Accepting the Grotesque Body: Bildungs by Clare Boylan and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

By Roberts Shumaker, Jeanette | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Accepting the Grotesque Body: Bildungs by Clare Boylan and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne


Roberts Shumaker, Jeanette, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Abstract: In Clare Boylan's fantasy novel Black Baby (1988) and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's realistic novel The Dancers Dancing (1999), female protagonists fear those who symbolize the grotesqueness of their own overweight bodies; hence, these heroines reject marginalized women, either black or retarded, and Irish peasants. Through their heroines' struggles to accept both themselves and marginalized others, Ni Dhuibhne and Boylan deconstruct the psychology of self-hatred, whether it occurs in teenage or elderly women. Bakhtin's ideas about the grotesque body, along with Stallybrass and White's connection of the grotesque to prejudice, and Kristeva's theory of abjection illuminate the conflicts over self-acceptance that Boylan's and Ni Dhuibhne's heroines face.

Key Words: self-hatred, grotesque, women, body, abjection, overweight, fantasy, disability, African.

'Fair and foul are near of kin, And fair needs foul,' I cried. W. B. Yeats, "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop"

For the female protagonists of Boylan's Black Baby (1988), and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's The Dancers Dancing (1999), maturation entails accepting the grotesqueness of their bodies. The female body erupts through excess weight and unruly sexual desires in both novels. For the teenage heroine of Dancers Dancing, self-acceptance means owning her resemblance to her retarded aunt, along with her own working-class status. Whereas Ni Dhuibhne's heroine is young enough to broaden her approach to life, the elderly heroine of Black Baby is unable to rebuild hers, except in a comatose fantasy.

Distrust of women's bodies can be traced back to the early Christian Church in Ireland. A preoccupation with protecting the chastity of monks led to carvings depicting women as seductresses, and to gender-specific convents, churches, and even burial grounds during the Dark and Middle Ages (Wood 1985: 19-20). In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, grotesque carvings of female figures displaying their genitalia were placed on castles and churches. These Sheela-na-gigs were intended to protect buildings from destructive forces (Wood 1985: 22). Such traditional fears of feminine monstrosity play a role in Boylan and Ni Dhuibhne's novels.

Lack of self-esteem in women supports inequities of the gender structure, according to Peter Stallybrass and Allon White. Women and others who are put at the bottom of the gender or class structure accept their position as deserved due to their lowly qualities. Stallybrass and White argue that projecting the grotesqueness of one's body onto those seen as other is a strategy that the middle class historically has used to achieve supremacy and high self-esteem: "The bourgeois subject continuously defined and redefined itself through the exclusion of what it marked out as 'low' -as dirty, repulsive, noisy, contaminating" (1986: 191). Sublimation of "low" desires has been the middle class's way of exercising cultural domination (Stallybrass 1986: 197).

Boylan's and Ni Dhuibhne's heroines solidify their identification with middle-class fears through rejecting those who represent their own grotesqueness -marginalized women, either black or retarded, and Irish peasants. These protagonists also try to sublimate their desires to fit middle-class expectations. However, the protagonists fail to enhance their self-esteem and status through these ploys. Instead, they feel guilty and cheated, as they deny themselves the sensual and social pleasures that they associate with marginal people. Through their heroines' struggles to accept themselves and marginalized others, Ni Dhuibhne and Boylan deconstruct the psychology of feminine self-hatred.

Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas about the grotesque body, along with Stallybrass and White's connection of the grotesque to prejudice, illuminate the conflicts over self-acceptance that these Irish protagonists face. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque "frees human consciousness, thoughts, and imagination for new potentialities" (1968: 49). …

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