Physiognomy

Introduction:

In the literature of sensibility, the discourse of physiognomy is the more conventional and superficial sister to that of physiology. While the medicalization of the body looks beneath the skin for explanations of emotional, psychological, and physical behaviors and responses, physiognomy stays on the surface, on the skin, studying facial features, the lineaments of the body, and even gesture and expression. The assumption at work is that an individual's nature-- his or her disposition, character, mind, and soul-- can be judged by scrutinizing the outside of him or her. Not everybody is equally competent at this kind of reading, however; some who were thought especially literate were frequently requested by others less skilled to "read that countenance" and report back on the findings.

In the novels of the eighteenth century, especially, the body comes to be a central site of meaning, one on which a language more eloquent than words is thought to be inscribed. Descriptions of dress, physical features (including hair and limbs), and facial expressions are partnered with details about bodily symptoms, ailments, and outward manifestations of feeling (such as blushes and tears) to create a whole sign-system for deciphering the internal qualities of the individual.

With the art of physiognomy, reading surfaces stands in place of plumbing (psychological) depths. This superficiality is perhaps worrying enough as it is, but this hermeneutics becomes even further complicated upon examining how assumptions about gender, race, and class are written on the bodies of eighteenth-century literary characters. Gender is especially relevant, as the female body becomes a site for contesting notions of virtue. Characters of the lower classes or, heaven forbid, non-Anglo-Saxon stock are easy to identify in these novels: they are very frequently made "other" via the body.

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