In her short story, “The Tree,” Latin American writer Maria Luisa Bombal uses elements of magic realism to present a complicated discourse about the human experience: how we strive to find meaning in our lives and to make connections with others, but often fail in these attempts; and how we sometimes have insights into ourselves and others, but often fail to fully understand or act upon those insights. Bombal dramatizes the complexity of human experience in a narrative world where there is no boundary between reality and dreams.
Magic realism is an art or literary style in which the everyday is juxtaposed with the marvelous. The term was first coined in 1925 by German art critic Franz Roh and was later adopted by Latin American writers of the 1940s. As it applies to fiction, the term refers to a way of writing that employs realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details combined with fantastic and dreamlike elements and materials derived from myth and fairytales (Abrams 1993).
In “The Tree,” Bombal employs magic realist techniques to chronicle a woman’s journey toward understanding the truth of her failed marriage. The story begins with the everyday: a woman, Brigida, is sitting in the audience of a classical piano concert thinking about her childhood. As she listens to the music, her mind wanders through the past, first to the idyllic garden of her youth when all possibilities seemed to open before her and her ex-husband, Luis, was still romantic and playful. It appears that Brigida may have been idealizing her past, however, when she suddenly realizes that she did not marry her husband for love.
Brigida’s dreamy memories gradually give way to visions of a disappointing and lifeless past. It is the first year of her marriage to Luis, a man who seems to have married her out of habit, and she thirsts for a love he cannot provide. In this loveless marriage, Brigida finds a place that eases the sadness of her awakenings: it is her dressing room where she can watch the gum tree outside of her window. Bombal uses the image of the tree to illustrate the way that Brigida creates her own reality. The foliage of the tree reflected in her mirrors recedes into an infinite forest that prevents Brigida from truly seeing the reflection of herself and her life.
Throughout the rest of the story, until Brigida arrives at her final, most important insight, the everyday events of her marriage to Luis are juxtaposed with the marvelous fantasy world of her dressing room. As her marriage slowly deteriorates and she realizes she no longer loves her husband, the dressing room becomes her place to escape. The room is at once liberating and constraining; Brigida creates a space for herself to escape, but that same space also allows her to maintain a psychological distance from her life. It is here that Brigida convinces herself that there is a certain greatness in accepting her life as something definitive and irremediable.
It is not until the gum tree is felled, because the roots are raising the paving stones of the sidewalk, that Brigida is torn from the fantasy world that she has created for herself. When the tree is gone, her dressing room is invaded by white, terrifying light. Brigida’s private space is taken away and she finds herself wondering how she has remained married to Luis in a loveless marriage for so long. The loss of her sheltering tree and its filtered light is the catalyst that brings Brigida to her final insight in the present, that she left her husband because of the tree, because she could finally understand her reality and realized there could be more to her life than placidity, submission, and resignation.
Bombal’s story illustrates that magic realism is more than just combining realism with fantastic and dreamlike elements. It is also about complex imagery, a metafictional awareness of creating fiction, experimentation with different narrative techniques, and a blurring of the traditional boundaries between fiction and reality. And yet, perhaps, despite the labyrinthine structure and meaning of her text, Bombal is trying to reveal what is at the heart of magic realism. Perhaps she is trying to tell us that if we open our minds to the fantastic in our own lives, our experiences will be enriched and we will come to understand that what is most marvelous is also most human.
“The Tree” by Maria Luisa Bombal is published in the collection New Islands and Other Stories by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1983), ISBN 978-0374221188.
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