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date: 01 October 2022



  • Rune GraulundRune GraulundCenter for American Studies, University of Southern Denmark


Defining the grotesque in a concise and objective manner is notoriously difficult. When researching the term for his classic study On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982), Geoffrey Galt Harpham observed that the grotesque is hard to pin down because it is defined as being in opposition to something rather than possessing any defining quality in and of itself. Any attempt to identify specific grotesque characteristics outside of a specific context is therefore challenging for two reasons. First, because the grotesque is that which transgresses and challenges what is considered normal, bounded, and stable, meaning that one of the few universal and fundamental qualities of the grotesque is that it is abnormal, unbounded, and unstable. Second, since even the most rigid norms and boundaries shift over time, that which is defined in terms of opposition and transgression will naturally change as well, meaning that the term grotesque meant very different things in different historical eras. For instance, as Olli Lagerspetz points out in A Philosophy of Dust (2018), while 16th-century aristocrats in France may routinely have received guests while sitting on their night stools, similar behavior exhibited today would surely be interpreted not only as out of the ordinary, but as grotesque. Likewise, perceptions of the normal and the abnormal vary widely even within the same time period, depending on one’s class, gender, race, profession, sexual orientation, cultural background, and so on.


  • North American Literatures
  • British and Irish Literatures
  • Enlightenment and Early Modern (1600-1800)
  • 19th Century (1800-1900)
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Literary Theory

The Natural Order of Things Subverted

As Wolfgang Kayser argues in The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957), a modern classic in the study of the grotesque, the term grotesque signifies a state of affairs in which “the natural order of things has been subverted.” In the most extreme instances of this we experience:

a world totally different from the familiar one—a world in which the realm of inanimate objects is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the law of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.1

Kayser points to the reverie of dreams and nightmares in which the normal order of things has been subverted as an example of this, yet any kind of experience that disrupts normality has the potential to be deemed grotesque. Indeed, the grotesque is perhaps at its most effective not when we enter a world totally different from our own, but when we encounter “extreme incongruity” in a world that otherwise seems congruous.2

While it is difficult to define the grotesque itself, or even the “relatively positive or negative character of our encounter with the grotesque,” we can at least initially identify a range of traits commonly associated with the grotesque, namely disharmony, hybridity, excess, exaggeration, and transgression.3 In short, the grotesque is anything that disrupts whatever is considered to be the norm at a particular place and time. Even so, we almost immediately run into trouble in that hybridities, transgressions, and other kinds of boundary-breaking entities and behaviors are not in and of themselves sufficient to produce grotesque sensations. After all, we encounter many forms of transgression, exaggerations, and mixing on a daily basis that we would not classify as grotesque. A woman who discretely picks her nose on a train may be deemed offensive to some, but to call her behavior grotesque would by many be considered hyperbole. However, if that same woman began to volubly and intentionally vomit on her fellow passengers while laughing, it would likely be a different and potentially far more grotesque matter. We can therefore conclude that the more violent, crass, and excessive the breach of the normal is considered to be, the more likely it is that we would deem a given act or subject grotesque. Even so, judgments as to the precise point at which the boundary into the grotesque has been crossed are always highly subjective.

Accordingly, this article employs a wide range of literary examples, as well as a range of conceptual terms that share common ground with the grotesque, in order to narrow down this otherwise elusive term through similarity and contrast. The sections “The Carnivalesque and the Abject” and “The Absurd” focus on a conceptual discussion of terms that are related to, and therefore often confused with, the grotesque. The following sections, “The Human Body: Parts, Ruptures, Guts” and “Freakish, Monstrous, and Machinic Bodies,” focus on the body as the well-head from which all other forms of grotesquery springs. The fifth and final section, “The Social Body: Individuals and the Social Order,” examines grotesque social relations that are seemingly not material as such, yet ultimately concludes that even something as abstract as the social order will always express itself through specific bodies.

