We discuss theoretical questions and investigate the enduring appeal of magical realism in representations of fact and fantasy in contemporary society. We consider how far any revival of interest in magical realism in art, fiction and academic commentary reflects political crisis and loss of confidence in western liberal democracy. We explore the progressive potential of magical realism to encourage reflection on current social and environmental issues.


1. How far can magical realism be considered an artistic and/or literary movement in its own right, distinct from other genres such as surrealism and fantasy? here

2. Was Marx a magical realist? Are magical realists Marxists? here

3. Is magical realism more ‘real’ than realism? here

4. The representation of magical realist fiction in visual images. here

5. The representation of magical realist metaphors and similes in visual images. here

6. How far any revival of interest in magical realism in contemporary art and fiction is a reflection of political crisis and loss of confidence in western liberal democracies. here

7. The extent to which our own original fiction and artistic work can be considered ‘magical realist’. here

8. The progressive potential of magical realism to encourage reflection and reframe debates on current societal problems. here

1. How far magical realism can be considered an artistic and/or literary movement in its own right, distinct from other genres such as surrealism and fantasy.

‘They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality’ (Frida Kahlo).

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas, 1939.

Richard Biringer, Krupp Works, 1925.

While surrealism is generally considered an artistic and literary ‘movement’ originating in France in 1924,1 magical realism is more usually referred to as a ‘mode’, having evolved in a variety of forms over a longer time-frame in different geographical locations in a complex inter-relationship.2 The difficulty of comparing one with the other is compounded by the existence of different literary and artistic forms. Whereas surrealism is most commonly associated with painting and film, magical realist fiction has predominated to the extent that the mode’s origins in art have tended to be obscured.


A key difference is that whereas surrealism projects a singular irrational and dream-like world, magical realism presupposes twin worlds or realms, one real/rational and the other magic/non-rational.3 John Erickson explains the relationship between the ‘magic’ and the ‘real’ with reference to two ‘diametrically opposed ontologies’ that are viewed as ‘coexisting’ on equal terms.4 Melissa Stewart summarises how the antinomy has been variously conceived in terms of ‘antagonistic struggle’5 or ‘collision’; or ‘merging’ or ‘intersecting’; or of magic ‘extending’, or ‘expanding’, or ‘growing out of’ the real:6 She concludes that all these descriptions are valid, indicating that ‘the potency of magical realism lies in its capacity to explore the protean relationship between what we consider rational (what is knowable, predictable, and controllable) and irrational (what is beyond our complete understanding and control).’7 The artist/writer’s creative ‘oscillation’ between the worlds or realms is fundamental to the understanding of magical realism.8

Although similar in their rejection of scientific rationalism, surrealism and magical realism therefore differed radically from the outset in how they viewed ‘reality.’ By unleashing the creative potential of the unconscious and invoking dreamlike experiences, the surrealists aimed explicitly in their art and literature to pervert and distort reality.9 While magical realism was not informed by a clear statement of aims as appeared in the surrealists’ manifesto, it appeared to Roe and other commentators that the artists they identified as exemplars of the mode in 1920s Europe were seeking to engage with material reality and with physical objects in the real world.

Surrealism and magical realism may be said to differ also in their conceptions of ‘unreality’:

In this regard, surrealism sees experience and perception as operating on a spectrum, with reality on one end and unreality on the other end. We are sometimes granted access to unreality, but typically only by way of dreams and in excessively intoxicated states. Magical realism, however, sees reality and unreality as being two sides of one coin. In essence, one cannot physically exist without the other; they exist simultaneously and occupy the same space, indeed the same matter.10 


According to Zamora and Faris, whereas surrealism implies ‘a conscious assault on conventionally depicted reality’, magical realism (in its lo real maravilloso americano variant, associated with Carpentier): 

… implies an amplification of perceived reality required by and inherent in Latin American nature and culture … (here) the fantastic is not to be discovered by subverting or transcending reality with abstract forms and manufactured combinations of images. Rather, the fantastic inheres in the natural and human realities of time and place, where improbable juxtapositions and marvelous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics – not by manifesto.11

The reality being ‘amplified’ here is clearly the ‘marvelous’ geography, people, and culture of Latin America.12 On one interpretation, such amplification is a distinguishing feature of lo real maravilloso americano, and unique to Latin America. William Spindler appears to take this view;13 it is not clear from Zamora and Faris’s Editor’s note (which prefaces Carpentier’s essay ‘On the Marvelous Real in America’) whether they do also. Elsewhere Faris draws a distinction between two types of magical realism: the ‘scholarly’ European version associated with the mode’s origins in art, in which the marvellous stems from the observer’s vision (hence ‘epistemological’); and the ‘mythic or folkloric’ type referring to the marvellous qualities inherent in Latin America (hence ‘ontological’), associated with Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso.14

An alternative interpretation, however, is that the process of amplification is a feature of magical realist writing more generally, common to all its literary manifestations, and even to all forms of magical realism; and that it is precisely this transformational quality that distinguishes the mode in general from surrealism.15 Lois Parkinson Zamora appears to subscribe to this view:

Magical Realist texts question the nature of reality and the nature of its representation. In this, then, magical realist texts share (and extend) the tradition of narrative realism: they, too, aim to present a credible version of experienced reality. The crucial difference is that magical realist texts amplify … “experienced reality” by presenting fictional worlds that are multiple, permeable, transformative, animistic.16

So despite the many differences between ‘magic realism’ and ‘marvelous realism’ (and between their artistic and literary expressions) they are arguably similar in respect of this process of amplification. Of course, the ‘natural and human realities’ which Carpentier found in Latin America in the 1940s were very different to the reality experienced by artists in Weimar Germany in the inter-war years, expressed in the drawings of George Grosz and paintings of Alexander Karnoldt and Conrad Felixmuüller. Irene Guenther summarises this art and the reality it represented:

It was an art that reflected the turbulent fourteen-year life of the Weimar Republic; an art of a demoralised Germany reeling from its devastating loss in World War I, its subsequent revolution, and the worst monetary inflation in history … It was an art of the first years of the struggling Republic; an art of controlled bitterness that festered as the hopes and idealism of 1918 were dashed by the early 1920s, and the dreams of a better society gave way to resignation and cynicism … This art also depicted the middle period of superficial calm (1924-29), an era of growing confidence … it portrayed bourgeois smugness, political and economic stabilization, and further industrialisation before the disastrous depression years.17

Nevertheless, what is important in comparing Carpentier’s ‘marvelous real’ fiction and Roh’s ‘magic realist’ art is their common approach to reality, rather than the artist/writers’ different concrete experiences, or the difference between literary and artistic forms. Whereas surrealism perverts and distorts reality, magical realism engages with and amplifies it in the attempt (in Leal’s terms) to ‘seize the mystery that breathes behind things.’18 Although Leal is making this point in relation to Spanish American literature, such ‘mystery’ was just as much a preoccupation of artists in Weimar Germany. Indeed Leal’s expression echoes Roh’s famous observation (quoted earlier in his essay): ‘With the word “magic”, as opposed to “mystic”, I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it.’19 Again, Faris’s definition of magical realism as a combination of the real and the fantastic ‘in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed’20 appears just as applicable to art as literature.

