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Is it a world where the laws of nature, symmetry, and proportions are no longer valid?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

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