Defining Magical Realism in Contemporary Literature and Film
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
Magical realism is a literary genre that blends elements of the fantastic or mythical with everyday, realistic events. It originated in the early 20th century, primarily in Latin American literature, and has since spread to other parts of the world.
What is Magical Realism?
Writing magical realism is a unique and challenging genre that requires a deft touch and a deep understanding of the fantastical. Here are some of the specific characteristics of writing magical realism:
- Blend of the every day and the extraordinary: This involves incorporating elements of the fantastical or mythical into a narrative that is otherwise grounded in realism. For example, a character in a magical realism story might be able to fly, but this ability is a normal part of their everyday life.
- Use of myth and folklore: Another characteristic of magical realism is the use of myth and folklore. This can include references to mythical creatures, supernatural events, or traditional folktales. These elements are often integrated seamlessly into the narrative as if they are a natural part of the story's world.
- Focus on the ordinary: Despite its incorporation of the fantastical, magical realism is ultimately a genre that is focused on the ordinary. This means that the characters and events in a magical realism story are often relatable and grounded in the everyday. The magical elements highlight the beauty and mystery of the everyday world rather than creating a completely fantastical world.
- Use of symbols and imagery: In writing magical realism, it is essential to use symbols and imagery to create a sense of the fantastical. This can involve using objects, colors, or other sensory details to create an atmosphere of magic and mystery. For example, a character might see a butterfly and realize that it is a symbol of their destiny, or a tree might be described in such a way that it seems to have a life of its own.
An Early Master of the Genre
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer and poet considered one of the pioneers of the literary genre of magical realism. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Borges was a prolific writer who produced many works, including short stories, poems, and essays.
Borges is best known for his short stories, many of which incorporate elements of the fantastical or mythical. In his work, Borges explores time, reality, and identity themes in a way that blurs the lines between the real and the fantastical. For example, in his story "The Garden of Forking Paths," Borges uses the concept of a labyrinth to explore the idea of multiple realities and the fluidity of time.
One of the key characteristics of Borges' writing is its use of symbols and imagery. In his stories, Borges often uses objects, colors, or other sensory details to create a sense of magic and mystery. For example, in his story "The Aleph," Borges describes a small, seemingly ordinary object that contains the entirety of the universe within it.
Another characteristic of Borges' work is its focus on the ordinary. Despite its incorporation of the fantastical, Borges' writing is ultimately focused on the everyday lives of his characters. In his stories, the fantastical elements highlight the beauty and mystery of the everyday world rather than creating a completely fantastical world.
The work of Jorge Luis Borges is a prime example of the literary genre of magical realism. Through his use of symbols and imagery, his exploration of themes of time and reality, and his focus on the ordinary, Borges created unique and imaginative stories that continue to captivate readers today.
Magical Realism in Modern Literature
Modern forms of magical realism often focus on more personal and emotional themes, such as family, love, and loss. For example, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is a novel that incorporates elements of magical realism to create a unique and imaginative story. Set in Tokyo in the mid-1990s, the novel follows the story of Toru Okada, a young man who is searching for his missing cat and wife. As he delves deeper into his search, he finds himself drawn into a surreal and fantastical world.
One of the key characteristics of Murakami's use of magical realism in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the blending of the everyday and the extraordinary. Throughout the novel, Okada experiences a series of events that are both mundane and fantastical. For example, he meets a young girl who can telepathically communicate with cats, and he discovers a hidden well in his backyard that seems to have the power to transport him to other dimensions. These elements are integrated seamlessly into the narrative, as if they are a natural part of Okada's everyday life.
Another characteristic of Murakami's use of magical realism is his use of elements of myth and folklore. Okada encounters various mythical creatures and supernatural events throughout the novel, such as a talking cat, a shape-shifting soldier, and a man who can control the wind. These elements are not presented as fantastical or unrealistic but rather as a normal part of the world in which Okada lives.
In addition to blending the everyday and the extraordinary and incorporating elements of myth and folklore, Murakami also uses symbols and imagery to create a sense of magic in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. For example, the novel's title references a recurring image of a wind-up bird, which symbolizes the mystery and the power of the unknown. This symbol is used throughout the novel to represent the forces at work behind the scenes, and to highlight the connection between Okada and the otherworldly elements of the story.
Murakami's use of magical realism in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle creates a unique and imaginative narrative that explores themes of identity, reality, and the power of the imagination. By blending the everyday with the fantastical, and using symbols and imagery to create a sense of magic, Murakami creates a captivating story that challenges our understanding of the world.
Magical Realism Novels You Should Read
If you're interested in reading more about magical realism, here are a few examples of novels that you might want to check out:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: This classic novel follows the history of the Buendía family and the fictional town of Macondo. Márquez's writing blends myth and fantasy elements with his characters' everyday lives.
- The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende: This novel tells the story of the Trueba family and the political upheaval in Chile during the 20th century. Allende's writing is known for its magical elements and its exploration of themes such as love, betrayal, and the supernatural.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison. A novel about a former slave haunted by an abusive ghost.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. A novel about a woman whose emotions are infused in her cooking, causing unintentional effects to the people she feeds.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A novel about a man who reflects on his past after returning to his hometown for a funeral.
Magical Realism in Film
In film, there are also many examples of magical realism. Some notable examples include Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. These films incorporate elements of the fantastical or mythical into their narratives, creating a magical and otherworldly atmosphere.
The French film Amélie is a prime example of the use of magical realism in cinema. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and released in 2001, the film tells the story of a young woman named Amélie who discovers a box of childhood treasures hidden behind a wall in her apartment. This discovery sets her on a journey of self-discovery and adventure as she begins to explore the world around her and connect with the people in her life.
Throughout the film, Jeunet uses elements of magical realism to create a unique and imaginative world. One of the key ways he does this is through color and lighting. The film is filled with vibrant colors and warm, golden tones that create a dreamlike atmosphere. This is particularly evident in the scenes set in Amélie's apartment, where the colors are rich and saturated, creating a sense of warmth and comfort.
Another way that Jeunet uses magical realism in the film is through the use of visual effects. Throughout the film, several scenes feature fantastical elements, such as a character's reflection coming to life, or a glass of water moving on its own. These effects are used sparingly and with subtlety, adding to the film's sense of magic and mystery.
In addition to its use of color and visual effects, Amélie also incorporates elements of myth and folklore into its narrative. For example, one of the key plot points of the film involves a gnome that Amélie finds in her garden. She becomes attached to the gnome and eventually travels to Finland to return it to its owner. This use of the gnome as a symbol of Amélie's journey adds a layer of fantasy and whimsy to the film.
The use of magical realism in Amélie is a key part of the film's charm and imagination. Through its use of color, visual effects, and elements of myth and folklore, the film creates a world that is both familiar and fantastical, inviting the audience to experience the magic and wonder of the everyday.
Magical realism remains a popular and enduring genre in contemporary literature and film. Its blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary continues to captivate and inspire readers and viewers around the world. It allows us to see the world in a different light, and to explore the mysteries and wonders that lie just beyond our everyday experiences.