Inductive reasoning

This line of argument may be extended by focusing on how art and literary critics typically understand the works, modes and movements on which they commentate. The comparison of surrealism and magical realism in most accounts involves generalisation, based on the observation of distinctive features in examples of the modes in literature and art.21 In one sense this is what Roe (an art historian and critic as well as photographer) and other observers of contemporary artistic developments were doing in the 1920s: ‘inducing’ from empirical evidence of changes in styles of painting the shift from Expressionism to Magic Realism and ‘New Objectivity’. Roe was clear in his approach: ‘The phases of all art can be distinguished quite simply by means of the particular objects that artists perceive, among all the objects in the world, thanks to an act of selection that is already an act of creation.’22 Roe’s categorisation of the differences between Expressionism and New Objectivity (warm vs cold, ecstatic vs sober, dynamic vs static, thick vs thin texture, etc) was made on just this basis. A modern definition of the artistic form of magical realism consistent with Roe’s original understanding, and similarly based on inductive reasoning, refers to:

a type of realism using contemporary subjects, often in cool detachment and sometimes injecting an eerie atmosphere, (in which) juxtapositions of sharply rendered and detailed elements, both in the foreground and background, are used to develop an air of mystery or ambiguity. Although the paintings may incorporate everyday objects, they attempt to show us the everyday world in new and unfamiliar ways. They remind us that there are still many mysteries in life.23 

The ‘meaning’ popularly ascribed to magical realist fiction is typically also induced from the observation of common features.24 Magical realism is: ‘a style of writing or technique that incorporates magical or supernatural events into realistic narrative without questioning the improbability of these events. This fusion of fact and fantasy is meant to question the nature of reality as well as call attention to the act of creation;25 or ‘an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The objective … is to bring us fresh presentation of the everyday world we live in. The artist may choose unusual points of view, mysterious juxtapositions or common objects presented in uncanny ways. However, everything we see is within the realm of the possible, although sometimes unlikely.’26 In these definitions, intentions and objectives are imputed to writers in an interpretive process involving the identification of characteristics observed in the fiction they have produced, rather than being based on any explicitly stated aims or manifesto.27 While in the case of surrealism evidence does exist in such a form,28 the same inductive approach is apparent in contemporary definitions: ‘Surrealism is a style in art and literature in which ideas, images, and objects are combined in a strange way, like in a dream.’29


An alternative to this comparative approach, already implicit in some of the academic commentary discussed above, is to focus more on how writers and artists attempt to make sense of the realities of time and place in which they live. According to Eugene Arva: ‘Magical realism constitutes an attitude toward and a way of approaching reality, a reality that is rarely what it seems and is seldom perceived in the same way by subjects in different places or in different times.’30 Similarly for Luis Leal:

Magical realism is, more than anything else, an attitude towards reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles, in closed or open structures … the magical realist … doesn’t create imaginary worlds in which we can hide from everyday reality. In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts.31

So, magical realism may be understood as both an attitude or methodology for apprehending ‘reality’ on the one hand, and a particular way or style of re-presenting what has been perceived on the other hand. The perceptual and representational dimensions (deconstruction and reconstruction) are of equal importance.32 Compared to the conventional ‘critical’ approach which focuses on the phenomenal characteristics or features of artistic and literary expressions, the emphasis on the artist/writers’ ‘attitude’ – coupled with the notion of ‘amplification’ of the real material conditions in which the artistic and literary works are produced – promises an easier reconciliation of the different manifestations of magical realism. The unity of magical realist art, film and fiction lies as much in the critical and sceptical stance of the artist, the film-maker and the writer, as in the subject-matter and style of their work.33

It might be objected that this approach also involves inductive reasoning, and is therefore little or no different to the so-called conventional comparative approach based on ex-post classification according to common features observed in works of art or literature. ‘Attitude’ still has to be induced from empirical evidence, and critics and experts have in any case always taken account of the context and circumstances of artistic and literary production. Nevertheless it is suggested that the question of what – and more importantly how – the artist or writer was (or might have been) thinking when making a work of art or fiction has greater potential for understanding the dynamic tension between the ‘magic’ and the ‘real’ in the creative process, and therefore for getting to the heart of what distinguishes magical realism from other modes and genres.

Attitude and amplification

The advantages of the ‘attitude + amplification’ approach may be illustrated with reference to two concrete examples of magic(al) realist work identified by Bowers as problematic. The first concerns differences between Carpentier and García Márquez’s writing, which ‘reveal the full extent of the problem of assuming that Latin American magical realism can be discussed as one uncomplicated category.’34 Whereas Carpentier’s ‘marvelous realism’ expressed the exuberant mix of Cuban cultures, García Márquez’s version of magical realism was ‘a way of expressing his own cultural context, using the oral storytelling techniques of his Grandmother.’35 Following this line of reasoning, the problem then becomes whether the writers should be ‘classified’ in the same or different categories (or left suspended in limbo between them). However, if magical realism is considered in terms of ‘attitude and amplification’, the problem disappears or is at least diminished. In this analysis, the writers apprehend reality and amplify it in the same or similar ways – this is what makes them both ‘magical realists’ – but the disparate content and even style of their output reflects the very different personal experiences, cultural contexts, and geographical locations in which they were writing.

The second example concerns Frida Kahlo’s painting, which Bowers finds difficult to classify as magic realist, marvelous realist, or magical realist: ‘Some suspicion surrounds the inclusion of Kahlo amongst magic realists, as often her portrayals of aspects of indigenous and mixed Mexican culture leads her to be associated with the magical realism of García Márquez.’36 Bowers acknowledges the strong argument to be made for Kahlo’s inclusion among magic realists according to Roh’s definition, without quite committing to this position:

The surfaces of her painting are smooth and photographic and they reveal a strange juxtaposition of objects out of their context. Many of these objects are symbolic or explanatory, such as a broken column in place of her own damaged back-bone in the painting The Broken Column (1944), or blood vessels in the air linking two versions of herself in The Two Fridas (1939). However, the most frequently portrayed object in her painting is that of her own body, her self.36

Again, by adopting the ‘attitude + amplification’ interpretation of the essence of magical realism, the tricky task of classification is avoided. Indeed, the question of whether the work is magic realist, marvelous real, or magical realist appears beside the point.37 Kahlo’s painting is most definitely magical realist – not because it falls within one or other category, but rather by virtue of both its approach to reality, and its representation and expression of the ‘natural and human realities’ inherent in Kahlo’s personal experience of Mexico at this time in her life. As Bowers demonstrates, this experience was a combination of the pain associated with her considerable disability (due first to polio and later to a tram accident which led to years of medical operations and amputations) and her political engagement with the conditions of colonialism and its effects,38 of which her bodily mutilation was symbolic.39 But the paintings also expressed her experience of the richness of Mexico’s flora and fauna, including the famously represented monkeys and parrots.40 There could be no better vindication of the importance of the emphasis on material reality in distinguishing magical realism from surrealism than Kahlo’s own oft-quoted words: ‘They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’41


To recap, magical realism can be distinguished from other modes, movements or genres by reference to: (1) artists’ and writers’ ‘attitude toward or way of approaching’ reality (Arva; Leal); and (2) their ‘amplification of perceived reality’ (Zamora and Faris), reflecting the conditions (personal as well as cultural, political, economic, and environmental) of the place and time in which they live.42 The scenes portrayed by magical realists are not distortions of reality, nor are they ‘dream-like’ (so distinguished from surrealism). Nor are they imaginary or fantastical (so distinguished from fantasy). Nor are they based on a plausibly real but future reality (so distinguished from science fiction). Rather, magical realists are united in their endeavours to confront reality and ‘untangle’ it, to ‘seize the mystery behind things’, and to ‘discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts.’

In these terms, while magical realism may not be a movement or genre, it may certainly be considered an artistic and literary mode ‘in its own right’.

The benefit of the foregoing analysis has, it may be suggested, lain as much in contributing to an increased understanding of magical realism as in distinguishing this mode from surrealism and other genres. Of course, the approach advocated here cannot resolve all problems concerning the drawing of boundaries between related forms of literary and artistic expression.43 What the approach does do, however, is indicate a way of addressing such issues that is different from (although potentially complementary to) more conventional analyses based on classification and categorisation.

