What Is Magic Realism?

Definition & Examples of Magic Realism

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The term "magic realism" describes contemporary fiction set in the real world with magical or fantastic elements. It's strongly associated with Latin America but not limited there. Magic realist writers include Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Alejo Carpentier, and Isabel Allende.

What Is Magic Realism?

Magic realism is a genre that's grounded in the real world but has supernatural or magical elements. The genre was spearheaded by Latin American authors who used the magical to explore the human condition.

Magic realism works could almost happen in the real world. Fantasy works create new worlds, but the settings in magic realism are recognizable. It often has a dream-like quality and leaves readers questioning reality and their assumptions about the world around us.

Alternate name: Magical realism, marvelous realism

Surrealism, which upends reality, and fabulism, which puts myth and fable in contemporary settings, are related but different genres.

How Magic Realism Works

The best way to see how magic realism works is by looking at works in the genre. One early example is Franz Kafka's novella, "The Metamorphosis," in which an ordinary salesman wakes up as a cockroach. Everything else about the world he inhabits is the same; he's just a cockroach.

In Gabriel García Márquez's short story, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the setting is an ordinary town. An angel arrives after a rainstorm, and instead of being beautiful and ethereal, the angel is a smelly old man with bugs in his wings. The townspeople put him in a chicken coop and turn him into a sideshow attraction.

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison tells the story of a formerly enslaved person living freely in Ohio. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby and memories of the past. The novel uses the magical to uncover the trauma and horror of living life in enslavement.

"The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel uses magic realism to explore what truth is. Pi is the son of a zookeeper, and he and his family are traveling on a Japanese cargo ship to start a new life. The ship sinks, leaving Pi in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi coexists with the tiger for 227 days, and when they reach Mexico, the tiger flees for the jungle. Japanese authorities refuse to believe Pi, who then tells a less fantastic story, but readers are left wondering which story is true.

The History of Magic Realism

The term was coined first by German art critic Franz Roh in 1925. Alejo Carpentier gave the term its current definition in the prologue to his book, "The Kingdom of This World (Spanish: El Reino de Este Mundo)."

"The marvelous," he writes in a translated version, "begins to be marvelous in an unequivocal way when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (a miracle), from a privileged revelation of reality, from an unusual insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality, or from an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity by means of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of limit-state [estado límite]."

As the poet Dana Gioia reminds us in his article, "Gabriel García Márquez and Magic Realism," the narrative strategy we know as magic realism long predates the term: "One already sees the key elements of Magic Realism in Gulliver's Travels (1726) ... Likewise Nikolai Gogol's short story, 'The Nose' (1842)...fulfills virtually every requirement of this purportedly contemporary style. One finds similar precedents in Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Kafka, Bulgakov, Calvino, Cheever, Singer, and others."

But Carpentier's intention was to differentiate lo real Maravilloso americano from the European surrealist movement. In his mind, the fantastic in Latin America was not achieved by transcending reality, but was inherent in the Latin American experience of reality: "After all, what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?"

Key Takeaways

  • The term "magic realism" describes contemporary fiction set in the real world with magical or fantastic elements.
  • Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Franz Kafka all provide examples of works in the magic realism genre.
  • The term was coined in 1925, but was fully defined by Alejo Carpentier in the prologue to his book, "The Kingdom of This World."