Literature and the Face: A Critical History aims to chart and analyse the representation of the human face in literary texts from the medieval to the contemporary era. It expects to generate comprehensive new knowledge about changing literary and textual discourses about the face by combining rhetorical analysis, the insights of cognitive literary theory, and digital methodologies.

Significant outcomes include a deeper understanding of the cultural history of facial expression, identity and emotion, with particular attention to gender and ethnicity. The project’s engagement activities will illuminate the relationship between literary history and contemporary social understandings of the face and allow us to better understand current transformations in facial recognition.

Our principal methods are drawn from literary and philosophical traditions, but we will also be considering some examples of visual tradition, and the meaning of the face in contemporary culture: for example, the face as mediated by digital culture and surveillance; the nature of the masked face in the COVID era; and medical and social discourses around facial disease, injury and congenital difference. We aim to combine this last topic with our interest in perception and cognition to develop further dialogue with developments in the critical medical humanities.


  • To compile a cultural history of the imaginative, fictional and narrative representations of the human face as a means of charting historical changes in the literary tradition from the medieval past through to the present
  • To identify and account for changes in the way literary texts describe facial expression, identity and emotion, with particular attention to the role and significance of gender and ethnicity
  • To write a symptomatic long history of the trope of the ‘speaking face’ as an example of cognitive and perceptual processes, especially in relation to the history of the novel
  • To develop a comprehensive new methodological program for long-range literary history that combines theoretical, historical and cognitive models
  • To enhance international, cross-disciplinary collaboration in literary studies through shared research and writing and exceptional international training and mentoring
  • To establish research methodologies for examining large-scale corpora of selected texts via a suite of digital tools
  • To contribute to public debates on topics such as the use of facial recognition software, social media practices, the shaping forces of gendered and ethnic identities, and the way we increasingly use the face as a social commodity.