Karl Marx, John Jabez Edwin Mayal (1875).

Franz Roh, Self-portrait (1930).

Is magical realism compatible with Marxism?

There is a tendency for some Marxists to disparage magical realism’s focus on the mysterious, and to doubt the critical capacity of a mode which (due to its ‘magical’ component) so obviously violates the conventions of social realism. Brenda Cooper summarises the disagreement between Lukacs, who rejected European modernism as decadent, and Brecht, who argued in favour of the potential of modernist forms of literary and artistic expression to contribute to a better understanding of reality. In her analysis of the compatibility of magical realism and Marxism, Cooper considers whether magical realism is capable of capturing reality in the Brechtian sense, and of contributing to the unmasking of class and other relations of dominance and subordination.44 Her answer to this question appears somewhat ambivalent: 

Magical Realism is a genre of fiction arising out of a stage of capitalist development in which pre-capitalist modes of production still exert an influence; this influence is often expressed through the presentation of the world through the eyes of characters who are a product of these different modes. This often entails an investigation of the relationship between nature and industrialisation/ civilization/ science; it is preoccupied with history and also with the relationship between the social and the magical/fantastic. It may be written in the style of the baroque and incorporates thereby a subversive resistance to cultural imperialism … (In its most common usage, however, magical realism) is not linked to a specific ideological or theoretical framework and cannot be assumed to be politically enlightened.45

Cooper concludes her general discussion by criticising the emergence of ‘a suspect and patronising western Left treatment of Third World writing’, which she associates with Fredric Jameson and other commentators sympathetic to Marxism. The patronising tendency involves the enthusiastic embracing of a magical framework which would not have been acceptable – or would at least have been subject to more rigorous examination – in First World fiction. Cooper goes on to consider the ‘enormous potential traps attached to Magical Realism’ with reference to two famous Latin American novels in this mode, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits.46

Another way of investigating the compatibility of magical realism and Marxism, which avoids the over-emphasis in Cooper’s account on Latin American fiction (to the exclusion of art and other literature), is to compare their fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality and of human existence. In this regard, it may be suggested that there exists a close resemblance between: (1) the conception of magical realism as an ‘attitude to reality’ on the part of writers and artists seeking to engage with the realities of ‘time and place’ in which they live; and (2) Marxist ontological realism with its distinctive materialist approach to understanding the natural and social worlds.

Both ontological realism and magical realism assume (at least implicitly) that material reality, and objects and relationships in the real world, exist independently of human thought. At the same time, both are deeply sceptical of reality’s appearance, and are concerned to locate meaning below the surface of the real. So for ontological realists: ‘Knowledge does not lie exposed on the face of the world, prone to the gaze of the casual observer … rather it is, for the most part, hidden encrusted in things, needing to be excavated in theoretical and practical labours of the most arduous kind.’47 This statement echoes Roh’s assertion of magic realism’s intent to reveal the mystery hiding behind the represented world,48 and Leal’s claim of magical realism’s purpose as being to seize the mystery behind things.49  

However, magical realism and ontological realism have more in common than merely the search for meaning below the surface level of appearances. They may be regarded as similar also in their methodologies – in the manner in which they attempt to unveil the essential nature of objects and social relationships through processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. While Marx’s method is usually regarded as deductive, moving from abstract and general theory to the explanation of concrete social relations, Marxist ontological realism assumes a more complex trajectory, beginning and ending with the concrete but oscillating back and forth between the concrete and the abstract in the process of theoretical development. Ontological realism is therefore neither inductive, based on empirical observation (moving from concrete to abstract); nor deductive, prioritising theory (moving from abstract to concrete); but rather retroductive (expressing the movement from concrete, to abstract, to concrete):

This ontology turns on its head the conventional primacy of the empirical. Since observation is conceptually mediated, the empirical is tenuous, subject to reinterpretation and expands with our knowledge. The primary object of science is not empirical patterns of events but the real entities of which they are the phenomenal form … Science reasons ‘retroductively’ from empirical appearances to underlying essences or structures: what mechanisms would have to exist for the empirical world to appear in the form it does’? (Sayer 1979). Realism’s concern is with the intrinsic nature of objects, their properties, dispositions and capacities to act. The task is to develop models and explanatory theories that describe the powers and tendencies of the mechanisms of real objects, such that were they ‘to represent correctly these structures and mechanisms, the phenomena would then be causally explained’ (Keat and Urry 1975: 35).50

Similarly (and unlike conventional realism) magical realism aims to reveal the meaning behind empirically observable reality. Magical realism also is concerned with the intrinsic nature of objects and their properties, and with the underlying causes of, and explanations for, social relationships and historical events. While magical realists clearly do not engage in ‘retroductive reasoning’ in the manner of ontological realists, the cognitive movement or ‘oscillation’ between the magical and the real in the process of creating works of art and fiction is at least analogous. 

This retroductive non-empiricist approach is closely associated with a related distinguishing feature of magical realism (see Topic 2): its ‘amplification’ of the conditions (environmental, political, economic, as well as personal) of writers’ and artists’ experience of the places and times in which they live. Amplification in this sense has a more subtle meaning than simply ‘magnifying’ or exaggerating features of a given entity, as in the adding of gain to a pre-exisitng audio signal. Rather it implies the re-presentation of the real in a way that reveals its hidden mystery. According to Zamora, magical realist texts share with the tradition of narrative realism the aim to present a credible version of experienced reality. However, in questioning both the nature of reality and of its representation, they ‘amplify the very conception of “experienced reality” by presenting fictional worlds that are multiple, permeable, transformative, animistic.’51 By such means, magical realism promises a deeper and more truthful understanding of material reality than is available in conventional or social realist accounts.

Of course, a great deal more work is required in order to sustain this claim of ontological similarity, and to explore its implications. But it is surely not coincidental that magical realist artists and writers have tended to adopt explicitly Marxist ‘historical materialist’ perspectives in their critiques of capitalist institutions. For the moment, it may be concluded that Marxists and magical realists perceive and understand the world in similar (or not dissimilar) ways. While Cooper may be correct in her assessment that magical realism is not linked to any specific ideological or political framework, and cannot for that reason be assumed to be ‘politically enlightened’, there is arguably such a connection between magical realism and Marxism in methodological terms.

So Marxists (at least those Marxists who embrace ontological realism) might be considered magical realists in the above sense. And magical realists might be considered Marxists – regardless of their political ambitions or the content of their art and literature – by virtue of their attitude and approach to reality. 

3. Is magical realism more ‘real’ than realism?

Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, 1857. 

Otto Dix, To Beauty (An die Schönheit), 1922

Wilhelm Leibl, The Village Politicians, 1877

Otto Dix, Circus Scene (Riding Act), 1923.

Philosophical materialism, ontological realism, and attitude to reality in the analysis of art and fiction


Artistic and literary genres may be distinguished in terms of their implicit ‘attitudes to reality’. From a conventional critical perspective, whereas Realism faithfully represents scenes and characters drawn from real life, Magical Realism’s treatment of the real appears compromised by the inclusion of unreal and irrational elements. A different picture results, however, from the adoption of a philosophical materialist/ontological realist perspective, which views reality as comprising multiple physical events and effects together with related causal structures that cannot be understood by simple observation and description. In this perspective, true knowledge of the natural and social worlds is possible only by experimentation which posits the existence of invisible conditions that account for phenomenal forms. Whereas Realism mirrors surface reality, Magical Realism seeks to uncover the mystery hiding behind appearances. In this sense, the creative and scientific practices of Magical Realism and ontological realism may be considered closely aligned – in their approach to reality, their experimental methodology, and their concern with the underlying causes of social relationships and historical events. The significance of this similarity lies ultimately in Magical Realism’s capacity for drawing attention to, and provoking reflection on, dimensions of social relations (class, gender, inequality, patriarchy, racial disadvantage, colonial exploitation) that might not be rendered as powerfully or as effectively in Realist art and fiction. In this sense, Magical Realism may indeed be more ‘real’ than Realism. 

