Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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HERE WE offer this literary glossary, which lists unfamiliar terms and brief biographies of literary figures with established connections to magical realism. We encourage anyone wishing a better understanding of magical realism to peruse these definitions. By reading them, you might very well come away with a more focused understanding of this writing tradition.

This reference is simple to use: Simply scroll down the alphabetical list for the word or name in question.

This resource is always under construction. If you have a term or contributor you would like us to add to this reference, contact us. We really do appreciate visitor involvement!

Students: For the sources of the definitions cited in this glossary, please see the citations list at the end of this document. NOTE: In the interest of space, some definitions may be abridged or paraphrased.


ABSURDISM: A philosophy based on the belief that humans exist in an irrational and meaningless universe and that the search for order brings one into conflict with that universe. (MW)

ALLEGORY: A story in which people, things, and events have a symbolic meaning, often instructive, as in a fable. (Web)

ALLUSION: A reference in a story to the proper name of a character, thing or setting from another literary work or from real life. (FD)

AMADO, JORGE: Brazilian novelist and magic realist, known especially for writing Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. (MW)

ANIMISM: The attribution of conscious life to natural objects or to nature itself. (AH)

APOTHEOSIS: Exaltation to divine rank or stature; deification. (AH)

APPROPRIATION, APPROPRIATE: 2. To take possession of or make use of exclusively for oneself, often without permission. (AH)

ARABIAN NIGHTS: See Thousand and One Nights, The.

ARCHETYPE: A character or image that has been in literature from the beginning and that regularly recurs in different literatures of different people. (FD)

ARTIFICE: 1. skill or ingenuity. 2. trickery. 3. an artful trick. (Web)

ASSIMILATE: 2. become similar to one's environment. (WordNet)

ÁSTURIAS, MIGUEL ANGEL: Guatemalan writer who won the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature. He was likely the first Latin American magical realist to claim the literary term magical realism as the category for his novel, El Señor Presidente. (O)

ATEMPORAL: Independent of time; timeless. (AH)

ATAVISM: 3. The return of a trait or recurrence of previous behavior after a period of absence. (AH)

AUTHORIAL RETICENCE: The lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and credibility of worldviews expressed by the characters in the text. This technique tends to promote acceptance in magical realism. (CLS)

AVANT GARDE: An intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts, especially in the arts. (MW)

BAKHTIN, MIKHAIL: Russian literary theorist and philosopher of language whose wide-ranging ideas significantly influenced Western thinking in cultural history, linguistics, literary theory and aesthetics. (MW)

BAROQUE: 2. fantastically ornate. (Web) or : A style of literary composition prevalent in most Western countries from the late 16th century to the early 18th century and marked typically by complexity and elaborateness of form and by the use of bizarre, calculatedly ingenious, and sometimes intentionally ambiguous imagery. (MW)

BILDUNGSROM: A type of novel, common in German literature, which treats the personal development of a single individual, usually a youth. (B)

BOOM, EL var. Latin American Boom: A term for the recognition and publication of Latin American fiction in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America during the 1960s. (B)

BORGES, JORGE LUIS: Argentinian author and magic realist, known especially for writing, among other great works, Ficciones. (Editor's Note: Borges' work is often considered the precursor of magical realism.) (MW)

CARNIVALESQUE: The concept of a disruptive and parodic genre of social behavior and aesthetic work, introduced by Mikhail Bakhtin. (B)

CARPENTIER, ALEJO: Cuban novelist who first applied the concept of magical realism to literature. He coined the term lo real maravilloso which translates literally to "the marvelous real." (MW)

COLLAGE: In formal fiction, prose which "depends on the juxtaposition of startling images. Or instead of using a sequence of events in a logical order, a collage story might use repetition of the same event with slight variations..." (from the Introduction to Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists, edited by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone.

COLLECTIVE MEMORY: see Collective Unconscious

COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: A form of the unconscious...common to humanity as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain...According to Jung, the collective unconscious contains archetypes (see archetype), or universal primordial images and ideas. Thus, archetypical criticism regularly identifies literary power with the presence of certain themes that run through the myths and beliefs of all cultures. (MW)

CONSENSUAL REALITY: A theory about reality that suggests that all things are considered real only by mutual agreement of the entire community affected. In other words, if we all agree that the world is round, then the world really is round, even if none of us can prove it independently.(O)

CORTAZAR, JULIO: Argentine novelist and short story author and magic realist, known especially for writing Hopscotch. (MW)

COSMOGONY: The origin of the universe. (Web)

CUENTOS DE FANTASMAS: Literally, "ghost stories" in the Latino tradition.

CULTURAL PRODUCTION: The literature, visual arts, music and scholarship of a particular community. (O)

CULTERANISMO: In Spanish literature, an esoteric style of writing that attempted to elevate poetic language and themes by re-Latinizing them, using classical allusions, vocabulary, syntax, and word order. (MW)


DEFAMILIARIZATION: According to Wendy B. Faris, the natural or artless recounting of wonders, largely without comment, in a matter-of-fact way, so that they are accepted, presumably, as a child would accept them, without undue questioning or reflection. (MR)

DEFOCALIZATION: In her book, Ordinary Enchantments, Wendy B. Faris uses the term defocalization "to characterize the way in which magical realism constitutes a particular way of focalizing as a genre, irrespective of the particular perspectives and narrators in individual texts. . . . magical realism modifies the conventions of realism based in empirical evidence, incorporating other kinds of perception. . . . the narrative is defocalized because it seems to come from two radically different perspectives at once."

DELIMIT, DELIMITING: To establish the limits or boundaries of; demarcate. (AH)

DETERMINISM, DETERMINIST: The philosophical doctrine that every event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedents that are independent of the human will. (AH)

DEUS EX MACHINA: An unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. (AH) [literally, "god in the machine"]

DOUBLE-CODING: According to Jon Thiem, "Many postmodern works are double-coded. One code, usually imitative of the forms of popular fiction, contributes to a wide readership and commercial success. The second code, incorporating a whole range of experimental techniques and postmodern philosophical issues, is less popular and more adapted to serious readers, other writers, and those we might call the cognoscenti. Ideally, readers would relate to both code levels, but there is always the fear that the mass public will apprehend only the popular code and therefore read the work in a distortive, reductive way." (MR)

DUALISM, DUALITY: The quality or character of being twofold; dichotomy. (AH)

DUENDE: The ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm. (AH)

EPISTEMOLOGICAL, EPISTEMOLOGY: The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity. (AH)

EPONYM, EPONYMOUS: A person whose name is or is thought to be the source of the name of something, such as a city, country, or era. (AH)

ESCAPISM: The tendency to escape from daily reality or routine by indulging in daydreaming, fantasy, or entertainment. (AH)


EX-CENTRICITY: According to Theo L. D'haem, the breaking away from privileged centers. For the purposes of magical realism, ex-centricity describes the sense of speaking from the margin, from a place "other" than "the" or "a" center. (MR)

EXPRESSIONISM: An artistic theory or practice of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the subjective or subconscious thoughts and emotions of the artist, the struggle of abstract forces, or the inner realities of life are presented by a wide variety of nonnaturalistic techniques that include abstraction, distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, fantasy, and symbolism. It arose as a reaction against complaints of materialism, complacent bourgeois prosperity, rapid mechanization and urbanization, and the domination of the family within pre-World War I European society. (MW)

EXPRESSIONIST-POST: see Post-Expressionism.

FABLE: A short tale, one of the earliest forms of fiction, told to illustrate a moral of some kind, in which the characters often are animals whose character traits symbolize human traits. (FD)

FABULATION: Contemporary nonrealistic fiction, including parables, tales and fables. (FD)

FABULISM: see Fable

FABULIST: A creator or writer of fables. (MW)

FAIRY TALE: 1. A simple narrative dealing with supernatural beings (such as fairies, magicians, ogres, or dragons) that is typically of folk origin and written or told for the amusement of children. 2. A more sophisticated narrative containing supernatural or obviously improbable events, scenes, and personages and often having a whimsical, satirical, or moralistic character. (MW)

FANTASTIC: 1. imaginary; unreal. 2. grotesque; odd. (Web)

FANTASY: Imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting and of characters. (MW)

FATWA: A legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar. (D)

FELT HISTORY: According to John Burt Foster Jr., "felt history refers to the eloquent gestures and images with which a character or lyric persona registers the direct pressure of events, whether enlarging and buoyant or limiting and harsh. In this broad sense...any critic who is sufficiently judicious in defining the historical context of a work could interpret most literature as felt history." (MR)

FIXITY: The quality or state of being fixed or steady. (Web)

FLORES, ANGEL: Literary scholar who, in his famous article, "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction" (Hispania 38 [1955]), proposed that the year 1935 mark the birth of magical realism. (MR)

FOLKLORE: The traditional beliefs, legends, etc. of a people. (Web)

FUTURISM: An artistic movement begun in Italy about 1909 and marked especially by violent rejection of tradition and an effort to give formal expression to the dynamic energy and movement of mechanical processes. (MW)


GARCIA MARQUEZ, GABRIEL: Colombian novelist considered the master of magic realism, known especially for his work, One Hundred Years of Solitude. (B)

GENRIFICATION: The act of forcing a style or mode of writing into a specifically defined literary classification. (O)

GROTESQUE: A decorative style in which animal, human, and vegetative forms are interwoven and deformed to the point of absurdity. The term was first used regularly in reference to literature in the 18th century. In literature the style is often used for comedy or satire to show the contradictions and inconsistencies of life. (MW)

GROTESQUE REALISM: According to Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, "a combination of North American tall tale, Latin American baroque, and Bakhtinian carnivalesque." (MR)

HEGELIAN HISTORICISM: The study of history and metaphysics in which reality is thought to be a dynamic process rather than as a reflection of static ideals. History is produced by the conflicting impulses and interests of men, but at the same time shows the progressive self-realization of human reason and freedom. Named after German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel. (B)

HEGEMONIC, HEGEMONY: The predominant influence of one state over others. (AH)

HERMENEUTICS: The study of the general principles of biblical interpretation. (MW)

HETERONYM: A word having the same spelling as, but different sound and meaning from, another; exactly equivalent word in other language. (DDW)

HOMERIC SIMILE: An extended simile often running to several lines used typically in epic poetry to intensify the heroic stature of the subject and to serve as decoration. Also known as epic simile. (MW)

INTERTEXTUAL, INTERTEXTUALITY: A term variously attributed to French critics Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin, used widely by critics in the last twenty years to refer to the presence of aspects of one or more texts within some other work. The idea of intertextuality suggests, in fact, that every piece of written work in some way is related to other texts that already have been written. Types of intertextuality include overt literary allusion, actual quotation from other works, and even plagiarism and parody. (FD)

IRREAL, IRREALISM: Contemporary fiction in which the author departs from the conventional techniques of fiction--such as plot, character development, and realistic depiction of scenes--relying instead upon absurdity and fantasy. (FD)


KIERKEGAARDIAN: In reference to the theories of Søren Aaby Kierkegaard, a Danish religious philosopher. A precursor of modern existentialism, he insisted on the need for individual decision and leaps of faith in the search for religious truth. (AH)

LABYRINTH/LABYRINTHINE: An intricate structure of interconnecting passages through which it is difficult to find one's way; a maze. (D)

LA LLORONA: The crying mother of the classic Mexican folk legend. Click here for a full recounting of the classic ghost story.


LEITMOTIF: 2. A dominant and recurring theme, as in a novel. (

LITERARY ALLUSION: In literature, an implied or indirect reference to a person, event, thing, or a part of another text. Allusion is distinguished from such devices as direct quote and imitation or parody. Most are based on the assumption that there is a body of knowledge that is shared by the author and the reader and that therefore the reader will understand the author's referent. Allusions to biblical figures and figures from classical mythology are common in Western literature for this reason. (MW)

LO REAL MARAVILLOSO: A term introduced by Alejo Carpentier in his prologue to El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World). The Cuban novelist was searching for a concept broad enough to accommodate both the events of everyday life and the fabulous nature of Latin American geography and history. (B)

LUDIC READING: According to Victor Nell (and remarked upon by Jon Thiem), the trance a reader falls into as the result of pleasure reading. (MR)

MACGUFFIN: Device giving impetus to plot: in a movie , play, or book, something that starts or drives the action of the plot but later turns out to be unimportant. Coined by Alfred Hitchcock. (E)

MACONDO: Fictional Latin-American city in One Hundred Years of Solitude. (MW)

MAGIC REALISM, MAGICAL REALISM: For some origins of this concept, see both lo real maravilloso and Roh, Franz.

MAGISCHER REALISMUS: Art critic Franz Roh's coinage for MAGICAL REALISM in the original German.

MARGINALIZE, MARGINALIZED: To relegate or confine to a lower or outer limit or edge, as of social standing. (AH)

MARVELOUS REAL, THE: See lo real maravilloso.

