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Magical Realism

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Magical Realism

Sometimes reality can be a little dull. Who wouldn't want to add a little magic to everyday life? Magical realism does precisely that. Here we will look further into the literary device known as magical realism. We'll look at the criteria for 'magical realism' and some famous examples of the genre.

Magical Realism Definition

In literature, magical is more akin to the extraordinary. We read about people gifted with telepathy or the dead coming back to visit us. On the other hand, realism attempts to catch on the page something as close to reality as possible. So what is magical realism? Magical realism is a narrative genre that uses a straightforward inclusion of fantasy or magic in an otherwise realistic novel.

Magical realism is a relatively new genre, starting in the mid 20th century. It is thought the first example was from Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier and their novel, The Kingdom of the World (1949). The author later dismissed this claim. The genre became most popular in the 1960s in Latin America when Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

The term 'magic realism' was first used to describe a German painting style in the 1920s by the critic Franz Roh. In 1955, the term 'magical realism' was used to describe the form in literature by the critic Angel Flores in their essay titled 'Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction'. From then on, magical realism became a sub-genre of Literary fiction.

The stories of magical realism will have extraordinary or magical things happen in a realistic and familiar world to the reader. The lines between fantasy and reality become blurred.

magical realism+reader+studysmarterMagical realism shows readers magic in everyday life. pexels

Magical Realism characteristics

Here we will look at the characteristics of the stories of magical realism.

Magical Realism Setting

In other stories where you read about tales of magic, say The Lord of the Rings (1954), the stories are considered fantasy. The world in which magic occurs is unlike what we see around us. We read of magical things happening in a realistic setting in magical realism. The stories occur in a world familiar to us as readers, sometimes even drab or boring places. The beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the unremarkable village of Macondo. Macondo, although fictional, is no more different to other Colombian towns.

Magical Realism: The fantastic

It may seem obvious that these stories contain magic, but it comes in many different forms. The book One Hundred Years of Solitude uses the mythology of Colombia and presents it as fact. In other stories, characters may be given magical gifts, such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), where the character Saleem has the gift of telepathy. The book Beloved (1987) contains a character who has returned from the dead. Any form of the supernatural is suitable for magical realism.

The authorial reticence in magical realism

Authors of magical realism will intentionally leave the magical elements of their stories unanswered. This shows the reader that these events are part of everyday life in the story. The narrator and characters are often unsurprised at these strange occurrences and treat them as if they were expected. The supernatural is taken as fact - this is an important element of all magical realism stories.

Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought..." -Toni Morrison, Beloved, Chapter One.

In this quote, we see an example of authorial reticence. The characters of Sethe and Denver find themselves haunted by a ghost. Rather than being awestruck, they decide to deal with the ghost in a practical way, as one would deal with a noisy neighbour.

Magical realism and social critique

Magical realist authors will often use their stories to critique society and its ills, particularly political. A majority of magical realist fiction was written in the more economically deprived countries of Latin America. The novels were used to criticise American imperialism or the elite of their countries. One of the major themes of The House of Spirits (1982) is the conflict between the landowning 'upper' classes and the 'peasant' working class, a criticism of the Latin American class system.

Differences between Magical Realism and Surrealism

It can be confusing to see the differences between magic realism and surrealism. We're here to help.

magical realism+surreal image+studysmarterSurrealism often depicts abstract ideas not found in reality.

While surrealism and magical realism have similarities, both containing illogical or fantastic elements, there are distinct differences. Surrealism is not concerned with material reality, the world that we recognise, but more with the psychological or imaginative. Surrealism explores the subconscious or repressed, and the fantastic is represented as such.

Magical realism tends not to show its magical elements through dreams or the subconscious but rather, the magic occurs in material reality. That is the world that the reader would be familiar with and based in ordinary settings that can seem mundane. The magical elements are also taken at face value by the characters and narrator and presented as normal.

In short, surrealism looks into the abstract of our subconscious, while magical realism looks at the material reality of everyday life.

Material reality is the physical world surrounding us, things that are tangible and we could touch.

Magical Realism Books

Although immensely popular in Latin America, magical realism is a genre loved all over the globe. The following books are famous examples.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

First published in Spanish in 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude is widely seen as an exemplary book of the magical realist subgenre. Written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story follows seven generations of the Buendia family. The novel spans over 100 years of Colombian history, as the title suggests. Jose Arcadio Buendia builds the idyllic town of Macondo. At first, the town flourishes and grows, but as the years go by becomes more decayed and rundown by extreme weather. The city's degradation reflects the fortunes of the Buendia family.

The House of Spirits (1982)

Written by Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits also follows multiple generations of a family and its plot does not follow a chronological narrative. One character, Clara, is mistakenly thought to be possessed by demons. While this is not the case, Clara does have other gifts, such as predicting the future and telekinesis. The book became a bestseller almost as soon as it was published.

Midnight's Children (1981)

Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children tells the story of two boys born at midnight. The boys, Saleem and Shiva, were born on the day when India became an independent country. The babies are switched by a nurse at the hospital, causing their lives to be changed drastically. The children's families are of different religions and social statuses. The story follows the thirty years after India gained independence. The novel was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction in 1981.

Realism can break a writer's heart."

-Salman Rushdie, Shame (1983)

Beloved (1987)

Toni Morrison's Beloved is set in the years following the American Civil War and follows a family of ex-slaves. After a traumatic event in the life of Sethe, the book's protagonist, the household finds itself haunted by a ghost. Years later, they receive a strangely familiar visitor. The book concerns itself with the devastating effects of slavery and was later adapted into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

Magical Realism - Key Takeaways

  • Magical realism is a literary subgenre where magic happens in otherwise realistic settings.
  • Hugely popular in Latin America, writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.
  • Despite similarities, magical realism is not the same as fantasy or surrealism.
  • Stories are always set in the real world, not the subconscious.
  • Books often contain an element of social critique.

Frequently Asked Questions about Magical Realism

Magical realism is a literary genre where magical things happen in a normal setting.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a famous example of magical realism. As is The House of Spirits

Magical realism has fantasy occuring in an otherwise realistic setting. Fantasy is set in an unrealistic setting

The elements of magical realism are;

a real-world setting, fantasy, authorial reticence and social critique

The role of magical realism is to present elements of fantasy in an otherwise realistic setting. Usually to make a political commentary.

Final Magical Realism Quiz


What is magical realism?

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Magical realism is a literary genre that includes magic in an otherwise realistic setting.

Show question


Where was magical realism most popular?

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Magical realism was most popular in Latin America

Show question


Who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude?

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Show question


What is the difference between magical realism and surrealism?

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Surrealism looks at the subconscious while magical realism looks at the material reality.

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What is authorial reticence?

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Authorial reticence is when an author intentionally leaves magical elements unexplained.

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Who is the author of the novel Midnight's Children?

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Salmon Rushdie is the author of the novel Midnight's Children.

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True or false?

Magical realism novels often include social critique?

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Which magical realist novel is set after the American Civil War concerns a family of ex-slaves?

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The novel Beloved by Toni Morrison

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The term 'magical realism' was first used to describe literature by which critic?

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Angel Flores was the first to use the term 'magical realism' to describe literature

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Which novel is set in the fictional town of Macondo?

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One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the fictional town of Macondo.

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Who wrote the novel, The House of Spirits?

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Isabel Allende wrote the novel The House of Spirits.

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