Alberto Álvaro Ríos

The following is a compendium of magical realism definitions and defining narratives. 


The struggle to define magical realism is evident in that, as a literary practice, it subverts definition in the same ways that it subverts other kinds of rules—rules of nature, rules of science, rules of behavior.  Each work is singular, so that grouping texts is necessarily difficult.  Claude Debussy—not a magical realist—said something that, nevertheless, pertains: “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.”  In this sense, one might usefully attempt to define the elements of a magical realist text, but this definition does not, then, become a recipe for writing one.  At its best, this makes magical realism a living, human, unpredictable narrative structure, one with room and time for everything.—AR

Defining Terms

Magical Realism—We recognize the world, although now—not only because we have emerged from a dream—we look on it with new eyes. We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things. This [art offers a] calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, [this] means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root has been reconquered—albeit in new ways. For the new art it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world. (Franz Roh, Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism (1925).Magical Realism. Ed. L. P. Zamora and W. B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. p. 15-32.)


Lo real maravilloso americano—The marvelous begins to be unmistakably marvelous when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (the miracle), from a privileged revelation of reality, an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of extreme state. To begin with, the phenomenon of the marvelous presupposes faith. (Alejo Carpentier, On the Marvelous Real in America. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 85-86)


If we stop to take a look, what difference can there possibly be between Surrealism and the marvelous real?  This is very easily explained.  The term magical realism was coined around 1924 or 1925 by a German art critic named Franz Roh. What he called magical realism was simply painting where real forms are combined in a way that does not conform to daily reality. In fact, what Franz Roh calls magical realism is simply Expressionist painting. Now then if surrealism pursued the marvelous, one would have to say that it very rarely looked for it in reality. The marvelous real that I defend and that is our own marvelous real is encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that is Latin American.  Here the strange is commonplace and always was commonplace. (Alejo Carpentier, The Baroque and the Marvelous Real. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 102-104)


In magical realism we find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal. It is predominantly an art of surprises. Time exists in a kind of timeless fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality. Once the reader accepts the fait accompli, the rest follows with logical precision (Angel Flores, Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction. Magical Realism. Ed.  Zamora and Faris, p. 113-116).


Magical realism is, more than anything else, an attitude toward reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles in closed or open structures. In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principal thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things. (Luis Leal, Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature.  Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 119-123).


Magical realism offers a multifaceted fiction that incorporates metropolis thinking, rejects some components of it, and also incorporates and shapes the traditions of indigenous cultures  (Amaryll Chanady, The Territorialization of the Imaginary in Latin America: Self-Affirmation and Resistance to Metropolitan Paradigms.  Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, 125-144).


Garcia Marquez maintains that realism is a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality.  However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page. Disproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself all out of proportion.   In other words, Garcia Marquez suggests that the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than the realist text.  (Scott Simpkins, Sources of Magic Realism/Supplements to Realism in Contemporary Latin American Literature. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 148)


Magical realism—is not a realism to be transfigured by the supplement of a magical perspective, but a reality which is already in and of itself magical or fantastic.   (Frederic Jameson, as quoted in Simpkins, Sources of Magic Realism. p. 149).


Magical realism, unlike the fantastic or the surreal, presumes that the individual requires a bond with the traditions and the faith of the community, that s/he is historically constructed and connected. (P. Gabrielle Foreman. Past on Stories: History and the Magically Real, Morrison and Allende on Call. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 286).


Rushdie sees ‘El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practiced by [Garcia] Marquez, [as] a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely Third World consciousness. [Magical realism] is a way of showing reality more truly with the marvelous aid of metaphor.  (Patricia Merivale, Saleem Fathered by Oskar: Midnight’s Children, Magic Realism and The Tin Drum. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 331, 336).


Magical realism turns out to be part of a twentieth-century preoccupation with how our ways of being in the world resist capture by the traditional logic of the waking mind’s reason¼.The magical realists’ project to reveal the intimate interdependence between reality and fantasy is shared by modernists, but magical realism and modernism proceed by different means. Magical realism wills a transformation of the object of representation, rather than the means of representation.  Magical realism, like the uncanny projects a mesmerizing uncertainty suggesting that ordinary life may also be the scene of the extraordinary. (David Mikics.  Derek Walcott and Alejo Carpentier: Nature, History, and the Caribbean Writer. Magical Realism.  Ed. Zamora and Faris. p. 372).


[Magical realism] takes the supernatural for granted and spends more of its space exploring the gamut of human reactions (Susan J. Napier. The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction. Magical Realism.  Ed. Zamora and Faris, p. 451).


Magical realism’s most basic concern [is]—the nature and limits of the knowable. Magical realist texts ask us to look beyond the limits of the knowable. Magical realism is truly postmodern  in its rejection of the binarisms, rationalisms, and reductive materialisms of Western modernity. (Lois Parkinson Zamora, Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. And Latin American Fiction. Magical Realism. Ed. Zamora and Faris, 498).


