The Grotesque: A Brief Overview of the Literary Term
What is the Grotesque?
Most of you will probably think of something disgusting or terrifying right off the bat. That is not necessarily the case, but is rather just the more modern permutation which the term has undergone. That is not to say that the Grotesque is not at times disgusting or frightening, but merely that it is not necessarily entirely either of those things.
The Grotesque is both an artistic and literary term, and is a bit difficult to describe, as it is less of a solid definition, and more of a range between a number of different qualities. The Grotesque is primarily concerned about the distortion and transgression of boundaries,be they physical boundaries between two objects, psychological boundaries, or anything in between. Exaggeration also plays a role.
There are two main ways to define something as Grotesque, as evidenced by the diagrams:
- The Grotesque fits in between the real and the fantastic (non-real).
- The Grotesque simultaneously fits somewhere between being funny and being frightening. (This is a bit more difficult to gauge, as what is funny to one person is frightening to another, so maintaining a bit of an open mind is helpful).
Furthermore, the Grotesque often contains a sort of fusion of human with animal, vegetable, machine, or some other combination. So, it could be a combination of a man and a dog, or a cat with a carrot, or a bird and a toad.
The simplest example of this that I can provide for you in literature is from the story The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, which essentially tells the story of a man who wakes up one day to discover that he has been somehow transformed into a person-sized insect.
Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” is about a man named Ivan who wakes up one day and discovers that his nose has ran away, and is now walking around Russia dressed up as a police officer, which harasses him when he accuses it of running away from him. And which then nearly arrests him.
In some ways, the Grotesque can be compared to Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic in literature. Todorov argues that the fantastic resides in the “moment of hesitation” between belief and the rejection of the fantastic explanation for an event. Similarly, the Grotesque can be defined as a hesitation between horror and comedy, never fully committing to one, and never truly rejecting the other.
The Grotesque in History
The term originally started visually in the 1500s. The word itself is derived from the Italian “grotto,” for caves, because it was at that point historically that a number of ancient cave paintings were discovered. The art in these paintings had no respect for the mimetic principles of art which were championed at the time; that is to say, these cave paintings were fantastical in nature, and often included mixtures of human and animal creatures. Here is where the modern conception of the Grotesque as disgusting originated, as the Italians viewed these paintings with disgust, considering them to be vulgar and comic art.
In the 1600s the term first appeared in literature, particularly in French literature, and solidified the term’s connection to the physical body, as most of these references were applied to body parts.
The term achieved a surge in popularity in the 1800s in England and Germany, where it was used for satire and caricatures. The main reason for this is that the Enlightenment was then underway—the Age of Reason. Thus, anything that was seen as excessive or exaggerated was considered to be comic, opposite to enlightened thought, and thus excellent fodder for mockery. Especially important in this period was Friedrich Schlegel’s 1804 Conversation on Poetry which refers to the “terrifying aspect of humor, the horrifying aspect of comedy,” which has since been accepted as a definition of the Grotesque in literature.
In the twentieth century, related literary and visual movements like German Expressionism, Surrealism, Theatre of the Absurd, and Theatre of the Grotesque were influenced by a combination of the comic and the horrific, and so gain a connection to the literary Grotesque.
Many Grotesque stories are oneiric (dreamlike) and anti-mimetic, such as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Neither of these stories reflect any immediately recognizable reality; rather, they seem nightmarish, comic, and surreal. As is the case with both of these stories, the Grotesque is often rooted heavily in the physical.
Mikhail Bakhtin was another important critic in the development of the literary Grotesque, specifically in relation to his discussions of the work of Francois Rabelais. He discussed the concept of excess, specifically in relation to the body and food. He argued that the Grotesque specifically exaggerated a negative characteristic. However, unlike pure caricature, he argued that the Grotesque did not exaggerate a negative phenomenon for the purposed of rejecting it. Rather than negate that phenomenon, the exaggeration was to uncrown it, remove it from a state of untouchable-ness, so that it could be renewed. This is related to Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, which reversed the order of the world, making it topsy-turvy—the top becomes the bottom, and the bottom becomes the top, as is the case in a traditional carnival: the king is, for a day, dethroned, and a beggar becomes king for that same day. In the Grotesque, however, this concept of reversal is applied to the body; the inside becomes the outside, and the outside becomes the inside.
Other notable authors of the Grotesque include:
- Edward Lear, whose art and limericks are certainly absurd, but which engage in exaggeration to such a degree to create images at once comic and unsettling. In this sense, his art closes a divide between the Grotesque and the uncanny, which can be defined as “that which is fearfully and terribly familiar.”
- Baudelaire’s On the Essence of Laughter, in which he states “The Sage laughs not save in fear and trembling.”
- Edgar Allan Poe, whose work influenced later Grotesque writers, most notably H.P. Lovecraft, author of “Herbert West – Reanimator” and “The Dunwich Horror.” Both of these stories lean far on the horrific side of the horror-comedy spectrum, but their melodrama, mixed with their obsession with the body and its convolutions, lands is squarely in the domain of the Grotesque.
The Grotesque is by no means an easy literary form to define. Conceptions of the Grotesque have altered and grown over the years, making the definition, as with any sort of generic determinations, difficult to discern, and even more difficult to find consensus on. This is just one overview, examining a few points on the Grotesque’s spectrum. There are many other works, and many other means of approaching the form.
Comments? Criticisms? Outright righteous rage? Let us know in the comments!
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Tzvetan Todorov is a literary critic who developed a theory for defining the structural parameters of "the fantastic," his own take on a literary genre which has little to do with fantasy.