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Physiognomy in Literature

Physiognomy Definition:
The physical features and characteristics of a person that indicate personality, intentions, or other internal trait.

Teaching Physiognomy

No doubt that many students will already have a basic understanding of physiognomy, especially if they’ve ever watched a Disney cartoon. Characters who are good are generally depicted as physically beautiful and flawless; characters who are evil tend to be ugly, disfigured, or have other grotesque features. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora and Prince Philip are both beautiful and handsome, respectively; the three good fairies are also cute and surrounded by colorful light. However, evil fairy Maleficent has greenish-gray skin, yellow eyes, and black horns on her head. Children intuitively know that Maleficent is up to no good, and that the fair young Princess Aurora is in danger.

Authors use this same method in their character descriptions to give readers hints as to the deeper intentions and inner workings of the souls of their characters. This practice dates back to the Middle Ages, where it was believed that outer flaws, illnesses, and defects were the result of the devil, witchcraft, and sin. Shakespeare routinely utilized this practice in his plays, including depicting Richard III as such a disfigured hunchback, that it was only upon the discovery of his bones in 2012 that the King’s severe scoliosis was confirmed to be barely noticeable. Julius Caesar notes that Cassius has a “lean and hungry look”, which makes him and the audience rightfully suspicious of his motives as a conspirator to kill Caesar. Chaucer used physiognomy in the Canterbury Tales to subtly direct his readers to make decisions about certain pilgrims based upon their physical flaws or beauty.

Physiognomy plays an important role in literature by allowing the audience or reader to identify characters who have hidden intentions or motives. In classrooms, especially to connect with students’ previous knowledge in biology, students will readily understand that sometimes inner turmoil can lead to physical ailments. For example, they may already know about the various ailments linked to stress, including acne, stomachaches or headaches, and increased blood pressure. This can lead to interesting debates and and discussions about the connection between the spirit or emotions, and the body.

However, sometimes physical flaws of characters do not always indicate a flawed inner soul. For example, Lancelot in The Once and Future King has a disfigured and ugly face. Even Lancelot himself thinks he is cursed by God, and he hopes to overcome this curse by dedicating himself to God and remaining as pure as possible. He believes his physical power and potential to perform miracles are connected to his chastity. While he stumbles in his quest to stay holy, ultimately, he finds that his relationship with God can be redeemed, and he remains a loyal knight and friend to King Arthur. On the contrary, Mordred, Arthur’s son with his half-sister Morgause, doesn’t technically break any laws but is determined to destroy Arthur. He is so pale that he is almost albino, and one shoulder is higher than the other - much like Richard III and Roger Chillingworth from The Scarlet Letter.

In The Kite Runner, Hassan is born with a harelip, but he is a loyal friend to Amir and pure of heart. He protects Amir from a local bully, and even forgives Amir when he frames Hassan for stealing. Both of these characters overcome or defy their physical flaws, which creates interesting discussion in the classroom for deciding how important physical looks are to a character’s intentions. It also prompts discussion on how we can determine who is good versus who is evil in real life. Students may want to discuss various historical figures and their physical qualities, and whether or not their legacies are good or evil. The truth is, sometimes not all evil characters are identifiable by their flaws; likewise, not all good characters are physically perfect. Physiognomy can be used in characterization activities, character analysis, and anticipation activities to help students better understand and question characters’ true intentions.

Popular Physiognomic Characteristics

  • Crooked spine resulting in uneven shoulders or gait
  • Limping
  • Withered or missing limbs
  • Distorted or twisted facial features
  • Green or sickly pale skin
  • Warts or open sores on the face
  • Wiry or lifeless hair
  • Narrowed, black eyes
  • Pointy nose or pointy features
  • Sneering smile or mouth that seems twisted

Example Project for Physiognomy

A great way to have students analyze the impact physiognomy has on characters and the story is to have them compare the good characters to the evil characters in a character chart, like the one below. This is also a good way to help students differentiate between indirect and direct characterization. Use the template below to help students track these important character traits, and have them find evidence from the text to support their assertions that a character is good or evil.

Common Core State Standards

Although this activity can be used for multiple grade levels, below are Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade-appropriate strands.

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

Related Activity

How to Apply Physiognomy in Creative Writing or Artistic Expression


Introduce Physiognomy and Its Significance

Explain the concept of physiognomy as the study of facial features and their relationship to personality traits and emotions. Discuss the historical and cultural significance of physiognomy in art, literature, and character analysis.


Explore Facial Features and Emotions

Teach students about different facial features and their association with specific emotions or personality traits based on physiognomy principles. Provide examples and visual references to help students understand the relationship between facial expressions and emotions.


Analyze Famous Characters and Artworks

Analyze famous characters from literature or artworks that incorporate physiognomy principles. Guide students in identifying and discussing how specific facial features contribute to the characterization or emotional expression in these works.


Incorporate Physiognomy in Creative Writing

Teach students how to apply physiognomy principles to develop well-rounded characters in their creative writing. Encourage students to consider how facial features can reflect a character's personality traits, emotions, or motivations. Provide writing prompts or exercises that challenge students to describe characters' facial features and their impact on the narrative.


Apply Physiognomy in Artistic Expression

Guide students in incorporating physiognomy principles in their artistic works, such as paintings, illustrations, or sculptures. Encourage students to explore how different facial features and expressions can evoke specific emotions or convey meaning in their artwork. Provide opportunities for experimentation and creative expression using various mediums and techniques.


Reflect and Evaluate

Facilitate discussions where students reflect on their experiences applying physiognomy in creative writing or artistic expression. Encourage students to evaluate the effectiveness of using facial features to enhance characterization, convey emotions, or communicate messages. Provide constructive feedback and encourage students to further refine their use of physiognomy in future creative projects.

Frequently Asked Questions about Physiognomy in Literature

What are the dangers of relying on physiognomy to create characters in literature?

While physiognomy may help readers to understand a character's personality, it can also reinforce negative stereotypes or biases. Associating certain physical features with particular character traits can lead to harmful assumptions and perpetuate harmful prejudices. Authors should approach the use of physiognomy in literature with caution and sensitivity to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Can physiognomy be used to teach critical thinking skills in literature?

Yes, physiognomy can be used as a tool for teaching critical thinking skills in literature. By analyzing the physical features and descriptions of characters, students can learn to identify and interpret symbolism and metaphor in literature. Additionally, analyzing the use of physiognomy can help students to recognize the ways that authors use language to convey meaning and create complex characters.

How can parents help their children to recognize and avoid harmful stereotypes in literature?

Parents can help their children to recognize and avoid harmful stereotypes in literature by encouraging them to read diverse books that feature characters from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. They can also engage in discussions with their children about the ways that authors use physiognomy and other literary techniques to create characters and how these techniques can perpetuate stereotypes or biases. Parents can also model critical thinking skills by analyzing literature and discussing the ways that characters are developed.

What are some examples of classic literature that use physiognomy in character development?

Classic literature that uses physiognomy in character development includes Shakespeare's plays, such as Macbeth, where the physical features of the characters are often used to suggest their motivations and personalities. Other examples include Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where the characters' physical appearances are used to suggest their social status and personality traits, and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, where the physical features of the characters are used to suggest their morality.

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