Bakhtin’s Carnival and the Grotesque Body as Applied to Lazarillo de Tormes

Christopher Conway

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his landmark study Rabelais and His World (1968), defined and explored two concepts that have been of immeasurable value to cultural historians and literary critics: the carnivalesque and the grotesque body. The first term, the carnivalesque, is a term that springs from Bakhtin’s examination of medieval carnival festivities, the only time of year that peasants were able to publicly break loose, so to speak, and celebrate in ways that cut against the grain of Christian morality and reigning class hierarchies. “Here, in the town square,” writes Bakhtin, “a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (10). During Carnival, Bakhtin continues, certain types of communication, performance, and story-telling reign supreme: there’s base language (billingsgate), iconoclastic laughter, and parody. Taken together, these qualities underline that carnival as a historical phenomenon, and…

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