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A Little Witch: Abjection and Identity in Practical Magic

By: Anomitra Biswas

This paper looks at Alice Hoffman’s novel Practical Magic (Putnam Adult, 1995) and the eponymous film (Village Roadshow Pictures, 1998) in light of Terry Eagleton’s theory of the pharmakos (Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) and Judith Butler’s theory of the Abject (Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", Routledge, 1993).

In Practical Magic the protagonists, Gillian and Sally Owens, are part of a family of women who live on the outskirts of their Massachusetts town in a house that is two-hundred odd years old and are blamed for everything wrong that happens in the town. The Owens are a matrilineal, matriarchal clan, made so due to a curse that causes the premature deaths of men with whom Owens women fall in love, and an apparent inability to produce male offspring. While this might have caused them to be treated as outsiders regardless, the Owens women are witches-a fact made more explicit in the film than the novel, which is steeped in the magic-realist treatment also seen in Hoffman’s The River King (2000)-and this reinforces their status as outcasts. Both Gillian and Sally militate against this and briefly escape-one by physically distancing herself from the town and the other by socially distancing herself through marriage-but eventually have to return to their childhood home and practices.

While Practical Magic obviously uses the literary trope of the witch living on the physical and social outskirts of the community and can therefore be read through the lens of the theory of the pharmakos or scapegoat, the hereditary nature of both the practices and the isolation of the Owens women also lends itself to the use of Butler, since their Abjection and Otherisation appears constitutive of the community.


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