You might know magical realism as a genre that was spearheaded in Latin America by talented writers like Gabriel García Márquez, but few understand the movement’s origins and its power to inspire political change.
In order to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of any genre, it helps to know its origins and purpose. Let’s take a look at how magical realism in literature started, as well as some of its most notable authors and works.
What Is Magical Realism?
Magical realism is a genre can be found in most art forms, but the literary movement in particular was spearheaded by Latin American authors and is often read as a genre of political subversion.
Also known as “marvelous realism,” magical realism paints a realistic view of the modern world while adding magical elements. These magical and fantastical elements are often presented as “normal,” while our standard perceptions of “reality” are actually put into question.
It’s easy to see how suggesting an alternative to accepted realities can be a powerful tool against political regimes.
Note that magical realism is not quite the same as surrealism, which is primarily concerned with twisting the accepted realities of the mind and inner self.
Who Coined the Term Magical Realism?
Literary magical realism originated with Latin American authors who often traveled between their home countries and European hubs, where they were inspired by the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 30s.
Between 1940 and 1950 magical realism reached its peak. Its most prominent writers appeared mainly in Argentina.
The term “magical realism,” as opposed to “magic realism,” first appeared in a 1955 essay by critic Angel Flores. After the essay’s publication and the Cuban revolution of 1959, the term was regularly applied to a new type of literature that portrayed magical events in a matter-of-fact way.
Every story is different, and some might include certain elements that others lack. However, some of the most common characteristics of magical realism include:
- Fantastical elements (for example, telepathy, levitation, or telekinesis)
- Real-world settings
- Indifferent narrators
- Baroque elements
- Hybridity (urban and rural, Western and indigenous…)
- A heightened awareness of mystery
- Political critique
What Is an Example of Magical Realism?
Magical realism has blessed the literary world with a number of classics that use magic and fantasy to challenge the realities of our time.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The works of Gabriel García Márquez are often cited as quintessential examples of literary magical realism. One Hundred Years of Solitude follows several generations of one family in Macondo, where magic carpets fly, ghosts haunt villagers, and trickles of blood climb the stairs.
This multigenerational epic traces the rise and fall, life and death, riches and poverty, triumph and tragedy of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera follows Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall in love in their youth. However, Fermina ends up marrying someone else, while Florentino focuses on business and 622 affairs (yes—622!) Over 50 years later, Florentino shows up the funeral of Fermina’s husband, hoping to win her back.
Visions, ghosts, and parrots who talk a little too much like people blend with more mundane occurrences to tell this story in true magical realist fashion.
Like Water for Chocolate
Tita is the youngest daughter of the La Garza family. She’s been condemned by a Mexican tradition, which states that the youngest daughter must remain unmarried and care for their mother until her death.
After Tita and her neighbor, Pedro, fall in love at first sight, he marries her sister in a desperate attempt to stay close to Tita, who from then on is only able to express herself through her cooking. This book is a wonderful example of magical realism being used to manifest emotions that we normally repress in the physical world.
In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses magical realism to deal with themes of trauma. Sethe was born a slave and later escaped to Ohio, but 18 years later she is still haunted by terrifying memories and the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and was buried under a tombstone engraved “Beloved.”
Amid Sethe’s spiritual hauntings lie important observations about the enduring trauma of American enslavement, and the magical realism genre helps to lay bare these horrifying realities.
What Is the Purpose of Magical Realism?
Magical realism allows writers to make social critiques by questioning the accepted realities they live in and juxtaposing them with magical elements, which are made to appear as “normal.”
Since magical realism undermines our certainties, so that we eventually accept the fusion of contradictory worlds. Because magical realism leads us to question what we accept as reality, it lends itself well to political and social critique.
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