Magic Realism in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) are two very distinct novels. They have widely different styles, tonalities, settings and themes and were written twenty years apart by two very distinct authors. However, they do have some similarities. Both were generally praised by critics. Both received prestigious awards. Both are focalised around the struggles and hardships of a disenfranchised demographic within the United States of America. Both have transgenerational interactions and cultural memory as their central themes. Both could be said to follow the genre or literary tradition most commonly denominated as Magical Realism, whilst subverting some of the aforementioned genres characteristics. In this essay I will discuss the Magical Realism of both novels. I will observe the importance of the magical elements, what their significance is narratively and thematically, how a non-magical reading of these elements would influence their thematic impact and how these various interpretations illustrate the complex way in which the novels use magical realism to discuss trauma, history and cultural identity.
2. Thematic and Cultural Context
The magical elements that we will discuss are as follows: In Beloved the magical is mostly centred around the character of Beloved. Both as a non-corporeal presence that haunts Sethe’s house and in the physical form of a young woman that appears after Paul D dispels the ghost. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao the magical element could be said to be primarily represented in two ways. Firstly, in the form of Fukú, the curse that is said to haunt both the Cabral family specifically and the Dominican Republic in general. Secondly, as the magical manifestation of the Mongoose, which appears during the Cabrals’ most desperate moments.
All of these elements are presented in a way that does not confirm either a magical or non-magical reading. The materialist conception of reality that is most commonly associated with the post-enlightenment colonialist West is not supplanted by the magical animistic precolonial conception most typical of non-western indigenous cultures. Both are presented simultaneously in a way that draws attention away from a purely literal reading of the magical and instead focusses the reader’s attention on its possible metaphorical meaning and thematic significance. This allows both novels to elevate their magical elements from mere supernatural marvels or horrors to psychological, thematic and cultural signifiers without reducing their significance to the plot and narrative to the merely metaphorical or allegorical. Consequently, the magical elements in both novels are never conclusively one thing, but are instead subtly shifting vessels of implication, their meaning shifting depending on the character(s), event(s) or theme(s) in relation to which they are observed and interpreted.
The magical elements of Beloved are primarily focussed around the actions and the nature of the title character. The daughter of Sethe who was murdered by her mother as an attempt to save her from a life of slavery. Beloved primarily takes on two forms in the novel. Firstly, that of a non-corporeal ghost or presence that haunts the family home and is ultimately dispelled or driven out by Paul D. Secondly, after being exorcized from the home, Beloved appears in the form of a fully dressed young woman walking out of the water. This Beloved moves in with Sethe, Denver and Paul D and gradually becomes a negative influence on them, until she finally disappears when Sethe is stopped from committing another murder. The otherworldly nature of this grown up Beloved is strongly implied throughout the novel, although it is never entirely confirmed.
This has led some critics to believe that this Beloved is not to be interpreted as otherworldly at all, but is instead implied to be an unrelated traumatised young girl who came upon Sethe and Denver by mere coincidence. One such analysis can be found in Elizabeth House’s article ‘Beloved is Not Beloved.’ In spite of House’s compelling arguments and the interesting thematic interpretations that are made possible by her non-magical reading, I believe that it is rather against the nature of the novel to search for clarity as to the ‘true nature’ of things. On a thematic level I believe that focussing on a strictly non-magical reading actively distracts from the main thematic through line of the novel. Mainly, it is my opinion that it does not matter whether or not Beloved truly manifests in the form of a young woman, but rather what this manifestation means to the characters and to themes of the novel.
Furthermore, one could argue that, because the novel is concerned primarily with conveying a story about Black people’s experience of slavery that has not been sanitised or idealised by the ‘White Gaze’, that excluding or dismissing a magical reading is akin to imposing a colonialist Eurocentric reading on a distinctly postcolonial story. This aspect of the novel, in particular of the novel’s magical elements will be discussed later on, as we first need to establish what the magical elements in the novel mean thematically.
Throughout the novel, both Sethe and Paul D are heavily burdened by the traumatic experiences of their past and are actively trying to fight recollection. One of the most telling quotes from early in the novel is ‘The future is a matter of keeping the past at bay.’ (Morrison 31) Beloved, as a non-corporeal ‘baby ghost’, represents both a literal and a psychological haunting. She represents the way in which a place that has seen horrific events can become imbued with them in the minds of those who were present at the time (and even those who were not). This is made even more apparent when one considers Morrison’s notion of ‘rememory’. Marianne Hirsch interprets ‘rememory’ as a form of ‘traumatic re-enactment.’ While, on a more abstract level this reading is validated, a closer reading reveals that this too has concrete supernatural connotations. Sethe defines rememory in the following manner:
‘I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened’ (Morrison 43)
If we look at rememory through the prism of Sethe’s own words then it has much in common with how in certain circles paranormal phenomena such as hauntings are explained. Regardless of whether this phenomenon is literally real in Beloved or not, thematically it reveals much about Sethe’s conception of reality. Sethe believes that the past is not just alive in the memory of people, but also that it exists in the world around her. This means not only that the past is physically present in places, but also that its presence and influence lies outside of her personal memories and the way she represses or embraces them. The past in Beloved is a metaphysical expression of personal experience that has become embedded in the physical reality of the environment and consequently has become detached from the psychological and emotional coping mechanisms that envelop personal memory.
