Physiognomy Definition: the author creates physical features and characteristics for a character that indicate personality, intentions, or other internal traits

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Physiognomy is used in literature to point to a character’s true intentions and inner self by creating physical manifestations of these traits. An author can create an evil character and point to their untrustworthiness by giving them some kind of outer deformity; likewise, the author can also point to a character’s inherent goodness by making them flawless. This is most often exemplified in fairytales or Disney movies, where the witch or villain is almost always flawed physically, with ugliness and deformities predominating their face and bodies. On the other hand, the princess, prince, or hero of these stories is almost always flawless, and the viewer or reader is expected to understand that this lack of physical deformity makes them inherently good. In literature, Roger Chillingworth and Mordred in The Scarlet Letter and The Once and Future King both have deformities of the shoulder, making one shoulder higher than the other. While this may seem like a slight flaw, both men become villains of the story and ultimately destroy the happiness of Hester and Arthur, the heroes of the stories.

Notable Physiognomy Examples in Literature

  • Richard in The Tragedy of Richard III
  • The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz
  • Edward Hyde in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter
  • Mordred in The Once and Future King

  • Be sure to check out our article, "Physiognomy in Literature"!

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