The Ghost of Magical Realism in World Literature

As part of my MA thesis at the University of Chicago, this post will serve to explain my research questions, methods, results, and analysis. Here is a copy of the full draft. This is a work in progress (as most MA theses are). Feel free to comment or contact me with any questions or ideas.

Magical Realism

The project begins with a question: is Latin American magical realism the same as contemporary Anglophone magical realism? After conducting some research, I believe both operate under the same parameters. Magical realism exists as a mode of resistance and critique, and continues to do so in its global form. You can read my critical and theoretical framework here.

When considering magical realism’s reproducible qualities, the most important hermeneutic aid is Irlemar Chiampi’s notion that magical realism colloquializes the supernatural while concurrently exalting the mundane. As Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris state, “magic is no longer quixotic madness, but normative and normalizing.”

Most importantly, I take on Wendy Faris' five-part definition of magical realism (from her book Ordinary Enchantments):

  • The text contains an “irreducible element” of magic
  • The descriptions in magical realism detail a strong presence of the phenomenal world
  • The reader may experience some unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understandings of events
  • The narrative merges different realms
  • Magical realism disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity.

Her definition works well to consider magical realism as a global form of literary expression. Kim Sasser claims that using a flexible set of parameters (such as Faris’ five-part definition) “one can remove magical realism from underneath any one particular overlay, such as the postcolonial and postmodernist politics of resistance…while recognizing the significant role these usages have played in the mode’s history and development." Furthermore, her definition allows for the use of distant reading analyses.

Mariano Siskind argues that, “as evidenced by its ubiquity,” magical realism “is the most established and stable world literary genre.” Clearly, he posits, the mode must have reproducible qualities, a set of parameters that can be applied in different cultural contexts. Furthermore, the mode should be inherently “suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries.” This assessment of magical realism is a testament to its reproducibility. Not only are the formal aspects of magical realism easy to replicate; the cultural conditions (of colonialism) under which magical realism flourishes are also already reproduced throughout the world:

a world in which religion and superstition dominated people’s lives; also a world in which there was a powerful and complicated history of colonialism; also a world in which there were colossal differences between the very poor and the very rich, and not much in between; also a world bedeviled by dictators and corruption. 

The postcolonial understanding of magical realism—drawn from the conditions in which the mode often arises—proves that magical realism is not endemic but rather worldly, global. However, categorizing magical realism within postcolonial theory can be problematic. Sasser asks, “does it detract from magical realism’s historically postcolonial usages to argue…that the mode is capable of exceeding a prescriptive type of interpretation?” This is an important consideration; we must acknowledge that quantifying literature comes at a price.

Conversely, computational methods and close readings, along with the theoretical framework that has been laid out, give this study a better grasp of the mode’s possibilities without depreciating its cultural functional space. Faris’ empirical definition of magical realism works not to exclude cultural and historical context but rather to treat magical realism as a global mode of expression. Likewise, using Sasser’s theoretical framework, this study uses Faris’ approach to acknowledge the forms of reading, such as postcolonialism, under which magical realism flourishes.

My computational analysis involves three different techniques: (1) text mining for relative word frequency, (2) topic modeling, and (3) Principal Component Analysis (PCA).

Quantifying Distance

Analyzing the relative word frequency between novels allows us to calculate Euclidean distances in order to determine the similarity between the novels at a lexical level. I created an algorithm using Matthew Jockers' Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature. The algorithm divides a novel into 1000-word sections (called chunks) and then compares the relative word frequency between the chunks. In other words, the algorithm is looking at how often each word appears in a chunk, then compares those stats with other chunks and finally creates a distance matrix.

Below I've created two visualizations, one for each corpus (Anglophone and Latin American). Since this type of analysis can only be carried out in one language, I've included works in translation to facilitate the connection between the corpora. For the Anglophone corpus, I included an English translation of Cien años de soledad. For the Latin American corpus, I included a Spanish translation of The Satanic Verses.

Figure 1: Anglophone corpus distance matrix including  Cien años de soledad.

