Magical Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ana Castillo's So Far from God

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Magical Realism

3. Magical Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ana Castillo's So Far from God
3.1 Toni Morrison's Beloved
3.2 Ana Castillo's So Far from God

4. Conclusion

5. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

In this paper I focus on two considerable U.S. authors: Toni Morrison and Ana Castillo. The fact that these writers - who do not share the same ethnic background - both deploy the literary mode of magical realism in their works has engaged my interest to analyze and compare their novels Beloved and So Far from God. The purpose of this paper is not only to probe into the nature of magical realism in the two novels, but also to examine this narrative form as a socio-cultural practice which is connected to a special Weltanschauung. To enter this vast territory, it will be useful to situate the term magical realism in a theoretical and cultural framework which happens in the following chapter. Subsequently, I will expose how Morrison and Castillo employ magical realism in Beloved and So Far from God, and, in particular, I try to identify its function and the role it plays in terms of Morrison's and Castillo's cultural and historical background. In the conclusion I will expose the parallels which can be drawn between the novels, coming up with the thesis that for these parallels, there are two underlying main functions of magical realism.

2. Magical Realism

The term magical realism, this strange oxymoron which combines two contrasting components, refers to the amalgamation of realism and fantasy in art, film, and literature. It combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed. According to the Dictionary of Twentieth Century Culture: Hispanic Culture of South America [1], magical realism involves

[…] fiction that does not distinguish between realistic and non-realistic events, fiction in which the supernatural, the mythical or the implausible are assimilated to the cognitive structure of reality without a perceptive break in the narrator's or characters' consciousness.

That is, in the magical realist text, characters encounter elements of magic and fantasy with the same acceptance that they meet those settings and figures commonly associated with "reality" and "fact". The magical realist label originated in 1925 when German art historian Franz Roh applied the expression Magischer Realismus to post-Expressionist paintings that combined realism with an emphasis on expressing the miracle of existence[2]. Roh, for the first time using the term in an essay on Karl Haider's paintings, regarded magical realism as an aesthetic art category, a way of representing the enigmas of reality pictorially. Scholarly consensus, however, points to exiled Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as the key figure in establishing the link between Latin American fiction and the phenomenon that he called lo real maravilloso. In his classic 1949 essay, "On the Marvelous Real in America"[3], Carpentier sought to differentiate Latin American magical realism from European Surrealism by highlighting the distinction between the arbitrary – even contrived – alteration of reality that characterized the work of the Surrealists, and the organic representation of the Latin American world view in lo real maravilloso. For Carpentier, magical realism mirrored an understanding throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America of a more permeable boundary between the real and the fantastic than was commonly accepted in North America and Europe.

In the Americas, magical realism has been linked to indigenous and black Weltanschauungen - that is, world views deeply steeped in the myths and legends of cultures with a ritualistic-religious foundation. Postcolonial scholar Brenda Cooper explains that "magical realism arises out of particular societ [ies] - postcolonial, unevenly developed places where old and new, modern and ancient, the scientific and the magical views of the world co-exist."[4] This notion that magical realism arises out of those colonial and postcolonial moments which create a considerable population of subjects whose interests may be counter-hegemonic, explains the contradiction between the relative absence of magical realist texts produced in Europe – and by Euro-American writers in Canada and the United States – and the growing proliferation of such texts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – and among European, Canadian, and U.S. authors of African, Asian, and Latin descent. As a discourse and worldview of cultural difference and resistance to domination, magical realism reorganizes the elements of hegemonic paradigms investing them with new, expanded meanings. Magical realism realizes the hybridization of the natural and the supernatural by focusing on specific historical moments in order to problematize present-day disjunctive realities. It is a form of writing characterized by a dual character: an inward doubleness - the natural and the supernatural - which reflects an outward direction toward (post)colonial cultural relations through revisionary memory.[5] In the following analysis I want to examine this dual character of magical realism in the above-mentioned novels by Toni Morrison and Ana Castillo.

