Magic realism (or magical realism) is a literary genre in which magical elements appear in an otherwise realist setting. The term was coined in the 1920s by a German art critic to describe certain American paintings (see History below), but it is most often associated with the Latin American literary boom of the twentieth century, marked by the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in 1967, which is considered the seminal magical realist text. Magical realism can be detected in the supernatural tales of E.T.A. Hoffman, which are related in the down-to-earth tone of confessional journalism. Magical realism may be viewed as more than a specific historical-geographical literary movement; it is an element of style that can be located in a large variety of novels, poetry, painting, and even film.
Common aspects of magical realist novels
The following elements are found in many magical realist novels, but not all are found in each novel and many are found in novels that fall under other genres.
- Contains a magical element
- The magical element may be intuitive but is never explained
- Characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element
- Exhibits a richness of sensory details
- Distorts time so that it is cyclical or so that it appears absent. Another technique is to collapse time in order to create a setting in which the present repeats or resembles the past.
- Inverts cause and effect, for instance a character may suffer before a tragedy occurs
- Incorporates legend or folklore
- Presents events from multiple perspectives, such as that of belief and disbelief or the colonizer's and the colonized's
- May be an overt rebellion against a totalitarian government or colonialism
- May be set in or arise from an area of cultural mixing
- Uses a mirroring of either past and present, astral and physical planes, or of characters
Relation to other genres and movements
As a literary style, magical realism often overlaps or is confused with other genres and movements.
- Postmodernism – Magical realism is often considered, as a genre, a subcategory of postmodern fiction due it its challenge to hegemony and its use of techniques similar to those of other postmodernist texts, such as the distortion of time.
Surrealism – Many early magical realists such as Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Angel Asturias studied with the surrealists, and surrealism, as an international movement, influenced many aspects of Latin American art. Surrealists, however, try to discover and portray that which is above or superior to the “real” through the use of techniques such as automatic writing, hypnosis, and dreaming. Magical realists, on the other hand, portray the real world itself as having marvelous aspects inherent in it.
- Fantasy and Science fiction – Fantasy and science fiction novels portray an alternate world with its own set of rules and characteristics or experiment with our world by suggesting how a new technology or political system might affect our society. Magical realism, however, portrays a reality that someone believes in, once believed in, or could believe in.
The term magic realism was first used by the German art critic Franz Roh to describe the unusual realism of primarily American painters such as Ivan Albright, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and other artists during the 1920s, under whom traditional realism became subtly infused with overtones of the surreal and fantastical. The term grew popular in the 20th century with the rise of such authors as Mikhail Bulgakov, Ernst Jünger, and many Latin American writers, most notably Jorge Luis Borges,Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, who confessed, "My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic." The most widely read of the South American magical realism narratives is García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The term was first revived and applied to the realm of fiction in the 1960s by a Venezuelan essayist and critic Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who applied it to a very specific South American genre; it only came in vogue after Nobel prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias used the expression to define the style of his novels. Today, magical realism is perhaps too broadly used, to characterize all realistic fictions with an eerie, otherworldly component, such as the tales of Edgar Allen Poe.
In painting, magical realism is a term often used interchangeably with post-expressionism. In 1925, art critic Franz Roh used this term to describe painting which signalled a return to realism after expressionism's extravagances which sought to redesign objects to reveal the spirits of those objects. Magical realism, according to Roh, instead faithfully portrays the exterior of an object, and in doing so the spirit, or magic, of the object reveals itself.
Other important aspects of magical realist painting, according to Roh, include:
- A return to mundane subjects as opposed to fantastical ones
- A juxtaposition of forward movement with a sense of distance, as opposed to Expressionism's tendency to foreshorten the subject
- A use of minature details even in expansive paintings, such as large landscapes
External links to magical realist paintings
Magical Realist Painting and Franz Roh
A minority of theorists, such as Wendy B. Faris, argue that certain films, such as The Witches of Eastwick and Field of Dreams could be described as magical realist, but the term is still primarily used to describe literature.
Magical realist authors
- Zamora, Lois Parkinson; & Wendy B. Faris (Eds.) (2003). Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (4th ed.) Durham & Londong: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1640-4.
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