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Characteristics of Magical Realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Spirits in the House
Ghosts rattle doors and windows of a house while the inhabitants scramble eggs and mop the floors. So reads a popular theme in magical realism. Unlike works of pure fantasy, in magical realism the supernatural exists side-by-side with a very realistic world, hence inhabitants of a haunted house who calmly ignore the strange noises and resume cooking breakfast.
One of the best known and most commonly cited work of magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, part of the Latin American Boom of the 1960’s. Isabel Allende's more modern novel, The House of the Spirits, followed in the same line, while Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an excellent example of magical realism within current literary fiction, and by a non Latin-American author. The genre of magical realism can be considered as a post-colonial departure from the traditional models of literary structure, in which the departure from a fact-based reality, provides an alternative means of understanding and viewing both our world and the construction of the novel.
While books considered within the genre of magical realism differ widely in form and structure, there are some common characteristics. Works considered magical realism will feature at least a few of the following elements: treating the supernatural as an everyday phenomenon, a realistic setting despite some magic elements, rendering the ordinary as strange, a child-like narrator, the use of metaphor to describe trauma, and time being represented as circular rather than linear.
The Supernatural as an Everyday Phenomenon
One of the key defining features of magical realism is the introduction of magical or extraordinary events as everyday occurrences, similar to the style of Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Garcia Marquez read a version of this story, and noted the similarity between this style and his grandmother’s method of storytelling, a manner of relating as he described “the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.”
In this manner of narration, One Hundred Years of Solitude describes a plague of insomnia sweeping the village, ghosts who live and interact with the living, magic lamps, and flying carpets as completely ordinary events. In a similar vein as Garcia Marquez, Allende includes as characters resident ghosts as well as all manner of the occult, such as Tarot readings, ESP, clairvoyance, and telekinesis. These supernatural events are a part of the flavor of life in the House of Spirits, no different from baking, doing laundry, taking a bath. Toni Morrison, by comparison, uses a scaled-down version of the supernatural, concentrating on a ghost who serves as a main character. Morrison, however, still adheres to the method of treating the supernatural as ordinary, everyday phenomena, part of the lives of the characters and thus not unusual.
The Difference Between Magical Realism and Fantasy
This Kafka-esque style of treating the extraordinary as ordinary anchors the story in a world similar to our own, rather than creating an alternate universe as fantasy does. The key to differentiating magical realism from fantasy is that the fantastic elements of the story are “breaking the rules” that have previously been established by realistic setting and tone of voice (Hegerfeldt).
Garcia Marquez describes the people and events of his fictional town of Macondo in such a way that one gets the sense that an actual Colombian town could be being depicted, never mind that some of the events that happen here are unlikely. Similarly, The House of The Spirits takes place in a Peru, rooted in the country's historical tradition, and Beloved is set in the American South at the end of the Civil War.
All adhere to the idea that the world in which the novel takes place is not so extraordinary, simply that some of the events within are a departure from what one might expect. What is crucial is that this departure exists solely in the minds of the readers, rather than in the narration, upholding the realism inherent in the telling, despite the magical elements.
Rendering the Ordinary as Strange
When treating the extraordinary as ordinary, sometimes the ordinary becomes extraordinary in comparison. This technique is used by Garcia Marquez, who highlights the “modern magic” of technology and science, and describes such elements as awesome and mystifying. In this way, that which reads as the “magical elements” of the story are actually the products of the modern age, presenting a caricature of modernity. For example, Garcia Marquez describes a block of ice as “an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars."
Elements such as these do not sever ties to realism, as the novel has already been placed within this context, but serve as a mirror of distortion to the aspects of modern society to which we have become accustomed. The reader is thus challenged to reconsider their existing notions on things that tend to be taken for granted as facets of a modern world or empirical science, upending expected notions of progress, advancement, and modern society.
The Child-Like Narrator
Another common feature of magical realism, one that serves to facilitate the ordinary as extraordinary and vice versa, is the child-like narrator. This is either a child in the literal sense, or a relatively immature adult who is able to navigate the world with a sense of wonder and awe at things that we have come to take for granted, as well as accepting more magical aspects (Arva).
Garcia Marquez, in his plethora of characters, has little difficulty finding a voice that embodies the necessary naiveté to allow for that effect. As a character becomes too worldly, too cynical, there is always a fresh point of view waiting in the wings. For Allende, Clara the Clairvoyant is a perfect example of this concept; despite her paranormal skills, she wanders through the story with little more sensibility than a young girl for the most part.
Toni Morrison uses the perspective of the youthful and encapsulated Denver to explore the supernatural aspect of Beloved. It is only when we see from the side of Denver, in all her sheltered innocence and immaturity, that we are presented with the idea of Beloved as a ghost, fully and unquestioned, rather than as a bizarre woman. It is only Denver’s innocence that is able to truly comprehend this fact, yet still be grounded in reality, because as a naïve child she has not yet been overcome by notions of how the world should be.