The Carnivalesque and the Abject

The grotesque has not received the scrutiny other aesthetic terms, such as beauty or the sublime, have elicited, but it is possible to identify a range of prominent thinkers who have engaged with the term, even if there seems to be a tendency to approach the matter in a somewhat oblique manner. John Ruskin (1819–1900), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and Julia Kristeva (1941–), for instance, have all made significant contributions to the study of the grotesque, but all of them in works that ostensibly study something different.4 That, too, is the case with the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), who has been the most influential in theorizing the term, yet arrives at his conclusions about the grotesque almost as an afterthought. In Rabelais and His World (1965), an analysis of the 16th-century French author François Rabelais, Bakhtin analyzes the astonishing range of grotesque bodies and grotesque behaviors displayed in the fantastic world of Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (1532–1564). The protagonists of Rabelais’s story are giants and therefore of grotesque stature, Bakhtin informs us, but it is in their excessive and transgressive behavior as much as in their exaggerated form that their grotesque existence primarily plays out. For instance, the narrator recounts how the giants walk around France, destroying everything in their path while eating food (including people) in excessive quantities, and how such devoured matter leaves their bodies once it has been processed:

I wiped my tail with a hen, with a cock, with a pullet, with a calf’s skin, with a hare, with a pigeon, with a cormorant, with an attorney’s bag, [but] there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose . . . both in regard of the softness of the said down, and of the temperate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut.5

Scene after scene of grotesque behavior like this is paraded alongside equally grotesque bodies, almost always with a focus on “the bodily lower stratum.” This fixation on “degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high,” Bakhtin claims, provides us with a range of useful definitions of the grotesque. First and foremost, the grotesque tends to be evoked by that which is “low” and “vulgar.”6 Also, the grotesque will often be triggered in cases where there is an emphasis “on the apertures or the convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth . . . This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body.” Finally, the grotesque is that which expands, exaggerates, transgresses. The grotesque body, according to Bakhtin at least, is therefore always “a body in the act of becoming” so as to become “cosmic and universal.”7

While Bakhtin provides us with many insightful comments on the grotesque body and its grotesque behavior, the main focus of his study is not in fact the grotesque per se. Rather, it is the “carnivalesque”: laughter that follows in the wake of such grotesqueries. During carnivals, Bakhtin explains, we experience a state of affairs (the carnivalesque) in which norms are subverted, ridiculed, and “degraded,” but only “in order to bring forth something better.”8 In this, it is important to note that Bakhtin sees the carnival and the carnivalesque in a highly positive light, as a space and a period in which for once, if only temporarily, “all were considered equal.”9 As he explains:

carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that is does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. . . . Carnival is not a spectacle seen by people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.10

During the time of carnival, all inhibitions and mores, even identities, are let loose so that new and better norms and selves can take shape. Bakhtin’s vision of the subversive and liberating potential of carnivalesque behavior carries over to the grotesque body and to grotesque behavior, too. For while the grotesque to many confers negative connotations of the horrific and the disgusting, Bakhtin presents his readers with a world view in which the grotesque constitutes a revolutionary opening to new and exciting possibilities. Rather than an eruption of uncontrollable and transgressive forms of behavior and bodies that are best eliminated, Bakhtin sees grotesque behavior and grotesque bodies as a vital sign of health, not just for the individual but for society as a whole.

Julia Kristeva’s investigation of the “abject” in Powers of Horror (1980) takes a rather different approach. Where Bakhtin is delighted by the body that “is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries,” and is therefore in contact with “the material and bodily roots of the world” rather than separate from them, Kristeva sees revulsion.11 Unlike Bakhtin, who celebrates an open body in the act of becoming, Kristeva claims that the fissures of the body are always a source of anxiety. Indeed, the “abject,” as she terms it, is positioned somewhere between the I, the subject, and the object (that which is clearly outside the I). The abject, though in the process of becoming object, is, however, not yet entirely separate from the subject. In this, it exists in a liminal state of the “in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”12 Excrement and menstrual blood, for instance, are typical examples of the abject in that they are originally of the subject’s body, but in leaving the body their status becomes uncertain and therefore potentially filthy, dangerous, or disgusting. Bakhtin focused on the liberating potential of the individual’s opening up and becoming one with the larger world, either through carnivalesque behavior or through a body in constant exchange with other bodies as it “copulates, defecates, overeats.”13 Kristeva’s focus, by contrast, is on the individual and his or her fear of losing control of a subjective self. As is implied by the title of her book, this loss is not, as it is in Bakhtin, a laughing matter; rather, it is often something to be horrified of. Kristeva’s examination of how the abject embodies the subject’s fears of being subsumed by the crowd or the base matter of the world, or both, thus provides us with a useful counterpoint to Bakhtin’s praise of the carnivalesque and its potential to subsume the individual in a merry explosion of sex, feces, and food. For while the grotesque can lead to laughter and cheerfulness, it may as easily turn ugly, horrific, and vile.