Figure 1: Anglophone corpus distance matrix including Cien años de soledad.

Distance is the key to reading these visualizations. If two dots are close to each other, the chunks belonging to those dots are more lexically similar. If two dots are further away, the chunks are lexically different.

Figure 2: Latin American corpus distance matrix including  The Satanic Verses.

Figure 2: Latin American corpus distance matrix including The Satanic Verses.

The goal is to decidedly prove that the similarity displayed in the visualizations is specifically related to magical realist stylistic qualities. A control set could give a study such as this one a more valid claim. Still, text mining is immensely useful—it demonstrates that, in lexical terms, these novels are inherently related. So, how are the texts related? To find the answer, this study invokes other methods such as topic modeling and Principal Component Analysis.

Topic Modeling

In topic modeling, a computer algorithm finds “topics”, or lists of words that frequently occur close to each other. The algorithm uses statistical probability to discern whether words belong to a topic. These topics are not necessarily semantically significant—it is up to the scholar to decide how to categorize these collections of words. The topics can then be mapped back to the original text to see where certain topics occur in a high frequency.

In the Anglophone corpus, two topics exist throughout the texts: Topics 6 and 7. The list of words belonging to each topic are in the Appendix. Topics 6 and 7 encompass the body, family, time, and death/violence.

Figure 3: Topic modeling of Anglophone corpus. Topics 6 and 7 occur in all nine novels.

Figure 3: Topic modeling of Anglophone corpus. Topics 6 and 7 occur in all nine novels.

In the Latin American corpus, Topics 3 and 10 also occurred in every text. Similarly, those topics encompass the body, family, time, and death/violence. Though the body and family are arguably aspects of fiction, time and death/violence are more precisely related to aspects of magical realism. Wendy Faris and Christopher Warnes argue that magical realism sets out to comment on our concepts of time and violence.

Figure 4: Topic modeling of Latin American corpus. Topics 3 and 10 occur in all nine novels.

Figure 4: Topic modeling of Latin American corpus. Topics 3 and 10 occur in all nine novels.

Due to the prevalence of death-related vocabulary, the findings suggest death and violence are as important as temporality, the body, and family to magical realist fiction. Topic modeling, then, becomes a useful tool in discerning the theme of death/violence as an undiscovered empirical and functional category within magical realism. Topic modeling confirms temporality as a marker of magical realism and introduces death and violence as potential ghostlike characteristics of the mode.

Principal Component Analysis (PCA)

As a complement to both the relative word frequency analysis and the topic modeling, PCA allows for a visualization to demonstrate the distances between the novels and the topics. As evidenced by the visualizations below, there are topics which are only related to one novel. For instance, Topic 2 is only related to The Famished Road. Topics 6 and 7, occurring in all texts, are close to the corpus.

Figure 5: Anglophone corpus PCA visualization.

Figure 5: Anglophone corpus PCA visualization.

In the Latin American PCA, Topics 3 and 10 were closer to the texts. Likewise, these topics were close to the corpus.

Figure 6: Latin American corpus PCA visualization.

Figure 6: Latin American corpus PCA visualization.

In the end, PCA serves to confirm the topic modeling and to introduce a possible "urban topic". Though I still cannot make an argument about the urban topic, I think the trend toward magical realist novels in urban settings is real and quantifiable. Though PCA results are not exceptionally encouraging, they point to a potential triangulation of topics: temporality and death, body and family, and a transition into an urban setting—a new feature in magical realist scholarship.

Lo real maravilloso

In the first visualization, one novel stood out further from the corpus: The Famished Road. An analysis of Ben Okri's novel demonstrates that categorizing this novel under magical realism can be problematic. In fact, close readings by Christopher Warnes and Kim Sasser, along with text mining, demonstrate that The Famished Road and El reino de este mundo are lexically and conceptually more similar to each other, which can be explained by the novels’ relationship to lo real maravilloso, a branch of magical realism. This assertion is confirmed in part by computational tools.

