Essay on Magical Realism
Magical realism is a genre that challenges notions of the real by incorporating elements of the marvellous into everyday ‘realities’. This is not to say that magical realist texts are disconnected from reality or lacking political motivation, in fact, they have strong social relevance. Fantastic elements in literature can serve to call attention to social untruths, rather than distract the reader from such issues. For instance, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez utilizes and takes to extreme the exoticism of Latin America to show that it is precisely this kind of mythologizing that can lead to cultural miss-representation. The power of language to influence our perception of the world is also examined in its capacity to shape historic fictions. Thomas King comments on the effects of storytelling in Green Grass, Running Water, examining the fluidity of Native American histories, stereotypes, and mythologies. Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, historic ghosts manifest as just that – as literal ghosts, given voice through magical realist texts. In this way the genre has the potential to give voice to the marginalised, and those who have been written out of history. Feminist writers have also revised the role of the female through magical realism. Jeanette Winterson blurs male and female voice throughout the narrative in Sexing the Cherry, to challenge gender ideologies and images of femininity. This feature of magical realism, to expose social assumptions surrounding race and gender, is important in breaking down hierarchies that would seek to suppress minority groups. By acknowledging the silences in literature, and in history, magical realists can destabilize ideologies that have become normalized, and reveal the power of language to construct identity and shape our perception of the world.
A MATTER OF PERCEPTION
The definition for magical realism listed in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms is “a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the reliable tone of objective, realistic report” (Baldick, C. 2004). This is evident in Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sexing the Cherry and Green Grass, Running Water as they all give very descriptive, report-like accounts of events, dispersed with fantastic occurrences. The tone of each novel remains matter-of-fact despite strange manifestations, bizarre events and mysterious incidences. For example, Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven in One Hundred Years of Solitude while hanging out the washing, but the extraordinary event is portrayed as a perfectly normal occurrence in Macondo. As Anne C. Hegerfeldt observes, “magical realist fiction installs realism by suggesting that its world is a reflection of reality as represented in non-fictional types of discourse. In fact, some magic realist works overtly imitate non-fictional genres such as history or biography, thereby invoking the realist tradition even more strongly” (Hegerfeldt, A.C. 2005, p.76). This is certainly evident in Sexing the Cherry and One Hundred Years of Solitude, which are written as biography and historic fiction respectively. In this way they claim to be authoritative, utilizing traditionally realist techniques, but also adding elements of fantasy to distort and challenge cultural realities. Joan Mellen elaborates: “There is no justification for enlisting magic realism unless there is a larger truth which cannot be reached but for distortion of ordinary social realism. Magic realism at its best relies not upon flights of fantasy but on particular fusion of fact and fantasy in the service of a quest for meaning” (Mellen, J. 2000, p.6). Such allegory is present in each of the above-mentioned texts, as well as in Thomas King’s novel, Green Grass, Running Water in which truths are presented as unstable. King demonstrates this within the novel as stories are interrupted and retold in a manner that undermines the reliability of the narration. Similarly in Beloved, the story being told is presented as a series of disjointed memories, which, despite being quite descriptive, are unreliable because of the nature of reminiscence. There are so many factors that can distort ones recollections, and so despite the appearance of authority through matter-of-fact narration, there is also an underlying question of whether literature accurately communicates truths, or just alludes to it.
Time is often a key motif of magical realist fiction, because of its historical and ideological relevance. As Maria-Elena Angulo elaborates, “complex Latin American realities are presented through the juxtaposition of real and marvellous semantic categories…many social, historical, political and ideological issues are treated through the questioning of the enunciation and the use of imagination, and by breaking the barriers of time and space” (Angulo, M.E. 1995, p.34). These barriers are transgressed regularly throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude as generations of Buendias interact with each other, their stories overlapping and identities becoming distorted. Time is skewed and therefore so is the reliability of historic points in time. According to Christopher Heathcote, magical realists replace sedate naturalism with something slightly more disorienting, dream-like and unreal in order to inspect the strange, nonsensical and weirdly-patterned histories of the world (Heathcote, C. 1998). In this way Márquez is able to challenge the authority of history, showing the parallels between history and the construction of fiction. The authority of time and its link with reality is also raised in Sexing the Cherry. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel is particularly relevant:
“The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?
