An Introduction to Magical Realism

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magical realism: "an unexpected alteration of reality [. . .] an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality" (Alejo Carpentier)

More specifically, magical realism achieves its particular power by weaving together elements we tend to associate with European realism and elements we associate with the fabulous, and these two worlds undergo a "closeness or near merging."

According to Wendy Faris this takes two forms:

  • an epistemological one, where "the nuances stem from an observer’s visions"
  • an ontological one, "in which America is considered to be itself marvelous"

In other words, magical realism can achieve its effects by either making marvelous a certain character's perceptions and/or by making the setting itself marvelous.

Characteristics of magical realism include five primary traits:

  1. An "irreducible" magic which cannot be explained by typical notions of natural law.
  2. A realist description that stresses normal, common, every-day phenomena, which is then revised or "refelt" by the marvelous. Extreme or amplified states of mind or setting are often used to accomplish this. (This distinguishes the genre from pure myth or fantasy.)
  3. It causes the reader to be drawn between the two views of reality.
  4. These two visions or realms nearly merge or intersect.
  5. Time is both history and the timeless; space is often challenged; identity is broken down at times.

Secondary characteristics often included are:

  1. The work is often metafictional or self-referential.
  2. The text may employ a "verbal magic" where metaphors are treated as reality.
  3. Phenomenological states may include the primitive or childless that seem to dislocate our initial perceptions/understandings.
  4. Repetition, as well as mirror reversals, are employed.
  5. Metamorphoses take place.
  6. Magic often is used against the established order.
  7. "Ancient systems of belief and local lore often underlie the text."This results in a respect (however complicated) for local faith.
  8. Collective symbols and myths rather than individual ones haunt the work.
  9. The fiction in form and language often embraces the carnivalesque.

Magical realism, then, calls on certain reading strategies:

  • Magical realism has a tendency to defamiliarize the scene for readers; readers learn that they have not come entirely ready to understand the situation, that what we thought we knew is found to be strange, for it has something entirely unexpected to teach us.
  • Magical realism’s readers learn "border skipping" because they must move between fabulism and European realism (Rowland Wilson).
  • Magical realism in some forms can be understood as a post-colonial move that seeks to resist European notions of naturalism or realism.  At times, it calls for a deep hybridity of cultures and reading experiences.

[Much of this material is taken from Zamora, Lois Parkinson and Wendy B. Faris. Ed. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding