The Grotesque and the Double Reflection of Society in Hanif Kureishi’s "The Buddha of Suburbia"

Term Paper, 2018

18 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Social Function of The Grotesque

2. The Spielraum of Sexuality

3. The Representation of Ethnicity between Comedy and Drama

4. Irony and Metatextuality as Spaces of Encounter between Cultures

5. Marketable Identities and The Question of Meaning

6. Summary: Performed Diversity and The Human Element 16 Works Cited

1. Introduction: The Social Function of The Grotesque

With the use of the word “grotesque” a whole range of different meanings is called into question. The cultural history of this word has crossed centuries, adopting for each epoch a different nuance of significance, so that it is virtually impossible to establish fixed, universal attributes to it. The very first examples of grotesques were the “bizarre wall paintings” found in Nero’s Domus Aurea, which represented “elaborate knots and festoons of floral decoration” and “designs oddly transforming into snakes, satyrs [and] mythological animals” (Clark 18). The essence of this art was later developed according to different interpretations, being associated to caricature and caprices in the seventeenth century and to horror and repulsion in the nineteenth century (Connelly 19). It is therefore important to consider that the grotesque is to be understood primarily as a cultural and social phenomenon, constantly changeable and subjected to the spirit of the times.

The key to analyzing the manifestation of the grotesque is through the analysis of the mind of the observer and its mental structures, for the grotesque is that phenomenon which overturns and challenges these same structures “pulling us into unfamiliar, contested terrain” (Connelly 2). Nowadays “grotesque” can express disgust and horror as well as it can describe hilariousness and nonsense. This inherent fluidity of meaning is what lies at the origin of its ironic and uncanny semblance, and it is also the attribute that makes the grotesque central to the understanding of modernity as a fluid society. Since the term “grotesque” originates in the world of the pictorial arts, it is inevitably associated with a strong aesthetic impact. In this respect, The Buddha of Suburbia offers a wide range of deeply visual moments which exploit both the caricatural and horrific potential of the grotesque in order to propose a critical interpretation of the modern society. The criticism expressed through the grotesque in The Buddha of Suburbia is nonetheless never rhetorical or pedantic, it rather plays on sarcastic tones with the intention to expose the inability of the characters to adjust to their surroundings, or to emphasize their lack of morality. In this essay I will discuss how Hanif Kureishi employs the grotesque as a central expedient in the figuration of sexuality and ethnicity, considering how these two categories are made emblems of indeterminateness regarding the question of identity, and how the sarcastic grotesque is used to bring cultural stereotypes to the extreme in order to nullify their social value.

2. The Spielraum of Sexuality

A characteristic feature of the grotesque is its affinity with forms of sexual perversion. In The Buddha of Suburbia sexuality is exposed in its crudest aspects and is often employed to signify the moral ambiguity of the protagonist and of the characters around him. In the scene of sexual intercourse between Karim, Eleanor and Pyke (BS 201-204), sex becomes a corrupt enjoyment, a role game, but what appears most unsettling as the narrative proceeds, is how sex is used to reflect a more subtle system of power relationships where Pyke detains absolute control over the other characters as it is evident from Karim’s report: “[…] But before I could complete the sentence, England’s most interesting and radical theatre director was inserting his cock between my speaking lips. I could appreciate the privilege, but I didn’t like it much: it seemed an imposition.” (BS 203) Pyke sets this scene as an ongoing performance, directing bodies as if they were mannequins on a stage, so that while talking to Karim and Marlene he invites them to be more active in their interaction as if suggesting a line to an actor: “Don’t let me have all the fun, […] Please, why don’t you touch each other?” (BS 203) And in this moment of apparent enthusiasm and excitement, Karim follows the instructions like an automaton, playing the game of sex without a real enjoyment; he lends his body to the performance but his mind is detached, busy with observing the actions of the other players and especially those of Eleanor: “Eleanor came over to Pyke; she came over to him quickly and passionately, as if he were of infinite value at this moment, as if she’d heard that he had a crucial message for her.” (BS 203)

Unrestrained sexual intercourses are the cornerstone to the construction of a subversive grotesque which, as Frances S. Connelly argues: “puts social roles and hierarchies as well as cultural conventions into play, challenging the limits of propriety” (14), through the manifestation of the instinctual drives of man, the study of transgressive sexuality becomes central to the development of the subversive grotesque; freed from the conventional rules of propriety, the grotesque can indeed only happen in an irrational space that Connelly defines “a Spielraum full of conflict and new possibilities.” Here there is no boundary to the experimentation allowed in sexual relationships, so much that pleasure and bodies risk to be reduced to merely trade goods. When the human body enters the sphere of the Spielraum it loses unavoidably something of its humanity, so that in virtue of the game’s rules, Karim’s feelings for Eleanor must be ignored and in a later scene, Pyke’s wife is turned into a gift meant to function as a seal of male comradeship between Karim and Pyke (BS 191-192).

