Magical realism vs the unreliable narrator

Specifically, this post is the result of my having the abrupt urge to compare/contrast Toni Morrison’s Beloved with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which is a thing that didn’t occur to me in American novels class because they were in two different courses. And it’s even belatedly Halloweeny because they are both ghost stories.

To sum up, The Turn of the Screw is a Victorian Realist ghost story, the crux of which is an unreliable narrator. And James stacks the unreliability higher by putting the ghost tale within a frame tale: the story we hear is a written account (written years after the event) being read by an acquaintance of the narrator. But on the flip side, James also provides evidence that prevents us as writing the narrator off as just cray-cray. And even if I were to spoil the ending, I would still encourage people to read it because the fun is in the ride. The first time I read Turn of the Screw, I believed the narrator, while on the second reading for the  novels class, I spent the reading poking at all the holes in her assumptions.

To give you a quick rundown of the plot, the scene opens on a Victorian English Christmas party, and apparently it was a Victorian tradition to tell ghost stories during Christmas, because the Victorians were morbidly creepy-ass motherfuckers. And so one man reticently volunteers a story, explaining his connection to the narrator, who was his sister’s governess. He brings out the written account and then we are shifted to the first-person account itself. Our narrator at the time was taking her first post as a governess, all alone with the two children in a strange house because their uncle couldn’t be arsed to do more than the bare minimum about the kids. And she grows convinced that the ghosts of the absentee uncle’s former valet and the previous governess are haunting the house and trying to ensnare the children.

Oh, and the education majors were pissed at this book because James was knew little to fuck-all about child development and wrote gratingly implausible children. But they actually hated Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage far more because that child character was using mawkish toddlerspeak (“Ah wuv ‘oo”) despite being described as six years old. At least James’s implausible children are absurdly mature instead of absurdly braindead.

Beloved, despite being written roughly a century later, is set at about the same time, in the late-ish Victorian age, but in the American version, after the Civil War. Beloved, however, is magical realism as opposed to James’s Realism (which I generally capitalize to distinguish it from the commoner connotations of “realist”). So what’s the difference between Realism and magical realism? The easiest one to describe is PRESENTATION.

Or, in other words, the narrative.

But magical realism isn’t like urban fantasy: the magical parts are not even the point and tend to be subtler. It’s all about the symbolism. (SYMBOLISM, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!!) In Beloved, the magical bits are mostly in the atmosphere of morbid-ass crazy.

Our main character is a former slave, Sethe, now living in Ohio or thereabouts, living as a recluse because of the Thing that Happened. And her house is haunted by a petulant, jealous ghost. And the haunting shit gets kicked up to eleven when one of Sethe’s former fellow slaves happens by and becomes Sethe’s new squeeze. And then a girl shows up, and Sethe becomes obsessed with her and the girl with Sethe. Shit gets weird, y’all, because is this girl the embodied spirit of the beloved child that Sethe lost in the Thing that Happened? Or is she just a girl who was fucked up by being kept in a dark shed as a sex slave for white men?
But because magical realism is a subset of postmodernism, the answer is yes to all of the above. It does not even give a fuck about making logical sense, and neither do the characters, really. And here is where we get the contrast, because Realism does, hence the trick of the unreliable narrator. The tension of Turn of the Screw is the uncertainty of whether this source is credible, while the tension in Beloved is not even about the ghostly aspect, but whether one can sympathize with Sethe and the Thing that Happened.
So the psychology does matter in both of them: Both are about perception and obsession. Again, it’s all in the presentation, and they even offer a cheat code of sorts in the POV. Turn of the Screw is first-person while Beloved is third-person omniscient. It makes sense, because first-person is the mechanics of the trick to the unreliable narrator. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is another one we could throw in this compare/contrast mix — except I’m pretty sure I actually did that paper, between Slaughterhouse and Beloved — because it’s almost a halfway point between the two, being an unreliable narrator and also postmodern. So we have crazy-ass shit that doesn’t care how crazy-ass its shit is, but it is framed as being contained in one guy’s head.
But that raises the question, is it possible to write an unreliable-narrator-type situation in third person that doesn’t end up being magical realism? I’m still puzzling over that one.

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