Study Guide

Magic Realism Characteristics

  • Matter-of-Fact Narrative

    In Magic Realist literature, the most fantastic, crazy things are told in a very matter-of-fact way. Your mom turned into a German shepherd? No biggie. Your wallpaper started talking to you? Happens everyday. Little fairies came to dress you for school this morning? We've all been there.

    Think of it this way. If a writer wrote something like, "OMG! OMG! When I walked into the kitchen, my mom dropped on all fours and turned into a dog! I ran screaming from the room," you'd probably think, "Wow, that is so weird. That could never actually happen."

    But how about this?: "My mom was making coffee this morning when she got on her knees, started barking and then turned into a dog. I continued eating my Cheerios." Here, the same thing is described as if it's the most normal thing in the world—and that makes the fantastic elements of the story feel more realistic, as if they could actually happen.

    Chew on This

    Here (Quote #3) is the narrator of One Hundred Years of Solitude describing a priest levitating in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice.

    Check out Franz Kafka's deadpan first sentence (Quote #1) describing the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a bug in his story Metamorphosis.

  • Hybridity

    Magic Realism is all about mixing things up: the fantastic with the mundane, the ordinary with the extraordinary, dream life with waking life, reality and unreality.

    If you want to be fancy-shmancy about it, you can say that Magic Realism is characterized by hybridity. We're serious about this: Magic Realists often take the most unrelated things and mix them up to see what happens. It's sort of like if a cook tossed chocolate and chicken and sushi and root beer, tossed it all into a pot, and served it up as an exciting new dish. It's probably going to taste a little weird, but it won't be like anything you've had before.

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    Isabel Allende's work is a hybrid mix of the magical and the mundane. Here are some examples from her novel The House of the Spirits.

    Here (Quote #1) is Salman Rushdie mixing it up as he describes India's independence through the perspective of his fictional narrator, Saleem, in Midnight's Children.

  • Incorporation of Myth

    Magic Realist writers often draw inspiration and material from all kinds of myths—ancient myths, modern myths, religious myths and all sorts of other myths. For one thing, myths are a ready source of fantastic happenings; pretty much anything can and does happen in myths.

    On top of that, though, myths are also ancient, collective stories of a given people. For Latin American writers, in particular, incorporating myth into their work is one form of political critique. Political structures are temporary, but myths have survived for centuries, and they have helped form collective identities stronger than political categories and affiliations.

    Chew on This

    Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude recalls myth: in fact, it takes us back right to the very beginnings of time in this quote (Quote #1).

    Salman Rushdie has sure read his Greek mythology. He characterizes one of his Midnight's Children, Soumitra, as a clairvoyant, like Cassandra in Greek myth. Here's the quote (Quote #2) from Midnight's Children.

  • The Novel and Short Story

    Magic Realist works usually fall into one of two categories: they're either novels or short stories.

    Magic Realists are drawn to these kinds of prose narrative partly because they're both so flexible. A novel is long and open-ended, so you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. You can create a world that feels real, for example, but you can also throw in a good dose of magic without necessarily losing that feeling of reality.

    Chew on This

    One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably the most famous Magic Realist novel. It starts at the beginning of time and just keeps on going. We're talking meganovel here.

    Kafka's Metamorphosis is something between a short story and a novella. It predates Magic Realism by several decades, but it helped set the stage for it. Check out Kafka's prose style in action in these quotations.

  • The Fantastic

    In a Magic Realist text, anything can happen. You can wake up to find yourself invisible one morning, or you can suddenly sprout wings and start flying, or your dog might start speaking to you in perfect Spanish. The rules of the ordinary, everyday world can be broken at any time.

    Yeah, life is usually ordinary. We wake up, we go to work, we sleep, we eat. But Magic Realists remind us that ordinary life also has its extraordinary side. Crazy things do happen to us sometimes, and sometimes the world really does feel out of sync and spectacular.

    Chew on This

    All kinds of fantastic stuff takes place in the Truebas house in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. Check out these quotes about the supernatural here.

    A fantastic transformation is at the heart of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

  • The Mundane

    So now you may be asking: if Magic Realists are obsessed with the fantastic and writing about the fantastic, doesn't that just make them fantasy writers? Nope. And here's why: while Magic Realists do write about extraordinary things and events, they also write about regular stuff. Like, seriously, totally everyday stuff: cleaning the house, going to your job in an office, arguing with your wife or parents.

