Over the course of several centuries, grotesque imagery has played a vital role in the arts, literature, and cultures all over the world. Attempting to attribute a clear-cut definition to the word grotesque has proven to be a challenge for historians and literary scholars since its definition has changed over time, but the role it plays in each of these subjects is essentially the same. The Grotesque serves as a means by which to stray away from conventional beauty standards, to distort and exaggerate, and combine the familiar with the unfamiliar- much like the Uncanny. Because of this, Gothic literature often incorporates grotesque imagery to further emphasize themes of chaos, madness, and other dark aspects of the human condition. This essay will examine the concept of grotesque imagery and the role it plays in challenging conventional body notions in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
When first introduced to the word grotesque, most people would think of its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” (The Master’s Review). Although these are indeed common grotesque elements, they do not necessarily constitute the whole meaning of the word. Since actual word itself has evolved and changed meanings over the years, earlier iterations were used in a way that blurred the line between the real and unreal (The Masters Review). More recently, the Grotesque is used in literature to focus on the physical aspect of the human body. However, the Grotesque is both an artistic and literary term that involves a combination of the real and unreal, human and nonhuman, and horror and comedy.
An example of Grotesque literature that merges horror with comedy is in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose”, which 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. The nose harasses him when he accuses it of running away from him, and then nearly arrests him (LetterPile). Clearly this plot is disturbing, but it is also so far-fetched that it’s comical. The Grotesque tends to defy clear definitions and borders that occupies the middle ground between life and death, and is inherently ambiguous. In literature as well as art, the grotesque is defined by what it does to boundaries- transgressing, merging, or destabilizing them (Connelly 4).
The presumed universals of classical beauty often involve symmetry, aesthetically pleasing subjects, and perfect body proportions. Grotesque imagery, however, is quite opposite of this. To quote Victor Hugo, “ideal beauty has only one standard whereas the variations and combinations possible for the grotesque are limitless.” (Connelly 4). Visual imagery often depicts the grotesque as being monstruos, deformed, and ugly. In her academic essay titled “The Grotesque Body: Fleshing Out the Subject”, Sara Cohen Shabot defines grotesque art as, “art whose form and subject matter appear to be a part of, while contradictory to, the natural, social, or personal worlds of which we are a part. Its images most often embody distortions in such as fashion that it confronts us as strange and disordered” (Shabot 58). An example of this can be seen in the painting The Skat Players (pictured below), by Otto Dix. In the painting, Dix chooses to depict his subjects as horrifying hybrids of machine and man in order to make a statement about the technological revolution that was taking place during the time at which he painted it- the 1920’s.
Like Dix, Robert Louis Stevenson also utilized grotesque imagery to develop the character, Hyde, in his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to make a political statement. He wrote this novel in London during the late 19th century, where it was commonplace for people to present themselves in a highly respectable manner, and things like expression of sexuality (especially homosexuality) were considered a taboo. In the novel, Stevenson describes Hyde as “pale and dwarfish, he gave a impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile… but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.” (Stevenson 16). By characterizing him as this deformed, primitive creature, Stevenson uses Hyde as an allegory for the repressed desires and evil tendencies that are an inevitable part of human nature. The fear and hate generated towards Hyde by other characters in the novel symbolizes the attitudes of London’s elite members of society and their tendency to heavily veil transgressions and dark aspects of their personalities during this time.
In Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Cousin Lymon is also described as being extremely deformed and dwarf like. McCullers writes, “… the man was a hunchback. He was scarcely more than four feet tall and he wore a ragged, dusty coat that reached only to his knees. His crooked little legs seemed too thin to carry the weight of his great warped chest and the hump that sat on his shoulders.” (McCullers). This description of Cousin Lymon is different than that of Hyde in the sense that Lymon is not nearly as menacing, but he is described in a way that is so outlandish that it is slightly comical.