Matter, that thing the most solid and the well known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?” (Winterson, J. 2001, p.8)
Time is supposed to be consistent and reliable and yet we discover through magical realism that it is not. Within the novel time shifts and lurches, like a dream, and the identity of the narrator becomes unclear as a result of these shifts. Similarly, the value of history to hold truths about the world is brought under attack as Winterson blends the marvellous with an historic account of seventeenth century England. The question this raises is: if she can use language to distort reality then how can history be safe from the same alteration? History is written by the dominant forces, reinforced through storytelling and hierarchies maintained through the creation of cultural identities. Perhaps this is why cultural minorities such as Latin, African, and Native Americans have been so motivated to reclaim agency of their cultural identities.
Magical realism has long been associated with Latin America as it was popularized by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier. As María-Elena Angulo acknowledges, the ideological preoccupation that many Latin American writers seem to have, may stem from a need to define their culture within the western context (Angulo, M.E. 1995, p.9). Indeed, just as King seeks to revise Native American representations, and Morrison identifies African American stereotypes, Márquez explores the identity of Latin America as perceived by western society in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Playing off the exoticism that westerners have come to associate with Latin America, Márquez transfers this into marvellous happenings, which he presents as normal. In interviews Márquez has maintained that this sort of phenomena is part of Latin reality: “I suddenly realised that I wasn’t inventing anything at all but simply capturing and recounting a world of omens, premonitions, cures and superstitions that is authentically ours…I was able to write One Hundred Years of Solitude simply by looking at reality, our reality” (cited in Mellen, J. 2000, p.4). What he is referring to are the myths that are embedded in Latin culture, and the differing perceptions of reality. His novel offers something other than western portrayals of exotic cultures, thus reclaiming agency for Latin America.
One Hundred Years of Solitude traces the founding and destruction of Macondo, as recounted through the tales of several generations of Buendias. Gipsies, bringing the latest in scientific advancements, signal the towns first encounter with the outside world. The bringing of ice is the first mystery they present. Curiously, the inhabitants of Macondo find the ice marvellous, whereas we regard it as a common phenomena.
Mellen explains: “The author employing magic realism searches out hidden potential in the natural world or in human actions, and often describes the commonplace as mysterious. Reality seems to be deformed, but the reader perceives essential truths as a result of this distortion” (Mellen, J. 2000, p.1). This scene is the first of many to distort notions of reality by presenting the common as marvellous, and the marvellous as ordinary. The conclusion of the novel is no exception, as it sees the curse of inbreeding strike Amaranta Ursula as she gives birth to a child with a pig’s tale. This distortion of the human body mimics the distortion of reality that occurs in Márquez’s novel, as well as the distortion of the Latin American identity. It could be argued that through misrepresentation and exoticism, the cultural reality of Latin America has become warped throughout generations of ideological portrayals. Using magical realism to express this point, Márquez challenges the reader to question the foundations of such stereotypes.
In Sexing the Cherry, Winterson draws upon magical realist techniques in order to question our perception of history, identity and reality. She tells many tales within the novel, each one merging with another, the narrator’s identity becoming unclear or warped. As in Green Grass, Running Water, this serves to alert the reader to shifting levels of reality and varying interpretations of events. In the same way, ideologies that accompany constructions of reality are revealed as assumptions rather than normative aspects of the world. Winterson uses this to challenge ideologies associated with femininity, and incorporates other traditional stories such as the fairytale into her text in order to subvert gender stereotypes. Such intertextuality is one of the things that separates magic realism from fantasy literature as it grounds the text in reality to assert its political relevance. As Suzanne Baker notes, magical realist literature is linked with the “real” world by being grounded in recognizable reality through social, historical and political references (Baker, S. 1993, p. 83). Indeed, Winterson’s characters live in a richly textual world with historic signposts marking their location in time. It is through the story of twelve dancing princesses that Winterson challenges the role of the female by revising fairytale motifs. Drawing upon the readers assumed knowledge of fable, Winterson tells the story of twelve princesses and their problematic marriages, thus subverting the ‘happily ever after’ tale. The first princess recalls the story of her and her sisters: “He had eleven brothers and we were all given in marriage, one to each brother, and as it says lived happily ever after. We did, but not with our husbands” (Winterson, J. 2001, p.48). Each story shatters the elusion of love, loyalty and kindness associated with the fairytale ending of a royal marriage. Here we learn that the princesses did not need rescuing or husbands to provide for them, they were perfectly happy when they were free of patriarchal rule. Obviously this is a very different approach to the traditional fairytale. What Winterson does is reveal the transformative nature of storytelling and its ability to reinvent our notion of reality and normalcy.