The Absurd

The ambivalence of the grotesque, in being at one and the same time horrific and hilarious, disgusting and alluring, is especially pronounced in discussions of the absurd, the third and final term we need to examine before we move on to analyze typical examples of grotesque literature. Of the many terms with which the grotesque shares characteristics, the absurd is perhaps the hardest to meaningfully contrast it with, primarily because the two terms have often been used interchangeably. A comparison with the carnivalesque and the abject can thus be useful in teasing out certain qualities of the grotesque. Yet if carnivalesque, the abject, and the grotesque share some common ground, the three are nevertheless fairly distinct terms. With the absurd, things become a little more murky. Consider first of all Philip Thomson’s discussion of the absurd in The Grotesque (1972), in which he notes that:

the modern use of ‘the absurd’ in the context of literature (especially of the drama) brings it very close to the grotesque, so much so that the theatre of the absurd could almost be called the “theatre of the grotesque.”14

Thomson has a point, as anyone familiar with Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959), in which the inhabitants of a village begin to metamorphose into rhinoceroses, can testify. The same goes for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), in which two of the protagonists lack their lower bodies and are confined to live out their lives standing in a dustbin like decrepit human flowers. Both texts are considered classics of the theatre of the absurd, yet certainly also contain grotesque bodies and grotesque behaviors.

So where does the absurd end and the grotesque begin, and vice versa? The main difference between the two terms can perhaps be identified if we take a closer look at yet another tale of transmutation and becoming, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). This short story tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a conscientious young salesman, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into what the German original refers to as an “ungeheures Ungeziefer,” variously translated into English as insect, bug, or vermin. As Kafka translator Susan Bernofsky remarks, however, “the language that appears in the novella itself is carefully chosen to avoid specificity,” and the words used to describe the creature into which Samsa metamorphoses are no exception.15

This unspecificity of the German term, Bernofsky makes clear, is important. For while Samsa undergoes a “grotesque metamorphosis,” the final form into which he emerges is undecided, a fact that ultimately makes the story more absurd than it is grotesque. We see the absurdity of Samsa’s situation, too, in that his reaction to the “grotesque” transformation is, to say the least, muted. Waking up to find that he is lying on a “hard shell-like back” and that he now has “numerous legs, which were pathetically thin compared to the rest of his bulk,” Samsa expresses neither panic, nor wonder, nor even much surprise at his new form. Mainly he is simply annoyed and desires to go “back to sleep for a little,” thus demonstrating an existential indifference to a literally monstrous event that continues throughout the story.16 While members of Samsa’s family express shock and disgust at his new form, Samsa himself never seems to go beyond mundane questions of everyday life, such as how to get back to work while in insectoid form. As Samsa does not see himself as monstrous and grotesque, and because the story is primarily told from his point of view, there is little of the “extreme incongruity” identified by Thomson as a central characteristic of the grotesque.

Consider also the admirable calm which Samsa expresses on the first morning of his transformation, as he eventually decides to wake up and face the new day. Since he is about to miss the morning train, the narrator comments that:

The first thing he meant to do was get up in peace and quiet, get dressed, and most important of all have breakfast . . . . Disposing of the bed-quilt was quite simple; he had only to inflate a little and it fell off automatically. But after that things became difficult, especially since he was so uncommonly broad. He would have needed arms and hands to raise himself to a sitting position; but instead he only had these numerous legs, which were constantly executing the most varied movements.17

It is in this utter denial of the grotesquery of having been transformed into an insect (or bug, or vermin), while trying to uphold the normality of something as mundane as getting dressed or keeping time, that the story of Samsa’s transformation slides from the grotesque into the territory of the absurd. After all, one could easily imagine a different version of The Metamorphosis, written by Rabelais perhaps, in which Samsa’s transformed body and his new and inhuman behavior would have been described in gory and grotesque detail. Yet in Kafka’s detached voice the incongruity of the transformation is experienced not in the explicit and vulgar lingering of excess but in the very lack of it: even more abnormal than the transformation itself is Samsa’s inability to recognize the abnormality in the first place. The difference between a story of a “grotesque metamorphosis” and that of an absurd one is thus at least partly to be found at the level of incongruity experienced by its characters. Samsa’s transformation may present a radical incongruity to the reader, one made even more incongruous by Samsa’s lack of understanding of just how incongruous it actually is, but in the internal world view of Samsa there is little if any space for incongruity, which is exactly why readers can experience the story with a sense of curious detachment rather than abject horror or carnivalesque laughter.

