Like Water for Chocolate
At about the middle of the 19th century (when scientific objectivity became “vogue”), the influence of many social forces caused aesthetic taste to change from romantic idealism to realism. Many writers felt that romantics—with their focus on the spiritual, the abstract, and the ideal—were being dishonest about life as it really was. The realists felt they had an ethical responsibility to be honest. To show life as it should be in order to show life “as it is,” the body of realist literature tends to eschew the elevated subject matter of tragedy in favor of the average, the commonplace, the middle classes and their daily struggles with daily existence. This literature undertook to use language as a kind of undistorting mirror of, or perfectly transparent window to, the “real”, to disguise its own status as artifice, to present language as constructed of one-to-one relationships between the word (signifier) and the thing that the word represents (signified); in short, realism appeals to our ideologically constructed sense of the real and addresses the reader in such a manner as to incite a “Yes. That’s it, that’s how it really is” response. Realists are often impelled by social reform, often focus on people in social situations that require compromise, develop characters that are unheroic— flawed and unable to be “true to themselves”--, and often emphasize external, material reality, yet recognize the complexity of human psychology.
In the mid 20th century magical realism reared its head as an influential, if not genre, style of literature, usually Latin in origin. Distinct from realism, magical realism aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites. The realistic laws of cause and effect are suspended: whereas events in realistic novels occur for reasons that are eventually made clear and lead logically to the conclusion of the plot, in magical realism events don’t follow these “normal” expectations so we often see things happening without an explanation and or reasons we can’t or don’t expect—we are left to accept even the strange without surprise. In realistic novels, characters are given individualized names, personalities, and family histories individual to themselves. We identify with these characters because their specific humanity engages us and their individuality resembles our own. Magical realism defies our experience of fictional selves. We see archetypes (and so often stereotypes) rather than individuals—characters (in all their totality) are symbolic and representative of human characteristics more so than are they depictions of singular beings we are to “know” as mirrors of our whole selves. The fate of these magical realism characters often seems decided in advance and doesn’t deal in fairness, justice, or even probability.
Magical realism aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites. For example, it challenges polar opposites like life and death and the pre-colonial past versus the post-industrial present. Magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society. According to Angel Flores, magical realism involves the fusion of the real and the fantastic, or as he claims, “an amalgamation of realism and fantasy.” The presence of the supernatural in magical realism is often connected to the primeval or “magicali Indian mentality”, which exists in conjunction with European rationality. According to Ray Verzasconi, as well as other critics, magical realism is “an expression of the New World reality which at once combines the rational elements of the European super-civilization, and the irrational elements of a primitive...
Citations: from Maria Elena De Valdes, “Verbal and Visual Representations of Women: Como Aqua
Para Chocolate/Like Water for Chocolate,” World Literature Today 69:1 (Winter 1995), 78.
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