Magic Realism is typically defined
as a construct of many writers from Third World countries. This
style of writing realistic fiction wherein the extraordinary
occurs and is not thought of as unusual has been described as
a way of breaking away from the constraints of linear time and
hierarchical thinking: in other words, as a way of escaping the
patriarchal modes of writing that have dominated these often
post-colonial countries. The definition of this form of fiction
writing can be expanded to include women as representatives of
repressed cultures. As writers, these women were often trivialized
as "scribblers" during a time women could not even
vote, and they could be considered "colonized" by their
culture. Therefore, Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Foreigner,"
Kate Chopin's "An Egyptian Cigarette" and Willa Cather's
"The Enchanted Bluff" are all stories that can and
should be discussed in the context of Magic Realism-- do they
or do they not fit within this style of re-writing reality?
Each of these writers depicts
"magic" differently. Their degree of acceptance for
these unorthodox events in realistic fiction reflects their willingness
to "bend the rules" of traditional fiction. Sarah Orne
Jewett's "The Foreigner" is a story which features
some very interesting magic elements that place her firmly "outside"
of straightforward fiction with this story. Her characters, Mrs.
Todd and Mrs. Tolland, are incredible images of witchiness in
the midst of Protestant propriety, and in this short story we
find a definite connection through them to the supernatural.
The story is a "story within a story," where Mrs. Todd
and her guest, the narrator, after settling in for a rough, stormy
night propose a "ghost story." We expect something
deliciously spooky since Jewett keeps reminding us about threatening
"great rollers" of the sea,"tidal waves,"
"sea-going disasters," (157-8) but we eventually find
that to Mrs. Todd this "ghost story" is truth.
Mrs. Todd, the picture of an oracular "Fate," settles
into her rocking chair, and "clicking her knitting needles"
as "the old cat pushed open the unlatched door and came
straight toward her mistress' lap"(159) relates her story.
The cat reminds us of the witch's familiar, an animal which focuses
a witch's powers and is often represented by a cat. Indeed, this
cat seems "one" with Mrs. Todd-- the narrator never
mentions either of the two except in connection with the other
throughout this story. We are told, amidst long pauses in which
Mrs. Todd (and her cat) gaze into the fire, the story of Mrs.
Captain Tolland. Mrs. Todd has forgotten "her maiden name;
if [she] ever heard it. . .'twould mean nothing to me" (161).
The story, then, is about a woman who is entirely in the domain
of a patriarchal world-- the only name known is the name her
husband gave her, but she is shown as a representative of feminine
"magic." This woman "was a foreigner" (162)
and she is a musician who unfortunately alienates herself from
the community of women in her new home with a decidedly un-orthodox
incident in the church, right in the "meetin' house vestry"
(166). Invited to a "social," she begins to sing, "caught
up a tin plate. . . an' she begun to drum on it. . . like one
o' them tambourines. . .faster and faster...danc[ing] a pretty
little dance between the verses" (167). The women who are
present are caught in the spell of Mrs. Captain Tolland's music,
"but next day there was an awful scandal" and though
the women are reminded by Mrs. Todd of "David's dancin'
before the Lord" (167) they will not be consoled. These
women unconsciously understand the impact of Mrs. Tolland's witchy
behavior on their community. Mrs. Tolland, the next time she
comes to church, acts "like a cat in a strange garret"
and stalks out, "just in the beginning of the long prayer"(167)
with no explanation of her actions. Mrs. Tolland, then, is seen
as a woman who disrespects orthodoxy and religion, and indeed,
her actions would have gotten her burned as a witch in the not-too-distant
past. We hear about her knowledge of herbs and charms, and that
"she taught. . .a sight o' things about herbs [Mrs. Todd]
never knew before nor since." (170) She is the picture of
woman's spells and rituals. When Mrs. Todd interrupts Mrs. Tolland's
"fête day," a day when a dinner is held in honor
of some sort of religious ritual, to tell her of her husband's
death, she does not take the news well and she begins to die.
On her death bed, however, we realize that she is not just a
misunderstood woman but someone truly connected to magical forces.
Her mother comes to retrieve her daughter as a ghost that scares
Mrs. Todd as "somethin' that made poor human natur' quail"
(186). We have been given, by Mrs. Todd and Jewett, a very straightforward
depiction of a supernatural event. Mrs. Todd believes that this
event is true, and Jewett's representation of this story does
not judge her character's belief as "unrealistic" or
silly. Jewett, like Magic Realists, uses the elements of matriarchal
religion and the supernatural to frame her story, thus rejecting
a tradition of straightforward male storytelling in much of the
same way that Magic Realists have done.