The world of the absurd can thus be as loudly odd, strange, and disturbing to the reader as is the world of the grotesque. A whole village of people turned into rhinoceroses, as in Ionesco’s play, or dustbins planted with people who lack half their bodies, as in Beckett’s, would likely be considered disconcerting by most of us. To repeat Kayser’s definition of the grotesque, each would seem “a world totally different from the familiar one.” Yet if those who experience and live in such worlds are only partly cognizant of this difference—if, indeed, they are aware of it at all—then the sensation of grotesque incongruence slides into the odd detachment of the absurd. This may also explain why the literature of the absurd—represented by Beckett, Ionesco, and Kafka, but also by such other 20th-century literary greats as Albert Camus, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard—is easily classified as elitist “high art,” whereas the literature of the grotesque tends to be described as popular “low art.” Detached from their otherwise often base material, writers of the absurd offer an intellectual cool whereas the writer of the grotesque deliberately wallows in the hot mess. Mired as it is in Bakhtin’s “bodily lower stratum,” as in the body overall, literature of the grotesque is rarely if ever detached in the manner literature of the absurd tends to be.

The Human Body: Parts, Ruptures, Guts

As we finally turn to literature that we can unequivocally call literature of the grotesque, we need first of all to take a closer look at literature that focuses on the human body, particularly its baser and often hidden aspects. It is no coincidence, after all, that the etymology of the word grotesque can be traced to the Italian “grotto,” meaning that which is hidden below ground.18 Nor is it a coincidence that Bakhtin, the most oft-cited theorist of the grotesque, deals with a literary text that so relentlessly focuses on the body’s openings and the matter that enters or exits through them, albeit not solely in its “lower stratum.” This becomes significant in an investigation of the human body, the locus around which all other bodies of the grotesque revolve. As Kristeva points out, it is in the transitioning phase of subject to object that we discover the abject flow of bodily fluids, hence also the point at which we become uncertain of ourselves precisely because “we” cannot ascertain any sharply delineated boundary between our own bodies and the rest of the world.

Yet what happens when otherwise perfectly normal and firmly delineated parts of the body are displaced from the whole? In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), for instance, the sense of grotesque horror imparted by the story relies not so much on the fact that it describes the murder of an old man, but of the manner in which the body parts of the murdered man seem to act on their own accord, regardless of their relation to the remainder of the body. As the murderous narrator admits early on, he has no real reason to kill his victim other than that the old man’s eye seems to make him acutely uneasy:

Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it.19

The old man is described as perfectly ordinary, apart from the fact that his eye seems to be somehow misplaced, an animal eye in a human body. Later, as the narrator opens the door to the old man’s room in the middle of the night in order to murder him, the eye is once again seen as being out of place, only this time in terms not of an animal eye existing in a human frame, but of the frame itself being missing. As he shines the light of the lantern on the old man, the narrator accidentally illuminates the old man’s eye and nothing but the eye:

It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.20

This initial terror of an animal eye detached from a “face or person” becomes even more horrific once the murderer has carried out his deed and sets to work to “cut off the head and the arms and the legs.”21 In this, the murderer is himself somewhat detached: the act of dismemberment is mentioned only in passing, and the protagonist congratulates himself on a job well done as the old man’s parts are distributed beneath the floor boards. Indeed as the police arrive to investigate a scream reported by a neighbor, the narrator encourages their search of the premises, even chatting amiably with them as he invites them to have a seat directly above the spot where the remains of the old man have been deposited. Once again, however, the horror of a body in parts comes back to haunt the narrator, who now comes to believe he can hear the heart of the deceased beating beneath the floorboards. The murder itself and the subsequent grisly dismemberment seem to have affected him not at all. Yet the grotesque horror of the impossibility of a heart continuing to beat beyond death, of the heart’s ability to act independently of the rest of the now dismembered body, ultimately leads him to confess his crimes to the hitherto unsuspecting police officers.

