Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Towards the Understanding of the Modern Grotesque (1)

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Towards the Understanding of the Modern Grotesque (1)

Article excerpt


Even though the grotesque may be seen as a phenomenon which transcends generic, theoretical and periodic categorisations, in this article the emphasis is on its significance as an artistic device which enables writers to expose, highlight or conceal their individual apprehensions in respect of the challenges facing their generation. A brief evaluation of some of the pivotal works published in the second half of the twentieth century is followed by a summary of the evolution in understanding of both the term and the phenomenon. In evaluation of the critical works the emphasis is limited to the most influential contribution each of these works makes to the body of the grotesque scholarship. Likewise, in tracing the evolution, attention is paid only to the substantial shifts in the understanding of the grotesque in a given period. In conclusion an attempt is made at specifying some criteria which might be helpful in recognising the grotesque work as well as orienting oneself in its ambivalent universe.


Hoewel die groteske gesien kan word as 'n verskynsel wat genre sowel as teoretiese en periodiese kategoriee oorskry, val die klein in hierdie artikel op die belangrikheid van die groteske as kunsgreep wat skrywers in staat stel om hulle individuele bedenkings oor die uitdagings waarvoor hulle generasies te staan kom, te onthul, te beklemtoon of weg te steek. 'n Bondige evaluasie van 'n paar kenmerke uit die tweede helfte van die twintigste eeu word gegee en opgevolg met 'n opsomming van die evolusie in die begrip van die term en die verskynsel. By die beoordeling van kritiese werk is die perspektief beperk tot die mees invloedryke bydraes wat elkeen van die werke tot die studie van die groteske lewer. By die opteken van die evolusie van die begrip word daar ook net aandag gegee aan belangrike verskuiwings in 'n bepaalde periode. Die artikel word afgesluit met 'n poging om 'n paar kriteria aan te gee vir die herkenning van die groteske teks en vir die manier waarop 'n mens jou in die ambivalente wereld van die groteske kan orienteer.


The modern view is that the grotesque as a mode of expression has existed in art and literature as long as human consciousness but, being capable of changing its domain and scope while shifting from one meaning to another, it has adapted to the varying demands of different sociocultural formations to express themselves. In the widest sense, the purpose of grotesque work is to highlight the contradictions inherent in life and in people, and to make the reader aware of the absurdities in the real world. Because the grotesque in itself is a departure from the norm, it is frequently used in satire to expose the immediate and identifiable vices and follies of human beings. (2) It also frequently features in sombre catastrophist literature in which it comments on the universal dilapidation of the world; it depicts the world's physical decrepitude, it reveals the anonymity of individual suffering, emphasises the loneliness of a human being living in the hostile jungle of a modern metropolis. It also exposes the essence of evil in humankind: depravity, corruption, hatred, and the malicious misappropriation of intellect for cunning and deceit. In extreme cases of pessimism or misanthropy, the grotesque renders a philosophical comment on the total absurdity and futility of life. Because of its particular complexity and tendency to constant mutation, the grotesque has not been unequivocally defined even though its existence has been acknowledged for many centuries.

The summary of the six-centuries-long history of the term "grotesque" is given in The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings by Frances Barasch, the study which makes a credible case for the profound influence the grotesque always had on art. Discussing more recent uses of the grotesque, which Barasch invariably associates with theatre, allows the scholar to conclude that both traditional and modern artistic forms have certain common characteristics, "for the artists of different ages, instinctively or consciously, expressed in fantasies of mixed humour and fear, the common perception that the total human experience is beyond logical ordering" (Barasch 1971: 164). …

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