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Magic realism


Magic realism

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Magic realism (or magical realism) is a literary genre in which magical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting. The term was initially used by German art critic Franz Roh to describe painting which demonstrated an altered reality, but was later used by Venezuelan Alvaro Uslar-Pietri to describe the work of certain Latin American writers.

Magic realism is also a style of visual art which brings extreme realism to the depiction of mundane subject matter.


Common aspects of magical realist novels and films

The following elements are found in many magical realist novels and films, but not all are found in all of them and many are found in novels or films that could fall under other genres.

  • Contains fantastical elements
  • The fantastic elements may be intuitively "logical" but are never explained
  • Characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element
  • Exhibits a richness of sensory details
  • Uses symbols and imagery extensively. Often phallic imagery is used without the reader/viewer consciously noticing it.
  • Emotions and the sexuality of the human as a social construct are often developed upon in great detail
  • 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 those of belief and disbelief or the colonizers and the colonized
  • Uses a mirroring of either past and present, astral and physical planes, or of characters
  • Ends leaving the reader uncertain, whether to believe in the magical interpretation or the realist interpretation of the events in the story

Note that it is common in some fantasy stories to include a frame story, in which the central, fantastic story is explained as a dream. Because the main story works equally well with or without the frame story, and since either way the reader feels no ambiguity about choosing between the magical and the real interpretation, these are usually not included in the category of magical realism.

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 a subcategory of postmodern fiction due to 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, using strict definitions, portray an alternate universe with its own set of rules and characteristics, however similar this universe is to our world, or experiment with our world by suggesting how a new technology or political system might affect our society. Magical realism, however, portrays the real world minus any definite set of rules. Some critics who define the genres more broadly include magic realism as one of the fantasy genres.
  • Slipstream – Slipstream describes fiction that falls between "mainstream" literature and the fantasy and science fiction genres (the name itself is wordplay on the term "mainstream"). Where science fiction and fantasy novels treat their fantastical elements as being very literal, real elements of their world, slipstream usually explores these elements in a more surreal fashion, and delves more into their satirical or metaphorical importance. Compared to magical realism the fantastical elements of slipstream also tend to be more extravagant, and their existence is usually more jarring to their comparative realities than that which is found in magic realism.


The term magic realism was first used by the German art critic Franz Roh to refer to a painterly style also known as Neue Sachlichkeit. It was later used to describe the unusual realism by American painters such as Ivan Albright, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and other artists during the 1940s and 1950s. It should be noted though that unlike the term's use in literature, in art it is describing paintings that do not include anything fantastic or magical, but are rather extremely realistic and often times mundane.

The term was first revived and applied to the realm of fiction as a combination of the fantastic and the realistic in the 1960s by a Venezuelan essayist and critic Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who applied it to a very specific South American genre, influenced by the blend of realism and fantasy in Mário de Andrade's influential 1928 novel Macunaíma. However, the term itself came in vogue only after Nobel prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias used the expression to define the style of his novels. The term gained popularity with the rise of such authors as Mikhail Bulgakov, Ernst Jünger and Salman Rushdie and many Latin American writers, most notably Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Juan Rulfo, Dias Gomes 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." Mexican author Laura Esquivel also wrote in this vein when she penned Like Water for Chocolate. The book, which sold three million copies worldwide, was later made into a film. Upon its release in the United States, it became the highes grossing foreign film in U.S. history. (It has since been surpassed by the current record-holder Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) The most widely read of the South American magical realism narratives is García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today, magical realism is perhaps too broadly used, to characterize all realistic fictions with an eerie, otherworldly component, such as the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, or realistic fictions where magic is simply an overt theme in the narrative, such as The Stepford Wives or the Harry Potter books. The latter pair of examples are probably best categorized as works of fantasy, since they utilize magic and other supernatural concepts and ideas as primary elements of plot, theme, or setting.

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