Georges Bataille’s The Story of an Eye (1928) intends, like Poe’s story, to horrify its readers, but with a very different purpose. To begin with the two stories seem similar in many ways. As is the case in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the protagonists of Story of the Eye have a fixation on eyes, and, like Poe’s protagonist, they commit murder. In one significant detail, however, the protagonists of the two stories could not be further apart. Whereas Poe’s protagonist kills because he is terrified, Bataille’s characters commit murder because they are aroused. The always provocative Bataille pulls no punches as he takes his readers on a pornographic whirlwind tour of perversities that includes urinal sex, necrophilia, masturbation, suicide, as well as a dish of “two peeled balls, glands the size and shape of eggs, and of a pearly whiteness, faintly bloodshot, like the globe of an eye.”22 Whether the eyes are ersatz or genuine, tropes or realities, mere proximity to anything eye-like never fails to excite the protagonists, a fetishization of vision that reaches its literal climax in the book’s final and most infamous scene, in which they strangle a priest on a church floor while forcing him to have intercourse. They then cut out the priest’s eye, and one of the protagonists inserts it into her vagina.

This strange combination of voyeuristic excitement with disgust is perfectly illustrated by Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts,” from the short-story collection cum novel Haunted (2005). Reportedly, “Guts” was considered so sickening that people fainted at live readings of the story during a promotional tour . Nevertheless, despite, or rather due to, this visceral reaction, Palahniuk continued to draw increasingly large crowds in the weeks following the initial incident, purportedly resulting in even more people fainting.23 Regardless of whether or not the story is apocryphal, the idea that a narrative can be so shocking that it makes an audience sick, and that this very fact will draw an even larger audience, indicates the strange attraction of works of art that are supposedly repugnant. Just as “the carnivalesque is animated by a certain, perhaps periodic, human need to dissolve borders and to eliminate boundaries,” it seems we humans at least occasionally desire to move into the territory of that which we otherwise find repugnant.24

Like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Story of the Eye, “Guts” is narrated by an unnamed first-person narrator, who also happens to be the protagonist. In Palahniuk’s story, however, the protagonist has no interest in eyes, nor is he an insane murderer. In fact, as he himself points out, he is a fairly standard teenager, who, like anybody else his age, is “a little sex maniac.”25 As is made clear through a string of stories involving other teenagers just like him—teenagers who masturbate with carrots, conduct various experiments in auto-erotic asphyxiation, and stick letter openers and candlewax up their urinal tracts—the narrator ensures his reader understands that the act he is about to describe is in a sense both perfectly normal, and utterly abnormal. It is normal insofar as teenagers tend to engage in extreme forms of masturbation. Yet it is abnormal in that the activities described would to many (adults) sound grotesque. Certainly, the narrator’s own inventive act of masturbation, “whacking off underwater, sitting on the bottom at the deep end of my parents’ swimming pool,” seems to him perfectly normal. As he asks, “Who doesn’t like getting their butt sucked?”26 Getting one’s butt sucked by a swimming pool is, however, not without its dangers, as the narrator informs us. One fateful day, as he enjoys how “the steady suck of the pool inlet hole is lapping at me, and I’m grinding my skinny white ass around on that feeling,” he realizes that “My ass is stuck.”27

Eventually, the narrator does manage to free himself, kicking free from the bottom with all his might. No longer stuck to the inlet hole, he nevertheless struggles to make sense of a “thick rope, some kind of snake, blue-white and braided with veins, [which] has come up out of the pool drain and [which is] holding on to my butt.” It is only after a while that he realizes, through delayed decoding, that the reason the “snake” seems to have transparent “thin blue-white skin” through which he can see “lumps of some half-digested meal” is that it is not a snake at all. In fact, it is “my large intestine, my colon pulled out of me.” At this point, the pool has turned into one massive abject mess, a “soup of blood and corn, shit and sperm and peanuts,” at which point the narrator decides to “bite and snap at [his] own ass,” gnawing at his intestines and his feces in order to get free.28

And it is in this, ultimately—in their delighted, and delightful, desire to shock their readers through graphic renditions of the human body in parts and ruptures—that Poe, Bataille, and Palahniuk meet in a riotous collapse of all things low, dissolving, open, and abject. In their gleeful celebration of the body in parts, the body perverted, and the body turned inside out, Poe, Bataille, and Palahniuk revel in the gruesome details of bodies reduced to the lowest of functions in a manner that Kafka, Beckett, and Ionesco do not.

