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Healing Through Fantasy: The Role of the Fantastical in a Modern World

Updated on March 17, 2015

While there certainly remain mysteries in life, compared to even a century ago, humans know so much about how the world works. Often superstition, stories, and the fantastical are used to account for the unexplainable. So, with so much already explained, why do fantastical elements persist in stories? Two stories incorporating fantasy and magical realism are Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. Although the two stories are quite different—the first being a mostly realistic with a few fantastical moments, and the latter being a mostly fantastical story with a few realistic moments—both place an emphasis on story and the unexplainable, and to similar effect. Both novels feature a rupture—in Rushdie’s, a lost love; in Obreht’s, a death—and explore the validity of the fantastical in dealing with emotion, as well as the real healing power of fantastical stories.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie explores dealing with the pain of lost love through fantasy. After Soraya leaves Rashid for another man, the whole story turns into an allegory for Rashid getting her back. Rashid seems not to be able to deal with the emotion himself in a healthy way, as he “picked up a hammer and smashed [a] clock to bits. Then he broke every other clock in the house, including the one on Haroun’s bedside table” (Rushdie, 21). Rather than explore the idea of Rashid’s love directly any further than this, the story turns into a somewhat comical battle between “Gup” and “Chup”—“gossip’ and “quiet”—representing the different philosophies of Rashid and Mr. Sengupta (for whom Soraya has left Rashid) respectively. Haroun states at one point, “How many opposites are at war in this battle between Gup and Chup!” (Rushdie, 125), because the story presents such an extreme dichotomy between the two sides.

This battle between the two nations, is actually an allegory for the pain Rashid feels being away from Soraya. Rushdie shows us Rashid’s pain through the clock breaking scene, and also by virtue of Rashid losing his ability to tell stories, which is incredibly important to Rashid. However, Rashid’s lost ability turns into a fantastical narrative where he loses his subscription to the story waters, and a Water Genie comes to disconnect his tap. Within this new, fantastical narrative, Rushdie makes it clear that everything is parallel to what is the real world within the story. The bus driver named Butt is paralleled by the robotic bird named Butt the Hoopoe. Mr. Sengupta is paralleled by Khattam-Shud, both of whom hate stories. Soraya is paralleled by Batcheat, since, among other similarities, both sing, and the examples of parallels go on. And if Soraya is Princess Batcheat, and this story becomes a damsel in distress type of story, then Rashid is paralleled by Prince Bolo, who clearly feels pain over his loss of Batcheat. Prince Bolo describes himself as “[A] slave to Love” (Rushdie, 137), and although he attributes this dually to Haroun within the context of the novel, it also clearly applies to Rashid, since Prince Bolo and he are parallels. In this way, Rushdie explores the rupture of lost love through the conflict between Gup and Chup, and it seems that this may be because love, like this fantasy land, is illogical and therefore best viewed through an “illogical” lens.

Obreht Q & A

Tea Obreht does a similar thing in The Tiger’s Wife, exploring, instead of lost love, the emotional rupture that results from death, doing so through the diggers, the grandfather, and Natalia. The diggers deal with death through superstition. What is significant here is not the specific superstition the diggers share, nor even that they have one at all, but, rather, that the story does not condemn the diggers for their superstition. Although the diggers have no scientific grounding for their actions and their refusal of medicine, nowhere in the story are they “punished” for their behavior or beliefs. Their mode of grieving is, in this way, justified. As Dure says, “I got a body somewhere under here that needs to come up so my kids can get better … That sound acceptable, Doctor—my kids getting better?” (Obreht, 91). Later, Obreht gives the reader an even more comprehensive look at the Diggers viewpoint.

This, I realized, was why Dure had been … willing to overlook the reality of dogs and floods: he had safeguarded the cousin … Dure was wiping the sides [of the suitcase] down slowly, with great care, enormous relief at having recovered the case evident in his face. Twelve years of accounting for his inability to return the body, his negligence in leaving a family member behind, loyalty suspect, always defending himself from the conclusions they must have been drawing when he explained himself—had he abandoned a dying man? Killed him and disposed of the body? And the illness itself, how his thoughts must have turned straight to the body when his wife and children began falling ill, one by one; how he must have circled around his own guilt (Obreht, 232)

By allowing the reader to see the diggers’ point of view, Obreht validates this non-logical way of dealing with the grief, sickness and death that surrounds them.

The grandfather also deals with death through the fantastical in the form of the deathless man. In this case, the grandfather has less choice than the diggers, although the situations are still similar in many ways. The grandfather is a doctor, a man of science, and presumably not superstitious. This is why he initially denies so incessantly the possibility of the deathless man truly being deathless. However, through their encounters, the deathless man slowly convinces the grandfather to see the world differently. In their first encounter, Gavo tells the grandfather that “People become very upset…when they find out they are going to die” (Obreht, 71). This eventually becomes true for the grandfather when he himself becomes sick. By the end, Natalia realizes “[T]hat it was the deathless man, and not me, my grandfather had come looking for. And I wondered how much of our hiding his illness had been intended to afford my grandfather the secrecy he would need to go looking for him” (Obreht,147). Since Obreht already intends the reader to sympathize with the grandfather, this action on his part is implicitly justified, showing how Obreht validates the idea of dealing with emotion through fantasy. And, of course, the whole novel is Natalia exploring her grandfather’s death through these very same stories, which shows how Natalia also uses fantasy to deal with the rupture that is the loss of her grandfather. This whole premise is perhaps best summed up in the novel by Barba Ivan, who says, “We’re all entitled to out superstitions” (Obreht, 272). The idea is that superstitions can be justifiable because some things defy logic, like the deathless man, and like the human emotion in dealing with death or lost love.

