London Girls, Hollywood Murders and Tinker Creek Frogs: The Symbolical Grotesque in Wolfe, Didion and Dillard

Carolyn Ang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Writers adapt to changing times by changing the way that they write. The rise of new journalism in the 1960s and '70s, which sought to explore the world through the mixed lenses of anthropology, politics and autobiography, saw the reshaping of many traditional authorial techniques, including the use of the symbolical grotesque as a medium of social commentary.

The symbolical grotesque traces its roots to the prophetic pattern found first in the Old Testament and later in nineteenth-century literature. When a Biblical prophet (and later a Victorian sage) addressed a particular social issue, he would first warn the people of the judgments that would befall them if they refused to repent of their sinful ways. After detailing these consequences, the prophet would offer the people an alternative, a course of action that would put them back in God's favor, and end with a message of hope for the future.

The symbolical grotesque grew out of this pattern, evolving from a precursor of religious discipline into a tool of broader social critique. As explained by George P. Landow in Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer, writers use the symbolical grotesque to "transform contemporary reality into a grotesque version of itself, or reveal the grotesque aspects of it which [their] contemporaries fail or refuse to see." By accurately depicting the depravity found in society or creating analogous grotesque images of their own, authors hope to shake their readers into an understanding of current social problems and spur them to correctional action. While the purpose of the grotesque remains largely the same (to alert readers to a prevalent social evil), its significance is no longer necessarily religious.

Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Annie Dillard are three modern writers who have turned to the grotesque in one form or another as a medium of authorial commentary. Wolfe expands the symbolical grotesque to emphasize the viciousness and perversions inherent in social interactions and the idea that we are trapped in our own stupidity. Didion uses the grotesque to focus on the breakdown of the traditional narrative to tie together personal and societal events and the sense of disjointedness that she feels is emblematic of the 1960s. By contrast, although Dillard also employs the grotesque in her writing, instead of concentrating on human behavior, she aims to explore the duality that she observes in the natural world and the fundamental tension between the sublime and the horrifying.

In The Pumphouse Gang, Tom Wolfe uses the symbolical grotesque to paint a devastating view of degenerate society and its deviation from natural order. The character sketches and mini-narratives that make up this work show in excruciating detail the self-destructive rat race that humans find themselves trapped in.

In "The Life & Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl," Wolfe highlights the animalistic nature of interactions between teenage girls in London society and stresses how ridiculous their carefully constructed social customs really are. He uses the daily actions and musings of Sue, a typical middle class girl striving for social acceptance, to extrapolate deeper values entrenched in her subculture of friends and acquaintances. Sue is highly sensitive to what constitutes fashionable, socially acceptable behavior and what does not, and spends much time and energy in the pursuit of feeling "very right in the sense of right people" (225). Every aspect of her appearance and personality has been meticulously tailored to fit the perceived social norm. Sue thinks nothing of ironing her hair to achieve "that perfect London fashionable straight blond hair look," even though in order to do so she must disregard her mother's protests and contort her body into a freakishly unnatural position (232). Wolfe's description of her -- "some girl with her head on the ironing board, her cheek pressed down there, and her eyes are kind of glazed out at a weird angle" -- creates the disturbing image of an impressionable youth who will compromise her integrity and health, so long as her hair "looks great afterward" and wins the approval of her friends (232).

Wolfe likens the conformist behavior of Sue and her friends (Dollies, as they are called) to the herd instincts of wild animals. Ironically, the harder they try to achieve the right mix of human ideals such as sex and status, the more animalistic their behavior and appearances become. When the Dollies dress to impress for upper class (also known as Heathfield) parties, they end up looking "like camels, with their necks thrust forward, squinting out from between these huge false eyelashes" (227). Their artificial eyelashes distort their looks to the point of grotesqueness, but the girls are so intent on fitting in that they don't notice the ghastly effects of their actions. They do not realize how pathetic and unattractive they appear, but Wolfe makes sure that the reader does.

The social hierarchy that Wolfe sets forth (with Heathfields on the top, Dollies below them) resembles the predatory food chain found in nature. The Heathfields prey on the unfortunate Dollie who forgets her place, such as the middle class girl who attends one of their prestigious boarding schools. On the train ride home, three of her upper class schoolmates designate her as "the odd girl out, obviously" and continuously "do things like forcing her to give her opinion on something and then ripping her to shreds for it" (230). Wolfe describes their behavior towards the girl in bestial terms and emphasizes the vicious nature in which they toy with her, like a predator playing with its prey. When the girl's father and mother come to pick her up at the train station, the three girls mock them from the window in their compartment. What makes their actions particularly vicious is that as they ridicule the girl's family, they are actually grinning and waving to them in the pretense of a fond farewell. The parents, innocent in their naiveté, wave back. The contrast between how the three girls see themselves and the way that Wolfe sees them is readily apparent; even as the three Heathfields speak of the girl's parents in a superior, vaguely anthropological manner -- "Ooo, look at the father! The mustache! The pipe! The trousers!" -- Wolfe reduces them to "maniacs . . . all writhing in the window in this spastic fit" (231).

