What Is Magical Realism in Literature?

Magical realism has become well-known as a literary genre, but was a term used to categorize visual art as early as the 1920s. In both the visual and literary arts, it refers to a style of expression that presents a realistic world that has elements of the magical or fantastical.


The term "magical realism" was coined by European art historian Franz Roh in the 1920s. Roh believed that the form was a reaction to expressionism and a return to celebrating the autonomy of the objective world. In the 1950s, influenced by a 1949 essay on the topic by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, Latin American authors embraced the style and combined it with French surreal concepts as well as folklore. In American and British literature, magical realism has been a popular genre since the 1960s, and has been an important branch of postmodernism.


Magical realism is a literary genre that has sometimes frustrated critics who have been unable to define the style with any precision. However, certain traits are singled out as being typical of the genre. Magical realism, as the name would imply, is a story that is set in a mostly realistic setting, but with some magical elements. Often, magical realism features social or political commentary. Finally, the narrator, if there is one, takes a tone toward the fantastical elements that would indicate that she finds them completely normal.


Franz Kafka, German-born author of The Metamorphosis, is considered an influential early practitioner of the form, even though the term "magical realism" was not yet in use. Many of the most best known authors working in the style of magical realism are from Latin America.Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the influential novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. American audiences may be familiar with Like Water for Chocolate, which became a popular independent film. The novel upon which the film is based was written by Latin American novelist Laura Esquivel.

Magical Realism vs. Surrealism

The surreal art movement preceded magical realism. Surrealism is an artistic philosophy that developed in the mid-20th century in response to the pioneering work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud brought the concept of a subconscious mind into popular acceptance. The primary difference between the two forms is that surrealism is an artistic representation of the dreamlike and fantastical elements of the human mind. It's not presented as being in any way connected with objective reality. Magical realism contains fantastical elements, but are elements that dot the landscape of reality, not the landscape itself.