Exploring Modern Magical Realism
n a r r a t i v e    s t r a t e g i e s

The Meaning of Madness in Magical Realism

"When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. And maddest of all—to see life as it is and not as it should be."
   —Man of La Mancha, 1972

WHEN DISCUSSIONS of the Quixotic arise, it's only inevitable that the subject of madness insinuate itself into the conversation. Was Don Quixote really mad? Did he really think that barber's bowl would make a good helmet? Were those really windmills? Cervantes was constantly insisting that the Knight Errant was crazy, but did the hidalgo's actual behavior embody madness? These are questions for the ages and dozens of books have been written on the subject.

For writers, incorporating madness as a theme can be challenging. Not only does the condition need to be authentic (or the situation that presumes the condition), but with so much already written on the subject, there must be a constant vigilance toward avoiding cliché. Howling at the moon, having visions, fraternizing with ghosts—these have all been done before and will be done again. It's the writer who puts a unique spin on these "symptomatic" behaviors that will succeed in writing madness anew.

For the writer interested in capturing the essence of madness, there are a host of questions that beg consideration.

How are mad characters created?
Sometimes the protagonists are born mad; sometimes they're driven to madness. Sometimes it's not the protagonist who's mad at all, but the society through which they move. Sometimes madness is imposed upon characters as a condition so that they can be confined, ostracized or segregated with justification. After all, we can't have madpeople running the streets, now, can we?

Where does the madness enter the narrative?
This is important to know because it will inform the structure and pace of the story. Does the character's questionable behavior move forward in a slow—or quick—trajectory? If so, is the trajectory an ascent or a descent? Some kinds of madness pull characters or communities to the bottom of the moral well, while other kinds of insanity can lead to a delusional communion with stars, light and peace.

Do they want to be mad?
Some characters are mad simply because it liberates them. Staking a claim in madness means not having to live up to a community's restrictions. Rather than actually losing the will to live, these characters just assume the role of the Other as a way to escape the bondage of ill-fitting customs and mores. These characters are often not really mad, but treated as mad because they resist behaving in ways deemed "normal."

Not all characters who are deemed mad wish for that label, however. Being called mad (insane) when one is not can make someone mad (angry). This will, of course, affect that character's motivations, his ability to function within the setting and his sense of credibility among the status quo. Imagine the conflict, the drama, the tension that comes from being institutionalized for madness when all you are is different.

Janet Frame captures convincingly this sort of mental "colonialism" in her writing; she should know, she was erroneously committed in New Zealand for her shy, artistic temperament and was nearly given a lobotomy because of it.

Are there explanations for the madness?
Hallucinations, diagnosed mental illness, symptoms or side effects of other illnesses, family history of delusional behavior, stress, the use of alcohol or drugs and evidence of abuse are all good explanations for a character's mad behavior. American readers seem to demand explanations for madness in their literature, unless they appreciate the nuances of magical realism, and then they aren't needy of such scientific or logical certification. Magical realist writers penning tales of madness will still have research to do, because magical realism's foundation is realism, after all; these stories need to ring with authenticity. But subjectivity is invited into the depiction of madness as well, because some behaviors, as we all know, aren't necessarily explained away by biology or chemistry. The task of writing a non-magical realist rendering of madness needs to be far more scientific and less subjective because all the proof of madness lies in its clinical measurement.

Consider the three Ds
Detour. Departure. Decay. This is a trinity that needs to be addressed in stories of madness. Insanity is, after all, a transfer of cognizance. The mind is lost, or leaves, or functions within a separate world entirely.

So when do detours around reality occur? Do they occur inside or outside the character, or are the detours primarily driven by the narrator? Does the protagonist suffer a full-on departure from reality in the story? Is it voluntary or imposed? What sorts of conflicts result? And ultimately, the writer needs to ask, what has really decayed in the story? Is it the so-called "mad" character's mind or something larger and more abstract?

CODE ORANGE! How does madness rate?
Here, the discussion turns to one of threat management. Once madness is "diagnosed," a prescription is sought. This is innate to the human condition, to fix what is broken. Are the slightly mad simply smiled upon as "touched" or "eccentric" or "creative"? Or are their notions threatening enough to demand something more confining; say, a medication, a trip to the countryside, therapy sessions? Is the madness so threatening that it requires that extreme measures be performed in the interest of public safety?

Rating the threat level of madness is something a writer needs to address immediately. Once characters start reacting to the madness of an individual, this becomes the moment of change. However swift or leisurely, these changes will require some kind of reaction or "treatment" from the community within the story. The kinds and severity of "treatments," justified or not, will have enormous impact on the identity of your mad protagonist. Every decision he or she will make will depend upon their level of acceptability within a community.