Inhuman: Freakish, Monstrous, and Machinic Bodies

If the regular and supposedly normal human body can be the locus of the grotesque as it is opened up, penetrated, partitioned, turned inside out, and redistributed in so many different ways, it would be reasonable to surmise that the inhuman body offers even richer grotesque potential. In order to test whether this is indeed the case, this section considers three different kinds of inhuman body: the freakish body, the monstrous body, and the machinic body.

First of all, freakish bodies are those that are nominally human, but often considered to be less-than-human. In Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978), Leslie Fiedler makes this a central distinction when he claims that “monsters are not ‘real’ as Freaks are.” Whereas the monster is mythological, the “true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other.”29 Fiedler goes on to analyze examples of this at length, including hermaphrodites, dwarfs, giants, and Siamese Twins, “freaks” whose abnormal bodies challenge “conventional boundaries” of the supposedly ideal human form and size, yet are nevertheless clearly human progeny. This ambiguous status of the freak as human but less-than-human is important in a discussion of the notion of the freak, precisely because it probes the often troublesome and unclear boundaries dividing the human from the inhuman. Though this uncertainty can lead to feelings of disgust and horror as the human subject feels its “secret self” exposed, it can certainly also lead to titillation and fascination. We see this in the very existence of “the freak show” as a historical phenomenon, but also in its being explored at length in novels such as Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989).30 In both these novels, the freakish body is considered not only to be fascinating to “the Norms,” because it disturbs, but also highly erotic and attractive precisely because it is abnormal, hence to be preferred over “the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”31

The purely monstrous body, on the other hand, is that which was never human, or has moved so far beyond the human that it is no longer recognizable as such. The monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) may be composed of actual human bits and parts, “bones from charnel-houses” and leftovers from “the dissecting room,” but the combination of these human remains is so abhorrent that even the creator of the creature himself, Professor Frankenstein, cannot bear to look upon “the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.”32 This sense of detachment and inhumanity becomes even clearer, of course, if the monstrous body in question contains no human elements whatsoever. Whether it is in hybrid monsters like the griffin,33 half eagle and half lion, or in bodies that are utterly different in part or in whole from any known life form on Earth, as in H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), which describes a being that “was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws,” such a body is monstrous because it is not recognizable.34 As the philosopher Jacques Derrida has pointed out in a much-quoted passage, the monster “shows itself in something that is not yet shown and that therefore looks like a hallucination, it strikes the eye, it frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure.”35 Once we get to know the monster, Derrida suggests, once we become familiar with it, it ceases to be a monster. Along similar lines, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues in Monster Theory (1996) “that the monster is best understood as an embodiment of difference, a breaker of category, and a resistant Other.”36

This sense of familiarity, or the lack of it, is also the reason that machinic bodies can be considered grotesque or normal, depending on the human-to-machine ratio of a given machinic body. Frankenstein’s monster, assembled out of human bits and parts, is as much the product of enlightened science and technology as of dark necromancy. This also explains why Shelley’s novel itself hovers in an ambiguous category, hailed both as the “first sf [science-fiction] novel” and as “one of the texts now synonymous with gothic,” and eventually becoming considered “an iconic text” for the conjunction of the two in “Gothic science fiction.”37 As long as Frankenstein views his project strictly as the result of science and machinery, his ghoulish assembly of human parts does not strike him as either disgusting or horrifying. It is only when he begins to recognize the monster as being at one and the same time human and inhuman—which is to say, when it is no longer considered in purely machinic terms—that the creature becomes grotesque to him, so that his heart is filled with “breathless horror and disgust.”38

Similarly, the partly human, partly machinic figure of the cyborg is far more likely to engender sensations of the grotesque than is the fully machinic construct of the robot or computer. This is exemplified in the difference between the cyborg bartender and the artificial intelligences in William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984). The former, whose arm has been replaced by a “Russian military prosthetic . . . cased in grubby pink plastic,” is a grotesque whose “pink claw” is clearly a machinic and material construct grafted onto a human body.39 Neuromancer and Wintermute, on the other hand, the two artificial intelligences of the novel, exist nowhere in particular, are one-hundred-percent machinic, and, in their final and fused form as a super-AI, are no longer even connected to the human in that they can now procreate without the aid of people. That the novel ends with the purely machinic super-AI leaving humanity behind by literally taking off for the stars as it attempts to make contact with extraterrestrial AIs, while the book’s distinctly human protagonist instead decides to invest in “a new pancreas and liver,” is telling.40 As a new and disembodied machinic species has been born and takes to the stars, the human species is left, down to (and on) earth, in all its usual, grisly squalor.

