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“Surfaces and Appearances”: Character, Physiognomy, and Communication in Charles Dickens’s and Wilkie Collins’s A Message from the Sea

Year: 2023

Presenter Name: Rachel Gouff

Charles Dickens has been known as ""the inventor of Christmas"" since his 1843 Christmas Carol popularized the holiday. Most readers, however, are unaware that Dickens actually wrote many other ""Christmas"" stories and published them to be read during the festive season. These stories-including A Message from the Sea (1860)-often had nothing to do with Christmas itself. Rather than snowy villages and evergreens, A Message from the Sea includes ghosts, cannibals, a murderous innkeeper, a mysterious message in a bottle, and a long-lost brother. In this thrilling tale of adventure, full of shady characters and near-death experiences, whether or not a character survives depends on their ability to read moral character in the physical appearances of others. The visibility of one's inner virtue in one's outward appearance, or ""physiognomy,"" was a popular concept in Victorian England and appears frequently in Dickens's literature. In fact, physiognomy was widely considered a science and was treated as such; if a person was beautiful they were assumed to be good, if a person was ugly they were assumed to be bad. Physiognomy was taken so seriously that people were sometimes accused or acquitted of crimes based solely on their physical appearance. My presentation examines physiognomy within Dickens's Christmas novella A Message from the Sea. Rather than simply embracing or rejecting the pseudo-science, Dickens suggests that although physiognomy is reliable in determining a person's moral character, it falls short when it comes to accurately reading a character's real emotions or personal history. Thus, in this novella, physiognomy reveals itself to be an art as superficial as the message in the bottle that the story centers around, a message whose ""ink had faded and run."" Dickens represents messages conveyed physiognomically as largely intelligible, but limited enough that relying on physiognomy alone will always leave one vulnerable to misunderstanding.
University / Institution: Brigham Young University
Type: Oral
Format: In Person
SESSION C (1:45-3:15PM)
Area of Research: Humanities
Faculty Mentor: Jamie Horrocks
Location: Alumni House, BOYER ROOM (2:25pm)