Copyright Kim Wells, 1998

Contact at kim@womenwriters.net

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MAGIC REALISM AND THE WRITINGS OF SARAH ORNE JEWETT, KATE CHOPIN AND WILLA CATHER

     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