    So, you know, that's the "Realism" part of "Magic Realism."

    Magic Realists write about the mundane alongside the fantastic. The worlds that they create are a combination of the regular world that we all know (cars, streets, houses, friends, family) and the crazy stuff that we don't come across normally (people growing wings or turning into bugs).

    Chew on This

    Extraordinary things happen in Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," but they all take place in a very mundane setting: a backyard.

    Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits is all about something we're all familiar (sometimes maybe too familiar) with: family. Check it out in all its mundane glory here.

  • Time

    Time does some weird stuff in Magic Realist literature. Sometimes it loops back instead of moving forward. Sometimes it zigzags all over the place, or skips forward, or stays still and doesn't move. It can be hard to know where you stand when you're digging into some Magic Realism. It's sort of like how in Groundhog Day the same day keeps happening over and over and over again, even though everything else seems to be normal.

    That's the kind of thing you'll find in Magic Realism, where time doesn't behave in the way you'd expect it to behave in the real world. For Magic Realists, time isn't this predictable, reliable thing that progresses from one second to the next; it isn't linear.

    Chew on This

    Want to see just how warped time is in Rushdie's Midnight's Children? Check out this quote (Quote #3) from the novel.

    Time is also a big theme in Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "The Garden of Forking Paths." Check out our analysis of the time theme here.

  • Political Critique

    Magic Realism may be full of extraordinary, fantastic stuff, but that doesn't mean that it has nothing to do with the political reality of the world we live in. In fact, Magic Realist authors are famous for their political critique.

    Many Magic Realists lived in dictatorships where freedom of expression was limited. You couldn't just up and write an open critique of the dictator and think that you wouldn't get into a boatload of trouble for it. Magical Realism offered a way of critiquing power structures in disguise: the fantastic storylines didn't look like political critique, but clever readers could read between the lines and figure out what was really being said underneath the fantasy.

    It's also true that living in a dictatorship is a pretty fantastic thing—in a bad way. You might not be allowed to leave your house after 6PM because of a curfew. You might be thrown in prison and tortured for no reason. You might be accused of crimes you haven't committed. Anything could happen. In that way, Magic Realism actually reflected aspects of the reality these writers lived through.

    Chew on This

    Corrupt political power and class power are big issues in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. Here (Quote #2) the narrator is commenting on the class divisions that are tearing society apart.

    Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children depicts the violence of British colonialism in India. Here (Quote #2) is a quote about the assassination of an anti-British activist.

  • Surrealism

    Magic Realism as we know it wouldn't exist if it weren't for Surrealism, a movement in the visual arts and literature that developed in Europe in the early 1920s.

    Surrealism was all about blurring the boundary between dream and reality in order to see reality in a new way. You've probably seen some crazy paintings by the Surrealist Salvador Dalí: they're full of melting clocks, trees as heads and heads as trees, people as rocks and rocks as people, and all other kinds of strange stuff.

    Sound a little bit like Magic Realism? That's partly because Magic Realist writers took inspiration from Surrealist artists like Dalí, and Surrealist writers like André Breton. Like the Surrealists, the Magic Realists were interested in looking for new ways to write about reality, in particular its irrational or fantastic elements.

    Chew on This

    The protagonist of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis wakes up as an insect. If that ain't surreal, we don't know what is. Check it out here (Quote #1).

    Pelayo, the protagonist of Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," doesn't know whether he's dreaming or waking when he finds an old dude with wings just sitting around in his backyard. Here are a few quotes about this surreal event.

  • Latin American Boom

    You can't talk about Magic Realism without talking about the Latin American Boom. That's the explosion of Latin American literature that took place primarily between the 1960s and 1980s.

    During this period, a very important group of Latin American writers emerged, including Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa, all of whom incorporated Magic Realist elements into their work. A lot of these writers were experimental modernists who wanted to do things in literature that hadn't been done before. While they weren't all Magic Realists, there's a lot of overlap between Boom writers and Magic Realists.

    Chew on This

    Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is possibly the most important book to come out of the Latin American Boom. Here's a quick summary of it.

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