Magical realist fiction is:

             —A disruption of modern realist fiction

             —creates a space for interaction and diversity

             —no less ‘real’ than traditional ‘realism’

             —about transgressing boundaries, multiple worlds

             —on the boundaries  and destabilizes normative oppositions


             —an international phenomenon

(Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Introduction: Daiquiri Birds and Flaubertian Parrot(ie)s. Magical Realism.  Ed. L. P. Zamora and W. B. Faris).


First it is the combination of reality and fantasy and second, it is the transformation of the real into the awesome and unreal, thirdly an art of surprises, one which creates a distorted concept of time and space, fourth a literature directed to an intellectual minority; characterized by a cold cerebral aloofness it does not cater to popular tastes, but rather to that of those sophisticated individuals instructed in aesthetic subtleties. (Erwin Dale Carter.  Magical Realism in Contemporary Argentine Fiction.  Ann Arbor: U Microfilms, 1969, p. 3-4)


A ‘poetics of excess’ that typifies magical realist texts, extends within a broadly delineated typology, from the fantastic to the hyperbolic and from the improbable to the possible. Magical realism manages to present a view of life that exudes a sense of energy and vitality in a world that promises not only joy, but a fair share of misery as well.  In effect, the reader is rewarded with a perspective on the world that still includes much that has elsewhere been lost. Where ‘possible’ is instantly transformed into probable as we are transported from the domain of the real to the magically real by the similarly uncharted stratagems of the artistic imagination. [In] a miniature poetics of magical realist narrative, an abbreviated source book documenting the common details of a complex reality, we find ancient mythologies  (David K. Danow.  The Spirit of Carnival Magical Realism and the Grotesque.  Lexington: U of KY P, 1995, p. 65 ff).


Magical realism refers to the occurrence of supernatural, or anything that is contrary to our conventional view of reality [it is] not divorced from reality either, [and] the presence of the supernatural is often attributed to the primitive or ‘magical’ Indian mentality, which coexists with European rationality. Floyd Merrel explains that ‘magical realism stems from the conflict between two pictures of the world’. Magical realism is thus based on reality, or a world with which the author is familiar, while expressing the myths and superstitions of the American Indians, [and it] allows us to see dimensions of reality of which we are not normally aware. (Amaryll Beatrice Chanady.  Magical Realism and the Fantastic Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.  16-31).


Magic realist novels and stories have, typically, a strong narrative drive, in which the recognizably realistic merges with the unexpected and the inexplicable and in which elements of dreams, fairy story, or mythology combine with the everyday, often in a mosaic or kaleidoscopic pattern of refraction and recurrence. (Oxford Companion to English Literature)


A chiefly literary style or genre originating in Latin America that combines fantastic or dreamlike elements with reality. (American Heritage Dictionary)


Magic realism—the result of a unique fusion of the beliefs and superstitions of different cultural groups that included the Hispanic conqueror, his criollo (creole) descendants, the native peoples and the African slaves. Magic realism, like myth, also provides an essentially synthetic or totalizing way of depicting reality. It was firmly grounded in daily reality and expressed man’s astonishment before the wonders of the real world,[and] convey[s] a vision of the fantastic features of reality.  (Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century)


Magic realism—a fantastic situation is realistically treated [discussed only in terms of German Literature]  (Macmillan Guide to Modern Literature, Martin Seymour-Smith, ed.)


Magic realism—a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report. Designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels—levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis—are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagoric political realities of the 20th century. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)


Magic realism—[is characterized by] the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic, bizarre and skillful time shifts,  convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic description, arcane erudition, the elements of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable. (A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory)


Magic realism—the frame or surface of the work may be conventionally realistic, but contrasting elements—such as supernatural myth, dream fantasy—invade the realism and change the whole basis of the art. (Handbook to Literature, Harmon ed.)


Lo real maravilloso—for the practice of Latin American writers who mix everyday realities with imaginative extravaganzas drawn from the rich interplay of European and native cultures.[Writers] enlarge a reader’s ordinary sense of the real to include magic, myth, hallucination and miracles. (Handbook to Literature, Harper ed.)


Magic realism—the capacity to enrich our idea of what is ‘real’ by incorporating all dimensions of the imagination, particularly as expressed in magic, myth and religion. (Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia)


Magical realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective. (Rogers, Bruce Hollands. “What is Magical Realism, Really?” Speculations, 2002.)


Magical realism—a narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite. (Lindstrom, N. Twentieth-Century Spanish American Literature. University of Texas Press: Austin.1994.)


Magic Realism—Originally: a style of painting which depicts fantastic or bizarre images in a precise representationalist manner (first used in German to describe the work of members of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement). In extended use: any artistic or esp. literary style in which realistic techniques such as naturalistic detail, narrative, etc., are similarly combined with surreal or dreamlike elements. (Oxford English Dictionary)


Alberto Álvaro Ríos


Department of English, Box 870302, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ 85287-0302 · 480-965-3800—office · 480-965-3168—department

©2015 Alberto Ríos.  Not for re-use without permission/attribution.

©2015, Alberto Ríos.  Not for re-use without permission/attribution.