Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Freakish Visions: Physical Difference in Western Literature and Art

Instructor:Bill DiNome

Sign -- Gallery of the Grotesque

Some physical abnormalities we may find repulsive or frightening, yet irresistible to our gaze. Perceptions of those born with or who acquire physical deformities have changed through history, ranging from threats to society's wellbeing and warnings of God's displeasure, to nature's mistakes, to quiet heroes of moral authority.

"Freaks," in our context, will apply primarily to humans "of difference." The freak exists at one extreme as a symbol of moral or intellectual turpitude, at the other as an emblem of moral or spiritual superiority, and as mimetic representation of the societal fringe and Other. This course will take an interdisciplinary approach to the implications of the "freakish" in society as expressed in several literary genres and mixed media within the Western tradition. We will focus our investigations through the lenses of romantic humanism, structuralist and postcolonial theories, identity politics, and myth. Topics to be investigated include

  • monstrous birth in Western literature;
  • the grotesque in scripture, Romantic literature and film;
  • the freak as prodigy, human wonder, and natural curiosity;
  • the evolution of the rhetoric of monstrosity in religion and politics;
  • comparative views of physical versus social "deformity";
  • the politics of alterity;
  • marginal and hybrid bodies mapped by gender, race and class;
  • societal implications of normality and deviance.

Course Design

The course will incorporate readings in fiction, drama, poetry, visual art (mixed media), and nonfiction (criticism); viewing of narrative film, supported by research. Class work will consist of open discussion, group-instruction projects, and oral presentations. Students will have the choice to pursue research or creative final projects.


  • Multimedia presentation on criticism, with annotated bilbiography, at mid-semester;
  • Student-led instruction and weekly prompts;
  • Final project (research or creative), including literature review & defense.

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Last Update: February 8. 2012