The Buddha of Suburbia must nonetheless be acknowledged as a novel that is not afraid of describing sexuality beyond the limits of bourgeois self-righteousness. It imposes no taboos on the display of homosexual love and extramarital relationships, and treats sexual behavior as a pivotal element to the understanding of the characters’ psychology. This is particularly evident for Karim, whose process of Ausbildung is profoundly connected to a series of sexual experiences. Karim’s sexual ambiguity is a signpost for the indeterminateness of his life’s direction, and it will be the growing out of his desire for sexual experimentation to mark a decisive step towards the definition of his identity. When Charlie, after the reunion with Karim in New York, invites him to assist to a sadomasochistic experiment, Karim has already walked out of the Spielraum: if in the past he “used to be up for anything” (BS 252) now he stands in a corner and appears to Charlie unexpectedly “[so] shocked, self-righteous and moral, [so] loveless and incapable of dancing.” (BS 254) Karim becomes thus a sharp observer of the sexual intercourse between Charlie and Frankie and discomposes the scene he witnesses into a catalogue of grotesque details. It is evident that Karim’s falling in love with Eleanor and the subsequent heart-brokenness have given him a new awareness and depth of thought through which everything in that New York room now looks ridiculous to him: the skinny girl becomes an umbrella, the leather hood she holds resembles a dead bat and Charlie is just “a body with a sack over its head, half of its humanity gone, ready for execution.” (BS 254)

Karim’s ironic commentary gives a parallel interpretation to Charlie’s alleged avant-gardism, rediscovering it as idle pursue of self-entertainment. The union of desolation and ridiculousness in this scene is what determines its grotesque quality, and it is Karim’s newly developed critical sensibility towards the grotesque that causes his sudden disenamourment from Charlie and prepares the ground for his intellectual self-determination: “I didn't care either for or about him. He didn’t interest me at all. I’d moved beyond him, discovering myself through what I rejected. He seemed merely foolish to me.” (BS 255) At this moment it can be argued that Karim is advancing into maturity and, borrowing two terms typical of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, that he is getting ready to abandon his aesthetic life in order to approach the ethic life and discover a new sense of existential meaning.

3. The Representation of Ethnicity between Comedy and Drama

Sexuality and ethnicity are treated in The Buddha of Suburbia in many respects analogously. They both guarantee a space for missing definitions, for a “transitional, in between state of being” (Connelly 5) that responds merely to the rules of mutability and indeterminateness. Haroon’s and Karim’s cultural hybridity comply to these rules and to the structure of play inherent in the grotesque (Connelly 16), which allows them, even though on different levels, to perform multiple identities. In the light of the bivalent meaning of the word “play” which entails “acting” as well as “playing a game”, it is interesting to analyze how the representation of ethnicity in The Buddha of Suburbia happens within the walls of the Spielraum.

Considering Kureishi’s cultural background, it is legitimate to ask why he should entrust the representation of Indianness to characters like Haroon, Karim, Anwar and Changez which, with their comic reach, risk to be detrimental to the perception of the Indian culture in a Western society. It must be assumed that what we read is nothing like an attempt at condemning the ways of the Indian migrants living in foreign countries, but a simple exhibition of the absurd and grotesque outcomes stemming from cultural incompatibility. The representation of ethnicity in The Buddha of Suburbia is thus bravely entrusted to the language of irony, an irony that does not want to be judgmental but that wants to evoke the reader’s sympathy for the misfortunes of the characters. The cathartic effect of laughter is skillfully used in this novel in order to disrupt pre-constructed cultural hierarchies and to individuate a point of contact among peoples in the universal tragicomic quality of life.

When Anwar resolves to embark on a desperate hunger strike, Kureishi offers the image of an old Indian man trying to impose his will onto his too intellectually emancipated daughter. This is surely an episode that sarcastically exploits the irreconcilability of their respective cultures: Anwar, like a good patriarch, clings stubbornly to the values of his own country and refuses to see that these values cannot be applied mechanically, regardless of historical and geographical location, and that they surely cannot be applied in the Britain of the 1970s; as Karim tries to persuade him out of the idea of an arranged marriage for Jamila, Anwar replies proudly: “That is not our way, boy. Our way is firm. She must do what I say or I will die. She will kill me.”(BS 60) From the point of view of the Western culture, it is surely nonsensical and in some way ludicrous the thought of equating legitimate disobedience with voluntary murder. Although Kureishi is aware of that, far from trying to deplore the Indian culture, his objective is to study the tragicomic potential of cultural incomprehensions between countries and generations. Anwar’s obstinacy in preferring death to a presumed affront is emblematic of his incapability of establishing a dialogue either with his daughter nor with the whole cultural framework that shaped his daughter’s mindset. He is an anachronistic and culturally rigid character, but the great achievement of Kureishi is precisely that he managed to present this rigidity and these elements of unsuccessful dialogue through an ironic outlook. In this respect Anwar, a character that seems to interpret a caricature of himself, undisputed protagonist of the most bizarre scenarios, is a rightful representative of the grotesque .


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Grotesque and the Double Reflection of Society in Hanif Kureishi’s "The Buddha of Suburbia"
University of Bamberg
Postcolonial Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Hanif Kureishi, buddha, Buddha of Suburbia, grotesque, Postcolonial
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Alessandra Pennesi (Author), 2018, The Grotesque and the Double Reflection of Society in Hanif Kureishi’s "The Buddha of Suburbia", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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