This essay explores the idea that different genres of art and fiction may be understood with reference to their practitioners’ contrasting ‘attitudes to reality.’ While this idea is based on observations made specifically in the context of debates on Magical Realism (see Topic 1, above),52 there seems no reason why the standard should not be applied more generally. So, while Magical Realism may be distinctive in the nature of its attitude – in the way in which ‘the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts’53 – other genres and forms of cultural expression may be measured against the same yardstick.

In the following analysis, Realism is understood in its conventional sense as referring to a genre of literary and artistic work broadly characterised by the accurate and faithful representation of everyday life without romantic or religious idealisation, stylisation or embellishment. By contrast, realism refers to the philosophical position which assumes that material reality exists independently of human consciousness, perceptions and conceptual schemes, and that objective knowledge of the natural and social worlds is possible. It is suggested that the question: ‘Is Magical Realism more ‘real’ than Realism?’ will have a different answer depending on the adoption of either a ‘conventional’ or a philosophical realist approach. For the moment the discussion will be confined to literature. 

Attitudes to reality – a conventional approach

The analysis of attitudes to reality implicit in the various genres of ‘speculative’ fiction appears relatively straightforward. Fantasy rejects scientific assumptions and incorporates narrative elements, characters, and settings that are not possible in reality. Action takes place in an imaginary world which is both unreal and irrational, although this world may have its own internal logic and ground rules. Supernatural fiction includes anything that is inexplicable by scientific understanding of the laws of nature but which is nevertheless asserted to exist, typically involving immaterial beings such as angels, gods and spirits, and claimed human abilities such as magic, telekinesis, and precognition. Superhero fiction centres around heroic characters who possess supernatural or superhuman powers which are used to protect the public and combat evil in their world or universe. Horror focuses on terrifying stories that incite fear, featuring supernatural villains in the form of monsters, vampires, ghosts and demons, or people such as psychopaths and murderers, usually involving extreme violence or death. In all such writing, the style and subject matter are far removed from the ‘real world’. Speculative fiction of this sort completely rejects – either explicitly or implicitly – the very notion of a ‘reality’ comprising characters and events that are subject to natural laws and amenable to rational and scientific explanation. 

The attitude to reality implicit in other ‘non-realist’ genres is more difficult to determine. While Science Fiction is widely regarded as a type of speculative fiction, and writers in this genre create worlds which differ significantly from our own in the extent of their scientific and technological development, they tend nevertheless to incorporate elements of scientific rationality. The narrative may not be credible according to existing science, but the imagined future world is not entirely implausible, improbable or irrational. The same may be said of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Other non-realist genres such as RomanticismGothic fiction, and Melodramamay be considered closer to reality in their inclusion of features of the recognisably rational and real world, albeit in exaggerated form. 

Nevertheless, Realism as a specific genre broke radically in the 19th Century from all earlier literary forms in the extent of its approximation to the real. In this genre, writers aim to depict reality (or some aspect of it) more or less truthfully and accurately, free from all religious, romantic or emotional connotations. Historical periods, scenes and locations are usually instantly familiar or easily identifiable. In contemporary realist fiction, attitudes to reality are likely to be more nuanced, reflecting the particular sub-genre (naturalism, social realism, ethnographic realism, ‘kitchen sink realism’, etc), and/or the combination of Realism with elements drawn from non-realist genres. Whatever the precise form, however, Realism assumes a fundamentally rational world in which everything that occurs ultimately has a rational explanation, even if the plot is complex and convoluted. Where characters act ‘irrationally’ or ‘irrational’ events occur, either this is an exception to the norm, or the behaviour or incident is explained and makes sense within an overall frame of rationality.

In marked contrast, both Surrealism and Magical Realism appear more sceptical or dismissive in their attitude to reality. Surrealism sets out deliberately to distort or pervert reality by tapping the potential of the unconscious mind and creating dream-like scenarios with impossible or irrational juxtapositions. While Magical Realism seeks to engage with reality in order to discover ‘what is mysterious in things, in life, and in human acts’,53 its fidelity to the real appears compromised by the presence of magical elements, and by the attempt to reconcile two realms (one magical/irrational and the other real/rational) which exist in a state of perpetual and unresolved tension. So in spite of their differing attitudes to the material world, both Surrealism and Magical Realism appear obviously further removed from reality than Realism.  

In summary, this ‘conventional’ critical approach groups genres of fiction into four broad categories: 

(1) Non-realist Speculative (completely rejecting ‘reality’): Fantasy; Supernatural; Superhero; Horror.

(2) Non-realist (but incorporating elements of recognisable reality): Science Fiction; Magical Realism.

(3) Non-realist (but with more prominent inclusion of aspects of reality): Romanticism, Gothic, Melodrama.

(4) Realist (Naturalism, Social Realism, Ethnographic Realism, etc). 

Of course any such classification is bound to be controversial. An alternative summary might present differing attitudes on a spectrum, ranging from belief in the real to its denial, as follows: Realism > Romanticism/Gothic/Melodrama > Science Fiction > Magical Realism > Surrealism > Fantasy/Supernatural. As will be seen, however, the precise location of a genre on a continuum, or its exact classification within one or other category, are relatively unimportant when these conclusions (based on the conventional approach) are compared with the very different picture which emerges from an analysis rooted in the philosophy of science. 

A philosophical (ontological realist) approach

Philosophical materialism assumes that reality exists independently of human thought and consciousness. Ontological realism (sometimes termed ‘critical realism’) reinforces this philosophical position by insisting that the nature of ‘being’ in the material world must form the starting point for all scientific and social scientific inquiry.54 For ontological realists, the irreducible complexity of the real world – comprising multiple physical events and effects together with related causal structures – means that it cannot be grasped by simply describing or analysing what is observable at the level of surface reality: ‘Knowledge does not lie exposed on the face of the world, prone to the gaze of the casual observer … rather it is, for the most part, hidden encrusted in things, needing to be excavated in theoretical and practical labours of the most arduous kind.’55 Knowledge is produced through processes of scientific experimentation which delve beneath appearances, positing hidden mechanisms and conditions (or underlying structures) that must exist in order to explain the objects being investigated.

For Bhaskar, scientific method operates ‘retroductively’ by moving from surface appearances to invisible causal ‘laws’ or relations that account for empirically observable reality: 

Only if causal laws persist … can the idea of universality of a known law be sustained. And only if they have a reality distinct from that of events can the assumption of a natural necessity be justified. On this view laws are not empirical statements, but statements about the forms of activity characteristic of the things of the world. And their necessity is that of a natural connection, not that of a human rule. There is a distinction between the real structures and mechanisms of the world and the actual patterns of events that they generate. And this distinction in turn justifies the more familiar one between necessary and accidental sequences.56

Bhaskar’s major achievement was to apply this analysis of the production of scientific knowledge to the social world, and to the understanding of social relationships. While the social sciences differ from the natural sciences in the nature of their object, ‘each of these practices can maintain a level of scientificity by invoking a critical realist ontology and working retroductively from given phenomena to underlying structured relationships … Being differentiated in their objects, the sciences are essentially unified in their methods.’57 Since social (like natural) reality must similarly be regarded as comprising a complex ‘structure of structures’, the task for social scientists also is to move retroductively – in this instance ‘from the flux of everyday activity to the underlying social relations that give it form and developmental potential.’ Scientific explanation is possible ‘precisely because we have relatively enduring (and discoverable) social structures which represent appropriate analogues for the natural material causes analysed in experimentation.’58

Attitudes to reality reassessed

What are the implications of this ontological realist approach for the investigation of ‘attitudes to reality’ embodied in the various genres of fiction?