However, writers should keep in mind how the balance between action and reaction can tilt to the extreme, using this example: an extremely bright child casually diagnosed as "simple-minded" might respond severely to reactions from teasing playmates. That is to say, a "mad" character's response to "treatment" will depend a great deal on the moral and emotional foundation of the character as much as the severity of the community's reaction to the character's supposed shortage in sense. Only in the most orderly world could reactions to one another ever be balanced and equitable.

Who's in charge of madness?
This is really a question of who's in charge, period. Those with power define the customs of the culture. Colonial history tells of "civilized" explorers shoring up on exotic islands to discover women dancing bare-breasted and men performing "manic" rituals. To the would-be conquerors, these behaviors were distinctly aberrant and required "treatment." The natives were, consequently, treated to missionary values. They were educated and retrained, against their customs, in order to achieve "civility" (which has historically been considered an opposite to "crazy").

Did this "treatment" cure the natives? Not really. Today, people living in postcolonial landscapes will tell you that for all that "civilizing," they still hold deep within their collective psyche a connection to their native identities. Now, the literature coming out of those communities has returned to a revocalization of those realities, which were once deemed the dominion of "madness."

Writers don't need an expertise on the psychodynamics of colonial oppression on small groups to address the question of who defines a community's behavioral norms, however. Any character who has suffered some act of marginalization, that is, anyone who has not belonged to the power-wielding status quo (women, the handicapped, children, the poor, the noncapitalist, the nonChristian, the nonWhite, the non-native speaker) can be a victim of the label "insane," simply by being who they are.

And finally, what exactly is real?
Is the physical, social or political landscape of your story where reality loses its footing, and not the emotional or intellectual landscape of the character? Where does the real chaos lie? Sometimes it's the folks in charge who have created, and wish to maintain, a landscape of madness. The individual characters who struggle to survive this landscape cling desperately to their singular identities as they are caught up in the swirl of anarchy around them. Readers need the anchor of the "true" real in stories of madness from which to establish what's really going on. Madness, after all, is a construct of realism.

"The sceptic says that the world is mad. But the wise man knows that the real difficulty is in choosing well your own madness."
   —Paulo Coelho, 1997

Conditions of madness have colored world literature consistently through the centuries, some of it inspired, in fact, by Cervantes' supposedly daft hero. Madness conspires in magical realism as well. In fact, madness, while not being a required component of magical realist stories, can't help but find its way into plots because of its versatility when used as a metaphor, an exterior "explanation" or a way to define what is sane. I don't presume to say that magical realism better manages or has a more proprietary handle on madness, but the madness wrought in magical realist stories seems unique in that, generally speaking, the insanity proffered in the storyline has little to do with the decay of an individual's mind.

Let's revisit the discussion of madness above, but rethink those points in terms of the goals of magical realism.

  • Riffing on the above question, what is really real in the story? Writers need to know which world is truly decaying, the world exterior to the main character or the one that rules his interior. Generally speaking, in magical realism, it's not the point-of-view character who's mad, it's the world around him that's fallen into decay.

    Gregor Samsa makes a convincing human cockroach due, in part, to the underspoken decay of political culture taking place outside his home life. Is Samsa really crazy? Upon reading Kafka's Metamorphosis, we are sympathetic to his very real plight, which is suffered in the larger world where social order is suffering a downward spiral of decay.

  • Can the writer identify logical explanations for the madness in his story? Be careful. Magical realism isn't typically interested in grounded explanations (see above) for aberrant behaviors because they can eliminate the opportunity for the reader to engage in negative capability, which is a key aspect of the dream logic of the magical realist narrative.

    Using more subjective "proofs" like rebelliousness (resistance as proof), precocity (intellectual extremity as proof) or promiscuity (moral decay as proof) as starting points renders madness a more questionable diagnosis in magical realism. Such depictions of madness require the reader to decide for herself if it's really madness or simply a metaphoric mirror of the larger symptoms of society's decay. This is something readers of magical realism tend to prefer; ambiguity, a sense of things not always being what they seem, the puzzle of human nature that doesn't have a single solution.

  • Who's in charge here? Magical realism pays a lot of attention to power centers. If the power players are calling people mad, confining them, ostracizing them, segregating them, punishing them or delegitimizing them, chances are it's because these "mad hatters" are telling the truth.

    This is the political orientation of magical realism. By declaring a person or a community as lost, those in power can take away their voice, their proof, their credibility, their power to demand justice. What's left is the world the way the folks in charge want it; hardly ever does this mean a liveable, fair or sustainable world. Generally speaking, the narrative perspective in magical realist stories tends to support the falsely accused madpeople over the establishment. Sometimes these "false crazies" even choose to be aberrant as a way to rebel and empower themselves. Fine, they seem to be saying, call us crazy. At least we're not responsible for the real madness in the world.

    The personalities that exemplify the power centers (politicians, religious leaders, patriarchs, matriarchs) are the ones in charge of determining how threatening these madpeople are. It's usually within their undeniably subjective realm to determine "treatment," which is their way to justifiably impose some sense of control over the lives of the purportedly mad. Ironically, it's often characteristic of these power brokers to be somewhat delusional as well.

    This is as much a commentary on justice as anything else. The presence of madness in a world that considers itself orderly leaves open-ended the question of whether the world is ever going to be truly one of Order at all, and if so, then, by whose hand? When the mad speak the truth, it leaves the rest of us to wonder about the veracity of our leaders' ideas. It makes us wrestle with the notion that what we've believed to be real and true all this time might all just be a façade, a practical joke played upon the average guy by those who run the world.

  • Are all mad creators falsely labeled? No, not always. Mala Ramchandin, in Shani Mootoo's beautiful and terrible Cereus Blooms at Night, is institutionalized and her behavior suggests that of someone who's fallen over the edge of lucidity. But her compassionate caretaker, Tyler, who is the chronicler of her story, reveals a lifetime of sexual abuse which has brought Mala to this juncture at the end of her life. Now, these abuses may explain her madness, but they don't explain the magical realism that occurs throughout the novel. In fact, the implausible occurrences in this book are likely the most real things the reader will witness in the entire story. They work to suggest Mala's truth, which is simple but provocative: You can't keep the life force down; for every flowerbed you pound it into the ground, it will take root in ten other gardens. Her's is the most plaintive plea for tolerance you're likely to find in a literary novel.

  • Where does the madness enter the narrative? In magical realism, you sometimes have characters who are, from the outset, viewed as delusional. But this is not always the terrible thing that it presupposes. There are communities across the globe which view their mentally dysfunctional as gifted, touched or blessed. These characters aren't given "treatments" for being different, they're simply received as a regular part of the social landscape.

    Don Quixote's madness is a diagnosis Cervantes insisted upon, a condition which cannot be cured. Is it because he's truly mad, or truly idealistic? Is it because the capitalist, war-mongering civilization that rules the reality of Don Quixote's day has imposed upon his spirit the cynical impossibility of a kinder, gentler world? He may never recover, but those readers who hold the hidalgo's true intentions close to their own hearts know that, for all his madness, and the ensuing sadness that comes from facing the complicated Truth, Don Quixote is probably one of the sanest characters ever to traverse the pages of modern literature.

    As for the characters who find themselves forced into a trajectory of madness, even as they ascend or descend, they aren't necessarily doomed. García Márquez's Erendira is forced into a life of prostitution by her greedy, green-blooded grandmother to pay for an honest mistake she'd made in childhood. This abhorrent lifestyle imposed upon her transforms the young woman into a kind of ghost of her Self until, once freed from her bondage, she recovers her lucidity and moves off into the world seemingly strong, revitalized and ready to be her Self again.

  • What about detours, departures and decay? Detours in magical realism are the perfect way to integrate the fanciful, the implausible, the magical. When characters have to divert around places, people and situations, it opens doors to the mysteriousness of what is not "normal." Departures are usually indicated through some measure of confinement. Gabriel García Márquez's José Arcadio Buendía is ultimately tied to a tree at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude for being too booksmart (a problem for the man from La Mancha, as well); Buendía's inability to bridge the chasm between what is real and what is possible delivers him outside the landscape of sanity.

    Both Henri and Napoleon, in Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, embody voluntary departure. Napoleon's departure is defined through his very real exile to St. Helena, a rock in the Atlantic Ocean (though he botched an earlier suicidal departure in Fontainebleau), after living a lifetime of megalomanic behavior which led to his "Waterloo." Henri's departure occurs the moment he deserts the morally bankrupt Napoleon as his majesty's personal chef, a position he served his Beloved leader for his entire adult life. It is in the moment when Henri begins to relate to the world of the dead when his downfall commences. Once in the magical city of Venice, his madness seems to both descend and ascend. It descends as he pursues an impossible love, and yet ascends when he commits himself—in parallel to Napoleon's fate—to a rocky island haven for the mad where his regular dialogs with the dead give him a new sense of identity and purpose. He may not be cured of his madness, but he finds peace; Henri can sort out the contradictions of his life without further compromise to his soul.

    As for decay, typically, if a character suffers through a mental, physical or psychic decay in a work of magical realism, it may be that his actual fall is metaphoric of the decay of the larger world. Henri's fall mirrors that of Napoleon's, for instance, both in detail and timeline, despite the huge difference in their personal morals.

    Most characters who fall into moral decline, emotional distress or intellectual haziness, at least in magical realism, are not usually tragic but revelatory. The decline of Servia Maria in Of Love and Other Demons might be considered a statement from Gabriel García Márquez about the fall of nobility. She might have had rabies, as was assumed in the story, or she might have been naturally demonic; popular opinion dictates that her situation was neither physical or spiritual in its source. She was simply different, enough so to be punished for it. Servia Maria's fall might, in this vein, be seen as a metaphoric embodiment of the Spanish Inquisition.

    There are likely many more than three, but for this essay we'll focus on characters who may be defined as Eccentric, Inmates (of the Asylum) or Divinely Mad.

    The Eccentrics

    "There is no great genius without a tincture of madness."
       —Seneca, 3rd Century

    These are the dreamers, the artists, the functionally idiosyncratic, the fanciful, the impossible idealists. The ones who just can't help themselves. They don't really do much to threaten the status quo. Most of the time they are "normal." Most of the time they are charming, witty, even humorous, so people keep them around. It's when they begin speaking too much of the truth or pose some other threat to the status quo that they are socially cast aside as lunatics.

    Sometimes it means that they are regarded with sad smiles and sympathy; gossip renders them "touched" or unable to distinguish between fact and dream. Sometimes they are confined by social decree to certain roles within a community, which leaves them neutered or voiceless. Sometimes they suffer much greater torment, but the purity of their visions mean they are unflappable and driven. They represent the best of human nature but are often portrayed through a cynic's lens.

    Don Quixote is the perfect example. His fanciful attitude is easily explained. He's read too many books. His bowl-for-a-helmet doesn't fit him right. Of course, he will be endlessly hopeful about the world; he doesn't know better. It's easier to defend that than to acknowledge the sad truth that Don Quixote's very existence perpetuates: there will never be a perfect world because human nature does not possess the capacity to sustain perpetual harmony.

    Also, Robert Perchan's wonderful prose poem, "Yo, Borges, Dappelgänger," addresses Jorge Luis Borges' genius as an expression of his fading sanity when he considers, to extremity, the origins behind the name Dapple, assigned to Sancho Panza's illustrious steed in one version of Don Quixote.

    The Inmates (of the Asylum)

    "Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t."
       —Polonius in Hamlet

    These are the bona fide loonies. Bona fide meaning they have been confined or imposed upon because of their behavior, which has been characterized as antisocial, unacceptable and/or threatening. Think of the young heiress Antoinette in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. The daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in Jamaica is abandoned when her father flees the estate during a slave revolt and her mother consequently loses her mind. Antoinette is forced into an arranged marriage in order to legally inherit the family estate. The marriage at first succeeds, but succumbs to the tensions and conflicts borne of island gossip about her insane lineage (she learns later that her father was also delusional). Antoinette falls into a descent inspired by violent dreams and monstrous fears of the encroaching jungle. An awakening sexuality within her is portrayed as a kind of fall from grace, evidence of moral decay. Voudon-inspired thinking only drives her closer to the brink. It is decided that she is a danger to herself, and eventually she is returned to England, where she encounter's the eerie madwoman in the attic (who distinctly resembles the crazy wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre). Who is this madwoman in the attic, and is she all that different from Antoinette? What is Antoinette's truth? Has she fulfilled the family legacy and slowly gone mad like her parents, or has she simply discovered the layers of deceit that have been folded around her life for so long they have assumed the shape of reality? Her story is as much a criticism of capitalist thinking as anything else. Ownership over the living, no matter how well-meaning the agenda, does not liberate souls, it merely oppresses them.

    Mala, the certifiably crazy old woman in Cereus Blooms at Night, exhibits some rather strange behavior herself. Notably, she consumes a fiery blend of extremely hot, fermented peppers as a way to move herself into a separate consciousness. This physical act is essentially a self "treatment" for her condition, a way in which, through her own pain, she can gain access to and cope with what is ultimately the truth. It seems insane at the time, but in retrospect, after learning about her lifetime of sexual trauma, the reader can't help but acknowledge the utter reasonability of the act. Sometimes, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

    Another classic "crazy" woman is Jane of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's autobiographical story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Jane is treated as "hysterical" and confined to a child's nursery where her husband expects her to recover from her condition. He insists that she's been too preoccupied by the intellectual stresses of keeping a journal; the result has been a kind of nervous exhaustion that only three months of the "Rest cure" can relieve. Over the course of her rehabilitation, our otherwise healthy and contemplative heroine Jane suffers from anxieties made manifest within the swirls of yellow wallpaper lining the prison-like room (which features barred windows and a bed nailed to the floor, presumably to ensure the safety of the children who were previously raised there). Jane suffers her confinement, as well as derisive and infantalizing behavior from her husband, to the point that her reality transforms into something extreme and feral.

    Though this book is widely considered an early literary depiction of madness, especially by folks in the medical community, others argue it is precisely Jane's confinement that is to blame for her fall to delusion. You cannot keep a healthy, sentient individual in a zoo without expecting something to run amok within their psyche.

    Still others argue the pre-Suffrage story marks the historic rise of feminist awareness. Written during a period when women's "issues" were mostly biological and objectified by the conditions of their wombs, "The Yellow Wallpaper" also points to a growing collective awareness among women at that time who, despite what the men in their lives were telling them, believed themselves to be strong, whole, sentient creatures and not merely the sum of their body parts.

    Women the world over now talk openly about the wild aspects of their Selves, which can be expressed both physically and psychically through such shared experiences as menstruation and childbirth. Jane's escape from her confinement through the ripping up of the wallpaper and the locking out of her husband might also be seen as evidence of her profound realization that the feral creature taking shape within the patterns of wallpaper was, in fact, evidence of her emergence as a powerful woman, rather than the psychic last straw previously theorized.

    The Divinely Mad

    "All pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness."
       —Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel, 1987

    Step aside, Bette Midler. Divine madness has been a subject for contemplation since the very earliest times. We're talking about those people who exhibit aspects of knowing that range far beyond typical human experience. These are the folks who have the visions, who converse with ghosts, who have alchemic connections with the Other Side. They, like the eccentrics, cannot help themselves. They are born with the Sixth Sense and all the blessings and curses that accompany such a trait.

    How do people deal with the divinely mad? Well, it depends upon what one believes. In cultures where many gods are honored and recognized, there is a tendency to believe that, like eccentrics, those who display behaviors unique to one god or another might be especially "touched" or "gifted." In monotheistic cultures, it depends upon what is considered divine, because from this wellspring of idealogy, superstition is born. And in those cultures where multiple belief systems live side by side (think of the Caribbean, for instance, where Jesus and jumbies are equitable factors in the spiritual equation), you get hybrids of superstition, new vocabularies and stories for explaining the impossible.

    Remedios the Beauty in One Hundred Years of Solitude is short in the intelligence category, but her beauty spares her ostracism within the community; that she is pulled into the sky on a tether of wedding sheets only proves once and for all the measure of her divinity. She certainly did not attain it by the more traditional means sponsored by the Church.

    The flip side of visionary life, where the divinely mad may find a place among the community for their specific talents, is the curse of possession. The possessed Sierva Maria from Of Love and Other Demons is an excellent example of a character treated as possessed by demons (though she is actually normal physically and spiritually). She cannot be saved by the priest sent for her exorcism. In fact, they fall in love instead. How can a priest fall in love with a woman who is possessed? It seems an utter paradox, but the underlying truth, that Sierve Maria was never possessed in the first place, is not lost on the reader.

    In Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads, the characters Mer, Jeanne Duval and Meritet all channel the spirit Ezili into the material world following an invocation one night performed by the grief-stricken midwife Mer during the funereal chant she sung at a stillborn baby's crude waterside passage.

    In Brandi Bauer's "The Mapmaker," the main character, after losing his beloved wife, is obsessed by the repeated presence of a child in the marketplace who he is certain is the reincarnation of his wife. This obsession leads to possession, as he is taken over by an unholy drive to paint an image that eventually reveals a larger truth about his broken spirit.

    Even in short works, like Larri Ann Rosser's "A Gift for Brother Coyote," the reader witnesses a befallen mother sacrificing her baby to Coyote in an expression that is equal parts terror and lucidity, lending her the familiar air of melancholy and despair that often characterizes madness.

    For other examples of madness in magical realism, you may wish to check out these stories:
    George Harrar's "The 5:22"
    Is the main character seeing things? If so, in time, or out of time?

    Maria Lemus' "Fragments of a History"
    One illustration of Caliban's fall from grace

    Catherine Scherer's "Spent Earth"
    Ask yourself: what is really going on here?

    Dennis Vannatta's "The Death of Borges (and the Death of Borges)"
    Proof than an immobius loop can lead to madness

    Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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