What Is Magical Realism?

What is magical realism? Simply put, it is a genre of literature that interweaves real-world issues into worlds with undercurrents of magic or fantasy.

Works of magical realism are grounded in the real world. Characters will struggle with issues that range from poverty, war, and drugs, to the loss of a parent or the end of a marriage. However, works in the magical realism genre will also include fantasy and magical elements. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.

This blurring allows authors to address social issues in a different way than they would in a purely realistic novel.

What Is Magical Realism?

What is magical realism?

Magical realism is a subset of the realism genre. In realism, creators confront serious issues like war, poverty, family dysfunction, racism, and others. Realism started with the work of visual artist Gustave Courbet. Courbet rejected the Romantic era‘s idealized works in favor of exact representations of reality. 

The movement grew in popularity with the invention of photography. Artists gained the ability to base their works off a captured moment of time rather than working exclusively with posed models.

Magical realism was, in turn, a reaction to realism. The difference between realism and magical realism, is that magical elements and creatures appear in realistic settings and are treated as normal. So, you might have a woman whose werewolf roommate is having trouble with his love life or a city where people regularly interact with their dead relatives.

Magical Realism vs Fantasy

What is magical realism?
In fantasy, it is typical to explain the existence of magic or its history

While there is some overlap, particularly in urban fantasy, magical realism is a distinct genre. In fantasy, it is typical to explain the existence of magic or its history. In magical realism, these elements are not explained any more than you would explain how a subway schedule works. They are accepted within the work as normal, requiring no explanation.

History of Magical Realism

Magical realism is most closely associated with Latin American authors. However, the seeds of the genre’s name were planted by German art critic Franz Roh in 1925. When his book Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus (After Expressionism: Magical Realism) was translated into Spanish in 1927, the genre took off in South America, where it was called “magic realism.”

However, elements of this genre existed beforehand. A good example is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where a man suffering from despair over his circumstances wakes up, without explanation, in the body of a giant cockroach. 

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier was one of the first proponents of what he called “marvelous realism.” Carpentier used a term that translates to “the marvelous real” in the prologue to The Kingdom of the World. He felt this label applied to Latin America and its art as a whole. In his words “writing about this land automatically produces a literature of marvelous reality.” Today, critics continue to debate whether Carpentier was a practitioner of magical realism or whether his work should be considered a precursor to the genre.

In 1955, literary critic Angel Flores brought the term into English. He deemed Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges the first magical realist.

Common Characteristics of Magical Realism

Every magical realism novel, movie, or piece of visual art will be different. However, they are likely to include one or more of the following elements:

  • A realistic setting. Magical realism works take place in existing locations or ones that are familiar and similar to real places.
  • Magical elements and characters. Fantastical elements that do not occur in the real world are a regular part of magical realism universes. Talking animals, buildings that change shape, and other elements are presented as normal parts of the world.
  • Cultural comments. Many writers and filmmakers use magical realism as a way to offer cultural criticism. Common targets include structural inequality, political parties, cultural elite, and others.
  • Limited information. Magical elements such as flight, telepathy, spellwork, or the existence of fantasy creatures is typically left unexplained. This normalizes magic as a part of the characters’ everyday lives.
  • Offbeat plot structures. Works of magical realism often do not follow accepted narrative arcs. Instead of a clear opening, middle, and end, they may stop the action at a cliffhanger. This can create a tense and unpredictable reading experience, as readers do not know what events will move the story forward or where conflicts will arise.

Controversies Around Magical Realism

One of the most common debates involving magical realism is whose work should be included. Some critics, for instance, consider Alejo Carpentier’s work fantasy rather than magical realism. 

Other critiques involve whether popular fiction and movies should be considered part of magical realism. Some believe that it is strictly a literary genre and that popular works should not be included. Those who adhere to this definition, for instance, would say that the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, as a product of popular cinema, can’t be considered part of magical realism. However, others would argue that the blending of the World War II setting and magical elements make it worthy of inclusion.

Part of the debate involves cultural appropriation. Should the magical realism label only apply to Latin American writers and Latin American literature? While some believe it is strictly a regional genre, others believe that any works that meet the criteria can be included.

People in the latter group often argue that magical realism is a genre that can be used to tell the stories of any oppressed people. Under this definition, African American authors like Toni Morrison can have more fantastical works included.

What Genres Cross Over with Magical Realism?

Magical realism became influential in the mid-20th century. It expanded beyond Latin America and influenced several offshoot movements. These include surrealism, which upends accepted realities while using realistic notes. A prime example is the work of Salvador Dalí, who uses fantastical elements and a realistic style.

Postmodern literature takes a cue from magical realism by abandoning realistic play by play in favor of elements like unreliable narration. Postmodern literature is also likely to contain social or political commentary. Postmodern authors whose work overlaps with magical realism include Kurt Vonnegut, Kathy Acker, and Philip K. Dick.

Fabulism is a literary genre that puts myths and fables into contemporary settings. Authors in this genre include Samantha Hunt, Karen Russell, and Julia Elliott. The movie Enchanted can also be seen as a fabulist work.

Examples of Magical Realism

Once you start recognizing magical realism, you will likely notice that there are many books, movies, and pieces of visual art that fall into this genre. Some terrific examples to study if you are interested in reading more or writing magical realism of your own:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. In his 1967 novel, García Márquez tells the story of a family patriarch who dreams about a city of mirrors. He sets about creating his own version based on his visions.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. In this novel, a mysterious woman moves in with a former slave and her family. Over time, it becomes apparent that the house guest is a vengeful ghost.

City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende. This novel follows a teenager coping with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. He travels with his grandmother into the Amazon, where he encounters magical beasts, an ancient shaman and his own totem animal.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. This book is about a boy who is born with telepathy. He has attained this gift because he was born at midnight on the day that India gained its independence.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This novel switches between times as a man remembers his childhood in his hometown. Characters include magic-practicing neighbors and a nanny who is not what she appears.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This book is set in Tokyo, where a man discovers another city hidden underground.

The Final Word on What Is Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre that places people dealing with real world problems into a setting where magical elements are real and normal parts of their lives. While it is most closely associated with Latin American authors, examples can be seen in works from other parts of the world. 

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FAQ About What Is Magical Realism

What are the common elements of magical realism?

Elements include cultural or social critique, realistic problems, magical elements, and unusual plot structures.

What is the purpose of magical realism?

Magical realism allows writers to present their views on social problems in a unique, attention-getting way. It offers escapism paired with commentary.

How does magical realism compare with realism?

Magical realism is a subgenre of realism. It contains fantasy elements, while realism limits its stories to ones that could occur in the real world.

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