Defining the Boundaries of Magical Realism in The Porcelain Doll
Scholars have debated the defining characteristics of Magical Realism since its infancy as an emerging art form in the early twentieth century. From Franz Roh, the art critic who coined the term Magical Realism, to contemporary leading scholars such as Amaryll Chanady, a myriad of confusion has surrounded this term. In an effort to narrow the defining boundaries of what constitutes Magical Realism, short stories labeled as Magical Realism can be examined for their degree of adherence to the cardinal characteristics most scholars attribute to Magical Realism. Here, "The Porcelain Doll," a short story by the nineteenth century author Leo Tolstoy, can be used to illustrate common confusions surrounding the term Magical Realism. This short story was included in the 1984 book Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. By identifying the characteristics that seem inconsistent with the characteristics most critics ascribe to Magical Realist literature, a more concise understanding of Magical Realism can be obtained.
"The text [magical realist text] contains an 'irreducible element' of magic, something we cannot explain according to the laws of the universe as we know them" (Faris 167). In addition to these "magical" elements, Magical Realist fiction, by name, includes "realistic" elements that serve to counterbalance the "magical" elements. The plots are logically conceived (Leal 120). An amalgamation of realistic and magical elements is presented by true Magical Realist authors through specific devices. These devices serve as the first basis for evaluating a work of literature and determining whether or not it fits into the Magical Realist mode.
The first characteristic evidenced in "The Porcelain Doll" is the device called defamiliarization. Magical Realists use this device to "radically emphasize common elements of reality, elements that are often present but have become virtually invisible because of their familiarity" (Simpkins 150). Tolstoy employs the device of defamiliarization through his description of his wife, Sonya:
As you know, like the rest of us she has always been made of flesh and blood, with all
the advantages and disadvantages of that condition: she breathed, was warm and
sometimes hot, blew her nose (and how loud!) and so on, and above all she had
control of her limbs, which-both arms and legs-could assume different positions:
in a word she was corporeal like all of us. (33)
The second characteristic of Magical Realist literature employed by Tolstoy in "The Porcelain Doll" is the use of transformation. "Metamorphoses are a relatively common event. They embody in the realm of organisms a collision of two different worlds" (Faris 178). A transformation occurs in "The Porcelain Doll" when Sonya is transformed from a mortal to a porcelain doll. "I opened my eyes...and saw-not the Sonya you and I have...