Magical Realism: Definition and Examples in Literature

You have fantasy, and you have realism. Now, throw them in a blender and see what happens. This is the world of magical realism. It is like a fun and exciting magical carpet ride through the bustling streets of New York City. Still confused? Get a clear definition of magical realism through examples of famous books that exemplify this genre. 

magical realism girl with tail and wingsmagical realism girl with tail and wings

Magical Realism Defined

You’ve all heard a fantasy story beginning, “Once upon a time, in a land far away…” Well, magical realism isn’t like that. Instead, you might have, “On a typical Sunday morning, while eating my cheerios, I noticed that I’d started to sprout my tail.” Wait what? The fact that she’s spouting her tail should be a big deal, but in magical realism, it’s just another Sunday morning. 

As the name would suggest, magical realism is a combination of realistic fiction with magical moments weaved into it. For example, in the book Beloved by Toni Morrison, the character Sethe is haunted by the spirit of her daughter. However, while Morrison magically weaves this haunting, the rest of the story is set in the real world and around real events that happened to slaves in America. For more typical characteristics you can find in magical realism, keep reading! 

Magical Realism Characteristics

While magical realism can vary by authors, this genre typically employs a few different characteristic plot devices. 

  • Set in the real world - The events of the story unfold in the real world. Some settings even have historical significance. 

  • Fantastical elements normalized - The magic that happens in the book (a.k.a. ghosts, telepathy, etc.) are considered normal to the characters. It doesn’t seem out of place or odd. You sprouted wings, well that happens when you turn 16. Only the reader will be shocked by this fact. 

  • Incorporate myth - The magical and fantastical in the story are drawn from myths like religious myths or ancient myths. For example, being a clairvoyant like Apollo

  • Time has no bounds - Time is one of the areas that magical realism writers love to play with. It has no bounds on what it can do in the real world and everyone is okay with that. 

  • Hybrid - Many times, magical realism books are called hybrid books because they mix mundane life and fantastical elements so seamlessly. It becomes something new and exciting, and possibly a little weird. This means that most magical realism books don’t follow a typical plot structure. 

Classic Magical Realism Examples

Understanding and classifying magical realism can get tricky sometimes. However, there are a few famous magical realism examples in literature that really exemplify this genre

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, you are drawn into the world of the Buendía family and the history of Macondo. And while you’ll hear about house cleaning, you’ll also see a levitating priest, making it a fabulous mix of mundane and magical. 

Midnight Children by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children exemplifies the events that happened before and after the independence of India. However, it is done through a character born at the exact time of independence, who just happens to be a telepath. 

The House of the Spirits by Isabell Allende

In her novel, The House of the Spirits, Allende explores the lives of the Trueba family, from their mundane lives to their deep connection to the spirit world. 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is set in Tokyo. However, the main character also searches for his wife in a unique underground city. This gives the novel a very surreal and dream-like feel, but it is still grounded in reality. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie’s metamorphosis through adulthood. However, it uses the powerful presence of nature to add a little magic to the character's life. 

Modern Examples of Magical Realism Books

Magical realism isn’t just a thing of the past. It’s a unique and creative genre used in current fictional books as well. Explore contemporary titles that really push magical realism to its limits. 

I Crawl Through It by A.S. King

Verging on surrealism, I Crawl Through It follows four teenagers, Gustav, Stanzi, China, and Lansdale, and their escape from their world in an invisible helicopter. 

Beast of Extraordinary Circumstances by Ruth Emmie Lang

Follow the unusual character of Weylyn Grey in Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances. Raised by wolves, Weylyn lives outside of societal norms and can talk with animals and harvest light from fireflies. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Incorporating magical elements, The Ocean at the End of the Lane captivates readers through this exploration of a man’s past. Through its pages, you begin to wonder if what you are truly seeing is reality or just your perception. 

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Would you want to taste emotions? That’s just what Rose Edelstein finds out she can do on her ninth birthday in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

A Look at Magical Realism

Magical realism is a movement that spans beyond just literature into art and movies. While the origins of this movement are hard to pinpoint, the term was coined in by German art critic Franz Roh in the 1920s for magical elements appearing in European paintings. However, that was simply the first time the word was recognized. Elements of magical realism can be found in works of literature before then like The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Therefore, pinpointing the beginnings of this artform is nearly impossible. 

The Unique World of Magical Realism

In the world of magical realism, anything can happen. While grounded in reality, magical realism expands your mind and makes you start to question reality. Explore other fun book genres by looking at examples of allegory books.

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