Grotesque: abnormally large, shockingly ugly, distorted, and ludicrously odd

I have a remedy against thirst, quite contrary to that which is good against the biting of a mad dog. Keep running after a dog, and he will never bite you; drink always before the thirst, and it will never come upon you. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, book 1 

Have you ever wondered what a grotesque world would look like?

Is it a world where the laws of nature, symmetry, and proportions are no longer valid? YES!
Is it a world where everything that is considered normal and stable transgresses and challenges you? YES!
Hm. Do we live in a grotesque world? I’ll let you answer that question…

To define ‘grotesque’ in a literary sense is, without a doubt, very difficult. I can’t recall any modern author who’d be associated with writing or working with the grotesque. Still, most of us use elements of it in our novels.

The term grotesque meant very different things in different historical eras. For example, in the 16th century, wealthy people could welcome guests and talk to them while sitting on their toilet stools. This behavior would be interpreted as out of the ordinary today. 

In some novels from the 17-19th centuries, the writers used an excess of bizarre elements to add a grotesque nature to the story; for example, when noses would disappear or turn into pig snouts or crow beaks.

Today, in the 21st century, if we have to identify the grotesque, we look for:

  • Disharmony
  • Hybridity
  • Excess
  • Exaggeration
  • Transgression

In short, anything that disrupts the norm (whatever is considered the standard in this particular place and time).

The Russians, as always, have also poked their noses into this topic. Mikhail Bakhtin (a philosopher and literary critic) has been the most influential in studying the term ‘grotesque’. He has built his study on the famous literary work – The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, considered an obligatory read in Russia.
French author Francois Rabelais wrote this pentalogy, five comic/satirical novels, in the 16th century (between 1532 and 1564). The characters are giants who walk around, destroying everything and eating everyone they meet (including humans). Although, it is NOT their bodies but their excessive behavior that interested Bakhtin.

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. Gargantua and Pantagruel 

Scenes like this helped Bakhtin to analyze the grotesque and provide recognizable (or at least, common) characteristics:

  1. The grotesque is inextricably linked to “vulgarity” and “low” behavior.
  2. The grotesque is focused on various body descriptions: the mouth, the genital organs, the phallus, the belly, etc. The main principle – the body’s growth, or describing a body that is different from the natural.
  3. The grotesque always expands, exaggerates, and transgresses throughout the novel. The transgression never stops!

There’s also one more exciting term which Bakhtin studied simultaneously – CARNIVALESQUE – laughter that follows all described grotesqueries in a book. How did he explain such a term?

Bakhtin said that he sees the carnivalesque as a state of joy in which norms are ridiculed or degraded. Despite negative (sometimes horrific and disgusting) behavior, the carnivalesque offers new and exciting possibilities for individuals and society – it helps bring forth something better; it lights up the world with a positive light. Maybe he’s right…

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. Bakhtin

Some more critics and philosophers studied the grotesque in the 19th – 20th centuries. One of them is Julia Kristeva, who had a totally different approach. Unlike Bakhtin, who focused on the liberating qualities of the grotesque, Kristeva claimed that carnivalesque-behavior is filthy and dangerous – it “copulates and overeats.” To explain it in simple terms, to her the grotesque is something to be horrified over (in contradiction to Bakhtin, who saw the grotesque as something which caused happiness and cheerfulness).

The biggest problem with the grotesque is its similarity to the absurd. Philip Thompson questioned this in one of his books – where does the absurd end and the grotesque begin? And he notes:

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.”

As you can see, it is a truly challenging literary term…😉 I’d describe the grotesque as something that lures, shocks, and camouflages the truth at the same time. Ah, and let’s not forget about Ero Guro – the poetry genre that focuses on the erotic and grotesque. The term was created in Japan during the 1920s and it is often presented in art and literature using themes of erotic crucifixion, rape, bondage, and any kind of macabre sexual overtones or images.

Shibari kinbaku bandage – sexual game concept

If you’d like to check out more about the grotesque, I’d recommend this article (when you have time) – On Bakhtin’s “CARNIVAL” and “GROTESQUE”


PS. As you know, I work within surreal, absurd, and grotesque (humorous) genres. My latest novel-drama, The Pearl Territory, is a grotesque science-fiction or surreal fantasy, where humanity is divided into two groups – advanced and primitive people. The novel is a sketch of our society in the future.

If it were a painting – think, a combination of impressionism and cubism. 🟨⬛️
If it were a piece of music – Gustav Mahler, Symphony 5. 📻🕺
If it were food – Pufferfish. So poisonous that it can easily kill someone, as it’s 100 times more potent than cyanide, yet still considered edible. 🐡🐠

Next Monday, I’ll be starting to post a new long story. It consists of 48 parts/days from the life of a divorced, middle-aged man. I’m writing in the first person. The first name of the protagonist is Bullet, the last – Harmless.

Mister Harmless

Genre: absurdist comedy, surreal humor (adult).

Each chapter will be 863 words, relatively short. It takes me 3 sittings, or 3 different days to write 863 words of clean text, so I’ll only be posting 1 chapter per week. On other days, I will share posts on science, literature, books, reviews, and author’s interviews.

Have a great weekend! ☕️📚🕺


Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature


    1. Author

      Yeah, I hope 🤞 it won’t get more ugly… but Idk, it seems this world is moving to awfully “distorted state”.

    2. Author

      … but grotesque in literature is kinda fun* :))

    1. Author


  1. The implosion of the US awaits I fear as the grotesque unnails the stage and takes the planks with him… in the meantime looking forward to your take on the inner workings of a middle-aged divorcee!