This theme is further revealed by the appearance of Beloved as a young woman. Whether or not she is ‘actually’ a supernatural presence is here irrelevant. Thematically, she represents the physical manifestation of the past, unfettered by people’s interpretation or conception of it. Her appearance defies logic and the strict separation between the living and the dead we as readers are generally assumed to take for granted.
This takes us back to postcolonial aspect of Beloved’s Magical Realism. Throughout the past, Magical Realism has generally been observed as a postcolonial strategy of writing, which contrasts the post-enlightenment rationalism of the colonizer with the magical (often animistic) worldview of the colonized. In Beloved the focus on a materialistically manifesting past could be seen as an postcolonial critique that challenges modernity and the way in which it deals with death and the past. Moreover, Beloved’s appearance and behaviour seems to be strongly inspired by the West-African Yoruba mythology. In particular, the Abiku (the spirit of a child who is repeatedly reborn, and haunts and torments the living) and the Orisha Oshun (A divine spirit that inhabits flowing waters) 
Therefore, One could argue that a magical reading of Beloved cannot be dismissed without diminishing the novel’s central themes and obfuscating important contrasting readings. One of the central themes of Beloved is without a doubt the impact and continuous power of the past and of trauma. A non-magical reading ignores the way in which the past is presented by the novel as a physical presence and an active agent with deep and far reaching power. It diminishes the implications behind the mysterious thoughts and actions of the title character. Furthermore, a strictly non-magical reading dismisses entirely the possibility that Beloved is not merely to be interpreted as a ghost, but also as a physical representation of precolonial African culture and mythology, a symbolic emersion of the cultural identity that has been repressed and stolen from those who were abducted into slavery and their descendants. A reading that seeks to explain away the magical elements in Beloved whitewashes its impact as a postcolonial text, in which a non-western conception of reality is being expressed for the purposes of giving a voice to a historically disenfranchised and silenced group of people and of critiquing the Eurocentric ways in which slavery has been regarded in literature in the past.
2.2. The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao
The reality of the magical elements in The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, primarily the presence and influence of the Fukú, the supernatural curse haunting many of the primary characters of the novel and the appearance of the supernatural golden-eyed Mongoose during Belicia and Oscar’s most desperate moments, has been debated much less than was the case with Beloved. I hypothesize that this is the case for two main reasons. Firstly, the novel’s proximity to the traditional genre of Magical Realism (where the magical is usually unremarked upon) is closer due to the novel’s focus on the experience of immigrants from Latin America (with which traditional Magical Realism is usually associated). Secondly, unlike in Beloved and traditional Magical Realism, The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao does make doubt and questions surrounding the reality of the magical explicit. It does this by having the narrator and curtain characters express their doubts but also by having the narrator be explicitly unreliable and deceptive. In this way, Diaz makes both the magical and non-magical readings inextricable from the novel’s interpretation. The existence of the magical is deeply ingrained both in the literary tradition the novel follows and in the cultural tradition to which most of the main characters belong. The refutation of the magical is made manifest both in the explicit expression of doubt and disbelief and in the implicit embrace of post-enlightenment materialist popular culture. Therefore, it is clear that focussing on the metaphysical reality of the magical would diminish certain cultural and thematic implications and dismiss certain important readings. The more important and useful focus, I argue, is that of what the magical means to the characters and what this reveals about its cultural and thematic implications.
The Fukú is by far the most complex and fleshed out of the magical elements. In the prologue, Fukú is explained as ‘generally a curse or doom of some kind’ (Diaz 1), but it is almost immediately revealed to be far more than that. In the prologue, Fukú Americanus is connected to a number of things; the genocide of the Tainos, the Transatlantic slave trade, the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus, and finally and most importantly for the novel, the person and the regime of Trujillo. Most academics and critics agree that Fukú is thematically connected to the idea of (transgenerational) trauma. In the words of Lauren Jean Gantz:
‘Yunior’s and Derby’s descriptions, taken together, suggest that fukú moves both synchronically and diachronically—through populations and through time. As a phenomenon, fukú thus causes distinct traumas (such as the arrival of Columbus or the Perejil Massacre) and renders those traumas transgenerational and transnational—extending their effects through time and space so that they affect diasporic individuals like Oscar and Yunior.’ (Gantz 127)
However, whilst the textual evidence for interpreting Fukú as a thematic representation of trauma is ample, simplifying it to mean just that once again runs the risk of diminishing other potential aspects of its implications. Similar to how in Beloved the past is made an active agent to be reckoned with through its physical manifestation in the form of Beloved, throughout The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao Fukú is not only represented as the legacy of past trauma, but also as an active force, which exacts revenge and inflicts violence and death upon its victims. Most prominently, the Fukú is implied to be a crucial part of Trujillo’s supernatural capabilities, a force that harms his enemies and avenges his death.