Magical realism and lo real maravilloso both offer a simple formula to augment realism, though magical realism is more concerned with an experience of the amalgamation of the magical and the real while lo real maravilloso claims that the reality (of Latin America) is, as confirmed by the narrative, magical. Lo real maravilloso and its relationship to magical realism is a contested one—many argue the difference between the two is an ontological/phenomenological one. While magical realism is more concerned with the experiencing of “reality”, Alejo Carpentier argued “it was natural to Latin America’s history, geography, people, and politics that unlikely combinations of events occurred producing marvelous results.

Okri himself denies the novel’s relationship to magical realism, claiming “the problem of realism is that it does not catch the full richness of reality” and that there is no “absolute reality”. However, it's difficult to ignore the relationship between Okri and Carpentier—both argue against magical realism, and both write from a postcolonial perspective with West African roots that include supernatural phenomena such as animism.

Through a characterization of African traditions in Latin America, Carpentier acts as a beacon for proto-global West African literature. Carpentier provides a framework under which the West African tradition exists globally. The relationship between these frameworks is important—it allows us to think of The Famished Road as a novel that diverges slightly from the more traditional and phenomenological approaches to magical realism.

Figure 7: Visualization of a distance matrix between  The Famished Road  and  El reino de este mundo .

Figure 7: Visualization of a distance matrix between The Famished Road and El reino de este mundo.

For the purposes of this study, I used an English translation of El reino de este mundo by Carpentier. Figure 7 points toward a similarity between the novels at a lexical level. The similarities presented in the visualization are indications of deeper concepts, but would require further investigation to find potential correlations with a larger corpus. Along with the analysis of magical realist corpora, this study points toward potential pathways a scholar can follow in order to discover differences and similarities between magical realism and lo real maravilloso at the lexical and quantifiable level.

This section also brings up some important questions: What is at stake if Okri's The Famished Road is categorized as magical realism? What do categories do to our interpretation of a text?

Possibilities for Further Study

The use of machine-learning strategies and the creation of a magical realist statistical model would provide a more robust analysis of the mode. Given the findings of this study, creating a model that features death and violence as a primary target for understanding magical realism would be incredibly beneficial. Furthermore, an exploration of a potential shift in the traditional magical realist setting toward an urban setting would be pertinent to capture differences in the conditions under which magical realism flourishes.

Another noteworthy research question that arose from this study is the possibility of bias after the publication of Cien años de soledad in 1967. After the publication of Cien años de soledad, magical realism became synonymous with García Márquez’s novel. Perhaps the novels used in this study are not canonical because they represent the truest form of magical realism, but rather their place in canonical literature rests on their similarity to García Márquez’s magnum opus. The data supports this hypothesis—Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate that Cien años de soledad clusters closer to texts by Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende, both authors who have mentioned García Márquez as a strong influence. I'm confident this can be addressed through the use of computational tools as well, specifically an in-depth lexical analysis of texts and the translations of texts pre- and post-García Márquez.


By using only unsupervised methods, I have managed to demonstrate the possibilities for a continuous, globalized magical realism. Analyzing magical realism separately from cultural context allows for the possibility to recognize certain characteristics that exist throughout the magical realist corpus, from Latin America to the rest of the world. Since this is such a large undertaking, using text analysis and computational methods should be considered an appropriate tool for the discovery of patterns in magical realism. These patterns are paramount not only for our understanding of magical realism, but, due of the mode’s power of resistance, these patterns can also offer a way to understand how authors criticize and comment on the conditions under which they live, locally and globally.


Main Sources

Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. London ; New York: Routledge, 2004. The New Critical Idiom.

Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. 1st ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.

Jockers, Matthew L. Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature. Springer, 2014.

Sasser, Kim. Magical Realism and Cosmopolitanism: Strategized Belonging. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.

Siskind, Mariano. “The Global Life of Genres and the Material Travels of Magical Realism.” Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2014. 59–100.

Warnes, Christopher. Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel: Between Faith and Irreverence. Basingstoke ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris, eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1995.

(for a full bibliography, see the PDF)