    1. Author

      The world’s “stage” & “planks” = funny comparison;)

      About a middle – aged divorcee …I’ll start with “Meet a Stranger” National Day – the dream of all divorced 😂

  2. You’re so disciplined. I’ll bet the dictionary has a photo of you next to the word 😄😄😳
    I’m only disciplined when it comes to guitar lessons and practice, and laziness. I excel at the latter 😂😂😛

    1. Author

      I’d buy that* dictionary 😂😉… but that’s not the case 🙂
      I’m (sometimes) organized, that’s all 🙂 trying to shift between chaos & order 🤓

    2. Author

      if you are disciplined- it’s in your blood lol so maybe you’ve mixed it all up 😏😏

      1. I’m definitely disciplined in the things I love most. Organized? Hmmm 🤔 Possibly, though the young lady at the grocery store thinks I’m OCD because I bag my groceries a certain way 😂😂😂🧚🏻‍♂️🤹🏻‍♂️👨🏻‍🦯🦄

        1. Author

          You can learn to be organized… at least for a short while (2-3 months?), as I do :))

          If you can do it with groceries 😄☝️ – you can do it with writing too 🙂

  3. This is very interesting to me, not because of the topic, but because I’m familiar with Bakhtin’s work, specifically in terms of language. In fact, I’ve cited him in my own studies. I had no idea he was into what you’ve described here. It’s kinda fascinating.

    And greeting people while on the toilet sounds horrific lol

    1. Author

      Yes, true 🙂 Bakhtin is famous for his linguistic works too. In Russia we know him mostly as a great literary critic & philosopher. He analyzed Dostoevsky & Rabelais (carnival & grotesque) :))

      Cool you cited him 😃… I think not so many people know his name.

  4. Loved this, VR. I’m looking forward to meeting Mr. Harmless. I love the first person POV. My first three books were all in first person. 😁

    1. Author

      Yes 😄 thank you 🙂 I love your first person POV… I think you have a very unique approach to 1st person POV – it’s recognizable 👌👌📚

  5. After reading this, my mind went to Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. A name I cannot pronounce, but who took his deformity and made it work brilliantly. Parents who were first cousins was ‘ok’ even in America’s 19th century (Alcott’s Rose in Bloom where the idea was considered ‘squicky’-WP blog about dead authors) and his injury and subsequent illness made him not as desirable as an heir, but he was pretty amazing, none the less!
    Also laughed at the persons greeting visitors on the toilet. People today do that all the time!! Was startled to learn in a group of women how many text extensively pooping!

    1. Author

      I’m not familiar with this HENRI (impossible to remember or pronounce last name), but I’ll Google him 😄

      Yes, I guess a lot of ppl texting while using the toilet, no doubt 😅😂 but to meet & talk to ppl while on the toilet is “something else”… mmmm, a bit too grotesque for 21st century 😄

      1. Wonder what kinds of etiquette there is on toilet visitations? I do recall many outhouses used to have more than one hole and nary a divider between them. lol

        1. Author

          haha I don’t know about that toilet-etiquette… and I’m scared to dig DEEPER into this subject haha

          1. More absurd story lines! Ugh….

  6. So many ‘grotesque’ comments I will not leave here! However, I am wondering how the artist ran out of rope, before he finished with the right arm, of the pretty lady! 🙂

    1. Author

      Ahhh only you could notice the rope, Kinky 😂😉

  7. Interesting take on Grotesque and you covered it well…. But it’s also the thing that some people are fascinated by the grotesque and what some think of it is not the same as others.

    I’ll do my best to keep up with your new story 🙂

    1. Author

      Yes, true… the grotesque can be represented (and seen/understood) differently, depends on the author/person …

      I hope it will be “enough” fun… my Harmless guy-story 🥸😅😂

      1. I’m sure you can make a harmless guy story more than interesting 😂

        1. Author

          🤔😅 I’ll try 🙂 it’s already done & scheduled for tomorrow 😱

          1. That’s good to know… No going back now 😂

          2. Author

            😂😅 exactly! can’t kill him now… his life is way too entertaining:))

          3. Haha… Someone’s life has to be lol

          4. Author


  8. Might the grotesque and absurd be seen as redundant in the world we’re living inside of? I feel as if the times have changed the dynamic. I mean, fiction has become fact . . we are there.

    1. Author

      exactly what my mum told me yesterday… we are living in some kind of “fantasy-nightmare”

  9. Author

    Sure, cool 🙂 thank you! I’ll check your website 😃

  10. In 1960, Flannery O’Connor wrote the essay Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction, and noted: ‘When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion.’ Thus (to put it over-simply), the employment of grotesque. I think this agrees with your summary of grotesque as ‘abnormally large’, exaggerated to a degree of absurdity. O’Connor was also a cartoonist, not uncoincidentally as cartoonists exaggerate features to make their point.
    Looking forward to your story – fascinated by writing that is from the point of view of one’s opposite gender.

    1. Author

      Thanks for this reference – great one ☝️
      Agreed, the topic is fascinating (offbeat in literature/criticism, still so many use it – example: hyperbole 😄, in their writing) & probably, cartoonists see it more clearly bcz they use it daily 🙂

      1. Yes, it’s the use of caricature and satire to convey the meaning, I guess.

  11. Looking forward to some ‘ harmless’ fun! 😉

    The time we are living in must be the most grotesque times!

    1. Author

      yes, but if we’ll look at the world as a whole, “big picture” – all times and centuries 🙂 it was always grotesque 😂😱

  12. I saw your title in my email and immediately thought, “Gargantua and Pantagruel”…

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