In Grendel, by John Gardner, there is considerable disquietude, but there are also moments of pleasure as well. The cause of these contrasting feelings is most often Grendel himself. As he changes from a purposeful and almost kind creature to a very cruel monster that scorns hope, we find ourselves feeling both pleased and upset at different times. In this element, though, lies a much greater purpose than simply good literature – it helps the reader understand the importance of human values.
Pleasure in the book comes mainly in realizing how much Grendel acts like a human, and how much more rational he is than one would expect for a cruel monster. After seeing the deer in the beginning of the novel, Grendel points out why he kills cows instead of deer: they have more meat and are easier to catch. Although it’s not necessarily a pleasant thought, it’s somewhat comforting to know that Grendel appears to kill for the practical benefits (food) and not simply for the sake of killing. This is no worse than we might do. He seems especially human-like when he listens to the Shaper’s song. Crying, he says that he was “filled with sorrow and tenderness” (44) and that he was “torn apart by poetry” (44). Another moment of pleasure comes as he is talking to the dragon and expresses a sort of hope and purpose. In defending his resolve not to scare humans so much just for fun, Grendel says, “Why shouldn’t one change one’s ways, improve one’s character?” (72). In all the dragon’s insistence that everything is worth nothing, Grendel refuses to believe him. He even says, “Nevertheless, something will come of all this” (74). His hope makes the readers think all the better of him.
Even if, at first, Grendel seems almost kind, and the reader is pleased with his character, he soon becomes more and more evil, and his actions bring about a feeling of uneasiness, to say the least. Before, the killing of people for no apparent reason disgusted Grendel. However, when he brings Unferth home, he kills the two guards “so I wouldn’t be misunderstood” (90). Later, in probably the most disturbing scene of the book, we see how meaningless killing has become to Grendel. He brutally attacks the queen and is determined to kill her. However, he decides not to kill her because, as he says, “It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live.” (110) Another scene that brings feelings of disquietude in the readers is when Grendel kills the goat in chapter 10. The goat’s instinct to keep climbing makes Grendel furious, and he throws stones at him until he is dead. Though Grendel probably does this because he resents that the goat, like humans, has a purpose, it is still very upsetting that he kills an innocent animal, something that he never would have done before.
John Gardner once said that one of the purposes of Grendel was to “make a case” for human values by setting them against “monster values.” Though he may not have intended this, I think that the feelings of “pleasure” and “disquietude” that Grendel produces in its readers help accomplish this purpose. Grendel himself represents the human values in the beginning. He has emotions, purpose, sensitivity, and confusion. He is moved by art and beauty, even when he doesn’t understand why. These are the same values that give us “pleasure.” They satisfy us in a way, because we can relate to his feelings.
The fact that he is a monster and has these emotions please us even more, because it’s not something we would expect. But later, as he becomes more monster-like, he is cruel and insensitive. What once disgusted him (the killing of animals for reasons other than food), he now does, as in the example with the goat. These are the actions that disturb us the most. It is very effective for Gardner to have this contrast in one individual. It is easier to contrast Grendel’s two vastly different behaviors, than to contrast his behavior with another individual’s. Because we understand and relate to Grendel, it is even more devastating to us that he is so cruel. His lack of purpose is almost depressing. The parts of “disquietude” make us long for when Grendel was more human.
Through the moments of pleasure found in Grendel’s humanness and hope, and the contrasting moments of uneasiness and hopelessness, we can see the worthiness of human values.