity.
Yunior also views physical strength as one of the few youthful attributes that could have allowed him to leave New Jersey. Since he is not a good student and has very little ambition to get him away from home, Yunior views his physical prowess as his only possible route out of his neighborhood. For example, Yunior explains that when he was younger, an Army recruiter used to watch him run and often tried to get him to enlist. As a young man, Yunior didn’t feel the need to accept the recruiter’s proposition, but the fact that the recruiter tried many times to get Yunior to join up demonstrated that he had options. In addition, Yunior continually draws attention to how strong he still is. He notes that he “runs three miles easy, could have pushed a fourth if I were in the mood.” He also explains while swimming that he “can still swim far without coming up.” These callbacks to his youthful strength prove that, as he gets older and his life gets more unfulfilling, Yunior is all the more keen to remind himself that his strength still belongs to him.
Ultimately however, Yunior is surrounded by lost strength, both in himself and in the men that he used to view as the paragons of physical and emotional strength in his life. For example, when Yunior goes to the pool to look for Beto, he finds that the fence that he used to climb easily is now uncomfortably hard to scale and he is mocked by neighborhood children when he falls on his face after climbing over. In addition, as a young man, Yunior explains that he didn’t need the “discipline” and “loyalty” that the Army recruiter tried to sell him, but as he ages, and his “gut feels loose and cold,” he becomes more frantic to spot the recruiter again, sensing that he might have a waning chance of ever making it out of New Jersey if his strength fades completely.
Critically, Yunior’s concept of strength doesn’t just affect the way he sees himself—it also alters the way he thinks about Beto. While Yunior goes out of his way throughout the story to praise Beto’s charisma, stature, and physical prowess, he immediately contradicts these impressions after Beto sexually assaults him. For example, when he goes to find Beto the night after the assault, he notes that Beto’s body looked “pale and flabby under the water.” Because Yunior is disgusted both by Beto’s sexuality and his betrayal, he is also disgusted by any signs of his friend’s physical weakness. In addition, Yunior explains that, as he aged, his tacit respect for his father’s strength was replaced with full repulsion and resentment for his violent temper and the way he used it to terrorize Yunior and his mother. For example, Yunior bitterly recalls that his father gave him a brutal beating when he talked back to his mother in the aftermath of Beto’s assault. Already reeling from Beto’s betrayal, this second bastardization of physical strength made Yunior feel even more angry and alone.
All in all, Yunior’s attachment to physical strength as a marker of both successful manhood and lifelong fulfilment ultimately betrays him. Although he strives to be physically fit to measure up to Beto and stand up to his father, he eventually calls both men’s physical strength into question, and with it, everything that strength had come to mean to him: masculinity, virility, and purpose. Therefore, Yunior is left only with the idea of his own past strength, which he holds on to like a promise, reasserting his physical ability to excel beyond his circumstances even as his emotional and mental ability to do so is almost extinguished.
Physical Ability ThemeTracker
Physical Ability Quotes in Drown
I can still go far without coming up. While everything above is loud and bright, everything below is whispers.
He hated when I knew something he didn't. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn't tell him; he thought I didn't read, not even dictionaries.
“They don’t send you to jail for shoplifting. They just turn you over to your old man.”
These days my guts feel loose and cold and I want to be away from here. He won’t have to show me his Desert Eagle, or flash the photos of skinny Filipino girls sucking dick. He’ll only have to smile and name the place and I’ll listen.