MATERIALISM, MATERIALIST: In philosophy, the theory that matter is the basis of all reality, that all reality is capable of being perceived by the senses, and that all natural phenomenon can be explained in terms of physical conditions alone. (B)

MELQUÍADES: The timeless magician-like character in One Hundred Years of Solitude. (O)

METAFICTION: Fiction that deals with the subject and writing of fiction. (FD)

METAMORPHOSIS: 2. any marked changed, as in character, appearance or condition. (Web)

METAPHOR: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. See also simile. (MW)

MIMESIS, MIMETIC: The literary process of attempting to create a convincing and uninterrupted illusion of real life. (FD)

MODERNISM, MODERNISMO, MODERNIST: A period of literature covering, roughly, the beginning of World War I until about 1965. Although the style of modernist fiction generally is realistic, it sometimes is marked by experimental techniques like stream-of-consciousness writing and opaque language. Common themes of modernist fiction involve a close look at the psychological nature of the characters and some kind of protest against the nature of modern society. (FD)

MODERNITY: The state or quality of being modern. (AH)

MYTH/MYTHIC: 1. a traditional story serving to explain some phenomenon, custom, etc. 2. mythology 3. any fictitious story, person, or thing. (Web)

MYTHOPOEIC/MYTHOPOETIC: Fiction created either through using ancient myths as subject matter...or through an attempt to create new stories that have the same ambitions as the old myths did--to give order to life and show the reasons for the seemingly illogical ways of nature. (FD)


NATURALISM, NATURALIST: A fiction movement begun in France in the late 19th Century which sought to depict human society and the lives of the men and women who composed it as objectively and as truthfully as the the subject matter of science is handled. (B)

NEGATIVE CAPABILITY: Keats' definition of the poet as being able to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (LE)

NON-LINEAR: Not in a straight line. (AH)

ONTOLOGICAL, ONTOLOGY: The branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being. (AH)

PANOPTICON: A prison so contructed that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times, without being seen. (

PARABLE: Usually a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude, a doctrine, a standard of conduct, or a religous principle. (MW)

PARODY: A work created in conscious imitation of another piece, generally for the purpose of ridiculing either the other piece itself or the subjects of the piece. A parody is distinguished from a satire in that a parody generally does not have the motive of inspiring the reader to change or to reform some aspect of society. (FD)

PERIPHERY: 1. an outer boundary 2. surrounding space or area. (Web)

PHILOLOGY: Study of literature that includes or may include grammar, criticism, literary history, language history, systems of writing, and anything else that is relevant to literature or to language as used in literature. (MW)

POLYVOCALITY: The nature of the multiple voice in magical realist narrative. (O)

POMO: See postmodern

POSTCOLONIAL: Of, relating to, or being the time following the establishment of independence in a colony. (

POST-EXPRESSIONISM: A period of painting identified by art critic Franz Roh in 1925 as a return to Realism after Expressionism's more abstract style. (MR)

POSTMODERN: Of or relating to any of several artistic movements that have challenged the philosophy and practices of modern arts or literature since about the 1940s. In literature this has amounted to a reaction against an ordered view of the world and therefore against fixed ideas about the form and meaning of texts. This reaction is reflected in...the developments of such concepts as the absurd, the antihero and the antinovel, and magic realism. The perception of the relativity of meaning has also led to a proliferation of critical theories, most notably deconstruction and its offshoots. (MW)

PRETERNATURAL: 1. differing from or beyond what is natural; abnormal. 2. supernatural. (Web)

PSYCHIC: Of, relating to, affecting, or influenced by the human mind or psyche; mental. (AH)

QUALIA: Qualities or feelings as considered independently of their effects on behavior. (W) [Editor's note: this is a hotly contested philosophical term, so many conflicting definitions exist.]


RATIONALISM: A term applies to a trend in philosophic thinking toward emphasis on reason and intellect over emotion or imagination. (B)

REALITY, CONSENSUAL: See Consensual Reality

REALISMO MAGICO: Massimo Bontempelli's borrowed coinage of Franz Roh's MAGISCHER REALISMUS, translated into Italian. (O)

REBUS: A representation of words in the form of pictures or symbols, often presented as a puzzle. (AH)

ROH, FRANZ: The German art critic who, in 1925, coined the term magic realism to represent a form of Post-Expressionist painting. (MR)

SCHEHERAZADE: The ingenious storyteller in The Thousand and One Nights. (MW) (Editor's Note: The name Scheherazade is invoked when describing certain kinds of storytelling, especially in those stories of magical realism which use a clever and often timeless narrator.)

