When one first hears the term magical realism, he may think along the lines of stories such as the Harry Potter Series or Narnia; however this particular literary mode focuses more on different perceptions of reality rather than the magic that is typically associated with fantasy. Magical realism mimics a dreamlike state of mind to show different perspectives of life usually by presenting what one would understand in a certain situation, then presenting another way of looking at the same scene. For example, one could stare at the city lights at night and find a wondrous view of the world of technology, but once day breaks, the same city would look dull and the air surrounding it would be polluted. Therefore, magical realism is able to use many literary devices such as the use of shock, mystery, myths and folk tales so long as the work still stays within the realm of the familiar human society and not of a futuristic or imaginary world.
According to Philip Weinstein, postmodern literature has completely strayed away from the traditional literature norms of realism. Literature had once revolved around a particular protagonist that needed to seek for knowledge and then gained said knowledge by the end of the story, but modernism changed these views dramatically. Modernism decided that the protagonist did not necessarily need to be orientated in a familiar manner so long as the “coming to know” aspect of the protagonist still existed (and that he did succeed in his quest for knowledge). If modernism seemed to have left the norms of realism, then postmodern literature literally rejects most notions of realism. In this style of writing, there really truly is no easy way to define it because it can appear in many different forms. Some things that could be apparent in a postmodern work would be aspects of temporal distortion, where time may seem to be continuous until the reader is thrown off to a different course such as into a dream or a flashback. There could even be magic realism or multiple genres within a work and could still be considered a well written piece of literature. In this sense, order is essentially unnecessary and the need to “know” is irrelevant.
The novella, “Heart of Darkness”, by Joseph Conrad is presented to be consistently under a blanket of darkness throughout the story. With the overhead of imperialism, Marlowe assumes a seemingly pessimistic role by encountering scenes including the restrictions of life, the cruelty of death, and the aftermath of the interactions between beings. He watches the people around him suffer as they do not understand one another because they are in constant darkness and blind to the people and the world. It is as if the people are naive to the possibilities or are too lazy to follow a path, and therefore find benefit in anything that may come their way despite the consequences to another. Marlowe feels that instead people need to follow the ways of nature and that although they may be following the path of something they cannot control, they can still enjoy his adventure until the end of his days.
In “The Metamorphosis”, Franz Kafka presents a protagonist named Gregor Samsa of a dark composure that wakes up to find out of his transformation into a giant bug (presumably a cockroach or beetle depending on the translation). After having supported his family his entire life, his predicament renders him useless and the family is then in turmoil financially. At first glance, the title seems to be named after Gregor; however, the reader could extend this notion further by correlating Gregor’s slow demise to his family’s gradual metamorphosis into a fully functional unit.
As each family member becomes less dependent of Gregor, they begin to turn away from him and become less attached to what he used to be as well as what he used to provide. The most powerful image of this phenomenon is the last scene when Kafka describes the sudden realization or occurrence of the beauty of Gregor’s sister. In fact, the impact of this transformation is so strong that one can’t help but think that this has a much bigger message than a simple storytelling. Perhaps Kafka wanted for the individual to not rely so much on what life freely hands them, or on a grander scale, he may believe the government of any society should not try to control every aspect of the people because then people would rely too heavily on what is given to them to evolve and prosper.
With the world in turmoil from the first world war, societies during this time took a change in pace on many different aspects of life. People began to embrace the ideas of individualism by advancing their own being beginning with the acknowledgement of the interplay of one’s mind. After these ideas flourished among the communities, modernist literature spawned and spread like the plague with the intention of the breaking of the social norms.
At first, critics were appalled by the works that came from this new way of thinking. Literature had branched out with such a vast amount of new styles, such as the use of the stream of consciousness and interior monologue, that it seemed more like it was out of control. However, this sort of literature was deemed to eventually come into light due to the fact that it is simply human nature for one to want to express themselves more freely. The curiosity of the mind allowed people to explore more uses of the language to create darker aspects of literature that emphasized the need for progress in the individual as well as the promotion for the self enlightenment. Straying further away from the necessity of religion and the tyranny of governments, people started to embrace the idea that there are no absolute truths, therefore opening themselves to a new world to work with to advance their understanding of technology and industrialization.
In many cultures of both past and present have had to some extent a separation of roles between genders. In general, societies present their cause in a form of a family unit in which the husband and the wife have expected duties to fulfill to maintain an honorable household. Unfortunately, as many cultures in the past have experienced, the laws and moral codes can end up creating a community of people that act more like puppets than individuals such as the situation expressed in “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen. In this play, the belief that they live by is one where the husband must work to provide and protect his wife while the wife stays at home to care for the house and children. An interesting juxtaposition then happens when Ibsen presents Mrs. Linden, a widow, that is able to work leave the home freely next to Nora, a wife that never leaves the home and has to hide any affairs to the real world from her husband. When Nora’s secret falls through and is shown to her husband, her husband reacts aggressively to the situation stating that Nora had shamed the entire family as if she nothing she had ever done is worth anything any longer. As cruel as that may be, the readers find out that when her secret had been resolved, he instantly turns back into a loving and caring husband, proving his loyalty lies in his learned morals from the society, and not truly to his wife that had sacrificed herself for his life. Clearly, the society has molded these moral behaviors so firmly, that even with the leave of Nora from the family, she will still have trouble becoming an individual because of her choice to walk out on her family; Mrs Linden, after all, was forced into the same situation due to the death of her husband and therefore shamed nobody.
