Physical Deformities: A Horrific Theme in Literature

Updated on August 22, 2018
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A writer of very considerable powers, Maupassant produced hundreds of short stories as well as a few novels.

Deformities Are a Well-Known Theme in Literature

Physical deformities exist as one of the main themes in many impressive works of art. Deformities are put to their most direct use as Expressionism in paintings. Expressionism centers on presenting crucially distorted forms with the end goal being to have the viewer experience correspondingly potent emotions. In writing, deformities can reach an even higher level due to the fact that the writer is able to elaborate on what is being conveyed. A number of important authors have depicted somatic corruptions of various forms. Take for example the images of rotting bodies in the works of Poe and Maurice Level. The physically diminished pariahs in the creations of Guy de Maupassant, H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen also drive this point home. This article features a few different storylines showcasing the theme of the deformed body and examines the (often very intense) quality that this thematic provides to the written work.

Guy de Maupassant featured deformity as a theme in plenty of his work.
Guy de Maupassant featured deformity as a theme in plenty of his work.

Different Types of Deformities in Literature

Different types of deformities can be categorized according to their scope in the context of the work in which they are presented. Usually, the deformed person or creature is present mainly to be juxtaposed with the vitality of a healthy counterpart. Maupassant’s achieved this with his twisted forms of children in the short story "The Mother of Monsters." Lovecraft’s various “cultists” that ended up being transformed to hideous half-man and half-beast hybrids also showcase the aforementioned juxtaposition. And Kafka’s hero, Gregor Samsa—who is identified as the sick part of his human family after suffering a bizarre metamorphosis—also belongs to this category.

A different type of deformity manifests in literature when the character in question is endowed with some kind of exceptional ability. Usually, it is one which was gained as a direct result of the loss of a sustainable body. It is a very notable literary theme on which Sigmund Freud wrote in his long article on the cases of “The Uncanny” in literature.

Freud argued that this identification of the deformed—or otherwise physically incapacitated—with the mystically powerful and dangerously malignant is manifested in popular culture as the “evil eye”. Freud claims that the one who is seen as able to cast “the evil eye” is always a pariah. The underlying fear being that the loss of social status, or a perpetual lack of ties to society (which has the consequence of losing all access to the usual sources of happiness) may in some way gift the outcast with special powers of a destructive kind. These powers will eventually be put to use to avenge a cruel fate.

A paradigmatic example of a member of this category in works of fiction is a villain called The Sandman. The Sandman exists in the eponymous short story written by German Romanticist E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The Sandman: Deformities and Special Abilities in Literature

Hoffmann's "The Sandman" is a work of great complexity. Freud examined it in his aforementioned article on "The Uncanny." He mostly focused on the fear of the protagonist of that work—the student Nathaniel. Nathaniel was afraid of losing his eyes to The Sandman. Freud tried to account for the level of fear that Nathaniel experienced with psychoanalytic theories about the childhood agony of losing one’s eyes.

The Sandman is an ugly, ill-mannered and elderly man who goes by the name of Coppelius (the name is linked to the Italian word for eye) or the alias Coppola. Coppelius was an associate of Nathaniel's father and seems to have been responsible for the latter’s death during one of their chemistry experiments. But even before the death of his father, Nathaniel had already fused this ominous-looking figure with an imaginary monster. This fusion birthed a being that fed on the eyes of small children.

Coppelius manages to avoid being arrested and flees the city after Nathaniel's father dies. Later, Nathaniel meets a strange Italian optics merchant who introduces himself as Giuseppe Coppola. This man looks very much like the old Coppelius, but he never admits to being the same person. In the end, poor Nathaniel is driven insane by the machinations of Coppelius who appears to have a hypnotic effect on his victim. Coppelius orders him to fall to his death from a clock tower, and Nathaniel slavishly obeys. The Sandman is the kind of deformed human who is endowed with special abilities of a purely destructive quality.

Hoffmann's own drawing of his character, The Sandman.
Hoffmann's own drawing of his character, The Sandman.

Deformity as a Catalyst for Self-Reflection

Sometimes the reader will see a distorted human form serving as a catalyst for the protagonist's self-reflection. An example of this would be De Maupassant’s auto-biographical short tale where he gives us an account of one of his talks with fellow writer Ivan Turgenev.

Turgenev narrated to Maupassant about how he encountered a strange being as he was taking a bath in a river somewhere in rural Russia. The being looked like a large ape with an insane look in its eyes. Turgenev felt intense horror that stemmed from his utter inability to explain what was in front of him. It turns out that this “creature” was actually a mad woman who made a habit of bathing naked in that river and was known in the area for living in a feral state.

Maupassant focuses on the fact that Turgenev was unable to identify what the being could have been. His horror was triggered by both surprise and the sense that he might be under attack by an unknown creature. Maupassant wanted to highlight (as he does in many others of his dark short stories) the fact that we can feel extreme horror due to reasons which are only nominally tied to an actual danger being present.

In reality, Turgenev was under no real danger of being attacked by the supposed “monster”, but his horror was very real. This is a phenomenon in and of itself that is deserving of further study. And yet, when Turgenev was "saved" from this terrible monster, he didn't seem to give much more thought to the intense horror which he just experienced. It was as if the emotion itself had no reason to be studied simply because its external cause was shown to be of little importance. It should also be noted that Maupassant was heavily focused on examining the emotion of horror. Unfortunately, he was all too keen to carry on this difficult study to a bitter and terrible end.

E.T.A. Hoffmann was a Romantic author of fantasy and gothic horror.
E.T.A. Hoffmann was a Romantic author of fantasy and gothic horror.

Sigmund Freud's "The Uncanny"

The Uncanny (Penguin Classics)
The Uncanny (Penguin Classics)

Freud discusses what causes a lack of familiarity to lead an observer to feel like they have come across something potentially dangerous. He examines the uncanny effect primarily in E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman".


© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos


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