The Grotesque is often linked with satire and tragicomedy, in which the author conveys grief and pain to the audience. The term was first used to denote a literary genre with Montaigne’s Essays. Many of the earliest written texts described grotesque happenings and monstrous creatures within mythology, which was of course a rich source of monsters. Examples, such as the one-eyed Cyclops from Hesiod’s Theogony or Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where we find grotesque transformations and hybrid creatures of myth.
This genre was a departure from the classical models of order, reason, harmony, balance and form, opening up an entry into grotesque worlds. British literature abounds with native grotesquerie, from the strange worlds of Spenser’s allegory in The Faerie Queene, to the tragi-comic modes of 16th-century drama.
Occasionally, literary works of mixed genre are termed grotesque, such as “low” or non-literary genres such as pantomime and farce. Gothic writings often have grotesque components such as character, style and location while other describe the environment as grotesque. Examples being urban (Charles Dickens), or American south literature, termed as “Southern Gothic”. Other grotesque uses have been social and cultural formations, such as the carnival(-esque) in François Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin. Or in satirical writings of the 18th century, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Thereby fictional characters are considered grotesque if they induce both empathy and disgust by way of physically deformity or mental deficiency, but also if the character has cringe-worthy social traits. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the figure of Caliban inspired more nuanced reactions than simple scorn and disgust. Also, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the character of Gollum may be considered to have both disgusting and empathetic qualities, which fit him into the grotesque template.
One of the most celebrated grotesques in literature is Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and of course Dr. Frankenstein’s monster can also be considered a grotesque, although he is presented more sympathetically as the outsider who is the victim of society’s alienation as they describe him as ‘the creature.’
There are also examples of grotesque literature during the nineteenth-century, however the grotesque body was displaced by the notion of congenital deformity or medical anomaly. And more in terms of deformity and disability, especially after the First World War, 1914-18. The growth of prosthetic’s created themes of half-mechanical men and became an important theme in dadaist work.
You may be surprise to know that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is deemed grotesque literature due to the many fantastic grotesque figures she meets. However, Carroll managed to make the figures seem less frightful and fit for children’s literature.
Were any of these surprising to you?
Have you written grotesque fiction?