Self-reflexivity is a common aspect of magic realism, and one that Winterson uses to comment on the power of language to instruct and shape reality. In the following passage from Sexing the Cherry,language is given physical form to show its tangible impact on society:
“Words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.
The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious raw sought to bring the original antagonists to court. The men responsible made their defense that the words no longer belonged to them” (Winterson, J. 2001, p.17).
This symbolically demonstrates the influence of language on our lives. Here the words literally linger in the sky to form a barrier of language that refuses to be revised, or cleaned away. This kind of imaginative representation is presented as commonplace, with the mention of lawsuits and jobs, reminding the reader that this is not an occurrence in some far off land. It is an acknowledgement of the function of language to create realities, and shape our perception of the world. Anne C Hegerfeldt elaborates:
“Legend becomes reality and fairy tales fact, stories make history, dreams and fears are tangible, and metaphors true. For all there apparent heterogeneity, the magic realist techniques examined above fulfill a similar function: each in their own way, they suggest that reality is not merely a matter of the physical senses and empirical observation, but that other, non-material factors such as language and belief also enter into human constructions of the world, and must therefore be acknowledged” (Hegerfeldt, A.C. 2005, p.279).
Such meta-fiction and symbolism is also raised in Green Grass, Running Water with a revisionary purpose. The nature of language to shape and revise reality is explored through the water theme, earthquake and flood at the end of the novel, which symbolizes the destabilizing of mythologies and the washing away of ideologies that disempowered the Indians. The imagery in the text mimics the fluid nature of storytelling, with the flood altering the landscape just as literary landscapes shift. King also uses narration to indicate that all storytelling, even those stories that seek to subvert traditions, has the ability to mislead. In a self-reflective moment that overtly asks the reader to question the meaning of the text, King writes: “All this floating imagery must mean something,” (King, T. 1994, p.391). Similar comments are made regularly throughout the novel by trickster figures like Coyote and the old women as the reader is encouraged to think about the nature of storytelling. When Coyote is asked where he gets all his strange notions regarding myth he replies, “I read a book” (King, T. 1994, p.387). But the mythologies he is drawing upon don’t fit the story he is meant to be telling and so he is told to “forget the book” and focus on a different narrative and set of beliefs. This demonstrates that no matter how ancient the belief no story represents absolute truth, and no ideology or model of identity is absolutely accurate. There is always room for reinterpretation.
RECLAIMING CULTURAL IDENTITY
One of the key functions of magical realism is its ability to challenge cultural stereotypes. As Toni Morrison relates, “my work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world… for me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into another. It is for the purpose of the work, becoming.” (Morrison, T. 1992, pp. 1005 - 1006). Indeed, for many authors of magic realism, issues of identity are of great importance, with many writers using the genre to reclaim agency of racial perceptions. One of the key issues addressed in Green Grass, Running Water is that of identity and how it can be shaped by ideologies and myth. King presents characters that challenge dominant social assumptions regularly throughout the novel, in an acknowledgement of the nature of storytelling to shape realities and its ability to mislead through misrepresentation. Alberta struggles with her role as a partner, wishing to be a mother but not necessarily a wife. The common assumption is that the maternal instinct should coincide with a desire to get married, and this is a problem for the self-sufficient Alberta. Similarly, both Lionel and Eli struggle with their Indian heritage and the stereotype that dogs them. Symbolic scenes in the novel comment on the influence of western ideology to shape these stereotypes, and the lack of voice given to authentic Indian culture:
“Lionel settled into the chair…everybody wanted to run his life for him, as if he couldn’t do it himself. Even the old Indians. There was nothing on but a western. Lionel settled farther into the chair and closed his eyes. On the screen, an Indian danced his horse in the shallows of a river. On the bank, four old Indians waved their lances. One of them was wearing a red Hawaiian shirt. But Lionel saw none of this” (King, T. 1994, p.242 – 243).
