What is the fantastic?


In his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975), Tzvetan Todorov offers the following definitions of fantastic fiction:

"In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know....there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world.  The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions:  either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination-- and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality--but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us (p. 25)."

"The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty....The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event (p. 25)."

Todorov later comments:

"The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions.  First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described.  Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.  Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text:  he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations (p. 33)."

Todorov distinguishes the fantastic from two other modes, the uncanny and the marvelous.   While these modes have some of the ambiguity of the fantastic, they ultimately offer a resolution governed by natural laws (the uncanny) or the supernatural (the marvelous).

"[In the uncanny], events are related which may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary, shocking, singular, disturbing or unexpected, and which thereby provoke in the character and in the reader a reaction similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar (p. 46)."  Todorov's definition of the uncanny might be applied to stories in which the character realizes s/he is mad or has just awakened from a dream. Thus, the uncanny is an "experience of limits."

"If we move to the other side of that median line which we have called the fantastic, we find ourselves in the fantastic-marvelous, the class of narratives that are presented as fantastic and that end with an acceptance of the supernatural (p. 52)."