Likewise, the Dollies are equally vicious in their treatment of girls whom they consider beneath them, such as Sandy. Strangely enough, the divisions between the different camps do not adhere unerringly to class lines; Sandy, like all of the Dollies, is a middle class girl. The Dollies' criticisms of Sandy center on the way that she walks and the way that she dresses, even though Wolfe tells us "none of the Dollies have anything to brag about" (236). Despite a highly developed sense of self-righteousness that allows them to justify their contempt towards Sandy, the Dollies themselves all "run the wrong way. Everything flops out to the sides like bird wings, their legs flop out like a rag doll's, as if they were hinged sideways, their little breasts flop out and they shriek and scream" (237). In addition, their own choices of clothing are decidedly unflattering, such as the knit dresses that they wear religiously during the summer in spite of the heat for fashion's sake. Wolfe exposes their hypocrisy when he describes the Dollies "packed into these little squatty rooms . . . sweating like a pig under all that knitted wool, all this expensive sweat pouring out from expensive skin and everyone keeps on grinning and showing teeth" (243). Yet, despite their shortcomings in the same areas, the Dollies do not show any mercy in their discussion of Sandy. They become all the more physically grotesque to the reader as they contort their faces in hideous ways and "push out that little bag of skin [that] runs from the lower lip to the chin and covers the lower teeth" to "register general disapproval of whatever it is, such as Sandy's 'funny shape'" (237). In ridiculing what they consider grotesque (Sandy's awkward gait and ill-fitting trousers), they become symbolical grotesques themselves of society's "paranoical concern with the most minute things of style and acceptability" (237).

While Tom Wolfe uses the symbolical grotesque to satirize the degenerate nature of human interactions, in her work The White Album, Joan Didion examines a series of stories that lack a connective fiber running through them. Unlike Wolfe with his character sketches, Didion does not use the grotesque to criticize specific people and their particular attributes. Rather, the grotesque imagery found in her book deals more with disturbing situations rather than disgusting individuals. For someone like Didion who "look[s] for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five," grotesques that take the form of senseless cruelty and violence are especially chilling (11). The futility of these tragedies shakes her faith in her ability to "live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images" (11).

Didion describes a story of child abuse that she read about in newspapers from the mainland while staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. The case involved a young woman named Betty Lansdown Fouquet who left her 5-year-old child out to die on a highway divider in Southern California. Didion conveys the sense of dislocation that she felt upon reading of this news by the selective details that she provides readers about the incident: the exact location of the abandonment and the child's reaction. Although we as readers know that the child was left "some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit," that her "fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence" and that she "had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brothers and sisters for a long time", we do not know why the mother left her there in the first place (13). The abundance of specifics within the information that we have been given is frustrating because, while detailed, it does not contain the answers to the questions we want to ask. What compels a mother to abandon her child on a highway divider? What compels the family of a child to permit such a crime to occur? As Didion says in the beginning of her essay, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" (11). We want to believe that there is a reason behind this act of cruelty; the presence of a justifiable motive will begin to ease our minds. Although the idea of a mother abandoning her child is already horrifyingly grotesque, the image of a mother abandoning her child for no particular reason is even more so. Didion suggests that perhaps Fouquet did not have a reason, that this incident was one of many "flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement" (13). Her devastating conclusion -- "certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew" -- stems from the absence of any rhyme or reason for this act of cruelty that so completely defies maternal instinct and crosses the boundaries of human decency (13).

Didion also examines the murder of 69-year-old Ramon Navarro in his own home by two brothers, Paul and Tommy Scott Ferguson. Didion tries to make sense of the murder of an elderly man by complete strangers through a transcript of the trial, which she hopes will contain a motive for their violence. However, the only information that she learns concerns the younger brother's ignorance of "Mr. Navarro's career as a silent film actor until he was shown, at some point during the night of the murder, a photograph of his host as Ben-Hur" and the older brother's definition of a hustler (17). These snippets of information are clues that lead her nowhere; they do not bring her any closer to understanding the reason that two young men murdered a man whom they did not know. This lack of logic and order frustrates Didion, who writes, "I read the transcript several times, trying to bring the picture into some focus which did not suggest that I lived, as my psychiatric report had put it, 'in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and, above all, devious motivations.' " (18). Worried that this assessment of her mental state is true, Didion strives to prove the report wrong by coming to a logical conclusion regarding the events occurring around her. But, try as she may, she cannot fit the meaningless murder of a stranger into a coherent narrative. The grotesqueness of the Fergusons' senseless violence emphasizes the breakdown of any connective tissue that Didion had hoped would tie things together. Her inability to comprehend and categorize leads her to believe that, instead of fitting into a logical narrative, "so many encounters in those years were devoid of any logic save that of the dreamwork" (19). The information that she learns seven years later about Paul Ferguson and his successful writing career from prison only underscores her conclusion. Although Ferguson claims that writing has helped him to "reflect on experience and see what it means," Didion questions this idealistic epilogue because Ramon Navarro is still dead and she still does not know the reason why (48). She counters, "Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on "Midnight Confessions" and on Ramon NavarroŠ but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means." (48)