Kate Chopin's "An Egyptian
Cigarette" relates another supernatural event in a realistic
context. Her female narrator experiences an "out of body
experience" from smoking an unusual cigarette. After taking
"one long inspiration of the Egyptian cigarette" (Chopin,
68) she begins to feel "a subtle, disturbing current,"
(68) falling into a reverie wherein she enters the body of an
Egyptian woman who has rejected her gods for her lover and been
abandoned by that lover. The reader experiences this event along
with the narrator-- it seems real and there is no distance from
this occurrence. Chopin, like Jewett, does not reveal any judgment
against this unusual event. This "magic" seems "real."
The woman that the narrator merges with has rejected, for the
love of a man, her traditions and has been punished for that
rejection. The narrator experiences the woman's sorrow and fear
and feels the heat and sand against her cheek. As the Egyptian
woman's life ends, the narrator is returned to "reality."
However, it is at this point where the narrator of the story,
along with Chopin, rejects this "magic." The narrator,
looking at the remaining cigarettes which could lead her into
other such experiences, wonders "what other visions they
might hold for me" but, taking the cigarettes in her hand,
she "crumple[s] them" (71). The story ends with the
enigmatic phrase "a little the worse for a dream" (71).
This is where Chopin's brush with magic through a new type of
story telling ends. Chopin, like her narrator, does not want
to explore the possibilities of "hopes fulfilled; a taste
of rapture" (71) because of the consequences of rejecting
the accepted order of her life. If she strays too far from "traditional"
narrative she, as a woman writer, will not be considered serious.
Her "magic" elements would be seen as Sensationalistic
fluff. She, like her narrator, has been disturbed by a dream.
Finally, Willa Cather's story,
"The Enchanted Bluff" also depicts a magic place, but
in a much more distanced manner than Jewett and Chopin. Cather
is harder to place as a Magic Realist even though her characters
accept the concept of a magic place, holding on to their enchantment
as though it were a dream. As her male characters explore the
idea of a city atop a sheltered bluff in the desert, they become
"enchanted" with the idea of visiting the bluff. The
story of this dead but mysteriously supernatural place is being
told to a group of young men poised at the edge of adulthood
and entry into a community, rather than separated from their
community. The boys excitedly discuss ways of conquering this
mystery that they have heard thirdhand, in contrast to Jewett
and Chopin's characters who directly experience the mystery and
tell their story firsthand. The boys start planning ways to explore
the mysterious bluff, proposing to throw a "ladder up"
or use a "rocket that would take a rope over" (418).
They all vow that they will somehow get there, and "whoever
gets to the Bluff first has got to promise to tell the rest of
us exactly what he finds" (418). We then hear that twenty
years have gone by and none of the boys, turned to men, have
ever even tried to reach this magic place. We are told of the
ways that the community has absorbed the boys, they are "stockbrokers,"
"tailors," "railroad men," and "fathers."
We hear at the end of the story that a son of one of the boys
turned to men "has been let into the story, and thinks of
nothing but the Enchanted Bluff." In this story, then, there
is magic, but it is never realized and directly experienced.
It is a story to dream of and tell children, but not something
that is possible to experience. The difficulty of placing Cather
within a tradition of Magic Realism comes from Cather's distance
from her stories. For Cather, writing is an act of imagination
and art, rarely a "real" experience. The narrator is
distanced from Cather, very seldom do we encounter an "I"
and often the narrator is even a male. Cather, then, though her
story describes a supernatural place, cannot be defined as "Magic
Realist." She, along with her characters, is too much grounded
in "this world."
These three women authors
approach magic situations in a realistic setting in entirely
different manner, and this manner reflects the difficulties that
these women felt with their own communities. Jewett and Chopin
seem much more ready to accept difference, whereas Cather struggles
with her "art." Writers of Magic Realism are experimenting
with new elements, rejecting the "laws" of realistic
fiction because of the repressive nature of those rules and rule-givers.
Jewett, Chopin and Cather all depict a brush with some sort of
"magic" and the success of their characters' acceptance
of that experience reflects each author's struggle with the patriarchal
writing community, and its rules of realistic fiction.
Works Cited: Coming Soon