SCIENCE FICTION: A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background. (D)

SECOND WAVE: A resurgence in the Latin American novel following the region's initial “boom,” which was led primarily by the critically acclaimed and commercially successful author Isabel Allende; her presence as a key leader in the second wave opened doors for many other women authors. (O)

SENSORY EXALTATION: According to Alejo Carpentier, the state of unmistakable marvel. (MR)

SIMILE: In rhetoric, a figure of speech: a comparison between two things of a different kind or quality, usually introduced by "like" or "as." (B)

SLIPSTREAM: According to Christopher Priest, "It is the literature of strangeness, but not necessarily in its subjects. Slipstream is about attitude, or a different way of inquiring into the familiar. It includes rather than categorises—while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these."

SPECULATIVE: A literary term used in multiple related but distinct ways. In some contexts, it has been used as an inclusive term covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally includes science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, alternate history, and magic realism. The term is used this way in academic and ideological criticism of these genres, as well as by some readers, writers, and editors of these genres. In these contexts, the term does not imply an opinion about the relative merits of any of the genres it includes. … In other contexts, the term has been used to express dissatisfaction with what some people consider the limitations of science fiction per se. For example, in Harlan Ellison's writing, the term may signal a wish not to be pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, and a desire to break out of science fiction's genre conventions in a literary and modernist direction. Some readers and writers of science fiction see the term as insulting towards science fiction, and therefore as having negative connotations. (W)

SUBLIME, THE: In literature, grandeur of thought, emotion, and spirit that characterizes great literature. (MW)

SUBTEXT: Of a literary text, the implicit or metaphorical meaning. (MW)

SUBVERSION: Form of subvert--to overthrow or destroy (something established). (Web)

SURREALISM: A literary, artistic, and philosophical movement, founded in France in 1924. Surrealism sought a reality above or within the surface reality, usually through efforts to suspend the discipline of conscious or logical reason, aesthetics, or morality in order to allow for the expression of subconscious thought and feeling. (B)

SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: The mind of the reader, viewer, or listener willingly effects a suspension of disbelief when the author's successful rendition of a fictional character or event seems "real" to the reader. This process allows the reader or audience member to accept the imaginative aspects in a work of fiction, poetry, or drama. (WE)

SYMBOLISM: 1. a representation by symbols. 2. a system of symbols. 3. a symbolic meaning. (Web)

SYNCRETIC, SYNCRETISM: The union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief (especially in religion or philosophy). (WordNet)

TALL TALE: A genre originating on the American frontier, in which the physical attributes, capabilities, and exploits of characters are wildly exaggerated for comic effect. (B)

TAUTOLOGY: Needless repetition of the same sense in different words; redundancy. (AH)

TEXTUALIZATION: According to Jon Thiem, the idea that text and world are synonymous. (MR)

THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE: also known as The Arabian Nights: Collection of Oriental stories of uncertain date and authorship whose tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor also captured the imagination of readers of Western folklore. (MW)

TRANSCENDENTALISM: Movement of writers and philosophers in 19th-century New England who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humankind, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths. (MW)


UNCANNY: 2. so good, acute, etc. as to seem preternatural. (Web)

UNCONSCIOUS FORCES: In fiction, inexplicabilities which challenge a general trust in realistic fact. (O)

UNCONSUMED SPACE: According to Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, a theoretical place within the landscape, but outside the human psyche, where magical images may be borrowed. (MR)

UNIVERSAL SYMPATHY: According to Octavio Paz (and remarked upon by Lois Parkinson Zamora), a "vital fluid that unites all animate beings--humans, animals, plants--with the elements, the planets, and the stars" which has been projected onto the natural world by Mesoamerican cultures. (MR)

USLAR PIETRI, ARTURO: Venezuelan novelist and essayist. Influenced by magical realism, his prose is rich in symbols and metaphors. (B)

UTOPIANISM: The ideals or principles of a utopian; idealistic and impractical social theory. (D)

VENTRILOQUISM: The appropriation by a writer of another's cultural voice in order to tell a universal story. (O)

(AH) = The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition

(B) = Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition

(CLS) = College of Liberal Studies Online Resources

( =

(DDW) = Dictionary of Difficult Words

(E) = Encarta

(FD) = The Fiction Dictionary, Laurie Henry/Story Press

(LE) = The Literary Encyclopedia

(MR) = Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, Eds./Duke University Press

(MW) = Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature

(O) = A Margin original definition

(W) = Wikipedia

(WE) = The Writer's Encyclopedia, Kirk Polking, Ed./Writer's Digest Books

(Web) = Webster's New World Dictionary

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