It should be clear immediately from this position that what all forms of Speculative Fiction have in common is their denial of, or disregard for, the state of human being. The characters that inhabit such fictional worlds (gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, superheroes, demons and monsters) are either inhuman, or in the case of vampires and other beings with supernatural powers, only partly human. The ambiguous ‘attitude to reality’ of writers of Science Fiction, as noted above, is confirmed by the ontological approach. While some work in this genre does explore the nature of human existence, albeit in futuristic settings which are unrecognisable according to existing science, other fiction is essentially speculative in its focus on alien beings or monstrous creations originating in imaginary universes (although even science fiction which posits the existence of extra-terrestrial beings may not be completely implausible). Again mirroring the analysis based on the conventional approach, RomanticismGothic fiction, and Melodrama may be considered more firmly rooted in reality by virtue of their preoccupation with the human condition, even if these genres appear ‘unrealistic’ in their exaggeration of specific human characteristics and emotions. By contrast, Surrealism deliberately distorts normal human experience in its bizarre conjunctions and emphasis on dream-like experiences and the power of the unconscious.  

These observations might be regarded as adding little to the analysis already provided by the conventional approach. However, the fundamental difference between this and the ontological realist approach, and the additional insights generated by the latter, become evident in the comparison of Realism and Magical Realism. The dominant attitude to reality in the Realist tradition is the concern to represent as closely as possible what is directly observable in the natural and social worlds. This of course is contrary to the fundamental premise of ontological realism – that knowledge of the real does not lie exposed on the face of the world, but rather is hidden and needs to be excavated through processes of scientific experimentation.55 In this perspective, Realism might be regarded as restricted – at least in its ‘traditional’ 19th Century form – to a superficial view of reality, based on appearances which are bound to be misleading. By contrast, Magical Realism distrusts appearances, seeking instead to reveal the mystery hiding behind the represented world. As a creative practice, therefore, Magical Realism may be considered closely aligned with ontological realism’s notion of scientific practice. Both search for meaning below the surface of reality, and attempt to unveil the essential nature of objects and social relationships through processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. Both are concerned with the intrinsic nature of objects and their properties, and with the underlying causes of, and explanations for, social relationships and historical events.

The paradox here is that while Realist fiction is conventionally regarded as the literary genre closest to reality, from an ontological realist perspective it may embody only limited or superficial depictions and representations. And while Magical Realism’s attitude to reality may seem to be fatally compromised by the intrusion of magical and irrational elements into the realm of the real and rational, this mode may have greater potential to contribute to a deeper social understanding than is usually possible in the traditional realist approach, for example by exposing underlying relations of dominance and subordination based on class, gender, domestic and global inequality, and colonial exploitation. It is doubtful whether famous novels by writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Günter Grass would have achieved such impact in challenging oppression of various sorts (colonialism, Fascism, patriarchy, slavery, racial discrimination) had the narratives been expressed in Realist form. As Zamora and Faris have noted, Magical Realism is a mode particularly ‘suited to exploring – and transgressing – boundaries’; while it may be considered ‘an extension of realism in its concern with the nature of reality and its representation’, at the same time ‘it resists the basic assumptions of post-enlightenment rationalism and literary realism. Mind and body, spirit and matter, life and death, real and imaginary, self and other, male and female: these are boundaries to be erased, transgressed, blurred, brought together, or otherwise fundamentally refashioned in magical realist texts.’59

A similar picture is evident when attention is turned from literary to artistic media. Realism as a modern art movement originated in Europe in the 1840s as part of the reaction against Romanticism, reflecting a range of modern influences including the rise of documentary journalism and the advent of photography. Like its literary counterpart, the movement aimed to capture reality as accurately and objectively as possible, portraying scenes of everyday life in a manner liberated from emotional and irrational associations (see for example Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857), and Wilhelm Leibl’s The Village Politicians (1877), at the beginning of this essay). Magical Realism (or more properly Magic Realism) emerged in Weimar Germany in the 1920s in reaction to Expressionism – until then the dominant 20th Century artistic movement. By contrast with Expressionism’s exuberant distortion of reality (expressing artists’ subjective and spontaneous feelings, and their inner anxieties and yearnings), Magic Realism and the New Objectivity movement with which it became associated marked a return to reality – but in a form that differed significantly from Realism’s literal approach.

The ‘attitude to reality’ found in literary Magical Realism is characteristic also of its artistic mode. The paintings and drawings in this style exhibit a similar distrust of the surface of reality and of superficial appearances, and are the product of analogous processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. So, the works of George Grosz and Otto Dix (see To Beauty (1922) and Riding Act (1923), above) express more vividly than any realist depiction the menacing and febrile social climate of Weimar Germany in the 1920s, leading to the rise of Fascism and the Second World War. Similarly, the paintings produced by Frida Kahlo in Mexico in the 1940s express her political activism and engagement with colonialism and its effects, together with her personal experience of pain and disability following years of operations and medical procedures, in ways that are unlikely to have been achieved with such power through ‘realistic’ representation.

The scenes portrayed by magical realists, both literary and artistic, may therefore be considered highly realistic in the way in which they re-present the essence of social relations. These depictions are not distortions of reality, nor are they ‘dream-like’ (as in surrealism). Nor are they imaginary or fantastical (as in fantasy). Nor are they based on a plausibly real but future reality (as in science fiction). Rather, magical realists are united in their endeavours to confront reality and ‘untangle’ it, to ‘seize the mystery behind things’, and to ‘discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts.’53


The foregoing analysis has developed the implications of the suggestion – implicit in Arva and Leal’s comments on the nature of Magical Realism – that artistic and literary genres may more generally be understood in terms of their practitioners’ attitudes to reality. In this analysis, ‘attitudes’ have been inferred on the basis of the characteristics generally accepted as comprising the genres in question. 

A further stage in this investigation might focus on particular artists and writers who are representative of different genres, and infer attitude with regard to the full range of personal and other circumstances in which the art or fiction were produced. Or attitude might be more directly determined by scrutinising authors’ express intentions, as revealed in their personal reflections, or explanations and rationalisations of their work.60 Such research would be true to the spirit of philosophical materialism’s premise that the creative output of artists and writers is fundamentally conditioned by their material circumstances. Authors experience ‘reality’ through personal interactions and relationships in the context of a nation’s culture, economics, politics, climate, geography, history, and social and physical environment. However, human thought and creativity are not crudely ‘determined’ by material conditions. Cognitive processes have their own effectivity and cannot be reduced to properties of the material world. It follows that genres of artistic and literary expression may be understood in terms of the varying ways in which authors – in different places and at different times – both apprehend and re-present their real conditions of existence. 

For the moment it seems reasonable to conclude that Magical Realism is, at least in the ontological realist sense, more ‘real’ than Realism. The significance of the similarity between ontological realism and Magical Realism in terms of their distrust of appearances and approach to reality lies ultimately in Magical Realism’s capacity – by virtue of this quality – for drawing attention to, and provoking reflection on, aspects of social relations that may not be captured as effectively by Realist art and fiction.

This argument should not be pushed too far. Even in its purest form Realism can only approximate to, rather that literally reflect, the real. In any case, most post-modern art and fiction may be said to have multiple influences, and to combine different genres (some of the most radical and critical contemporary fiction is highly ‘speculative’, drawing on elements of fantasy, myth, and folklore). Nor should the argument be interpreted as implying that Magical Realism is ‘better’ than other genres, or necessarily superior in terms of its capacity to explain opaque relations of power and domination or raise political and social consciousness. Rather the argument has been that the global influence and success of Magical Realism as a form of literary and artistic expression, and its close association with Marxist political movements, have been due at least in part to its unique attitude to reality.  