This scene is followed by four more accounts of characters associating with western portrayals of cowboys and Indians. What this demonstrates is the reach of these stereotypes to shape cultural identities. In the above-mentioned scene, Lionel is given the chance to recognize a variation of the Indian stereotype, as he watches one of the ‘fixed’ movies by the four mysterious old Indian women. But he misses the red shirt and therefore misses its significance. This is just one of the many challenges to dominant assumptions, made possible by the marvellous boundary hopping that Coyote and the old Indians demonstrate. I would argue that this boundary hopping between mythologies allows for the reinvention of long standing assumptions that would suppress certain groups within society. Magical realism allows for this by opening up reality to the transformative aspects of storytelling, and using the marvellous to unhinge social truths.
King also uses humour to highlight the absurdity that particular stereotypes are representations of reality. Having four mysterious woman adopt the names of well known ultra-masculine figures (Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye) challenges the reader to examine the underlying facts of such stereotypes, by pointing out the absurdity that such representations are accurate models of Indians and cowboys. What this reminds the reader is that myth can always mislead; therefore any character representations or ideologies imbedded in such stories should be taken as fiction, not fact. As Coyote is informed, “There are no truths, Coyote. Only stories” (King, T. 1994, p.432). Traditional stereotypes like that of Western cowboys and Indians are again revealed as ridiculous, through the story of Portland. As an actor, Portland had many roles as a non-descript Indian, but only after changing his name to Iron Eyes Screeching Eagle. “Iron Eyes Screeching Eagle. What an imagination!” Lillian remarks in the story (King, T. 1994, p.165). This highlights the absurdity of western assumptions about the Indian culture, but also the fact that Portland felt he had to change his identity in order to fit into western society. This is also raised in Beloved, as Paul D reflects on the white view of Negroes:
“The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from another (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew” (Morrison, T. 2000, p.259).
This demonstrates the influence of white colonial propaganda on identity and the hierarchies that are generated through such stereotyping. As Bourdieu acknowledges, “social subjects comprehend the social world which comprehends them. This means they cannot be characterized simply in terms of material properties, starting with the body, which can be counted and measured like any other object in the physical world.” (Bourdieu, P. 1979). In order to combat this misrepresentation, magical realism can be used to reveal assumptions by presenting unstable realities, in which the fantastic creeps into everyday life without being noted as anything out of the ordinary. By demonstrating that there is no absolute truth, only differing interpretations of reality, authors of magical realism can revise these cultural myths and uncover the absurdity of certain stereotypes.
Ideologies and stereotypes become reinforced through repetition, in this case through mythology. We see this occur in Green Grass, Running Water through the polarization of western and Indian culture and the stereotyping of Indians through film and other forms of storytelling. King explores this in the comical conversation between Old Woman and Nasty Bumppo, where in Bumppo recites all the ‘gifts’ of the Indians and those of Whites:
“Indians have quick reflexes. Indians don’t talk much. Indians have good eyesight. Indians have agile bodies. These are all Indian gifts…Whites are patient. Whites are spiritual. Whites are cognitive. Whites are philosophical. Whites are sophisticated. Whites are sensitive. These are all white gifts” (King, T. 1994, p.434).
Old Woman acknowledges the misconception being presented to her by replying, “So, Whites are superior and Indians are inferior”, to which Bumppo replies, “Exactly right”(King, T. 1994, p.435). Of course none of the supposedly Indian characteristics Bumppo is reciting are accurate, they are stereotypical qualities assigned by white people. King includes these sorts of conversations regularly throughout the novel to point out the absurdity of such misrepresentations, and the obvious hierarchies that are being created. This undermines the idea that mythology represents accurate portrayals of reality, and asserts that, in fact, it reinforces untruths through repetition.
