The grotesque is an adjective used to describe something that’s at once mysterious, ugly, hard to understand, and distorted. Things, people, events, and situations can all be grotesque, but the best examples are characters. Characters in literature who are defined as “grotesque” are those that evoke feelings of sympathy and disgust from readers. They might be visually unappealing but have a deep well of warmth and a kind personality that’s hard to reconcile with their appearance.
Grotesque pronunciation: grow-tesk
Definition of the Grotesque
The grotesque in literature refers to something or someone that appeals to and disgusts or puts off readers. It might evoke a feeling of pity as well as discomfort.
One might want to embrace a grotesque character at the same time that they want to run from them. These characters are a collection of juxtapositions that make them some of the most interesting features in the stories they belong to. Below, are a few of the best examples but one of the most commonly cited is Quasimodo from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Another very well-known example is Erik from The Phantom of the Opera.
Examples of the Grotesque in Literature
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. It is part comedy and part tragedy, falling into the hard-to-define category of tragi-comedy. It tells the story of a few isolated characters on an island. They include Prospero, his daughter Miranda, Ariel a spirit, and Caliban, a character who embodies the grotesque. He’s a perfect example of the term in that his outward appearance and reputation are terrible but, he’s more than either of these. He’s referred to as a monster by the other characters in the book and is the son of a witch-hag. He believes that Prosper stole the island from him and lusts for power back over the only thing that he used to control. Here are the lines from the famous “The Isle is Full of Noises” speech:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
Caliban has a nobler side that is revealed as the play goes on. There are a few brief glimpses of a lighter heart the audience receives but that the other characters don’t acknowledge. He’s beautifully spoken, as the previous quote reveals, and deeply emotional. In this speech, he describes noises one might thereon the island. They aren’t fearful ones. Instead, he hears in them a thousand “twangling interments” that hum in his ears.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is a classic example of a novel that features a grotesque character. Like in The Tempest, in Frankenstein, the creature Victor creates is constantly referred to as “The Monster.” Readers, and eventually Victor, are exposed to his kinder side, but the rest of the world sees him based only on his appearance. They scorn him and cast him out as a freak of nature. This turns him into the very monster they claimed he was from the beginning. Rather than being a full-fledged villain, the Creature is incredibly sympathetic, and it’s his plight that readers are left most moved by at the end of the book. In the following quote, Victor expresses his horror after realizing that the Creature looked nothing like he intended:
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
It’s this image of the Creature that the rest of the world sees too and why he becomes the monster they claim he is.
The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Like the previous examples, The Lord of the Rings series provides readers with numerous examples of the grotesque. One of the easiest to cite and define is the character Gollum. He evokes feelings of empathy when one learns his backstory and feelings of disgust. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the grotesque so interesting. Throughout the books, he’s described as “wretched,” “vile,” a liar, murderer, and more. Tolkien wrote that he is:
Dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.
He conforms to the dictionary definition of a grotesque character, through his off-putting appearance and behavior, as well as to the literary definition.
The purpose is to create a dynamic character who evokes more than one feeling in the reader. One might be surprised to find themselves feeling pity for a terrifying “monster” or endearment for someone who has committed acts of violence. These character’s backstories and inner lives are incredibly important.
An interesting example of the grotesque in popular literature is Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame. This character is a perfect example of how grotesque characters turn readers off and also evoke their pity.
It is used in a similar to the way in which it’s used in literature. An art piece might be appealing for its use of color, material, form, and design but the subject it depicts might be disgusting and off-putting. Viewers will want to spend time with the piece despite their negative reactions to it.
Their backstory and the reason for their actions are incredibly important. When writing this kind of character, they need to be dark, mysterious, and strange. They’ll likely have an extremely unattractive appearance but have a tragic history that offsets the feelings of disgust someone experiences when they read about them.
Related Literary Terms
- Abjection: a literary term that refers to subjective horror, or someone’s reaction to physically or emotionally disturbing subject matter.
- Affective: is used to refer to the emotional qualities of a literary work.
- Bestiary: a compendium of beasts that originated in the ancient world.
- Doppelgänger: a person who looks like someone else but doesn’t necessarily act like that person.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Hero: the principal or primary character of a work.
- Hubris: a classical term used to refer to excessive pride in a story’s characters.
- Read: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
- Read: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Learoux
- Listen: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley-summary and analysis