Despite his seemingly unthreatening manner, the reader later finds out that Cousin Lymon is actually highly manipulative and untrustworthy. The initial grotesque description of Lymon serves to create a sense of unease and mystery about him, which can be seen as a foreshadowing of his flawed character which is revealed later in the story when he betrays Miss Amelia during her fight with Marvin Macy. Given these two examples of grotesque body image, one can see how effective it is to catch the attention of the reader when such bold and unconventional body imagery is put forth.
Some other motives behind the use of grotesque imagery stem from cultural developments such as introduction of photography, mass media, science fiction, and weapons of mass destruction (Connelly 1). In his scholarly journal article titled “The Grotesque: First Principles”, Geoffrey Harpham describes ever-changing grotesque ideals by saying, “As our perceptions of the physical world change- as the world itself is changed by technology, pollution, wars, and urbanization- some things which has appeared as distortions are now seen as commonplace… Each age redefines the grotesque in terms of what threatens its sense of essential humanity.” (Harpham 463). For instance, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was composed at a time during which society was starting to develop social sciences such as psychology, where multiple personality disorder and other dissociative disorders were starting to be diagnosed for the first time in history. In today’s society, writers might draw inspiration for the grotesque from things such as space exploration, climate catastrophe, or rapid development of artificial intelligence.
In addition to using grotesque imagery that reflects the current fears or scientific advancements of a society, authors often use it as a tool to speak out against certain cultural ideals. Being a woman living in the 1950s, Carson McCullers did not adhere to the strict gender roles of her time. Known to dress in trousers and write against the grain of heterosexual convention, McCullers used grotesque imagery to characterize Miss Amelia, the main character in her story Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Miss Amelia is described as “a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there about her sunburned face was a tense, haggard quality.” (McCullers). This imagery is complete opposite of what one would expect a woman to look like in this time. By portraying Miss Amelia in this way, McCullers is challenging the conventional roles of women during this time, who were expected to dress and behave in a feminine, housewife-like way. Miss Amelia was also described in the story as having a total lack of interest in her husband, Marvin Macy. This further contributes to McCullers challenging of gender roles and sexuality.
The coupling of the grotesque and Gothic literature is one that has proven to be a favorite among critics. The two compliment each other because they are both associated with vice and disorder. In his scholarly essay titled “Gothic Fiction and the Grotesque”, Maximillian Novak writes, “The secret passageways, caves and grottoes introduced into Gothic fiction by Walpole do not function merely as setting. They evoke the world of psychological terror as surely as, for the romances, a bank of jasmines in an arbor evoked the world of love.” (Novak 59) This statement provides insight about how grotesque imagery can enhance and exaggerate the morbid tone that is often associated with Gothic fiction. As mentioned earlier, by describing characters like Hyde, Cousin Lymon, and Miss Amelia in such absurd and freakish terms, the author is able to evoke a strong reaction from the reader by drawing attention to the character and the purpose he/she/it is intended to serve in the story.
Although Gothic literature and the Grotesque share similar components, there are a few distinctions between them. Gothic is defined by Merriam-Webster as: adj., “of or relating to a style of writing that describes strange or frightening events that take place in mysterious places.” The genre of Gothic literature was started by Horace Walpole in 1765, and has since evolved to include sub genres such as the Southern Gothic. The Grotesque is not considered a type of literature, but rather a literary device used to exaggerate certain Gothic themes. Grotesque imagery serves to draw attention to a particular character or idea rather than the whole setting and tone of the work, as in Gothic fiction.
As demonstrated through the works of Stevenson and McCullers, utilizing the Grotesque in Gothic literature is a highly effective way to deliver a message to the reader in a way that is bound to cause shock and speculation about the writer’s true intent. Challenging conventional body norms and drawing on political issues through use of grotesque imagery and allegory have been common patterns in Gothic fiction for centuries, and will continue to tie into concerns central to humanistic debate today, including representations of race and gender, government, and globalization.