Bhaskar (had he been aware of this connection between the philosophy of science and the creative arts) would most probably have been delighted: his interpretation of ontological realism and of experimental methodology in the natural sciences, and its extension to the realm of social science, was derived from a reading of Marx’s method of investigation in Capital.61 It is surely no coincidence that Magical Realism has been closely associated with radical political movements, and specifically with Marxism. From the current perspective, the revolutionary and emancipatory potential of Magical Realism has as much to do with its methodological approach as with its substantive political prescriptions.

4. The representation of magical realist fiction in visual images.

An artist represents an image or scene from a work of fiction. A film-maker transposes an entire book or story into a movie. While the latter task is more complex, the problem of how to render fiction in visual media is similar. Although García Márquez famously used many cinematographic techniques in his synthesis of magic and reality in One Hundred Years of Solitude, he was opposed to making a feature-film of the novel. While more open to the idea of a lengthier television series, Netflix’s acquisition in 2019 of the rights to a box-set adaptation has nevertheless been controversial. It is doubtful whether a screen version can do justice to the book’s magical realist subject-matter.

The challenge for the artist in depicting particular scenes or moments from a book or story is less daunting. The subject-matter is a ‘snapshot’ rather than a sequence of events, and the artist is not concerned with plot or narrative structure. The vivid nature of magical realist writing (associated with what Zamora calls its ‘visualising capacity’) might make such scenes relatively easy to render.62 Nevertheless, the fundamental problem remains. The images may fail to capture the complexity of the writing, or distort or otherwise misrepresent the original work. The reader’s subjective visualisation is in a sense inevitably superior to the artist’s attempted ‘universal’ representation.

Despite the difficulties inherent in rendering fictional moments in artistic work, the photomontages in the ‘Images Inspired by Fiction’ pages on our website attempt exactly this. (Here we focus on the interpretative as distinct from technical challenges which are separately considered in the pages on Artwork). The photomontage from García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Spanish Galleon) is based on the well-known scene in which the expeditionaries set out to explore the northern route to civilisation beyond Macondo. In this instance, the construction of the picture was made relatively straightforward by the author’s precise and detailed magical realist description of the galleon and its surroundings:

When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers’ (p 12).

Spanish Galleon

The other photomontages in the ‘Images Inspired by Fiction’ section depict scenes and imagery from Alice Ash’s collection of interwoven short stories, Paradise Block. In this instance, the pictures were harder to compose due to the less explicit nature of the magical realist writing and its greater reliance on figurative language (see Topic 5). These photomontages are also something of an experiment, being the product of an iterative process in which ‘draft’ versions were shared with the book’s author, and amendments made in accordance with comments and feedback, until both author and artist were ‘satisfied’ with the result.

The caveat in all cases is that the photomontages remain inevitably imperfect interpretations of the fictional imagery they represent. Indeed the photomontages would not exist but for the works of fiction: they are truly images inspired by fiction.

5. The representation of magical realist metaphors and similes in visual images.

The question of how magical realist figures of speech may be depicted in visual images is similar to the question (Topic 4) of how fiction may be represented in visual media more generally. The difference lies in the specific nature of similes and metaphors as individual moments abstracted from a wider body of writing or description. Therefore the problem of visual depiction arises only in relation to static media such as photographs or paintings. Before addressing this question, a brief explanation of these figures of speech and their role in magical realist writing is in order.

Both similes (‘X is like Y’) and metaphors (‘X is Y’) achieve dramatic effect by counterposing twin divergent domains – otherwise the writing would involve neither device (‘X is X’ is not figurative language). In the traditional or Aristotelean view, these figures of speech are treated as equivalent. However, modern scholarship regards similes and metaphors as fundamentally different in terms of their structure, discursive function, and cognitive processes (see Romano for an excellent overview on which this summary is selectively based):

  • Similes presuppose a separation between ‘target’ (X, described) and ‘source’ (Y, describing) entities, making necessary the inclusion of ‘as’ or ‘like’ in order to connect them.
  • With metaphors there is no such differentiation or comparison – rather the categorical assertion that X is Y (even though X cannot literally be Y, since this would eliminate the divergence between domains necessary for the metaphor to operate as a figure of speech).  
  • Metaphors are less ‘explicit’ than similes, and more economical in not having to refer to different ‘source’ and ‘target’ entities.
  • Similes highlight or describe qualities of the entities being compared, whereas metaphors ‘structure’ the entire figurative domain (similes reflect similarities; metaphors constitute them).
  • Similes typically require some form of explanation or justification in order to make sense, whereas metaphors do not.
  • Metaphors are generally regarded as having greater force and discursive power than similes. 

A feature of at least some magical realist fiction (which does not appear to have been discussed in the academic literature) is its reduced reliance on metaphor and simile in achieving startling effects. In this type of writing, the ‘reality’ being described is already so ‘magical’ as to make figurative language unnecessary. Indeed the fundamental condition for the operation of either figure of speech – the juxtaposition of divergent domains – is absent. For example, in the above scene from One Hundred Years of Solitude (the Spanish galleon surrounded by ferns and palm trees, its rigging adorned with orchids, its hull covered in barnacles and soft moss), García Márquez’s description of what the expeditionaries ‘see’ is what actually exists in this fantastical world. Where metaphors are used (the galleon white and ‘powdery’ in the morning light, its hull covered in an ‘armor’ of barnacles, inside a thick ‘forest’ of flowers, the whole structure ‘protected from the vices of time’), they serve to enhance the bewildering effect already achieved by the magical realist imagery. Returning to the question of visual representation – and echoing the point already made in the discussion of this photomontage in Topic 3 – the task of rendering this fictional scene in Spanish Galleon was made relatively straightforward by the author’s ‘literal’ magical realist description.

This should not be taken as implying that literal description is always easy to represent. Consider for example the famous ‘trickle of blood’ sequence that occurs later in the same book:

As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. “Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted. (p 135)

This passage of writing has the same ‘magical literal’ quality as the scene involving the Spanish galleon, with little use of figurative language and no metaphors or similes. While the magical realist quality of this sequence might be relatively easily captured in film or video, it would be impossible to render satisfactorily in a still image.

The other photomontages in the ‘Images Inspired by Fiction’ section – depicting scenes from Alice Ash’s Paradise Block – again make for interesting comparison. All the book’s main characters occupy flats in the block, or are otherwise linked through their sharing of local amenities such as the department store and pub. While the block of flats is a constant looming presence and provides a vital common theme, it is nowhere described in detail. Therefore the photomontage Paradise Block had to be based on scattered references, combined with the reader/artist’s impressions. Here the scope for artistic interpretation was particularly wide, with much left to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, the reader’s mental picture of ‘The Brass Cross’ pub, below, is gradually developed through fleeting references and suggestion – the sparseness of the description being a feature of this form of magical realist writing.

Paradise Block

By contrast, the town’s department store is more specifically described as ‘a vast white whale-fish with silvery window scales’ … ‘the adjacent land … barren because of the footfall and traffic surrounding it; there is nothing except the car park and the bus stops, two lanes of traffic, one to deliver shoppers and one to take them away.’ Being more directly derived from the author’s text, the corresponding photomontage was in a sense easier to compose than the block of flats. However, no attempt was made to render the building strictly according to the metaphor as ‘a vast white whale-fish with silvery scales’ (although there are silvery scales on the windows). It would have been difficult to combine this imagery with other features of the author’s description – which highlights the department store’s paradoxical (and magical realist) existence as a beacon of consumerism in a barren urban landscape – without losing some of this meaning.

