How does Beloved show the characteristics of magical realism?
Magical realism is a genre wherein fiction blends realistic depictions of life with elements that seem magical or fantastic. For example, we have descriptions of the sap on Sethe's legs, the terrible and graphic scar upon her back, her rape at the hands of schoolteacher's henchmen, Sixo's being burned alive, and Paul D's nightmare experiences in Georgia. These are all quite realistically described.
However, we also have a character who seems to be a physical incarnation of the daughter Sethe killed when the girl was only two years old; though she is now the age she would have been had she not died. She has smooth, baby skin, a scar on her neck where Sethe cut her, and she has a toddler-like desire to be with her mother all the time, to possess her mother and keep her mother all to herself.
At the same time, when this individual attempts to describe where she was before she "walked out of the water," her descriptions seem to betray something like a shared consciousness, as she appears to describe being on a slave ship on the ocean: the Middle Passage, something she did not, herself, experience.
Further, the idea of "rememory," a memory so tangible and alive that one could actually bump into it and not even realize that it is a memory adds to the magical realism of the novel. In the end, the way Beloved seems to grow bigger and bigger, as though she were pregnant, and Sethe seems to grow smaller and smaller, like a child—how they seem to switch places in terms of power and control—also adds to the magical realism. Beloved vanishes, and only her footsteps can be seen down by the water afterwards.
Technically, magical realism is a literary mode that only refers to a temporally and geographically specific form of writing: writing to emerge in Latin America in the mid-twentieth century, epitomized by famous Boom writers like Gabriel García Marquez and Alejo Carpentier. Magical realism, a blend of fantasy with quotidian reality, was used by these authors to address the normalized but "unbelievable" violence and thwarted political projects in the history of the region.
That being said, the issue of what might more appropriately be called the supernatural or the spectral in Beloved is of extreme importance. The main element of the supernatural, the return of Sethe's dead daughter, communicates an essential message of the work: that for the victims of historical violence, the inheritance is so real and traumatic that it as if the past were made present and flesh. Psychological studies into transgenerational trauma—most famously in the case of children of camp victims in the Holocaust—have shown that the descendants of victims inherit the traumatic burden of the past, without ever having actually experienced it themselves.
I think that the most potent way in which Morrison's work can represent magical realism would be with the presence of the title character. Sethe's murder of her child has revisited her in the flesh with the new visitor. The idea of questioning what defines elements such as death is something that is a part of magical realism, a movement which seeks to weave the present tense of this world with the supernatural to create a new conception of time as it is known. Beloved would certainly fit this criteria. Another example in which Morrison's work appropriates the idea of magical realism would lie in its questioning of progress and what defines it. Sethe might represent a conception of progress, but with Beloved's presence, she is forced to go back in time and essentially ask herself if she has progressed. Has she made peace with what happened, and with what she did? Beloved's presence forces her to reevaluate her own life, moving it from a black and white conception to one where the multiple shades of color present themselves, dissonant and fair all in one. In this reassessment of identity, magical realism can be seen.
In Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, the use of magical realism is evident in the way that Morrison combines elements of fantasy and reality, leaving it up to the reader to decide how to compartmentalize those literary devices within the plot.
The changes in physical appareance in some of the characters are the most noticeable forms of magical realism. Suggs, for instance, is said to have such a sadness and emptiness inside her soul that "her eyes did not pick up a glitter of light". Here we see how Suggs appears to have eyes that are supernaturally dark. Are they, really or is this a product of literary license?
Another example comes in the seemingly premonitory dreams of Suggs, and in Beloved's exaggerated craving for sweets which makes her body so massive that she looks as a creature rather than a person. The glow about Beloved, the impression it causes around them, and the effects of each character on one another give the reader the impression of something outer-wordily taking place. These are the basic ideas behind magical realism.