As effective as the symbolical grotesque is as a form of social commentary, its definition and usages can be expanded to include topics drawn from the natural world. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which deals almost entirely with nature and philosophy, Annie Dillard uses the symbolical grotesque to explore the idea that there are two sides to everything and that nature can be both beautiful and horrific at the same time.

Dillard begins her metaphysical journey with a personal anecdote from childhood about her "curious compulsion" to "take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find" (14). She likens the pennies that she would hide to the "unwrapped gifts and free surprises" that exist in nature, and proclaims the natural world "fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand" (15). If we as readers extend her metaphor, we can surmise that there are two sides to every coin found in nature, and that although one face is beautiful and the other is grotesque, both sides are equally awe-inspiring.

Dillard sets forth the idea that in nature, beauty and the grotesque come hand in hand, and that there cannot be one without the other. One of the earliest grotesques that Dillard includes in her book is the violent death of a frog before her very eyes. She writes, "And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sagŠ I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing" (6). Her readers soon learn that the frog has been eaten by a giant water bug, which injects an enzyme into its victims that dissolves their muscles, bones and organs into a liquid that it sucks out of their bodies. This nauseating image serves as a jumping off point for Dillard and raises some important ideas and questions that she will continue to explore throughout the book: the two faces of nature and the existence of a divine creator. When Dillard explains, "many carnivorous animals devour their prey alive" and "every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac," readers envision life as nothing more than a harsh and terrible struggle for existence in the middle of a lonely planet (6). However, in the very next breath she notes, "But at the same time we are also created." (7) Dillard muses, "If we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump into another mystery: the inrush of power and light . . ." (7). She then goes on to describe the grace and elegance of a mockingbird in flight and reaffirms, "There seems to be such a thing as beauty." (7) The presence of the grotesque creates the tension with beauty that Dillard finds fascinating. The world of the giant water bug and the world of the mockingbird appear diametrically opposed, but Dillard determines that they are one and the same.

However, when Dillard begins to investigate fecundity, she makes a startling discovery: not only do beauty and the grotesque occupy the same space, but sometimes the line separating them becomes so thin that it is hard to determine which is which. Traditionally, fertility has been considered desirable because it creates new life. Yet the same process of procreation that thrills and enchants when a human infant or baby puppy is born takes on quite a different significance when it results in "the million million barnacle larvae in a half mile of shore water, rivers of termite eggs and light years of aphids" (171). Previously, Dillard has recognized the duality of nature in general; now she must confront the duality of a single concept within nature. She writes, "I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives" (160). In the dream she has that prompts this whole train of thought, Dillard watches two luna moths mate. At first the scene is beautiful with the "fragile, ghostly moths, fairy moths, whose five-inch wings are swallow-tailed, a pastel green bordered in silken lavender," but the image quickly turns revolting as the male "sprouted two enormous, furry antennae" and climbs "on top of the female, hunching repeatedly with a horrible animal vigor" (159). Dillard writes, "It was a perfect picture of utter spirituality and utter degradation. I was fascinated and could not turn away my eyes" (160). The beauty and the grotesque present in the mating of the luna moths (and the mating rituals of various insects and parasites) eventually leads Dillard to proclaim, "I am not called upon to pass judgment" (179). She cannot pin the nature of fecundity down; it is both beautiful and horrible at the same time. She concludes, "The picture of fecundity and its excesses and of the pressures of growth and its accidents is of course no different form the picture I painted before of the world as an intricate texture of a bizarre variety of formsŠ I saw how freedom grew the beauties and horrors from the same live branch. This landscape is the same as that one, with a few more details added, and a different emphasis" (180).