Whether the normal human body is dissected into parts, ruptured, or turned inside out, or the freakish, monstrous, or machinic body intermeshes with the human, it seems that the greatest potential for the grotesque occurs in the border territory between the inhuman and human. The wholly machinic, as in Gibson’s super-AI, or the wholly alien and monstrous, as in Lovecraft’s disembodied and alien presence that can be described only as a color (and barely even that, since it “was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all”), are strange, frightening and eerie.41 Yet because they are so far removed from any recognizable earthlike, and earthbound, form they cannot truly be called grotesque. As with the absurd, which is too abstractly cold and detached to elicit the grotesque fully, so it is with the inhuman body, which is again too far removed from Bakhtin’s “bodily lower stratum.” The grotesque is literally and figuratively a sensation provoked by that which is down to earth. The further we move from the human body, and the original earthly abode of such bodies, the further we move from the grotesque, too.

The Social Body: Individuals and the Social Order

The final body we need to consider is not a literal body. Yet the social body, while arguably an abstract notion describing the relationship of the individual to society and vice versa, rather than any physical body, is nevertheless always to some extent about material bodies. It is precisely once the social body begins to treat individual human bodies as inhuman, thereby excluding some individual bodies from the social body as a whole, that the social body becomes increasingly grotesque. This is precisely what happens to Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial (1925), in which an individual body is rendered inhuman in the eyes of a society that seems indifferent to its rights. Throughout the novel, K. never discovers why he in particular has been charged, nor indeed what he has been charged with. Abstract and remote as the authorities might seem, the human body, his own and others, is put through a long string of grotesque actions as K. tries to find out what exactly is happening to him, and why.

Like The Metamorphosis, parts of Kafka’s novel are darkly absurd, not least those passages in which K. tries to wrestle with the disembodied bureaucratic system that has without warning ostracized him from society. Yet Kafka’s story becomes grotesque precisely when the faceless bureaucracy materializes in, and on, physical bodies. This is certainly the case with K.’s discovery that the two officers who first arrested him are being whipped by another government officer, “dressed in a kind of dark leather outfit which left his arms and much of his chest completely bare,” who has been tasked to administer the whipping due to a complaint made by K.42 Whereas the discovery and the setting are absurd, the description of the punishment itself is grotesque in extremis, focusing as it does on excessive and extreme behavior, and on exaggerated and abnormal bodies. As the leather-clad man remarks as he is about to commence the whipping:

Look how fat he is, the first strokes will be wasted on fat. Do you know how he got so fat? He has the habit of eating the breakfast of all those he arrests. Didn’t he eat your breakfast? There you are. But a man with a belly like that can never become a thrasher, it’s out of the question.43

Here, the absurdity of an uncaring system is displayed via naked human bodies described as abnormal, unfit, and exaggerated, and via the highly visceral punishment they receive for an abstract and seemingly insignificant infraction. As with K. himself, who ends up receiving capital punishment for a violation so insignificant he never even manages to identify it, these cases are, figuratively speaking, grotesque because of the disproportion between cause and effect, transgression and punishment. As happens in the whipping of the two officers, K.’s body likewise comes into focus as he receives his punishment by the otherwise inscrutable and intangible authorities:

Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached? He raised his hands and splayed his finger.

But the hands of one of the men were placed on K.’s throat, whilst the other plunged the knife into his heart and turned it round twice. As his sight faded, K. saw the two men leaning cheek to cheek close to his face as they observed the final verdict. “Like a dog!”44

Finished off “like a dog,” K. is rendered at once inhuman and eminently human: an animal fit for slaughter, but also a man with a heart to be stabbed, a throat to be grabbed and, most importantly, a voice that utters a final judgment on the naked injustice of having been deemed to belong to a lower stratum of (inhuman) life.