However, it is not enough simply to validate dealing with rupture through fantasy; Rusdie and Obreht also show that stories can have a real impact, and from there show that stories can have a healing impact. The authors both argue for the inherent importance of stories in this regard, and blur the line between fantasy and reality to show the real impacts of these fantastical tales. To begin, Haroun and the Sea of the Stories offers the counterpoint to the inherent importance of stories, stating at one point, “What are all these stories? Life is not a storybook or joke shop. All this fun will come to no good. What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (Rushdie, 19). However, both Haroun and the Sea Stories and The Tiger’s Wife go on to refute this notion. Haroun and the Sea of Stories most explicitly blurs the line between fact and fiction and it does so in several places. One place is where Haroun thinks, “Everything comes from somewhere … so these stories can’t simply come out of thin air” (Rushdie, 17). Rushdie builds upon this idea as the story goes on. Haroun questions how a Water Genie can be real if he has never seen one, and Rashid replies, “You’re never up in time to see the milkman … but you don’t mind drinking the milk” (Rushdie, 17). Later, the Water Genie states the same idea in different terms and adds, “Believe in your own eyes and you’ll get into a lot of trouble” (Rushdie, 61). These quotes show the blurring between what is real and what is presumed not to be, which is important, because it means that using what seems like fantasy to deal with human emotion may actually be a real way to deal with emotion. Finally, Rushdie reveals that Rashid was indeed emotionally healed when he regains his ability to tell stories. Rushdie writes, “And it was plain that he was okay again, the Gift of the Gab had returned” (Rushdie, 206). Rushdie showed Rashid’s pain through his loss of the ability to tell stories, therefore his regaining of this ability shows a healing.

Tea Obreht also blurs the line between fantasy and reality in The Tiger’s Wife to show stories healing impact. Obreht does this by stating, “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man” (Obreht, 32). This quote early on shows that stories have a real world impact, as the stories can lead to understanding of a real person. Obreht does not have her characters blur the lines as explicitly as Rushdie does, but events throughout the story cause that blurring. The clearest example is the deathless man, who goes the entire story without explanation, actually appearing to be deathless the whole while, and thus making it ambiguous as to what the reader is supposed to take as real.

Obreht also emphasizes the importance of stories in other ways, such as the scene where Natalia and her grandfather go to see the elephant walking back to the zoo along the train tracks. Natalia points out that none of her friends will believe this, and her grandfather chastises her, saying not to share it, because, “The story of this war—dates, names, who started it, why—that belongs to everyone … But something like this—this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us” (Obreht, 56). The grandfather is saying that sharing the story with the wrong people will make it lose its value. Natalia echoes this lesson she has learned from her grandfather toward the end of the novel, when Barba Ivan asks her not to tell anyone that he is the Mora, and she thinks, “I had been taught long ago that there are some stories you keep to yourself” (Obreht, 332). Inherent in the idea that sharing a story makes it lose value is the idea that stories do in fact have intrinsic value, which is, again, important if Obreht is to make the argument that dealing with emotional rupture through fantasy is valid. Finally, Obreht shows how this real impact of stories becomes a healing impact as Natalia realizes that her “grandfather did not die as he had once told me men die—in fear—but in hope” (Obreht, 335). The grandfather could not be physically healed, so his healing could only come emotionally, and this manifests itself through his dying in hope. This quote also shows Natalia’s healing, as she gains solace in the notion that her grandfather died peacefully.

In a culture where logic and reason are so privileged, it perhaps makes sense then that emotion, which so often opposes logic, should be expressed through stories which also defy logic. Death and love are some of the most written about, yet least understood, subjects, so it is clear why there would be an appeal to deal with these issues through stories, rather than directly. It might be intuitive to think that science should replace fantasy and superstition in the real world and in literature, but this is not the case. As the contemporary stories of The Tiger’s Wife and Haroun and the Sea of Stories show, there is still purpose for the fantastical. Tea Obreht and Salman Rushdie are telling the reader that stories are a valid way to deal with real emotional rupture. Perhaps the real world lacks deathless men and flying robot birds, but it does not mean that everything must strictly obey logic. Some things seem to defy logic, and the authors are saying that it is okay to embrace these things in order to help in the healing process. A relevant quote here comes from Rushdie’s text, where Haroun thinks, “[T]he real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real” (Rushdie, 50). Both texts share this argument that the world is not dictated entirely by logic. There is room, and necessity, for the illogical. Finally, Rashid sums up things nicely when he says, “People can delight in the saddest of sob-stuff, as long as they find it beautiful” (Rushdie, 48). These texts address issues like death and lost love, yet they try to bring healing, meaning, and perhaps even delight, to these emotional ruptures.


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Works Cited

Obreht, Téa. The Tiger's Wife. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Penguin, 1991. Kindle.


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