Clutter Department Store

The two other photomontages of scenes from Paradise Block are based on vivid similes.

‘The Brass Cross’ depicts the town’s eponymous pub, above which ‘the sky was murky, white and pink, like the soft belly of a speckled rodent.’ Having decided in this instance that the photomontage should represent the simile, the main artistic challenge was whether the ‘source’ (describing the ‘target’ – the colourful sky) should be rendered in the specific form of the imagined rodent’s ‘soft speckled belly’, or more simply as ‘murky, white and pink’ and ‘speckled’. While the latter task would have been easier, the resulting image would not have done justice to the simile, whose bizarre magical realist quality is precisely what makes it so effective. Like the metaphor of the ‘whale-fish’ department store, this simile achieves its magical effect through the vividness and extravagance of the figurative language employed (in reality whales are not fish and don’t have have scales, and rodents don’t have colourful speckled bellies).

The Brass Cross

‘Plane Crash’ represents a scene from the story ‘Planes’, in which 10-year old Benny is playing with a model aeroplane in the hallway between his bedroom and his mother’s room. Surprised by a sudden noise outside the flat, he accidentally drops the plane, which ‘falls onto the floor, lands in a pile of his mother’s clothes: blouses and jumpers that look like a volcanic landscape … the passengers screaming as the plane dissolves into a pair of large, plum-coloured knickers’. Of the three examples of figurative language in Paradise Block considered here, this simile was the most straightforward to render.

Plane Crash

In conclusion, it is suggested that the challenge facing the artist in depicting individual moments and scenes of magical realist fiction depends on the precise nature of the writing, and in particular on the part played by specific metaphors and similes (relative to explicit description) in achieving dramatic effects. This in turn depends on where the writing is located on what we might call a magical realist ‘spectrum’:

At one end of this spectrum, in fiction where magic is prevalent and vividly presented throughout the main body of the text (as in One Hundred Years of Solitude), ‘magical’ metaphors and similes are less essential, and – where they do feature – tend to play a relatively minor or supporting role. At the other end of the spectrum, where the text generally is more ‘realist’ and magic is less obviously to the fore (as in Paradise Block), figures of speech are more important in creating magical effects. Of the two types of magical realist writing, it is the latter sort of imagery that poses the greatest challenges for artistic interpretation and representation (the sky as rodent’s belly, the building as whale-fish).

Of course this is no more than a hypothesis, based on a very small sample, which needs to be tested in other contexts. At the very least, however, it has proved useful in illuminating the visual quality of magical realist writing, and the difficulty of its representation in artistic work in the examples discussed.

6. How far any revival of interest in magical realism in contemporary art and fiction is a reflection of crisis among western liberal democracies.

In preparation

7. The extent to which our own original fiction and artistic work can be considered ‘magical realist’.

In preparation

8. The progressive potential of magical realism to encourage reflection and reframe debates on current societal problems.

