The Fear of Change in the 19th-Century Grotesque
9 December 1999

According to Arthur Clayborough, "Grotesqueness may appear in anything which is found to be in sufficiently grave conflict with accepted standards to arouse emotion" (109). The basis of mankind’s existence rests on his creating stability out of an otherwise chaotic world. Once created, man fears that this stability will be jeopardized by deviations from established norms, which result in the changing of his environment, and, ultimately, the forced reassessment of the self within that newly created context. Cultural norms, consequently, are traditionally maintained in an effort to slow the progressive advancements wrought by new philosophies and technologies. Thomas Carlyle shows in his Sartor Resartus how mankind exists within this fluctuating vacuum in his philosophy of clothes, wherein man becomes what he wears, and the moment he wears it, he grows beyond it. He states that "our whole terrestrial being is based on Time, and built of Time; it is wholly a Movement, a Time-impulse; Time is the author of it, the material of it. Hence also our Whole Duty, which is to move, to work, --in the right direction" (Carlyle 127). In the meantime, man fears that movement out of his uncertainty of the direction in which it will lead. Joseph Conrad’s protagonist in The Heart of Darkness exemplifies this philosophy in his progression down an African river through his deepening discovery of his own identity and how that identity evolves during his descent into the madness and savagery of which the human mind is capable when effectively provoked. Throughout the 19th-century, the fear of change, therefore, rather than the fear of life, is what the literary use of the grotesque manifests.

Change directly confronts the status quo in an attempt to disrupt its natural course. If the status quo is not perceived as conducive to the accepted standards of living to which man has gradually grown accustomed to endorsing, he is likely to champion progressive measures to further his environment in a more favorable direction. He will do this, however, only if his identity is already indelibly a part of the progression for which he is fighting. More often than otherwise, man exists within the cultural and societal circumstances of his age—he is a product of the society that raised him and has therefore already been sold out to the institutions of that society. In this case, change for him means a change in his objective identity and in his subjective perception of the self, culminating in his having to be reborn in the world. For that reason, even if he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by a change in his circumstances, he will still resist the idea of embracing the new philosophies of his era as that would open him to the risk of losing the place in society in which he has grown comfortable—i.e., the known—and be thrust into a place that would require relearning a new identity and growing beyond it. Clayborough adds that "in general, it may be said that the chief idea involved in the various senses of the term grotesque is that of incongruity, or a conflict between some phenomenon and an existing conception of what is natural, fitting, &c." (70). By stepping aside for a moment, in other words, mankind exposes himself to the fearful uncertainty of losing his place forever—an uncertainty he would fain avoid.

Conrad’s protagonist Marlow illustrates both what Carlyle meant by man’s continuous growth beyond his limitations and Clayborough’s assertion of the incongruity of his expectations with his actual experiences. Marlow is a man who grew up in what he perceived to be a restrictive stasis, wanting so much to explore the unknown world, while being thwarted by the explorations done without his assistance that shade in the maps and progressively limit his options. His mind, therefore, is already agitated for progressive change, which is what he thinks he is getting himself into when he accepts the commission as a riverboat captain into the heart of what his society perceives to be the pre-historic and unexplored African Congo. He approaches this opportunity for exploration, then, with all of his European cultural associations intact and without consideration for the inevitable evolution of his own identity that awaits him. Consequently, the deeper into the heart of darkness he progresses, the more it baffles him, a state of bewilderment which persists up to the moment he realizes that he must change his perceptions and open himself to the possibility that everything he has ever known and believed no longer has relevance in this new cultural context. Such a realization frightens him because it gives him no familiar standard by which to assess what he discovers not only in the enigmatic character of Kurtz, but also within his own changing perceptions of the world around him. Kurtz, who had been a scientific and moral icon of his age, is described by Marlow as having "kicked himself loose of the earth…had kicked the very earth to pieces," adding that "his intelligence was perfectly clear …But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and… it had gone mad…I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself" (61). In his analysis of Kurtz, Marlow is unable to acknowledge that the truth of human nature does not lie within the philosophy of his cultural heritage. Nothing had ever prepared him for this, and he is faced with a choice—to believe Kurtz is right and the world is a vastly different place from what he once believed, or to return to his comfortable basis of judgment—his own cultural standard. Ultimately, he chooses the latter, but the former has already irrevocably altered him, and the grotesque considerations of advancing a new philosophy utterly incompatible with his old one both disgust his sensibilities and simultaneously change him into a man unable to live fully in either world.

As change involves the continuous recreation of the self, it is not something to which mankind eagerly and readily adapts without first exposing himself to the need for the evolutionary advancement of his character. Even then, man steps cautiously into this abyss through fear that it might consume him and destroy everything that he ever was in exchange for an unknown and uncertain future. The being that is becoming is, therefore, always grasping at the familiar standards of what has been, inherently afraid of growing beyond what it wears, but pushed to do so because the movement of time demands it. It is a fact that mankind must adapt to changes in its environment or die, but in the process of adaptation parts of its identity are continually being killed to make room for new ones. While this destruction is measured in terms of minute changes which perpetuate our growth and make our evolution possible, it is the total destruction of the identity that we fear most, and it is this which set up the basis for the psychological exploration of change as grotesque in 19th-century literature.


Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh. Ed. by Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1937.

Clayborough, Arthur. The Grotesque in English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.

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