The Face as a Window: An exploration of Physiognomy in Dickens' novels

Abstract: There is something unique about the manner in which Charles Dickens introduces us to his characters. His vivid character descriptions stand out as grotesque, but memorable, images. This paper examines how these descriptions are used to manipulate the reader at different stages in Dickens' career. In particular, this paper focuses on the evolution of Dickens' use of physiognomy as a narrative device. What it finds is that Dickens relies heavily on the grotesque early in his career; only introducing premonitory physiognomical descriptions in his middle career, when he began outlining his novels before writing them. This use of Physiognomy continues into his late career novels, although it becomes much more subtle and complex - to the point that he even occasionally uses it to intentionally mislead his readers.

This paper was originally written for an English Literature course at Columbia. However, with the encouragement of my instructor Jill Muller, I pursued an independent research project to expand the paper into the version you will find here (in English).