In preparation


  1. Andre Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto was published in 1924. Despite the disagreements among the founders over the direction of the movement, and tempestuous relationships between protagonists, Surrealism evolved in a more or less coherent form and proved instantly attractive to writers, artists, photographers and filmmakers from around the world ‘who shared this aggressive rejection of conventional artistic and moral values’ []
  2. Maggie Bowers distinguishes three terms with different origins. First, ‘magic realism’ (Magischer Realismus) was used in 1925 by art critic Franz Roh to describe the reaction against Expressionism which he observed in contemporary European painting. Second, ‘marvellous realism’ (lo real maravilloso) became associated in the 1940s with the art and literature of Central America, reflecting its distinctive culture. Third, ‘magical realism’ (realismo magico), while initially associated with Latin American fiction in the 1950s, has more recently become established as a global mode of narrative fiction, Maggie Ann Bowers, Magic(al) Realism (Routledge, 2004). []
  3. ‘Carpentier’s “lo real maravilloso” … while taking the Surrealists’ fascination with “le merveilleux” as a departure point, presents two contrasting views of the world (one rational, modern and discursive; the other magical, traditional and intuitive) as if they were not contradictory,’ William Spindler, ‘Magic Realism: A Typology’ (1993) Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIX, Issue 1, 75–85, p 76. []
  4. … ‘the empirical world of reason and logic and the supernatural world of unreason. In such narratives the supernatural serves to rupture the “coherence” of the systematized empirical world by revealing it to be, not a universally true or absolute representation of external reality, but only one of several possible representations’, John Erickson, ‘Metoikoi and Magical Realism in the Maghrebian Narratives of Tahar ben Jelloun and Abdelkebir Khatibi’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.) (1995), pp 427-450, p 428. []
  5. For Stephen Slemon, the term ‘magic realism’ suggests ‘a binary opposition between the representational code of realism and that, roughly, of fantasy. In the language of narration in a magic realist text, a battle between two oppositional systems takes place, each working toward the creation of a different kind of fictional world from the other. Since the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can fully come into being, and each remains suspended, locked in a continuous dialectic with the “other”, a situation which creates disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems, rending them with gaps, absences, and silences’, Stephen Slemon, ‘Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.) (1995), pp 407-426, p 409. Such a ‘struggle’ is absent in the case of surrealism []
  6. Melissa Stewart, ‘Roads of Exquisite Mysterious Muck’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.) (1995), pp 477-495. []
  7. 477. []
  8. For Felicity Gee: … ‘Roh’s often contradictory analysis of the magical aspects of modernist art are fairly widely inclusive of artistic trends in painting and camera-based art in the early twentieth century. What remains consistent is, regardless of the level of experimentation in form and structural composition, his insistence that each work of art he considers to be magically real constructs a dynamic tension between the perception of the viewer and the mysterious qualities of the objects portrayed on the paper, canvas or screen’, Felicity Gee, ‘The Critical Roots of Cinematic Magic Realism: Franz Roh, Alejo Carpentier, Fredric Jameson’ (PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway: University of London, June 2013) pp 13-14, p 29. []
  9. ‘Their aim was ‘the perversion of the reality that we perceive with our senses in the attempt to create dreamlike spaces and experiences. (Their) bizarre creations held some sort of essence or truth that rational reality failed to fully express or appreciate … reality needed distortion if anyone were to successfully represent it … Intrinsic to surrealism is a kind of projection … dreamlike, irrational, sometimes supernatural elements are projected upon reality in order to distort it’, Hannah R Widdifield, ‘Magical Realism v. Surrealism’, extract from “Myth y la Magia: Magical Realism and the Modernism of Latin America.” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2015. []
  10. Hannah R Widdifield, ‘Magical Realism v. Surrealism’, extract from “Myth y la Magia: Magical Realism and the Modernism of Latin America.” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2015. []
  11. Editor’s note on Alejo Carpentier, ‘On the Marvelous Real in America’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 75-88, p 75. []
  12. ‘ … 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 [estado límite]’, Alejo Carpentier, ‘On the Marvelous Real in America’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), pp. 85-86). []
  13. William Spindler, ‘Magic Realism: A Typology’ (1993) Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIX, Issue 1, 75–85. []
  14. See Wendy B. Faris, Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative (2004) Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 3.  []
  15. Here it may be noted that Carpentier was seeking to differentiate the marvellous real from surrealism – with which he had been associated while living in Paris – rather than from Roh’s magic realism. []
  16. Lois Parkinson Zamora, ‘Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 497-550, 500 []
  17. Irene Guenther, ‘Magic Realism, New Objectivity, and the Arts during the Weimar Republic’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 33-73, pp 43-44. []
  18. ‘The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality (as the realists did) or to wound it (as the surrealists did) but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things,’ Luis Leal, ‘Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 119-124, p 123.  []
  19. Franz Roh, ‘Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 15-31, p 16.  []
  20. Wendy B. Faris, ‘Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 163-190, p 163.  []
  21. In this type of ‘inductive’ reasoning, conclusions are drawn from the patterns and regularities found in observed phenomena. []
  22. Franz Roh, ‘Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 15-31, p 16.  []
  23. http://www.tendreams.org/magic-art.htm []
  24. For an analysis of the ‘family resemblance’ method of classifying magical realist fiction, which involves inductive reasoning in the present sense of the term, see Marisa Bortolussi, ‘Introduction: Why We Need Another Study of Magic Realism’ (2003) Vol. 30 (2), Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 279-293: ‘Generally speaking, it (the family resemblance method) consists of classifying new literary examples on the basis of perceived resemblances between a work and other members of the genre. More specifically, the method consists of determining a list of features of an object, and then observing how many of them exist in another object. This method is by far the most natural and intuitive approach to genre classification, for it allows one to conclude that object y does not need to share all of the traits of x in order to be related to it, but only some subset of the whole. Scholars of magic realism, both formal and post-structuralist, typically adopt this method, consciously or unconsciously. Its popularity is easy to understand; it is a highly flexible method that allows readers to evoke the presence of any dominant similarity as an important aspect of the genre. However, this very flexibility allows for idiosyncratic classification by remote resemblance and arbitrary comparisons’ (p 288). []
  25. https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/literature-other-modern-languages/latin-american-literature/magic-realism []
  26. https://www.goodreads.com/genres/magic-realism []
  27. In her review of how writers have questioned traditional realism in art and literature by focusing on the role of ‘magic’ or the ‘marvellous’, Felicity Gee uses ‘manifesto’ in a broader sense, to refer not only to Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, but also to Roh’s After Expressionism (1924), Jorges Luis Borge’s Narrative Art and Magic (1932), Pierre Mabill’s Mirror of the Marvelous (1940), and Carpentier’s Latin American Marvellous Real (1949) – Felicity Gee, ‘The Critical Roots of Cinematic Magic Realism: Franz Roh, Alejo Carpentier, Fredric Jameson’ (PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway: University of London, June 2013) pp 13-14.
  28. Breton’s explicit Manifesto aim was ‘to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”, or surreality, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealism []
  29. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/surrealism []
  30. Eugene L. Arva, ‘Writing the Vanishing Real: Hyperreality and Magical Realism’ (2008) Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 38 no. 1, 60-85. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jnt.0.0002, p 68, emphasis supplied []
  31. Luis Leal, ‘Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 75-88, p 121. []
  32. Rather than simply reflecting a pre-existing reality, ‘amplification’ implies a creative and constructive process. []
  33. Of course it may be objected that the artist/writer’s method or attitude is seldom expressly stated, and therefore has to be induced in a similar way to ‘aims’ or ‘objectives’ – by guesswork and imputation. Nevertheless, it is suggested that the focus on how the artist (must or might have) apprehended ‘reality’ in producing work of a certain kind is very different to a focus on what s/he (must or might have) intended. []
  34. Bowers (2004), p 39. []
  35. (p 40.) []
  36. Bowers (2004), p 118. [] []
  37. The ‘problem of classification’ arises wherever commentators seek to understand phenomena on the basis of categorical definition – see for example Spindler’s analysis according to three different forms of magic realism (metaphysical, anthropological, and ontological) which encounters similar difficulties. []
  38. ‘Frida was many things besides an accomplished artist — revolutionary, lesbian, rebel, communist, bisexual, patriot, lover, wife, disabled person, surrealist, divorcee, cross-dresser, and the “personification of national glory”. Born in 1907 in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, Mexico, three years before the Mexican Revolution, she often gave the beginning of the Revolution as her date of birth.’ See http://www.masterpiece-paintings-gallery.com/about-kahlo-parrots.htm []
  39. Bowers (2004), pp 119-120. []
  40. Self-portrait with Monkey, 1938; Self-Portrait with Small Monkey, 1945; Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940 (actually with monkey and a cat-like creture); Me and My Parrots, 1941 – see https://www.fridakahlo.org []
  41. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/7-frida-kahlo-quotes/UgLSMKe3RB22JQ?hl=en, emphasis supplied. []
  42. There is of course much work to be done in clarifying the meaning of ‘amplification’, and in specifying theoretically the transformations involved in the magical realist’s engagement with the real. What is immediately clear, however, is that ‘amplification’ is not reducible to ‘magnification’ of pre-existing reality, but refers rather to the ways in which artists/writers reconcile ‘real’ and ‘magical’ realms in the creative process (involving oscillation, dynamic tension, dialectical movement, etc.) []
  43. For example, the question whether Max Ernst should be considered a surrealist or magic realist (or a bit of both) may be impossible to answer conclusively. []
  44. Brenda Cooper, ‘Does Marxism Allow for the Magical Side of Things? Magical Realism and a Comparison between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits’ (1991) Social Dynamics, 17:2, 126-154, p 126. []
  45. (p 149.) []
  46. Cooper, p 130. []
  47. Bhaskar, quoted in R. Marsden, ‘The Politics of Organizational Analysis’, (1993) 14(1) Organization Studies, 93–124, p 96, emphasis supplied. []
  48. Franz Roh, ‘Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 15-31, p 16, emphasis supplied.  []
  49. ‘The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality (as the realists did) or to wound it (as the surrealists did) but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things,’ Luis Leal, ‘Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 119-124, p 123, emphasis supplied.  []
  50. Marsden, p 95. []
  51. Lois Parkinson Zamora, ‘Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 497-550, 500, emphasis supplied []
  52. For Eugene Arva, ‘magical realism constitutes an attitude toward and a way of approaching reality, a reality that is rarely what it seems and is seldom perceived in the same way by subjects in different places or in different times,’ Eugene L. Arva, ‘Writing the Vanishing Real: Hyperreality and Magical Realism’ (2008) Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 38 no. 1, 60-85, p 68; similarly for Luis Leal, ‘magical realism is, more than anything else, an attitude towards reality that can be expressed in popular or cultured forms, in elaborate or rustic styles, in closed or open structures,’ Luis Leal, ‘Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), 75-88, p 121. []
  53. Leal, p 121. [] [] []
  54. In brief, classical philosophy distinguishes between ontology (concerned with the nature of things and of human existence) and epistemology (concerned with the processes by which knowledge is acquired). []
  55. Bhaskar, quoted in R. Marsden, ‘The Politics of Organizational Analysis’, (1993) 14(1) Organization Studies, 93–124, p 96. [] []
  56. Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, London Verso, 2008, p. 46, quoted Brian O’ Boyle and Terrence McDonough, ‘Epistemological Problems and Ontological Solutions: A Critical Realist Retrospective on Althusser’, (2014) Research in Political Economy, Volume 29, 183-237, p 221. []
  57. O’Boyle and McDonough, p 223 []
  58. O’Boyle and McDonough, p 222. []
  59. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, ‘Introduction’, in Zamora and Faris (eds.), pp 5-6. []
  60. In either case, the techniques would be supplementary, and care would need to be taken to avoid biographical reductionism and excessive reliance on the creator’s intentions. []
  61. P. Vincent-Jones, ‘Theory and Method Reconsidered: A Marxist Analysis of Trespass Law’, (1987) Economy and Society, Vol. 16 (1), 75-120. []
  62. See also Lois Parkinson Zamora, ‘Swords and Silver Rings: Magical Objects in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez’,  in A Companion to Magic Realism (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2005), edited by Stephen M. Hart and Wen-Chin Ouyang, 28-45. ISBN : 1846153883;ISBN : 9781846153884. []