The Grotesque in Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

“The Man Seems Hardly Human”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014
18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1. The General Literary Concepts of the Grotesque
2.1.1. Themes and Functions
2.1.2. The Grotesque Body
2.2. The Grotesque in Gothic Fiction of the 19th Century

3. The Grotesque in Robert L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
3.1. Grotesque Themes
3.2. The Grotesque Body
3.3. Gothic Peculiarities of the Grotesque

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The grotesque mode of writing has a long history and continues to exist in the 20th and 21st century (Thomson 11). Yet, the concept of the grotesque hasn’t been a popular subject in literary studies for a long time (Thomsen 8). This changed in the second half of the last century when literary scholars started to agree upon the significance and benefit of the grotesque for literary studies (Schumacher 34). Some of the groundbreaking studies in the 20th century were those of Wolfgang Kayser (1957), Mikhail M. Bakhtin (1965) and Philip J. Thomson (1972)1. Consequently, the grotesque became an accepted and frequently used theory in literary criticism (Corey 32; cf. Hutchinson 187). Yet, studying the concept of the grotesque implies facing certain theoretical difficulties. Definitions and descriptions of the grotesque may differ and there is still no consensus about what the grotesque really is (Thomson 20; Hutchinson 188f; Hochheimer 9; Schuhmacher 78; Thomsen 8). One reason for the difficulty in talking about the grotesque lies in the fact that scholars often defined the grotesque by referring to its use in different literary periods (Corey 33). However, what exactly is understood as the “grotesque” and how the grotesque is used as an aesthetic in a specific time is always dependent on the respective sociocultural circumstances. It is a term that is consistently redefined in (literary) history (Hutchinson 188). Thus, it is advisable to narrow down a discussion of the grotesque to a distinct literary period. The German literary critic Christian W. Thomsen argues that in particular Gothic literature serves as a very rich source for an analysis of the grotesque aesthetic. He suggests that particularly this literary genre should be approached from the perspective of the grotesque (Thomsen 2f). The study at hand follows his suggestion and focuses on one of the most prominent examples of late Victorian Gothic literature, namely The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (Dierkes 45).

I argue that Stevenson’s novel serves as a suitable example for the meaning and function of the grotesque in literature. Its distinct quality lies in the fact that it is representative of both, general overarching aspects and also genre-specific, that is, Gothic elements of the grotesque. The study has a twofold benefit: a better understanding of the novel by applying the concept of the grotesque, and a better understanding of the theory by illustrating the grotesque and its function in the text. The first part of this investigation provides the theoretical background for the subsequent analysis. First, generally accepted and overarching descriptions of the grotesque are presented. After that, the focus lies on Gothic aspects of the grotesque in literature. The second part applies the theory of the grotesque to analyze the Gothic novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Like the presentation of the theory, the analysis is also subdivided in a general, and a genre-specific section. Finally, a conclusion sums up and evaluates the most important findings of this study. Moreover, it provides a prospect on further possible studies in this field.

2. Theoretical Background

As it has been stated before, the term “grotesque” does not have a constant meaning and is still in the process of being defined. Hence, an all-encompassing and generally accepted definition cannot be given at this point. Instead, the following chapter approaches the term eclectically by gathering and presenting different scholarly notions of the grotesque that are relevant for the subsequent discussion of Stevenson’s Gothic novel. Apart from that, Schumacher suggests that a profound understanding of the form, function and meaning of the grotesque does not only require a consideration of its general features, but also of its specific sociocultural meaning and function at a distinct point in literary history (Schuhmacher 80f). That is why the following presentation of the theory is subdivided in two different sections, namely general concepts of the grotesque and its concrete meaning and function in the realm of Gothic fiction in the 19th century.

2.1. The General Literary Concepts of the Grotesque

The theoretical discussion of general literary concepts starts with typical themes and functions of the grotesque and is followed by an introduction to the concept of the grotesque body.

