Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Meaning of "Grotesque"

I had always thought the word "grotesque" meant something gruesome, and/or misshapen in a strange and creepy way.

The word came up a number of times in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, the men in the stories used it to describe things that were just strange or un-ordinary, I began to wonder if the word had a different meaning back then.

In the book, Watson said, "I cannot see how such a message as this could inspire horror. It seems to me to be rather grotesque than otherwise" (The Gloria Scott, page 374). In this statement, it is clear that something "grotesque" is not necessarily horrific. He said that "grotesque" describes the message better than "horror" and therefore horror does not equate grotesque.

I wondered if these strange but, in no way gruesome events were enough to upset delicate Victorian sensitivities, but no, these events really did not have anything that smacked of immodesty and were generally not even gruesome. There were just that: "strange."

Fortunately, the book itself answered my question by asking it:

"'I suppose Watson, we must look upon you as a man of letters,' said [Holmes]. 'How do you define the word 'grotesque'?' 

'Strangeremarkable,' [Watson] suggested." (The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge, page 869)

There we have it.

However, Holmes had begun to see another side to the word. The passage continues:

"'There is something more to it than that,' said [Holmes]; 'some underlying suggestion of the tragic and terrible. If you cast your mind back to some of those narratives with which you have afflicted a long-suffering public, you will recognize how often the grotesque has deepened into criminal. Think of that little affair of the red-headed men. That was grotesque enough at the outset, and yet it ended in a desperate attempt  at a robbery. Or, again, there was that most grotesque affair of the five orange pips, which led straight to a murderous conspiracy. The word puts me on the alert.'" (869)

While reading this passage, one must read "grotesque" as "strange" in keeping with the rest of the book, yet here we see that Holmes said that events that start as bizarre, often turn out to be criminal affairs. The word grotesque has begin to take on the darker connotations many people have today.

Holmes later said, "as I have had occasion to remark, there is but one step from the grotesque to the horrible" (888). So, still, the word does not mean horrible, and in my own definition I note a distinct difference between them due to nuance. However, I feel that now, in the current day usage, the word "grotesque" has stepped from "strange" to "horrible" in the sense that "grotesque" can describe things that inspire horror, it can indicate gruesomeness.

I asked my friends to define the word "grotesque" without the aid of the dictionary. Here are some of their responses: 

"I've always thought of it as frightening and unnatural."

"I always think of twisted stone statues..."

"I think in general it means gross but I generally associate it with something relating to gore or something unthinkable."

"I always think of something gross, but the 'esque' always makes me think of art, so I think of something that at first glance is gross but after taking a closer look is beautiful, or was meant to be so by someone for a certain audience." 

"Disfigured, ugly, gargoyle-like, disgusting, twisted from the normal form"

 To some "grotesque" is more along the lines of Watson's definition, while to others the definition involves some thing twisted or gross.

One important source we have not looked into yet is the dictionary: 

"Grotesque" as an adjective:
1.Characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner.
2 Outlandish or bizarre, as in character or appearance. See Synonyms at fantastic.
3. Of, relating to, or being the grotesque style in art or a work executed in this style.

"Grotesque" as a noun:
a. a style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.
So, I find several overlapping definitions of the word at play here.  These online dictionaries and Watson record the word as meaning "strange" and "bizarre" and this I suppose is the "correct" meaning.  The dictionaries also included twistedness in their definitions and a definition pertaining to art. In general usage these days it has a connotation of horrible and twisted. Some are aware of the art style too. To Holmes, the word meant "strange" with a nuance of "tragic and terrible" while indicating criminal activity.

~Update: In Anne of the Island, but L. M. Montgomery, we find this phrase:  "Must proposals be either grotesque or --horrible?"  Grotesque and horrible clearly have different meanings here, in accordance with the Sherlock Holmes stories. The copyright is 1915, definitely contemporary with Sir Doyle, although later than the publication of The Gloria Scott by over ten years.~

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