Although 'grotesque' has become a general adjective for the strange or disturbing, and can be seen in various art forms from literature to architecture, the term also refers to a sub-genre of Southern Gothic literature. This literature utilizes themes of disturbing characters, haunting landscapes, and sinister events (all elements of Gothic literature, from which the Southern Gothic tradition derives) to explore social problems, such as poverty, alienation, and violence. The grotesque takes these elements further to highlight the monstrous, deeply flawed and decayed. The grotesque is usually divided into three categories: doubleness, hybridity, and metamorphosis. Doubleness refers to duplication and can be used to illustrate the presence of apparitions or wraiths. The scarecrow representation of Eric Mutis in "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" is an example of doubleness. Metamorphosis describes a great transformative change, as a can be seen in Kitsune's transformation from woman to silkworm in "Reeling for Empire." Hybridity, or mixing of two disparate things (races, cultures, experiences) appears in "The New Veterans," in which Beverly wrestles with the discomfort of Derek's Iraq War flashbacks - images she can see herself - in her ordered world.
Characters are considered grotesque if they disturb but also incite empathy. Without empathy, the character is merely a villain. The reader is drawn to the disturbing character because of the potential for positive impact or change. Historically, grotesque characters are physically deformed (the hunchback in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Tempest's Caliban are examples), but the writers in the Southern Gothic tradition are more likely to incorporate monsters that are socially inept or criminally minded for example, The Misfit from Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find. Either outwardly or inwardly monstrous, the creation of a grotesque character or situation allows the author to contemplate issues in society in a more removed way, which allows the reader space to analyze issues that might be too troubling if they were presented in another literary tradition, such as Realism.
This article was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated for the
January 2014 paperback release.
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