Research Students

Elisabeth Collier
Thesis titleDisability, Disfigurement, Deformity and the Grotesque in the Novels of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison

 Owen Robinson

This research will focus on Toni Morrison and Alice Walker’s use of disability, disfigurement, deformity and the grotesque as social and political aesthetics. Walker and Morrison are two of the most powerful writers of contemporary African American fiction, evoking endless academic discussion through their multi-layered, non-linear and dialectic approaches to writing. However, there seems to be a void in existing scholarship concerning the roles, functions and purposes of the use of grotesque in Walker and Morrison’s fiction.
In an interview with Charles Ruas, Morrison revealed her use of the grotesque as a narrative strategy: ‘I like the danger when you’re right on the edge, when at any moment you can be maudlin, saccharine, grotesque but somehow pull back from it, well, most of the time. I really want this emotional response, and I also want an intellectual response to the complex ideas there’ (Ruas, 1994, 92). With the use of grotesque markings and deformities on the body, Walker and Morrison offer an insight into the historical degradation of black culture in America, particularly for women. The grotesque enables a glimpse into characters’ psychoses and their inherent lack of cultural awareness, revealing the indoctrination of institutionalised racism and sexism which is often neglected or desensitized through other means of representation.
My main focus will be to assess how trauma manifests itself within the body as a form of grotesque, drawing on the work of Mikhail Bahktin in identifying the colloquial definitions of ‘grotesque’ as a form of degradation, lowering all that is spiritual, noble and ideal to a material level. Bakhtin is important to my research in that he studies the interaction between the social, the literary and the grotesque body, presenting birth, renewal and comedy, as well as death and decay. I will also be drawing on the more modern scholarship of Geoffrey Harpham, Mary Russo, Dieter Meindl, Arthur Clayborough and Bernard McElroy in order to consider the use of postmodern grotesque in revealing African American marginalisation, double consciousness and Westernised standards of beauty. McElroy concurs with my argument that the term ‘grotesque’ in modern usage varies considerably, yet will cause a response of laughter and amusement or terror and disgust, reinstating the base model of grotesque realism presented by Bakhtin. I will use this model of postmodern grotesque that incites opposing responses to abysmal forces that threaten to shatter the coherence of an apparently harmonious world.
My interest in trauma writing will include an assessment of the theories of Cathy Caruth and Judith Herman. Caruth argues that trauma can be imprinted on the body when the event is inaccessible by the psyche, presenting grotesque deformities and disabilities as a forgotten wound. Herman follows a similar line of argument, suggesting that a common reaction to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness as certain social and historical violations are too traumatic to voice. However, Herman places more emphasis on grotesque behaviours and is particularly useful to my research in the parallels she draws between private terrors such as incest and rape, and public trauma. Herman presents individual experience within a broader political and social frame, asserting that psychological trauma can only be understood as a cultural context.
I will argue that Morrison and Walker use disabled or deformed characters in order to represent a fragmented and alienated world, yet they move beyond a postmodern symbolisation of the grotesque which would normally allow readers to absorb past and current historical atrocities. The grotesque is used by both writers as a tool to bridge the gap between African and African American cultures, stressing the importance of one’s roots, whilst exposing interlocking systems of race, class and gender that negatively affect black culture. I will also question whether Walker successfully takes these revelations to another level with her portrayal of cultural rituals such as clitorodectomory and the practice of female subjugation to male tribal elders. I will argue that Morrison enforces the importance of reflecting on her African roots, but Walker questions why.

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