Magical Realism’s Special Powers

Frida Kahlo


My magical realism class has been exploring how people use the genre to negotiate important issues in their lives. We’re still figuring it out but are starting to arrive at some interesting insights.

Magical realism, as the label indicates, is a genre that lives on the border between realist fiction and fantasy. This border is porous, with magic emerging organically out of a reality that we recognize, sometimes with actual historical figures and events. Like realist fiction, it presents us with pressing social issues but, like fantasy, it cloaks them in a special aura that makes them more bearable.

This is important because historical catastrophes threaten to overwhelm us. As scholar Wendy Faris observes, the magic in magical realism counteracts the overwhelming power of death and depersonalization that history visits upon humankind. Small and vulnerable though we may feel, the magic gives us a sense that there is power in the universe that can push back against tragedy–or at least encapsulate and thereby contain it.

Thus, we don’t feel entirely wrung out when 100 Years of Solitude presents us with an American-engineered massacre of banana workers; Midnight’s Children with the Pakistani atrocities in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh); Tin Drum with the rise of Hitler; Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with Japanese atrocities in Manchuria; Beloved with the horrors of slavery; and The White Hotel with the holocaust. Magical realism is like a colorful balloon, tethered to history but finding ways to rise above it.

In a similar way, magical realism is not as emotionally searing as the social realist melodramas of an Emile Zola, an Upton Sinclair, or a John Steinbeck. It doesn’t threaten to overload the empathy circuits in quite the same way. While this may lessen our engagement with pressing social issues (this is magical realism’s downside), it also ensures that we will not turn away.

Magical realism also is able to capture just how dislocating these events are. In a conventional historical novel—say, in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels—we view history through the lens of an omniscient author, or we get the account of a first-person narrator or the vantage point of one or more characters. This gives us some sense of control over reality. In magical realism, however, time, space and identity are all up for grabs, refusing to behave as we expect them to. As a result, a magical treatment of history may do more justice to history’s insanity than linear narratives and stable characters.

In magical realism recounted by jester-like narrators, such as Oskar in Tin Drum and Saleem in Midnight’s Children, historical craziness is further emphasized. Often their sense of proportion is off, leading to a black humor that becomes another way of cushioning the blows of history. For a non-magical instance of such black humor, think of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Finally, magical realism seems particularly adept at capturing the momentousness of the events described. Magic bestows grandeur in a way that realist fiction often does not (War and Peace and Grapes of Wrath being notable exceptions). In the distant past, works have relied on gods and goddesses to endow significance, as in The Iliad, The Bhagavad Gita, The Hebrew Chronicles, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. While Midnight’s Children contains references to Hindu deities—Saleem has affinities with the elephant god Ganesh and his mistress with the river goddess Lakshmi—the other works I have mentioned rely exclusively on magic and the supernatural to elevate their subject matter. Thus in Solitude there are foundational mothers who live deep into their hundreds, in Beloved an inexorable ghost who feeds on mother guilt.

A quick survey of reviews shows how grand the works appear to readers:

— Garcia Marquez “gives a voice to South America.” – Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman
— “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.”–New York Times
–“The Tin Drum will become one of the enduring literary works of the twentieth century.” – Nobel committee
–[about Beloved] “A masterpiece. . . . Magnificent. . . . Astounding. . . . Overpowering.”  —Newsweek
–[about Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] “Mesmerizing. . . . Murakami’s most ambitious attempt yet to stuff all of modern Japan into a single fictional edifice.” —The Washington Post Book World

I’ll share more insights as the class comes up with them. At the moment, however, our major takeaway is that magical realism (to use a Lisa Simpson neologism) embiggens us.

This entry was posted in Garcia Marquez (Gabriel), Morrison (Toni), Murakami (Haruki), Rushdie (Salman) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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