‘Their Death-Like Faces’: Physiognomy and the Uncanny in The Man of Feeling and The Old Curiosity Shop

Timothy Gao


The practice of physiognomy, the reading of facial features, suffered a decline in reputation at the end of the eighteenth century that coincided with the waning of the sentimental novel as a popular genre. Both physiognomy and sentimental fiction claimed to provide moral instruction through invoking intuitive and sympathetic responses to texts and faces. Both, however, also relied on a faith in the honesty of representations, a faith that I will argue was being replaced at the end of the century by an increasingly distrustful and satiric mode of interpretation. Popular and uncanny entertainments, such as puppet shows and waxwork museums, emblematised this new cynicism by encouraging the masses to expect and enjoy duplicitous representations of the human face without sympathetic or moral response. In this paper, I track the changing statuses of physiognomy through their depictions in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and the disruptive role of the uncanny objects that pervade both novels. Ultimately, the examination of physiognomy performed by the two novels also reflexively examines their own moral honesty as sentimental texts.

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