Dillard's use of the grotesque resembles Joan Didion's writing more than it does Tom Wolfe's because while Dillard and Didion are sages, Wolfe is purely a satirist. Dillard and Didion both define their sage's quest for knowledge and understanding from the very beginning; Dillard proposes to "keep here what Thoreau called 'a meteorological journal of the mind,' telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead" (11), and Didion writes, "We interpret what we seeŠ we live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line among disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience" (11). Dillard wants to look deeper into the phenomenon that she observes on a daily basis and glean some wider understanding of the nature of the universe. Similarly, Didion aims to fit the disjointed images that she sees into a larger framework of events to gain insight into society. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, Dillard and Didion do not claim to know all of the answers, and do not guarantee to know them after the search is over. However, Dillard promises, "If I can't see these minutiae, I [will] still try to keep my eyes open" (17), and Didion dutifully records any event that she suspects "may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself" (36). Although Dillard seems more successful in finding pennies of wisdom on her journey than Didion (who only seems able to conclude, "In this light all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless."), both embark on the search for truth and attempt to find some solutions to the puzzle of grotesques that they perceive around them (44). By the end of her Thoreau-esque journey, Dillard has learned much: "Physical wholeness is not something we have barring accident; it is itself accidental" (238), "Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me" (176), "This is the truth of the pervading intricacy of the world's detail: the creation is not a study, a roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine" (134), "Beauty is real" (266) This is not to say, however, that Didion comes up completely empty-handed; according to Landow's Elegant Jeremiahs, "she reveals that her album captures the crucial fact about the 1960s in America: belief, the paradigmatic narrative that held society together, had disappeared."

The crucial difference between Dillard's sage writing and Wolfe's satire lies in their disparate purposes. When Dillard "stalks" muskrats (as she calls it) in order to watch them swim in the creek, she writes, "The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing themŠ they show me by their very wariness what a prize it is simply to open my eyes and behold" (192). Dillard considers it a privilege to observe the pack of muskrats, even though they are not beautiful in and of themselves. In fact, even in the case of gruesome creatures such as locusts, she would rather see them than not see them at all. She says, "I cannot ask for more than to be so wholly acted upon, flown at, and lighted on in throngs, probed, knocked, even bitten. A little blood from the wrists and throat is the price I would willingly pay for that pressure of clacking weights on my shoulders, for the scent of deserts, groundfire in my ears -- for being so in the clustering thick of things, rapt and enwrapped in the rising and falling real world" (221).

Wolfe, on the other hand, stalks to trap. While Dillard stalks in order to get close enough to appreciate her subjects, Wolfe follows his characters to record their savage interactions and transfer them mercilessly onto paper for the world to see. His painfully honest character sketches often go into excruciating detail to expose the hypocrisy and vicious cycles inherent in societal behavior. In "The Life & Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl," Wolfe minces no words describing the Heathfields as a "stupid, cretinous, brainlessŠ procession of pallid, mashy, squatty, sticky little girls, marching on, nevertheless, to victory, so they can stand on the goddamned Portobello Road in tacky black velvet and sob and clutch one another and say, My God, remember when we were like that- because we are all like one another, and we cohere like some cellular animal from out the primordial ooze and we leave all the little Sues, the poor Sues, out on the fringes, to watch and covet and look away as if unconcerned..." (235) Interestingly enough, as mean as he sometimes can be, a careful reader can surmise that deep down, Wolfe the writer does not derive as much pleasure from his stinging observations as Wolfe the satirist does. In his introduction to The Pumphouse Gang, Wolfe laments the "ghastly embrace" of war, poverty, insurrection and alienation by intellectuals and tries to introduce some happier, more pleasant topics during the symposium that he attends at Princeton (13). However, his colleagues quickly shoot him down because they want to discuss calamity, "the one serious concern of serious people" (13). Finally, Wolfe drops his insistence on a society-wide "happiness explosion" and agrees to discuss what they want to discuss, but on his own terms (14). He says, "If we want to be serious, let us discuss the real apocalyptic future and things truly scary: ego extension, the politics of pleasure, the self-realization racket, the pharmacology of Overjoy" and goes on to do exactly that in the rest of his book (14).

In conclusion, modern day writers have updated the nineteenth-century version of the symbolical grotesque so that it remains an effective means of social commentary for this day and age. The grotesque is no longer confined to the arena of religion and the prophetic pattern; rather, its uses have broadened to include topics from both the secular and the natural world. Tom Wolfe uses the grotesque to peel away society's facades and defense mechanisms and reveal the flaws in human nature. Joan Didion and Annie Dillard use the grotesque to catalogue social and natural events that they hope to examine more thoroughly in order to understanding why problems occur and how they can be solved. By exploring the symbolical grotesques found in society and nature, writers can better grapple with moral failings and philosophical puzzles that may or may not have solutions. The evolution of the symbolical grotesque to meet the demands of modern non-fiction provides both sages and satirists with a forum for literary discussion, whether they choose to attack the world as they see it or change it into the world that they want to see.


Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York, New York: The Noonday Press 1979.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York, New York: HarperPerennial, 1974.

Landow, George P. Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986. (online text found at

Wolfe, Tom. The Pumphouse Gang. New York, New York: The Noonday Press, 1968.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion Annie Dillard

Last modified 29 May 2002