Naked life is the grotesque core, too, of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947), a tale of life and death in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. Levi describes “the demolition of man” through a series of degrading and dehumanizing acts meant to ensure that he and the camp’s other prisoners have “reached the bottom.” Stripped of “our clothes, our shoes, even our hair,” they are stripped of their language, names, and identities, too, and that “in a grotesque and sarcastic manner.”45 Rendered silent and nameless apart from the numbers tattooed onto their arms, they are thus as individuals and as a mass reduced to what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life” (zoe). In contrast to the citizen (bios), whose existence is covered by the rule of law, and who therefore claims certain rights, the social body will at times deem a category of humans to be “life devoid of value,” which is precisely what happened to Jews and a range of other minorities during Nazi rule.46

Whereas Kafka’s novel and Levi’s memoir describe how the individual can be, and has been, treated with grotesque indifference through the expurgation of certain groups of people from the social body, the social body can also produce individuals who become so alienated that they commit violence in order to regain some sort of footing in a world they otherwise cannot navigate. Patrick Bateman, the mass-murdering protagonist of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), for instance, is a seemingly successful investment banker living a life of luxury in New York. Young, fit, and wealthy, Bateman should be a model citizen of the body social, yet he acts more like a virulent cancer as he spends his nights killing and torturing people. Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup (1997), also about an American serial killer, tells the story of Frank, an overweight middle-class businessman, who goes on a killing spree in the red-light district of Tokyo. And lastly we have Lester Ballard, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Child of God (1973), an undernourished and poor man of the rural South who is partly forced, and partly chooses, to live outside the social order, and yet ends up killing a string of people even as he attempts to distance himself from the rest of humanity.

Differences in class and setting aside, all three serial killers are described as sharing many traits. All three books focus excessively on the victims’ murdered, dismembered, and violated bodies, and on their murderous protagonists’ necrophiliac tendencies. We also find an excessive focus on the killers’ own physiognomies (the hyper-fit body of Bateman, the overweight body of Frank, and the wiry body of Ballard), even as the three books seem intended as critiques of the underbelly of the abstract social body. In this, these fictional serial killers all express a murderous rage at social bodies from which they feel excluded and alienated: lonely and seeking human contact, they preclude any such contact by exterminating the very people with whom they so desire intimacy. Human existence itself, these novels seem to imply, is grotesque; eminently human and always embodied, we can never quite escape our baser nature, regardless of how modern, refined, and removed from the animal we imagine ourselves to be. Whether it is for laughs, pleasure, or horror and disgust, the potential for the grotesque remains as long we continue to be human.

Discussion of the Literature

Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957) is a modern classic of studies in the grotesque, as is Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982).47 As introductory texts to the subject, Philip Thomson’s The Grotesque (1972) and Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund’s Grotesque (2013) are more accessible, if necessarily also more perfunctory.48 For a feminist take on the grotesque, Mary Russo’s The Female Grotesque (1995) offers excellent readings of specific case studies as well as a much-needed discussion of the often unspoken gender implications of the grotesque.49 For postcolonial perspectives, see Maria Sona Pimentel Biscaia’s Postcolonial and Feminist Grotesque (2011) and David K. Danow’s The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque (2004).50 For regional variants of the grotesque, Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960) is essential.51 For national perspectives, see, for instance, Arthur Clayborough’s The Grotesque in English Literature (1965) and James Goodwin’s Modern American Grotesque: Literature and Philosophy (2009).52 Finally, if one were to recommend only one book on the grotesque, Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) remains the authoritative text even half a century after it was first published.53

Further Reading

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Biscaia, Maria Sofia Pimentel. Postcolonial and Feminist Grotesque: Texts of Contemporary Excess. Bern: Peter Lang, 2011.
  • Clayborough, Arthur. The Grotesque in English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
  • Connelly, Francis S. “Introduction.” In Modern Art and the Grotesque. Edited by Frances S. Connelly, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Danow, David K. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.
  • Edwards, Justin D., and Rune Graulund. Grotesque. London: Routledge, 2013.
  • Fiedler, Leslie. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
  • Foucault, Michel. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975. Edited by Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Solomoni. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2003.
  • Goodwin, James. Modern American Grotesque: Literature and Photography. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009.
  • Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
  • Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
  • O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque.” In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, 36–50. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2000.
  • Russo, Mary. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.
  • Thomson, Philip. The Grotesque. London: Methuen, 1972.