The Use of the Grotesque as Characterization in Melissa Pritchard’s “La Bête: A Figure Study” and “Shed of Grace”

In two of her short stories, “La Bête: A Figure Study” and “Shed of Grace”, Pritchard works to establish moral perversion, and the decline that follows, through the use of grotesque imagery in her descriptions of the main characters’ thoughts and actions.  La Bête is a morbidly obese objet d’art in Paris and the unnamed narrator of “Shed of Grace” is a haughty, stone-cold pious woman who would, as she rejects her own sister’s modeling career, be staunchly opposed to La Bête. And yet, the language that pervades both stories is of a similar slant.

In “La Bête” we have a woman, first tormented as a young girl, growing up to become a popular obscene model in the Parisian art scene. In order to survive among the world of men, of mad art students and their masters, it seems she takes on a persona so brazen, so utterly masculine, that she cannot in any way be harmed by her lack of modesty. It is she, La Bête, who is farting and carrying on with the boys, she who spontaneously menstruates in a graveyard while posing, her “glistening flux… [leaving] bright banners upon [a] child’s headstone” (La Bête 41). Like La Bête, the headstone is “discolored, ruined, in the daylight” (La Bête 41), yet during a night when “the moon was bloated and discolored” (La Bête 40) her blood, and the destruction of the innocent’s grave marker, is made art. Pritchard writes, as La Bête, that it is “a perfect omen of some sort, though [the artists] did not know of what” (La Bête 41). Readers are clued in through Pritchard’s language, however, her repetition of “discolored” to reflect not only the moon, the menses, the child’s marker, but to reflect on the character that observes these things.

This connection with the genitals continues on, primarily when La Bête is devouring some sausages (a Freudian dream, if ever there was) and glances down. She “[tears] into the meat, huge mouthfuls, [her] pubic hair staring up at [her], a reproachful orange mouth” (La Bête 43). The connections to her femininity reproach her, or they would were they capable of doing so. Instead we have a character focusing on a perceived reproach from her genitive functions, instead of admitting to herself that she is feeling shamed, or unfeminine. Pritchard gives us the irony of a woman pretending at being as brash as some hyper-masculine man. And, much like how Superman’s disguise shows the reader just what the man from Krypton thinks the average man is (meek, bad vision, unconfident), so we see, through La Bête’s actions, what she thinks of not only herself, but of men. Whenever she farts, belches, insults, or gorges herself on food, “rolling [it] around the cave of [her] mouth for pleasure” (La Bête 41), Pritchard is showing us not only of how La Bête perceives men to act, but how La Bête is creating a shield of misogyny to protect that girl who was once stripped and shamed in her old village.

Her full ruin comes, as these things are wont to do, and La Bête is forced by necessity to be the model of a mad old man that lives in a houseboat. It is there that her full disfiguration comes to the fore, when even the artist studying her only wants her in images, flashes of dehumanization.

He had no use for [her] once-famous body, painting only [her] head, with a green scarf concealing [her] famous hair, tobacco smoke like a fine, hissing aureole around [her]. [She] was to be laughing, some of [her] teeth missing, [her] cheeks mapped with broken veins (La Bête 46).

Her indelicacy has burnt out like the bright flame of stardom it nurtured, and now she can only be seen for the grotesqueries that live within her. Pritchard shows us the character’s decline in station clearly, but still allows the character to remain in some state of obscene confidence, when at the close La Bête suns herself, fully naked, as she takes her lunch after having returned to her childhood village. La Bête, as our proxy, thinks of herself as an “ugly, disgraced laundress” (La Bête 48) while still maintaining the illusion that it is “the awful enchantment of her naked body” (La Bête 48) that draws the young men to peep at her in her narcoleptic state.

Pritchard uses the same language of the grotesque to color the character of the unnamed narrator in “Shed of Grace”, but in a more direct way. Because it is related to the reader in the First Person, the language used, specifically in regards to how the narrator perceives her surroundings and those that populate them, is the clearest indicator of the (not-so) secret heart of the protagonist.