"Felt" Events: Use of Metaphor to Describe Trauma
Another technique that is often found in magical realism is the use of metaphor to describe horrific events. This is what Eugene Arva calls “felt” events, because specific words denoting violence or gore are avoided, while the use of metaphors for such words anchor the experience in the senses, making them “felt,” rather than literally described.
In an area rich with a history of colonialism, brutal military regimes, and revolutions, the popularity of this device can be understood as an attempt to bear witness to these events without producing a heavy-handed work rife with bloodshed and examples of torture, violence, or death. The scene of the massacre in One Hundred Years of Solitude is an excellent example. Writes Garcia Marquez, “the panic became a dragon’s tail as one compact wave ran against another…penned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind that little by little was being reduced to its epicenter as the edges were systematically being cut off all around like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns."
Here metaphor creates a very concrete and emotional scene, yet it is registered on a more palatable level through the avoidance of overtly violent language. Toni Morrison also makes use of this type of metaphor replacement. The character Sethe’s back, scarred from beating, is a “chokecherry tree,” the KKK is a “dragon that swam the Ohio at will…desperately thirsty for black blood."
The Triumph of the Obscure Librarian
If Kafka is to be considered to be a major precursor to magical realism, Jorge Luis Borges, and obscure Argentinian librarian at the time of the Boom, must also be discussed. In addition to translating “Metamorphoses” into Spanish, and thus influencing Garcia Marques, some of the ideas in his collection of short stories, which infused philosophy, metaphysics, and religion into the plot and construction, were borrowed by later magical realist writers. Specifically, Borges creation of an omnipotent character who has access to the knowledge of all significant events, past and present, as well as the exploration of circular rather than linear time, and the notion that that nothing is left to chance, it is all part of some larger design. Borges was perhaps one of the earliest writers to describe what has become popularly labeled "the butterfly effect." All of these themes are evident in One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits. Morrison's Beloved plays with a more subtle sense of circularity, and the Borgesian notion of all past events maintaining a sense of physical manifestation at some vague and undefined point.
The Circularity of Time and Post-Colonialism
Finally, the notion of the circularity of time is important to understanding magical realism as it is symbolic of the larger intent within the genre. If we are to understand linear time as a feature of empiricism then cyclical time would stand to represent that which is a deviation from this tradition. In “The ‘Epic Novel,” Ricardo Roque-Baldovinos suggests that within magical realism, the notion of being able to conceptualize or see all possible events or times, essentially “dissolves” linear time, creating an “ultimate authority that is not one of rational knowledge but the voice of collective memory.” This collective memory, that which triumphs over the colonialist legacy, is a voice of myth, of superstition, of archetypes and of imagination, creating a form of literature which is deviates from the traditional modes of understanding and the expected form for a story or novel. According to Jean Weisgerber, “Magical Realism attempts to grasp by intellect, intuition, or imagination, the ontological background (the metaphysical, the religious, the mythical) which underlies, informs, enriches, or undermines, whichever the case, empirical reality." Magical realism provides an alternative means of understanding our world, one in which there is room for magic, superstition, myth, or philosophy, rather than a strictly fact-based realistic construct (Hegerfeldt).
What is the Magic? What is the Real?
Magic realism is often the vehicle used to introduce a non-Western viewpoint, and begs the question of which mode of reality is considered correct in understanding the world (Arva). What Western audiences may consider magical, other cultures and belief structures may consider ordinary, plausible, and a part of everyday life. Magical realism expands ideas on how we can understand the world and its events. As Arva says, the genre “rejects the notion of one mode of truth, one reality,” and leads to greater cultural expression. Through this genre and its associated techniques, writers such as Garcia Marquez, Allende, and Morrison are able to bend or circumvent the rules of traditional realism to suit their purpose, and provide a greater range of both expression and interpretation concerning story, history, and our methods of experiencing and interpreting our world.
Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Trans. Magda Bogin. 1982. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Arva, Eugene L. “Writing the Vanishing Real: Hyperreality and Magical Realism.”Journal of Narrative Theory. 38.1 (Winter 2008): 60-85,134.
Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. 1967. New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 1998.
Hegerfeldt, Anne. "Magic Realism, Magical Realism". The Literary Encyclopedia. 6 February 2004. http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=682
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Reeds, Kenneth. "Magical Realism: a Problem of Definition. " Neophilologus. 90.2 (2006): 175-196.
Roque-Baldovinos, Ricardo. “The ‘Epic Novel’: Charismatic Nationalism and the Avant-garde in Latin America.” Cultural Critique. 49 (Fall 2001) 58-83.