By the late-nineteenth century, realism in literature had fully developed and authors were producing a vast amount of didactic works. One of those works, “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin, highlighted the typical worries and morals that the people at that time followed. Chopin was brutally honest when advancing her story to sending her protagonist towards a possible suicide simply because she may have been part black.
Some people who read this novel feel as if justice had not been done, that the ending was too vague. Perhaps the ending would have been more clear if the husband was the one who ended up committing suicide since he discovered the truth about his mother’s background, or if he had at least prevented the mother and the baby from false misery. Other readers may instead wish that the mother had just gone to a safe place instead of the supposed killing off of herself and her child. However, although these particular endings may have been a bit more soothing to the audience, it did not seem to be the intended reactions especially for this time period. Chopin must have left the story so incredibly open ended and wrapped the story up at such a controversial situation for the sake of pointing out the reality of the people’s morals and behaviors at the time. Perhaps by telling a story that could end in so many different ways, Chopin was able to touch many people’s hearts and invoke a change in their sense of morals for a better society to live in.
In the mid-nineteenth century, literary realism exploded in popularity due to the human’s natural attraction to understanding more about oneself in relation to nature. In chapter 3 of Unknowing, Philip Weinstein highlights the different aspects of realism and how the realistic text affects the reader.
For one, realism presents a view of the surrounding world within society (or of the society) and focuses on how it truly is through the perception of a character. Instead creating an aesthetic piece of literature for purely entertainment values or for an account of one individual’s life, realism actually detailed the main character’s emotions and his interactions with a particular society so that the reader may almost feel like he is taking a part in the story itself. This phenomenon causes the reader to question his own beliefs in relation to what is in a given text. This allows him to not only understand himself more but also others around him if a similar scenario were to ever arise in his lifetime.
Interest within the reader only grows stronger with another key aspect, verisimilitude, that Weinstein points out. For a reader to be interested enough to read a particular text, he must find something that he could focus on, so long as the information seems believable or credible to enough of an extent. Therefore, any successful text will have a well-built main subject that the author’s intended audience can relate to and can feel a strong enough connection that they could almost predict a character’s action in before a given scenario even resolves.
It is these strong reactions to the elements of realism that humans naturally adopted the realistic form of writing because so long as they are a part of a society, they could easily imagine themselves in the same situations.
When the Age of Enlightenment was first presented to general population, practically no difference was truly made. Instead, the idea of Enlightenment actually produced a bit of fear within the society because the people had lived through the teachings of the church and state for so long. The church and state were furious because they were going to lose their main hold on the people, and the people did not have the knowledge to think independently yet to even think about becoming Enlightened. It was for this reason that the Encyclopedia was created by Diderot and D’Alembert to bring this hidden knowledge out into the public.
One of the articles within the Encyclopedia was the entry on “Slave Trade”. One of the most powerful aspects of this entire work was that it was written so it can be understood by anyone. The authors made it to where the entries could easily relate with the everyday person within that time period by deducing what the typical person would think about a specific topic and then further expand the idea. For example, in the “Slave Trade” entry, it was mentioned that the majority of the people believed slaves were to be treated like property and that they did not have any rights or freedom. It was then quickly corrected when the entry stated, “the Negroes did not become slaves by any right of war; nor did they voluntarily sacrifice themselves to slavery” even if one were to try to purchase them with money or written documents. Each entry in the Encyclopedia, such as this one, played a significant role in the journey towards the Enlightenment because without it, nobody would even consider that perhaps it was wrong to claim one’s freedom since the church and state had always told them it was the proper way of living life.
In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe created a narrative in which it highlighted many literary elements that correlated to the early transitioning towards Enlightenment. Throughout the story, Crusoe makes a number of poor decisions he thought God was punishing him by throwing him into an equal amount of bad experiences. It gave the impression that depending on one’s actions, one will be rewarded or have to repent accordingly. Somewhat contradicting to Crusoe’s strong belief in his faith, he also had a sense of wanting to be Enlightened as well, possibly due to his exposure to independence (apart from the Church and State) while on his adventures. He was extremely self-aware with a purpose of learning all he could to gain the knowledge to live in a civilized manner by writing journals to evaluate himself. And even though Crusoe was a man of faith, he still focused on the reality of the world rather than the aesthetics. It was as if this book was solely created to give an example to strong Christian believers that there is a way to be Enlightened while still living under God. It was proven in the narrative that if one were to stray away from what is right during the search for Enlightenment, God would still forgive you, just as he did for Robinson Crusoe.