The reader’s first interaction with the narrator (henceforward referred to as “Grace” for reasons of clarity) is her destruction of a housefly. “[She takes] sharp pleasure in sweeping the dead pulp [of the fly’s remains] onto an envelope and removing it to the garbage” (Grace 94). The reader is forced through proximity to juxtapose this “pulp” with the preceding lines describing the “threadlike legs which end in cabriole feet…oxblood eyes split by…sprays of antennae…a graceless creature of annoyance” (Grace 94). When Grace finds nothing graceful in an object, she is quick to destroy it, make it into the worthless “pulp” she has already judged it to be. This same instance occurs when she kills a mosquito that has alighted on her arm in the cemetery. Instead of flicking it away immediately, she “watched its transparent abdomen fill, turn plum-colored, then pressed [her] palm over its machinery and lifted it up to expose a blotch of red polish, its body like a discarded rind” (Grace 97). As it is the female mosquito that feeds on a blood meal to nurture the eggs it carries, Pritchard clearly shows us what Grace thinks of maternal beings.

Further juxtaposition occurs in regard to Grace’s sister Penelope. Grace refers to her sister as “impulsive…witlessly married” (Grace 94). Pritchard has given the reader this clue of context in order to color two characters at once. Granted, Penelope is being given the unreliable end of the shaft, but even that further concretes Grace’s presence. She, Grace, perceives herself as staid, calm. She is not one to rush into a doomed union. The groundwork for irony has been swiftly laid.

But in terms of grotesque language, the reader is given the descriptive passage of Grace watching her pregnant sister bathe in a stream. Grace renders her sister as “a bloated fish, purple stretch marks climbing up from her pubic area like winter vines” (Grace 95). In a society where a pregnant woman is to be revered, where she is told she is “radiant” or “glowing” and that stretch marks are just earned badges of honor, Grace’s view of her sister’s fertility rests again in a solid juxtaposition to her own station. Grace would not and will not be some waddling, bloated beast on display. She will not mar her own flesh with grotesque purple scars.

Grace even possesses contempt for green nature, referring to a group of oak trees in the cemetery as a “clot” (Grace 96) and the long-abandoned remains of a spiders’ snares as “sloppy webs” (Grace 96). She will describe the man she ends up having an affair with as having “the hide of an animal, cow or horse perhaps, when it shudders, involuntarily” (Grace 97). He is some brute force, and she is “more decent…chastely triumphant, and untouched…[possessing] pride in [her] physical virtue” (Grace 97). Again, Pritchard sets up for the reader the obvious irony. The chaste snow queen and the brute manual laborer will soon comingle. But that’s just the story. The importance lies in character.

Grace views sexuality as something distant, something unwanted, but Pritchard gives us too many details to ignore. Specifically, the grotesque phrasing describing the sleeping bag as having a “gash of red lining” (Grace 99) and previously the results of sex in marring the beauty of her sister. She is fearful of her own sexuality, and it comes out only when she is stirred to revenging herself against the beauty of her disparaged sister. Pritchard shows us that she views all things that are not a part of herself as in states of decay and ignorance, referring to the “townspeople’s …admiration [hammering] at [Penelope], in monotonous rhythm, lacking cleverness” (Grace 98) and referring to the town specifically as “blighted” (Grace 95). She finds no joy in joyful things, only through her own penance of digging, going so far as to “put a small clod of dirt upon [her] tongue” (Grace 100) as she settles into the earth.

La Bête embraces the hideousness of lies and dysmorphia, and in her own way of lying to herself about how horrible things are, Grace does something similar. Pritchard has them both, fearful, creating shields, one of the fire of over-masculinity in the case of La Bête, and one of frigid virtue, in the case of Grace. Both women are brought low by their own lies to themselves, both left ruined in their own ways. Still, there is a poetry in the grotesquery they see around them, and the violence of passion in which they live.

Pritchard, Melissa. “La Bête: A Figure Study.” Spirit Seizures. Athens: University of
Georgia Press, 1987. 35-49. Print.

Pritchard, Melissa. “Shed of Grace.” Spirit Seizures. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. 94-100. Print.

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