2.1.1. Themes and Functions

One of the most consistently distinguished features of the grotesque is the element of disharmony. This is expressed by a “conflict, clash, mixture of the heterogeneous, or conflation of disparates” in the text (Thomson 42). One particular configuration can be the dichotomy of ignorance and anticipation which results in what Hutchinson designates as “hiddenness”. It means that a character has a lack of knowledge about a disturbing issue, but simultaneously anticipates that some evil explanation is lurking in the unknown (Hutchinson 189). The reader can share this experience. Reading a passage that contains such or other disharmonious constellations causes different reactions and emotions among the readers (Thomson 42). In order to maintain the grotesque effect, the conflict of emotions has to remain unresolved. The grotesque can only fully unfold if the “opposition continues, and a paradoxical balance is sustained” (Hutchinson 190; cf. also Thomson 20f).

Another classical and frequently used conflict of disparate emotions that is aroused by the grotesque, is the conflict of comic and terrifying feelings. A reader may laugh about the content, but feel horror or disgust at the same time (Thomson 2, 20ff). The comic aspect can downplay but also stress the shock of the disgusting or horrific nature of the subject (ibid. 5). The terrifying and the comic can be regarded as two poles on a scale and a specific text can be classified as closer to the one or the other. However, both feelings mix and the maintenance of this duality is often regarded as the essence of this grotesque effect (Thomson 3; Corey 33). This constant conflict of emotions feels rather unpleasant and unsettling for the reader (Thomson 14).

Apart from disharmonious constellations of content and readers’ reactions, it is also the general feature of abnormality that makes a text grotesque. It can be expressed by extravagance, extremeness and exaggeration (ibid. 23). According to Thomson the different readers’ reactions towards grotesque texts, like “amusement and disgust, laughter and horror, mirth and revulsion” are always also fostered by a certain extent of abnormal content (24). The abnormal and absurd can arouse delight in the deviation from the normal or in the novelty of the subject. However, if these deviations become too strong, they can also inspire fear of the unknown and arouse the feeling that general norms and values are endangered (ibid. 24). Frankly, individual reactions towards specific texts vary. What might be a delightful diversion from reality for one person, can be a preposterous attack on the established norms for another (ibid. 27). In contrast to the fantastic, these diversions from the normal in the grotesque are always set in realistic frameworks. It is this tension between the realistic and the unnatural or impossible that is foundational to the grotesque (ibid. 7f).

This notion indicates that the use of the grotesque has a certain potential of expressing sociopolitical criticism. Grotesque techniques are rarely used for their own sake, but predominantly serve a specific purpose of the author (ibid. 3ff). The method of the grotesque possesses the power of causing a sudden shock and is often used as an “aggressive weapon” (ibid. 58) that arouses the attention and awareness of the reader (cf. Hutchinson 191). It can disorient the reader and cause alienation from things that were previously regarded as familiar and reliable (Thomson 59). Consequently, different or “abnormal” perspectives on the reality are capable of changing the readers’ perception of reality in general (ibid. 7f). By reading a text that features these abnormal grotesque elements readers can gain a new attitude to text-related issues in the non-literary world (Hutchinson 191). The grotesque offers the possibility of a divergent order, another way of life and an entirely different world (Bakhtin 48a). Apart from these rather general themes it is also the individual body that can demonstrate such a subversion of reality. Its general meaning and function for the grotesque aesthetic is the subject of the following section.

2.1.2. The Grotesque Body

For Mikhail M. Bakhtin the body is one of the most important means of the grotesque (Bakhtin 16b; Schuhmacher 73). A fundamental criterion of the grotesque body is its cosmic symbolism. The individual body is related to the earth and the universe and represents the people as a whole (Bakhtin 19a). In terms of the construction of grotesque literary characters Bakhtin argues that the mixing of human and animalistic traits represents one of the oldest and most prominent features (Bakhtin 16b). Concerning its physical appearance, he points out the significance of the mouth as the most important part of the face (ibid.). It is particularly relevant for the grotesque body because it represents one of those body parts that are open and can interact with the world around. That is why the acts of eating and drinking are crucial themes of the grotesque method (Bakhtin 17b). They stand for an interaction with the environment. The world is therefore consumed by the grotesque body (Bakhtin 24a).