The scholar Antonio Olliz Boyd describes Fukú as ‘the ‘‘transcendent force’’ and ‘‘metaphysical expression’’ of the spirituality of the enslaved African ‘‘transformed from its African image to accommodate the conditions of a new geographical and social environment.’ Thus, the Fukú in The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao can also be interpreted as a thematic representation of a cultural identity that has been repressed and undermined through the brutalities of the transatlantic slave trade (in a similar fashion to Beloved).
The second most prominent supernatural element, the golden-eyed Mongoose is similarly linked to Dominican folklore and cultural identity. In particular, the creature known as a baká, A malevolent spirit disguised in the form of a large animal with glowing eyes. Scholar Dixa Ramirez has noted that ‘the discourse surrounding baka´s in Dominican popular culture and in texts like Oscar Wao suggests that they are otherworldly manifestations of historical trauma.’ (Ramirez 6)
Thus, both Fukú and the golden-eyed Mongoose could be said stand for a number of things. Both are expressions of the magical that regardless of their connection to objective reality have deep implications for the characters and for the thematic through line of the novel. For the main characters Fukú is both a remnant of the past and a power in the present. It is a representation of the trauma and violence of Dominican history transcending space and time and following emigrants in the diaspora. Thus, it could be said to stand for trauma, but also for the more toxic aspects of cultural legacy. The Mongoose could similarly be construed as a manifestation of Dominican cultural identity following the Cabrals across space and time. However, while Fukú could be seen as the dark vengeful side of cultural history and identity, the Mongoose seems to have more of a positive role, that of cultural identity as force for courage and consolation in times of deep despair and hopelessness.
In this essay I have illustrated how in Beloved and The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao Magical Realism is a powerful tool for establishing a myriad of possible meanings. How a magical reading of both novels is crucial to reveal their full meaningful potential. How the magical in both novels can represent a re-emergence of the past and trauma and a representation of repressed cultural identity. Both novels could be read as postcolonial texts, where the magical is meant to present a non-western viewpoint and thus critique the prevalence of colonial thoughts. In particular, the way in which post-enlightenment modernity deals with death, transgenerational memory, identity and the power and presence of the past and its traumatic legacies.
Due to the focus of the essay I was not able to go into how both Beloved and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’s magical elements also go against some aspects of the Magical Realist tradition. Beloved uses many tropes from the Gothic genre albeit with a unique African American twist. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao uses so many allusions to Science Fiction and Fantasy that it could be said that both the phenomenon of the Fukú and the Golden-eyed Mongoose become loaded with science fictional and fantasy connotations. In other words, as both novels are distinctly postcolonial and inspired by non-western mythology and folklore, they both use the magical to represent the cultural experience of immigrants, in particular by using non-western cultural signifiers to represent the power of the past and infusing them with tropes and genres deeply connected to the cultural history of post-industrial formerly colonialist nations.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Pinguin Random House. London. 1987.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Faber and Faber. London. 2008.
De Pree, Ken. Beware of the Baca!: Folklore of the Dominican Republic. Samana´ : K. De Pree.1989.
Gantz, Lauren Jean. "“Nothing ever ends”: Archives of Written and Graphic Testimony in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 46 no. 4. 2015. pp. 123-153.
Hirsch, Marriane. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press. 2012.
House, Elizabeth B. "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved is Not Beloved." Studies in American Fiction, vol. 18 no. 1, 1990, pp. 17-26.
Jamali, Leyli. Ramzi, Mehri. “Magic(al) Realism as Postcolonial Device in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 2 No. 5. March 2012. pp 110-119
Ramirez, Dixa. “Great Men’s magic: charting hyper-masculinity and supernatural discourses of power in Junot Dıaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Atlantic Studies, vol. 10. No. 3, 2013. pp384-405.
Notes  House, Elizabeth B. "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved is Not Beloved." Studies in American Fiction, vol. 18 no. 1, 1990, pp. 17-26.  Hirsch, Marriane. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press. 2012.  This is most commonly referred to as the Stone Tape Theory, i.e. the idea that paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and hauntings are simply the result of the personal impressions of events being projected on and stored in the landscape of where the events took place and could be ‘replayed’ in certain circumstances. Needless to say, this is an entirely hypothetical idea with no physical evidence supporting it.  Jamali, Leyli. Ramzi, Mehri. “Magic(al) Realism as Postcolonial Device in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 2 No. 5. March 2012. pp 110-119.  Gantz, Lauren Jean. "“Nothing ever ends”: Archives of Written and Graphic Testimony in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 46 no. 4. 2015. pp. 123-153.  Ramirez, Dixa. “Great Men’s magic: charting hyper-masculinity and supernatural discourses of power in Junot Dıaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Atlantic Studies, vol. 10. No. 3, 2013. pp384-405.  De Pree, Ken. Beware of the Baca!: Folklore of the Dominican Republic. Samana´ : K. De Pree.1989.