3. Magical Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ana Castillo's So Far from God

3.1 Toni Morrison's Beloved

Within Anglophone literature, novelists of the African Diaspora – especially African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American writers – have used elements of myth and magic to remember, express, and account for those experiences which Western notions of history, reality, and truth have failed to address. For writers of the African Diaspora, the incorporation of mythical and magical elements exposes the role of social construction in maintaining the white-over-black hierarchy, resists meanings for Blackness developed in the service of that hierarchy, and, finally, achieves a new and emancipatory vision of Blackness that privileges the interests of people of African descent.

African American novelist Toni Morrison deploys magical realism to the very ends, and with the very same effect as described above. She focuses on those experiences which the Euro-dominant majority, in its disinterest, has failed to develop means of representing. Morrison's strategic and emancipatory introduction of magical realism is evident, to varying degrees, in all of her fiction. However, her novel Beloved[6], published in 1987, stands out as a particularly strong example of the trend.

Set in Ohio during the years surrounding the Civil War, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who fled the South with her children 18 years earlier. Because of her act of infanticide, Sethe has been ostracized by the community, and so she has withdrawn into an isolated existence shared by her remaining daughter Denver and, apparently, by a ghost that haunts the house they live in. When the action of the novel begins, it has been many years since Sethe killed her other baby daughter rather than let her be taken back to slavery in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. During this interim, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has died, the person in Sethe's life who came closer than anyone in being able to embrace Sethe's inner agony. Her other two children, both boys, have run off in fright. They couldn't lose the memory of their mother's planning to kill all her children, and they couldn't deal with the signs of a spiteful ghost living in the house, a ghost all the occupants of the house accept as the returned spirit of the killed baby daughter. Denver and her mother live their lives in resigned solitude under a pervasive gloom. It is only when Paul D, a fellow slave, meets Sethe after eighteen years of separation that the past and present are stirred to life. Each recalls for the other buried images and tumultuous emotions connected to their slave days. Each also brings the other hope for the future. After Paul D apparently drives out the malicious spirit ruling the house[7], another figure arrives and begins to possess the house and its inhabits. This is the title character, a mysterious, strangely child-like young woman of untold origins who does not explain herself clearly. Denver soon concludes that this is surely her sister returned from the dead. And Sethe will reach the same conclusion. Beloved, her murdered infant, has returned and assumed real-life proportions. When Sethe looks carefully at the young woman for the fist time, there is already proof for that: "Her skin was flawless except for the three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair […]."[8] These are the marks identifying her as Sethe's murdered child, the three scratches on her forehead where Sethe held her steady while she slit her throat.

In her essay "Scheherazade's Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction," Wendy B. Faris lists the primary characteristics of magical realist fiction[9]. One of the characteristics she suggests is that in magical realist fiction, individuals, times, and places have a tendency to transform magically into other (or all) individuals, times, and places. This slippage from the individual to the collective to the cosmic is often signalled by spectral presences. In these premises, in Morrison's novel, the character of Beloved can be seen as a symbolic and historical embodiment of both, Sethe's personal past and the past of slavery which Sethe has to reclaim. When Paul D asks Denver toward the end of the novel if she thought Beloved was really her sister come from the grave, Denver replies, "At times. At times I think she was – more."[10] Clearly she is a composite symbol, not just Sethe's murdered infant, but also the representative of the "Sixty Million and more"[11]. This figure refers to the estimated number of Africans rounded up for the slave trade who either died while awaiting transportation or who died during the passage on the slave ships. The fact that this figure remains a guess says something important about what Morrison was up against in trying to find out the full story of the slave trade. Much of that story has been ignored, left behind, or simply lost. And in the case of the former slave narratives, Morrison was very disappointed to find that they hardly told the full, ugly truth because they were adjusted for nineteenth-century abolitionist readers[12]. The writers of these narratives pulled back whenever the facts became too shocking or painful, afraid they might upset their sympathetic white readers and thus lose their support. What most disappointed Morrison about slave narratives, however, was the fact that "there was no mention of their interior life."[13] This is where Morrison's imagination stepped in, and indeed took over. The figure of Beloved can be seen on the one hand as a kind of mirror character who reflects the inner lives of the characters with whom she makes contact. Thus, in the case of Sethe, Beloved acts to reflect her mother's fears and hopes surrounding the killing of her child. Through the re-confrontation with her daughter, Sethe is finally able to express her feelings concerning the infanticide in an inner monologue:

Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. She come back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain a thing. I didn't have time to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. […] I'll explain to her, even though I don't have to. Why I did it. How if I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her.[14]

On the other hand, Beloved is meant to be taken as a character reflecting the real experience of native Africans who lived through the Middle Passage. In respect thereof, Beloved comes back to reclaim her past. Nevertheless, while Beloved is seen as a ghost by Sethe and other characters in the story, she is meant at the same time to be taken as an actual survivor from a slave ship. In this sense, she is flesh, a human being with her own horrifying story to tell:

I am Beloved […] I am always crouching the man on my face is dead […] I do no eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none […] if we had more to drink we could make tears […] the woman is there with the face I want […] if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away […].[15]

As a traumatized victim, Beloved remains incapable of telling her story except in painful bits and pieces. But these fragments are worked in the text in such a way that what she tells Sethe and Denver and what they think she says are two different things – and yet the same. They are finally the same in that while Beloved talks about her death (during the Middle Passage), Sethe and Denver think of another (the infant's death), and thus use the same death-inspired language:

Beloved closed her eyes. 'In the dark my name is Beloved.'

Denver scooted a little closer. 'What's it like over there, where you were before? Can you tell me?' 'Dark,' said Beloved. 'I'm small in that place. I'm like this here.' She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up.

Denver covered her lips with her fingers. 'Were you cold?'

Beloved curled tighter and shook her head. 'Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in.'

'You see anybody?'

'Heaps. A lot of people is down there. Some is dead.' […]

'Tell me, how did you get here?'

'I wait; then I got on the bridge. I stay there in the dark, in the daytime, in the dark, in the daytime. It was a long time.'

'All this time you were on a bridge?'

'No. After. When I got out.'[16]

And since they use the same language while speaking of the two death experiences, these experiences overlap and finally merge because the death of Sethe's child and the death the young woman experienced through the Middle Passage have the same root cause of slavery, both being inseparable parts of the whole story of slavery and the memory of the enslaved.

Concerning Beloved's function, with regard to Sethe, Beloved's presence is necessary to break down her mother's resolve to the point where she can confront the most disturbing parts of her past. Whereas Sethe tried to suppress her memories of the past before the arrival of Beloved, "[…] she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe."[17], she now voluntarily recalls the death scene of her daughter.[18] Beloved's presence allows her also to recall such painful memories as the disappearance of her husband, the loss of her two sons, and the death of Baby Suggs. Sethe needs to remember and to confront the events which happened in the past because as long as she has not come to terms with her past she will not be able to move on. This is especially evident from the thought pictures which haunt her of the boys hanging from the trees in the plantation called "Sweet Home"[19]. As Sethe recounts her past, made present in the resurrected Beloved, she must encounter the choices she has made in order to acknowledge her lost innocence and attempt to recover wholeness.

With regard to the other characters in the novel, they all carry the memory of the enslaved since they all suffered under the system. Understandably, they hardly bear this memory because it is such a painful burden. They would like to forget, if they could, and live in the present, which happens to be several years after emancipation. But they mustn't forget, so the novel argues. They must recall their past, dare to confront it, and pass on their stories. "Suppressing the past may help [them] survive, but it doesn't allow for authentic life. Suppressing the past results in another form of enslavement, holding the inner life captive to recurring fears and possibly neurotic obsessions."[20] The characters must be willing to look back on their past experiences, however traumatic those might have been. Only then they can feel truly free and reclaim their lives. What is more, if they do not recall the past, they will suppress an essential part of history.

