Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1636
Magical realism (sometimes called magic realism) is one of the most interesting literary trends to emerge worldwide during the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Generally associated with South American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, recent critics have also included North American writers such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison within the genre. Dandelion Wine, written in the 1950s as a mainstream autographical novel, however, has not generally been read as a magical realist text; nevertheless, Bradbury as a self-admitted fantasist, leaves himself open for just such a reading. Indeed, an accounting of the magical elements in Dandelion Wine not only deepens the reader’s understanding of the novel, it also revitalizes the text, making Dandelion Wine a surprisingly contemporary vintage. The purpose of this essay, then, is threefold: first, to provide a working definition of magical realism; second, to identify the elements in Dandelion Wine that can be classified as magical realism; and third; to consider how this approach opens the text to the twenty-first century reader.
Magical realism, in simplest terms, is the mixture of realistic elements along with fantastic elements. Further, the characters treat elements that might seem fantastic to the reader matter-of-factly. Likewise, everyday realistic elements for the reader may be treated as something magical by the characters. For example, in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the characters scarcely notice the flying carpets that gypsies ride into town, yet they are utterly astounded by ice. William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, in A Handbook to Literature, write that in a magical realist work, “[t]he frame or the surface of the work may be conventionally realistic, but contrasting elements—such as the supernatural, myth, dream, fastasy—invade the realism and change the whole basis of the art.”
Dandelion Wine clearly offers examples of these elements. Its setting (or surface) is early twentieth-century, small-town America, its characters the men, women, and children of this town, all engaged in everyday, daily activities. Yet magic erupts from the first moment that Douglas climbs into his grandparents’ cupola and wills the town into existence. Even in the most quotidian circumstance, an election for the presidency of a ladies club, there is an implication that witchcraft might be involved. Likewise, the main character, Douglas, is saved from death by a magical healer.
In their classic book Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris argue that “magical realism is a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic. Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds. . . .” Further, magical realist texts “often situate themselves on liminal territory between or among worlds—in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common. . . .” In other words, magical realist texts often include many different ways of interpreting the world, interpretations that often exist side by side. “Liminal territory” is something like a borderland, or the space between two places, ideas, or worlds. In boundary spaces, characters and locations can find themselves transformed, changed, or even dissolved. Focusing on these elements of magical realism offers a particularly rich reading of Dandelion Wine because it is in the geographical, temporal, mythological, and spiritual boundaries that magic most often erupts in the novel.
As Zamora and Faris describe above, Green Town coexists in two separate worlds. In the first, it is the real city of Waukegan, Illinois, the place where writer Bradbury was born. Readers know this from Bradbury’s 1975 introduction to the book. At the same time, however, Green Town is a mythical location, a place that is not really anywhere or anytime. This is largely because Bradbury isolates the town; there is no one coming into the town from the outside, so it functions much as a Brigadoon or a Shangri La, or, for that matter, an Eden. At an even deeper level, however, Green Town is not anywhere or anytime because in the final analysis, it only exists in Bradbury’s memory and imagination. Bradbury’s description of the town imbues it with mythical qualities, and leads readers to understand that Green Town itself is a liminal space, a place where boys are transformed into men: “And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”
Likewise, the ravine serves multiple functions in the novel. Just as Waukegan is a real city, there is a real ravine in Waukegan, according to Bradbury. It is a place where the river cuts through the city to Lake Michigan. In Dandelion Wine, however, the ravine is not just a gully, but an opening into another mythic space not bound by the order or structure of the town. The ravine divides the town in two, and Douglas senses the primeval struggle between life and death in the space: “Panting, he stopped by the rim of the ravine, at the edge of the softly blowing abyss. . . . Here the town, divided, fell away in halves. Here civilization ceased. Here was only growing earth and a million deaths and rebirths every hour.”
The ravine indicates the “coexistence of possible worlds.” Whereas Green Town itself is ordered and ultimately knowable for Douglas, the ravine is not. It functions under a different reality from town, and the contrast opens the uncomfortable gap between order and chaos, between the knowable and unknowable. The ravine is the space where anything can happen: a young woman can be transformed into a corpse, or a young man into a hero. There is just no telling in such a magical place.
Dandelion Wine also suggests another pair of alternative realities coexisting in the same space. Bradbury clearly sets up two worlds, the world of the children and the world of the adults. When the children visit Mrs. Bentley, they are able to convince her that she never was a child herself. Indeed, Tom reports to Douglas who writes it down in his table, “Old people never were children!”
Tom, throughout the novel, is clearly within the realm of the children. When Douglas falls ill, for example, Tom tells Mr. Jonas “It’s been a tough summer. . . Lots of things have happened to Doug.” What he lists are the concerns of a child: Doug has lost his best aggie, someone stole Doug’s catcher’s mitt, Doug dropped his Tarzan statue, and it broke. Because he is a child, Tom fails to recognize that the summer has been hard on Doug not because he has lost his toys, but because he has lost his boyhood. Further, although Tom senses that Doug has had difficulties over the summer, there is no way that he can understand that the metamorphosis from child to adult has been exquisitely painful for Doug.
As Doug wanders in the liminal territory between childhood and adulthood, he becomes obsessed with the Tarot Witch, a wax arcade fortuneteller. This obsession is a manifestation of Doug’s fear of the future. Doug wants the Witch to reassure him that the future can be known, because if it can be known, then it can be controlled. When she issues a blank card, the blank card of the future, Douglas falls into a state of serious, and life-threatening, melancholy.
This is the final, and ultimate, liminal space of Dandelion Wine, the boundary between life and death that Doug travels as he falls ill. His is a disease of the spirit; the extraordinary transformation and metamorphosis that he has experienced over the summer threatens him with utter dissolution. In magical realist texts, these are the moments when magic is most likely to erupt, and so it does. Mr. Jonas, who is both junkman and spiritual healer in the coexistent worlds of Green Town, offers Doug a magic elixir: “GREEN DUSK FOR DREAMING BRAND PURE NORTHERN AIR. . . . derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa. . . .” Doug, in a coma and dreaming under an apple tree in his back yard, breathes in the magic air and is healed.
It is clear in the final chapters that Doug has been transformed in the borderlands between life and death, and has become a healer himself, restoring his grandmother to her magical self after his Aunt Rose attempts to organize her kitchen. When Doug, in the final section, climbs once again to his grandparents’ cupola to put the town to sleep at the end of the summer, he does so as a young man, not as a child.
Some earlier critics have found Dandelion Wine to be a cloyingly sweet and overly sentimental bit of autobiographical and nostalgic fluff. These readers seem to have wanted Bradbury to create a “realistic” vision of childhood. However, a more contemporary consideration of magical realism suggests that Bradbury has created multiple worlds in his simple tales. Readers can find on the streets of Green Town front porches, families, furniture—a perfect place to spend a long summer evening. At the same time, however, readers also find the spaces where the unpredictable and chaotic seep through. Indeed, a reading that takes into account magical realism opens the door to the boundary lands where reader, writer, and text are utterly transformed by acts of co-creation. Like Grandfather in the cellar, like Douglas in the cupola, and like Bradbury at his typewriter, readers create Dandelion Wine for themselves, the liminal space of the novel welcoming them in for just another sip.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Dandelion Wine, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.