Moreover, the grotesque body is always subject to an “unfinished metamorphosis,” and thus, always in the process of becoming. That is why processes like growing, aging, sicknesses, death and physical dissipation or fragmentation are frequently thematized in grotesque texts (Bakhtin 16b). In the individual body the beginning and the end of life are linked and inseparably intertwined (ibid. 17b). The grotesque body unites both, the old and the new (Bakhtin 24a). In this regard, Bakhtin argues that there is actually not a single individual body, but two bodies. They represent the prevailing feature of duality in the grotesque aesthetics (Thomson 18; Hutchinson 188; Bakhtin 26b). Both bodies are interrelated and interdependent on each other. One of them may be dying, while the other is being born. Such a metamorphosis can also mean the transformation from an animalistic to a human being or the other way around (Schuhmacher 112). The previously discussed aspect of abnormality is often expressed by the “physically abnormal,” which is realized by the literary construction of obscene and deformed bodies (Thomson 8f).

Obviously, all these grotesque elements are set against “classic images of the finished, completed man” (Bakhtin 25a). The grotesque body represents an opposition to the typically idealized complete, definite and unmixed body of the modern era which shields its cohesive individuality from the influence of other bodies and the environment (Bakhtin 20b). The deformation and distortion of a human body and the implied degradation and humi­liation urges the reader to resist against it. Losing the status of an intact human being is regarded as losing one’s dignity and freedom and provokes a feeling of repulsion (Schuhmacher 115). The collapse of trusted structures causes a feeling of insecurity (ibid. 117).

While these general features help to develop a basic notion of the concept of the grotesque, it is necessary to define the grotesque also with respect to its meaning and function for a certain literary tradition (ibid. 78). Therefore, the following subchapter focuses on the grotesque in 19th century Gothic fiction to reveal specific elements of the grotesque that are particularly relevant for this literary method.

2.2. The Grotesque in Gothic Fiction of the 19th Century

In the contemporary literary discourse the grotesque is regarded as an essential element of Gothic fiction (Schuhmacher 59). As Gothic fiction often has the objective to dissolve the order of reality and tends to substitute it with a threatening nihilistic perspective on the world, it is a suitable literary method for the grotesque (ibid. 23). It provides space for imagination, fantasy, sociopolitical criticism and symbolism. Apart from that its focus is often on the unconscious, the demonic, the mysterious or the uncanny and unknown, which are themes that offer various possibilities of applying strategies of the grotesque (ibid. 60). However, Gothic fiction is often set in a realistic framework which allows the grotesque friction between the unreal and reality. Schumacher describes two tendencies of the grotesque in Gothic fiction. The first is a ludicrous and harmless form of the grotesque that downplays the presented reality. The second one is more concerned with terrifying and abysmal themes that focuses on the irrational and the demonic side of human nature (ibid. 90ff). Since the target text of this investigation falls into the latter category, it is also the category of Gothic literature that is related to the grotesque in the following.

The relation between 19th century Gothic fiction and the grotesque can be demonstrated by having a closer look at the construction of characters in this literary genre. From the beginning of the 19th century grotesque characters continued to replace previous, rather average characters. Grotesque characters serve as expressions of new perspectives on reality and the world (Hochheimer 7). In her study of grotesque characters in fiction of the 19th century, Hochheimer comes to the conclusion that one thing they all have in common is the physical and psychological deviation from social standards and norms in the respective time (Hochheimer 1; Schuhmacher 136). In order to contradict the ideals of a society they are often designed as ugly (Hochheimer 7). However, also their personalities are expressions of an opposition to social conventions. They are often distorted or destroyed by pain, isolation or persecution (Thomsen, 298; Schuhmacher 64). In particular, they often suffer from an insanity that is caused by the realization that their previous convictions and beliefs have been proven wrong (Schuhmacher 137; cf. also Bakhtin 39a). The Gothic grotesque human being loses his vitality, freedom and the ability to communicate with others. He is often a social outcast that lives in isolation and is obsessed with a certain idea that takes control over his life (Schuhmacher 135). These ideas and “demonic needs” are at odds with conventional ethics that dominate the sociocultural environment. However, the grotesque and Gothic human being keeps on trying to adhere to them (ibid. 137). Characters are often torn between their emotional drives and their morality. Constructed grotesque Gothic characters have the function to provide a more complex insight into the psychology of human beings (ibid. 355). Their struggling represents existing sociocultural tensions and alludes to social wrongs and dangers in the non-literary world.


1 Thomsen gives a brief overview on various attempts to define the grotesque by literary critics in the 20th century (8f).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Grotesque in Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
“The Man Seems Hardly Human”
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Anglistik)
19th Century Gothic Fiction
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ISBN (Book)
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Hans Niehues (Author), 2014, The Grotesque in Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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