Study Guide

Grendel Suffering

By John Gardner


Let's face it: Grendel's universe is a pretty miserable place. And since we're seeing it through his eyes, there are no rose-colored glasses to make it better. In this respect, Gardner is staying true to the world of Beowulf. That epic poem is a series of calamities and tragedies both personal and tribal (pretty much everybody dies, and it's certain that Beowulf's people face utter annihilation in the end). The world in this ancient work is a harsh place, with no quarter for mercy or for things of beauty.

While much of this is echoed in Grendel, Gardner also makes the characters' suffering more intensely personal: we get to see how characters are feeling. We don't really get that in Beowulf, not because people didn't have feelings back in the day, but because the Beowulf-poet had different goals in mind when he composed the poem.

In Gardner's novel, Grendel is massively egocentric, for sure. But all his introspection and all his obsessing about his purpose in life and his isolation and sadness have given him a super sensitive misery radar. He can read between the lines and into the minds of the other characters like no one else in the book. Grendel realizes fairly early on that suffering isn't just his thing—it motivates every person in his world.

In the most cynical depths of his soul, Grendel believes that suffering has no higher purpose (thank you, Mr. Dragon, for that insight), but his experience of his own grief and the misery of others points to something else. Because it's from grief, indignity, pain and fear that humans like make beautiful things (like the Shaper), or think high-minded thoughts (like Ork), or show courage and hospitality (like Wealtheow).

This conversion process mystifies Grendel and pushes him to a whole new level of misery and isolation.

Questions About Suffering

  1. Why is Grendel so tormented by Wealtheow?
  2. In what ways does the suffering of the female characters differ from the suffering of the male characters?
  3. What is the greatest source of misery for Grendel in this story?
  4. Does Gardner want us to believe that suffering has no purpose? Take a look at the text to support your ideas on this one.

Chew on This

Grendel is addicted to human beings because his only way to experience pleasure is through suffering.

Gardner's human beings react much differently to misery than the monsters do.