What is a shifty-looking character? Oh, I know that someone shifty is not to be trusted, but how do you tell that by looking at a person? Is there such a thing as an honest face? Such assessment seems to belong to the long-since discredited pseudo-science of physiognomy. Physiognomists claimed that the study a person’s physical appearance, particularly their facial features, revealed what that individual was like – revealed, in fact, their character or temperament. This may sound ludicrous, but perhaps it’s something we do all the time. Richard Nixon famously lost the 1960 election because, in the television debate with clean-cut J F Kennedy, Nixon’s lugubrious five-o’clock shadow was shown to disadvantage. According to polls, radio listeners thought that Nixon had won the day, but the television viewers judged differently: Nixon – it appeared – was a shady character. Yes, I know it’s true, but that’s not the point.
Writers and film-makers use appearance to signal character almost automatically. Charles Dickens’ masterly characterisations relied largely on physical characteristics. The opening chapter of Hard Times is a classic example. Dickens makes no authorial comment about the speaker. Nor does he indicate approval or disapproval of the speaker’s views on education. It is the speaker’s appearance which Dickens uses to influence the reader’s reaction.
From Hard Times: Chapter I — The One Thing Needful
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, — nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, — all helped the emphasis.
“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”
The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.
This week’s poem is another classic. It is Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias, with its dire warning for the great and hubristic.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
Percy Bysshe Shelley
As ever, your comments would be welcome.