The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Grotesque: From the Italian word for “grottoes” or “caves,” a term first used in English in the sixteenth century to refer to decorative paintings or sculptures mixing human, animal, and supernatural figures (such as griffins) in designs found in or imitating those discovered in excavated rooms of ancient Roman houses. Such rooms, which were popularly referred to during the Renaissance as grotte, were literally “grotto-esque,” since they were open spaces long buried under more recent buildings and even ruins.

In the seventeenth century, grotesque came to be used more broadly to refer to strangely unusual things or artistic representations, particularly ones involving bizarre or unnatural combinations of characteristics or images. English poet John Milton’s representation of Paradise in Paradise Lost (1667) as a “steep wilderness” with “hairy sides / With thicket over-grown, grotesque and wild” is, by this definition, itself grotesque, combining images of hair and plant material. With this broader application, the term came to be used as an adjective describing gargoyles, statues combining human, animal, and monstrous features designed to protect buildings, particularly Gothic churches and cathedrals. Today, in art and literary criticism, the term refers to an aesthetic category involving but also parodying Gothic elements and themes. In literature, it also refers to characters who are in some way twisted or deformed, evoking a combination of antipathy and empathy, such as the Monster in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818).

In the grotesque, both humor and fear are often grounded in extreme physicality and fascination with sexuality. In Rabelais and His World (1940), Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin associated the grotesque with the carnivalesque, and thus with laughter, arguing that the grotesque privileges the body and bodily life (e.g., ingestion, defecation, procreation) and that “the essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life.” By contrast, in The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957), German literary scholar Wolfgang Kayser viewed the grotesque as “the estranged world”; as he explained, the grotesque is “the objectivation of the ’It,’ the ghostly ’It,’” the “incomprehensible, inexplicable, and impersonal.” Kayser also, however, viewed the grotesque as “a play with the absurd” and “an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world.”

EXAMPLES: The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and the writings of François Rabelais have long been considered grotesque, as are numerous short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, whose first collection was titled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). See below for an example of the grotesque in Bosch’s art, the Hell panel of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Twentieth-century literary works containing grotesque elements include Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915), Erskine Caldwell’s Poor Fool (1930), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), and Pär Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf (1945). Contemporary popular works that incorporate the grotesque include Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons (1981—95); the animated television cartoon South Park (1997— ); the claymation television cartoon Celebrity Deathmatch (1998—2007); and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Rant (2007), in which the protagonist’s obsession with getting bitten by rabid creatures leads to the infection not only of the protagonist but of countless others whose rabid bodies render them akin to zombies.


Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell: An example of the grotesque.

Some of the creatures are lying on the ground with swords, knives, and musical instruments. Some of the creatures are hanging on the instruments. Several dark houses with lights illuminating from them are shown in the background.

Robert Duggan’s book The Grotesque in Contemporary British Fiction (2013) covers works by Angela Carter, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Will Self, and Toby Litt, relating their themes and styles to those that persist within the tradition of the grotesque.