The obscurity of identity seems to be a common feature in the four magical realist texts that I have examined throughout this essay, and it can be explored further through the examination of names. In Beloved, names are regularly based on the traits or description of the person. For example, Schoolteacher, Here Boy, Crawling Already, and of course, Beloved. The same occurs in Green Grass, Running Water with characters such as Coyote, Changing Woman and Thought Woman all being acknowledged by their appearance or nature. Similarly, Dog Woman is also ambiguously named, in Sexing the Cherry. We learn early on that it is not her real name, that she used to have another, but has since adopted the rather derogative title of Dog Woman. It is the identity that others perceive of her that has become her persona, and this is a significant point of observation because of the comment it makes about identity. The point is made clear in Beloved, when Sethe recalls Sixo’s retort to being accused of stealing: “Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (Morrison, T. 2000, p.248). This suggests that such misrepresentation can become a reality with time, even to those being defined. As Sinfield points out, “the strength of ideology derives from the way it gets to be common sense… for its production is not an external process, stories are not outside ourselves, something we just hear or read about. Ideology makes sense for us – of us – because it is already proceeding when we arrive in the world, and we come to consciousness in its terms” (Sinfield, A. 1992). If ideologies regarding cultural minorities are continually reinforced then essential truths can be lost, and hierarchies become normalised. All of these characters have a certain mystery about them, and so the reader is encouraged to make assumptions about them based on the brief descriptions given within the novel. But as magical realism demonstrates, social realities are easily broken down by the mere fact that everything is open to interpretation, which is why many of the characters are not all that they appear on the surface.
The female grotesque is explored in Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry to confront the reader with the shocking alternative of hegemonic femininity. The central character, Dog Woman, is portrayed as an unusually large and frightening woman, with little feminine charm or beauty. “How hideous am I?” she asks the reader. “My nose is flat, my eyebrows are heavy. I have only a few teeth and those are a poor show, being black and broken. I had smallpox when I was a girl and the caves in my face are home enough for fleas” (Winterson, J. 2001, p.24). This passage blatantly asks the reader to apply their ideologies about femininity to the character in question and determine her beauty, and in doing so, encourages reflection on female identity. Dog Woman’s world is one of entertainment and caricature, where the unreal is part of everyday life. She breeds and fights dogs for money, and associates with prostitutes in a world of burlesque and mysticism. Mary Russo observes this portrayal as a key way of calling attention to the elusions of reality: “The masks and voices of carnival resist, exaggerate, and destabilize the distinctions and boundaries that mark and maintain high culture and organized society” (Russo, M. 1994). Certainly, the fabulous presentation of Dog Woman’s life allows for reinvention of dominant gender roles, as the text plays with notions of normalcy. In Dog Woman, Winterson uses magical realism to exaggerate social fears of strong, authoritative, sexual women who resist male dominance, and this is an important step in breaking down hierarchies within society.
In conclusion, magic realism is key to the destabilization of racial and gender ideologies. Through the fusion of fantasy with realism it allows for the exploration of alternate perceptions of the world, offering different views of history and identity, and giving voice to cultural minorities. Through self-reflexivity and meta-fiction, magic realism reveals the instructive nature of language as well as its fluidity, which allows for the crucial revision of cultural ideologies.
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Morrison, T. 2000, Beloved, Chivers Press, UK, pp. 3 – 360.
Winterson, J. 2001, Sexing the Cherry, Vintage, London, UK, pp. 8 – 144.
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Baker, S. 1993, ‘Binarisms and duality: Magic realism and post-colonialism’, in SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference, vol. 1, no. 36, p. 83.
Baldick, C. 2004, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, New York, US, p. 146.
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Hegerfeldt, A.C. 2005, Lies That Tell the Truth: Magic Realism Seen Through Contemporary Fiction From Britain, Rodopi, New York, US, pp. 76 – 279
Mellen, J. 2000, Literature Topics: Volume 5, Magic Realism, Gale Group, New York, US, pp. 1 – 6.
Morrison, T. 1992, ‘Playing in the Dark’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd edition), J Rivkin & M Ryan (eds), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, p. 1005.
Russo, M. 1994, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity, Routledge, New York, US, p. 62.
Sinfield, A. 1992, ‘Cultural Materialism, Othello, and the Politics of Plausibility’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd edition), J Rivkin & M Ryan (eds), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, p. 745.