What Is Magical Realism in Literature?

Magical Realism is a literary style within modern fiction – though the term is not exactly uncontroversial.

Dec 12, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

what is magical realism literature


In art and literature, magical realism is a term used to describe works that incorporate elements of the magical, mythical, and strange into otherwise seemingly realist compositions. But what are its origins? And is the term a particularly useful one? Here, we will take a closer look at the history of the term’s use and application to literary works, its particularly close affiliation with the so-called Latin American Boom, and the reasons why the term has proved somewhat contentious over the years.


What Is Magical Realism?

jorge luis borges
Photograph of Jorge Luis Borges, via IMDb


The term magic realism was first coined in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art critic, to designate an artistic style that merged realism with elements of the fantastical, mythological, and dream-like. Through his theorizing, Roh sought to name the defamiliarizing experience whereby even the most mundane objects can appear strange and magical if you look long enough at them. The term only gave name to a movement in the 1940s in response to work produced in Latin America and the Caribbean.


In 1955, Angel Flores first used the term magical realism, drawing on Roh’s earlier and similar term in asserting that magical realism was an amalgamation of magic realism and marvelous realism. According to Flores, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was the movement’s originator. The newly coined term magical realism was soon used to name a trend that emerged within German fiction in the 1950s, which included such works as Günter Grass’ 1959 novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum).


If, by its very nature, magical realism is something of a contradiction in terms, that is because the two opposing terms resist one another, and so prevent either the purely magical or the purely realistic from gaining the upper hand. Magical realist works thus incorporate the magical within the mundane, such as in Gabriel García Márquez’s seminal magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) when Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven while folding a sheet.

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The term is perhaps most closely associated with Latin American authors such as Borges, García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Juan Rulfo. However, the term has also been applied to works by such English language writers as Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, and Angela Carter; Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami; and Polish writers like Olga Tokarczuk, to name a few.


What Is Hysterical Realism?

charles dickens author
Charles Dickens, photographed by Augustin Rischgitz, via Wikimedia Commons


Hysterical realism is a term coined by the literary critic James Wood in a review of Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth. Here, Wood was referring to a growing trend within the postmodern novel that followed in the wake of the heyday of the magical realist novel. For Wood, hysterical realism encompassed a “false zaniness” of style with characters who were more “vivacious caricatures” rather than realistic, rounded human beings, their credibility as characters sacrificed in pursuit of a sense of “vitality at all costs,” and multiple (sometimes tortuously) interlinking narratives.


Zadie Smith, however, was not the only proponent of this emerging writing style, and it should be noted that her subsequent novels have adopted a more sober tone. Among the other hysterical realist writers were the American novelists Thomas Pynchon and David Forster Wallace, as well as Salman Rushdie – suggesting something of a crossover between magical and hysterical realisms. Hysterical realism is also typified by evidence of extensive research and granular detail, though the same might also be said of Borges’ work, including “The Garden of Forking Paths.”


In Rushdie’s case, however, this is perhaps unsurprising, as Wood identifies Charles Dickens as the literary forebear of hysterical realism, with his preference for grotesque caricature over realistic characterization. Dickens is, moreover, a writer for whom Rushdie has repeatedly expressed his admiration. And yet, despite his cartoonishly overblown characters and the strange instance of one such character dying from spontaneous combustion in the 1852 novel Bleak House, Dickens is one of the writers most closely associated with the Victorian realist novel.


Is Magical Realism a Contentious Term?

isabel allende author
Photograph of Chilean-American magical realist author Isabel Allende, via IMDb


The oxymoronic term magical realism has not only proved puzzling to some people, but it has also been something of a bone of contention. Firstly, there is the issue of genre and the relative values assigned to different genres within the literary establishment. In drawing on elements of the fantastical, the distinction between commercial genre fiction (in this case, fantasy) and high literary fiction can be blurred in works described as magical realism. It is in being so described, however, that magical realist works assert their elevated literary value.


Magical realist works are thus conceived as experimental – and still fundamentally – literary works that test the boundaries of what literature can do, all while further distancing themselves from the supposedly “low” fantasy genre. Thus magical realist works are more likely to win prestigious literary prizes than commercial fantasy works, and it is of little surprise that magical realist novels are frequently awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction – which, in turn, serves to maintain the prestige surrounding magical realism as a literary style.


Moreover, Wendy B. Faris has raised the question as to whether magical realism is a fundamentally Latin American literary style that non-Latin American writers have appropriated. Today, the term is largely used to describe a tendency within modern and contemporary novels to incorporate elements of the magical, mythological, or folkloric within otherwise broadly realist novels. However, does the blame for this alleged cultural appropriation lie with non-Latin American writers or with critics who secondarily apply the term magical realism to the works written by these authors?


toni morrison beloved
Front cover of the first edition of Beloved by Toni Morrison, via Wikipedia


Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, for example, builds on Yoruba mythology, Toni Morrison draws on the gothic and the supernatural to explore the psychological toll of slavery following abolition in Beloved, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children incorporates myth and magic into a reimagining of Indian national history. Are these writers responding to their own cultures, and is the term magical realism being applied to their works so that they become more easily marketable within the publishing industry and decipherable to the literary establishment?


There is, moreover, the case to be made that writers were experimenting with the tension between realism and the fantastical long before the tradition of magical realism emerged in Latin America. In 1915 – ten years before Roh coined the term – Franz Kafka, for example, wrote Metamorphosis, a novel we might well now categorize as magical realist.


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The Dream, by Henri Rousseau, 1910, via Museum of Modern Art, New York


The debate surrounding magical realism also forces us to question the nature of realism within art and literature. How can it be credible to say that a work of fiction represents reality when that reality has, by the very nature of fiction, been constructed? Is it possible to trap reality within a work of fiction – or, even more fundamentally, within language itself?


While many still question the use of the term magical realism, the style shows no signs of abating in popularity. Through it, writers of diverse cultural backgrounds have been able to express pressing contemporary political concerns, explore psychological trauma, and articulate the latent magic in even the most mundane fictional setups. Whether we persist in using the term magical realism or not, writers will certainly continue to play with the boundaries of realism within their work – just as they were doing long before the terms magic realism and magical realism were coined.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.