literature’s deformities (part 1 of 3)

[Below is an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

It is almost a truism to say that each body is unique – medically, biologically, psychologically. Not only that, but each body is unique in each moment, continually in a state of flux and vulnerable to threat – healthy one moment, deformed or worse in the next. And yet, for almost all characters in literature, the particularities of their bodies are insignificant. Their embodiment is either unmentioned, or most often secondary to the narrative, or subsumed within the common human body, a device for identification.

Deformity, on the other hand, always seems symbolic in some way. If the body of a character is unusual, it determines that character’s entire identity, trajectory and destiny. It is as if, for the author and the reader, deformity is a provocation towards fate. I am interested in how these portraits of extraordinary bodies shape (or, it could be said, mis-shape) how we see other people, even how we see ourselves. This essay hopes to direct an unflinching gaze upon that looking.


Did Victor Hugo fully know what his vision would contain? Hugo would say yes, but what would Quasimodo have said? He could, of course, only speak Hugo’s words, could only make the movements prescribed for him. And Hugo’s Quasimodo isn’t exactly articulate. He is brutish, a lump of flesh, as if an excess of physicality must inevitably swamp the intellect.

If the epic story The Hunchback of Notre Dame could be reduced to a few sentences, it would be because of its melodrama. Quasimodo, born severely deformed, is abandoned at the steps of Notre Dame and taken in by the archdeacon Frollo, who is infatuated with the beautiful young gypsy woman Esmerelda and has her beau Phoebus stabbed. Esmerelda is charged with attempted murder. Quasimodo abducts her and takes her back to the cathedral, which is then assailed by the mob. Esmerelda dies in the commotion. Quasimodo realises Frollo, his proto-adopted-father, was behind the whole scenario, and kills him. In deep grief, he then entombs himself with the body of Esmerelda – a tragic resolution, certainly, but also oddly fitting for a central character who, essentially, is imprisoned in his embodiment, whose body offers only questions, especially to those who cannot identify with him.

Consider Hugo’s sketch, and the struggle to explain Quasimodo.

His whole person was a grimace. His large head, bristling with red hair – between his shoulders an enormous hump, to which he had a corresponding projection in front – a framework of thighs and legs, so strangely gone astray that they touched only at the knees, and when viewed in front, looked like two sickles joined together by the handles – sprawling feet – monstrous hands – and yet, with all that deformity, a certain awe-inspiring vigour, agility and courage – strange exception to the everlasting rule which prescribes that strength, like beauty, shall result from harmony… One would have said a giant had been broken and awkwardly mended.

The portrait, in its avalanche of hyperbole and its convoluted grammar, is as deformed as the character. Hugo’s Quasimodo literally embodies a mistake, and the tragedy that results. He is an engine room for the building up of archetypal associations. He is immensely strong and correspondingly simple in his intellect. He is unpredictable, a reflection of the capricious nature which created him. The crowd certainly don’t understand him. He is deaf; the world does not quite reach him. What moves him is the female of the story; yet she is unattainable. Esmerelda continually struggles to see the human in him, trying to imagine how this giant’s puzzle pieces could be more humanly rearranged, while knowing they never will be. He is intensely alone. In his gentle monstrousness, he is able to be manipulated; his surrogate father Frollo leads him astray. He is not the mob, nor is he the reader. He approaches but never quite reaches the full status of a subject.

Quasimodo is both practically celibate and literally promiscuous – the voice of Hugo reverberates through many bodies, gives birth to many children. Visualise the many assistants to mad scientists – hunched over, shuffling obediently to their masters’ next tasks, muttering a vague sense of resentment, yet perennially faithful. Think even of the titular anti-heroes of low culture teen flick Revenge of the Nerds – genetically made other, socially disadvantaged (in a reversal of Quasimodo’s physical/mental imbalance); the clumsy, inarticulate virgins who the audience secretly place in sexual positions, wondering how those bodies would “do it”.

But the strongest family resemblance to Hugo’s child can be seen in the freak show, that institution that Rosemary Garland Thomson called “the apotheosis of museums” that arose in the mid nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth (and arguably survives in other forms now). “Siamese” twins, little people, giants, tattooed people, half men-half women, sword swallowers, those with extra or no limbs, fat people, African “primitives”, and many others selected according to the anxieties and fascinations of the era performed theatrically, thereby providing both immense entertainment and reassurance of the security of the audience’s physical, racial, sexual and cultural status. The stage is the boundary. The audience become the norm(al) purely and simply by being outside of the spotlight.

Quasimodo defines both the isolated deformed body and the form of the mob.

[part 2 & 3 will appear in later posts…]

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