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The Modernist grotesque body: Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

In this project, I examine how and why modernists used grotesque bodies, and how such an
analysis opens up our understanding of what modernism and the body are. While critical
responses are highly divided on the grotesque, regarding it as either an a-temporal primitive
experience or as a historical genre, in either case it is rarely viewed as intertwined with
modernism or modernity. Through a discussion of the literary – and visual – works of
Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes, I argue that grotesque
bodies are critical to understanding modernism as a movement brought about by sociopolitical,
economic, scientific and technological upheavals in the early twentieth century,
and as a stylistic entity more generally. These authors use similar imagery – automat that
are simultaneously comic and horrible; walking corpses; savage animal-human hybrids – to
construct both similar and contradictory responses to contemporary society. By drawing on
medieval satire and gothic horror and adapting them to new social and scientific
developments, their bodies come to metaphorise the ‘modern’ moment, which is both the
fin de siècle and the beginning of a new, unknown epoch. Even the modernist corpus itself
becomes a grotesque body, marked by the material conditions of its production. Although
the body has become a commonplace in modernist criticism, reading theories of the
grotesque alongside modernist art and literature provides a historically grounded,
theoretical framework which allows issues like identity, race, politics and sexuality to speak
to one another. I will analyse how and why these authors draw on the grotesque in their
presentation of the body as a stylistic phenomenon, reading the social-historical context
surrounding their creation to determine how the body informs our understanding of the
fragmented, often self-contradictory present.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 May 2020

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