One of these characters is Paul D, who tells Sethe, when he meets her again, "We can make a life, girl. A life."[21] But the unacknowledged, unresolved pain from slavery will not allow him to form a stable relationship with Sethe. To make that life with her, Paul D will have to share his full story, including his painful past. This is where Beloved again plays her haunting role. She seems to function as the unresolved past that comes between him and Sethe. When Paul D sees her for the first time, he thinks, "[…] I [don't] want to be nowhere around her. Something funny about her. […] She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I'm supposed to remember."[22] Obviously, he is supposed to remember all that Beloved embodies as a ghost of the past slavery times. Before Paul D becomes acquainted with the young woman, he is as reluctant as Sethe to confront the past. He believes that he has locked up the past for good in the tobacco tin he carries around his neck, "It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, […] into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open."[23] For both, Sethe and Paul D, Beloved is the return of the suppressed past. The haunted state of their minds is made clear when they make love for the first time; both are caught up in their own memories[24]. Symbolically, Sethe succeeds in loosening the lid of Paul D's tobacco tin, but it is Beloved who finally opens it. When she one night visits him in the cold house, she clearly embodies Paul D's past confronting him, "You have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name."[25] Metaphorically, in touching Beloved, Paul D touches the past inside him and thus enters the process of being healed. As she seduces him, the lid of his rusty tobacco tin gives, and so the tightly guarded content of the past is spilling out. The pain and horror which he has kept sealed for so long is eventually released in his escalating and repetitive cry "Red heart". Beloved's resurrection forces Paul D and the others to re-enact their past. Looking back they begin to understand themselves and to reassess where they have been.


[1] Standish, Peter, ed. Dictionary of Twentieth Century Culture: Hispanic Culture of South America. Detroit: Gale, 1995. 156-157.

[2] Roh, Franz. Nach-Expressionismus, Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten Europäischen Malerei. Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1925.

[3] Carpentier, Alejo. "On the Marvelous Real in America," translated by Tanya Huntington and Lois Parkinson Zamora. In: Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Edited by Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. London: Duke University Press, 1995.75-88.

[4] Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. London: Routledge, 1998. 216.

[5] Walter, Roland: "Pan-American (Re)Visions: Magical Realism and Amerindian Cultures in Susan Power's The Grass Dancer, Gioconda Belli's La Mujer Habitada, Linda Hogan's Power, and Mario Vargas Llosa's El Hablador." In: American Studies International. Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, October 1999. 4.

[6] Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage, 1987.

[7] Cf. Morrison 18f.

[8] Morrison 51.

[9] Cf. Faris, Wendy B. and Zamora (Ed.). Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. London: Duke University Press, 1995. 501.

[10] Morrison 266.

[11] Morrison dedicates the novel to "S ixty Million and more".

[12] Cf. Carmean, Karen. Toni Morrison's World of Fiction. New York: The Whitston Publishing Company Troy, 1993. 83.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Morrison 200.

[15] Morrison 210f.

[16] Morrison 75.

[17] Morrison 6.

[18] Cf. Morrison 200.

[19] Cf. Morrison 6.

[20] Carmean 87.

[21] Morrison 46.

[22] Morrison 234.

[23] Morrison 113.

[24] Cf. Morrison 20ff.

[25] Morrison 117.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Magical Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ana Castillo's So Far from God
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institute)
The Subaltern Speaks: Minority Literature in the U.S.
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ISBN (Book)
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The purpose of this paper is not only to probe into the nature of magical realism in the two novels, but also to examine this narrative form as a socio-cultural practice which is connected to a special Weltanschauung.I will expose how Morrison and Castillo employ magical realism, and, in particular, I try to identify its function and the role it plays in terms of Morrison's and Castillo's cultural and historical background. In the conclusion I will expose the parallels between the novels.
Magical, Realism, Toni, Morrison, Beloved, Castillo, Subaltern, Speaks, Minority, Literature
Quote paper
Jasmina Murad (Author), 2006, Magical Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Ana Castillo's So Far from God, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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