Monthly Archives: July 2021

Retinas One Yard High: Textual Impressions of a Memorable Face

Early in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby (1925), readers encounter the strange, disembodied gaze of the fictional oculist Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, looking out over the ‘grey land and spasms of bleak dust’ of West Egg, a town modelled on Great Neck in Long Island, New York.  

Peering out from an imposing billboard – the quintessential symbol of early twentieth-century material culture – Eckleburg’s eyes are ‘blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.’  Fitzgerald writes: 

‘They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.’ 

Eckleburg’s eerie eyes (The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann film adaptation)

For many readers, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg leave a sharp and lasting impression on the imagination, not just because they reappear throughout The Great Gatsby’s key scenes or even necessarily because of Fitzgerald’s evocative exaggerated prose. Rather, it is the eerie incongruity of the giant blue eyes against the backdrop of whitewashed railroad fences, commercial wastelands and ash-heaps that seems to haunt most people.  

For some, Eckleburg’s persistent stare represents scientific rationality and the specialized knowledge of a trained physician, while for others the eyes stand in for the all-seeing eye of God. Fading in and out of sight against the mise en scène of Fitzgerald’s eerie industrial hellscape, the eyes have become synonymous with the novel itself, appearing on book covers, in films and in other iconography.  

The Great Gatsby (cover image) Wikimedia Commons

The textual impressions of a memorable face are quite different from those we recall of the faces we pass in the street or see on TV. The ability to remember faces we see out in the world even has its own scientific designation under the category of ‘super-recognizers,’ a term that researchers have used to describe people who have ‘superior face recognition abilities’ (Russell et al. 2009).  

When it comes to literary texts, why do we remember some faces better than others? And what techniques do writers use to impress upon us a lasting image of a memorable face? Unlike in cinema, where we usually instantaneously take in the complete visual frame of a character’s face, writers must construct a descriptive mosaic that pieces together various facial components to form an imaginative whole. These could be thought of as ‘faciality traits,’ to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term; parts that ‘the face holds within its rectangle or circle.’ 

In contrast to the disembodied eyes of Fitzgerald’s billboard, the well-remembered portrait of Satan in Dante’s Inferno is conjured through symbolic colours (red, black and whiteish-yellow), that move in and out of one another as if in a state of decay amid grotesque configurations of facial parts: 

⁠When I beheld three faces on his head! 
⁠The one in front, and that vermilion was; 
Two were the others, that were joined with this  
⁠Above the middle part of either shoulder, 
⁠And they were joined together at the crest; 
And the right-hand one seemed ‘twixt white and yellow; 
⁠The left was such to look upon as those 
⁠Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward. 

Many readers recall the strangeness of the figure’s three heads, one gazing outwards while the other two rise from each shoulder. Later, from three chins and six eyes trickle ‘tear-drops’ and a ‘bloody drivel.’ The poet and critic T.S. Eliot found this literary face so disturbing to the modern sensibility that he even advised students reading the Inferno for the first time to ‘omit the last canto and return to the beginning of Canto III.’  

Inferno 34 (Digital Dante)

Whether we recall heightened individual features or remember Satan as a single, epic spectacle, it is the dramatic interplay between parts that Dante enacts in these lines that nevertheless leaves a lasting impression on the mind.  

And yet, some literary faces are etched into the reading consciousness not because of their descriptive intensity but instead because they present us with an enigma. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre captivates the literary imagination precisely because of Brontë’s ability to use conflicting and contrasting perspectives to enchant us with her plainness. Self-described as ‘poor, obscure, plain and little,’ Jane is at one point complimented by Mr. Rochester for her ‘hazel eyes and hazel hair,’ only to inform the reader that her eyes ‘are in fact green.’  

Later in the novel, as she stands in front of a mirror arranging her hair, Jane’s characteristic introspection further complicates the mental image readers have of her visage: 

‘I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect and life in its colour; and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple.’  

As we see Jane through her own eyes, the impression of the face becomes mutable or is, at the very least, brought into question as we consider the accuracy of impressions encountered in earlier pages. Jane views her face differently after Rochester has declared his love for her and we are led to believe that her physical appearance comes to mirror her internal state. And yet Brontë’s choice of language – borrowed beams and lustrous ripple – is highly dreamlike and ethereal. Readers are positioned to question the veracity of this visual display and wonder whether Jane has been swept up in an illusion of her own making. 

   Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine (1943 adaptation, Jane Eyre)

But perhaps the impression of Jane’s face in this scene is less to do with specific visual markers and more to do with how it makes us feel. A great deal of what we remember about significant faces in literature is indexical to the emotive response we have when we first encounter them on the printed page.  

Like Tom Buchanan, who exchanges a frown with the static glare of Doctor Eckleburg, the imaginative interchange made possible in literary texts means that we often interact with the faces in them as if we were actually there.  

Tyne Daile Sumner

  • Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 2006.  
  • Dante, A. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1867.  
  • Deleuze, G. and Félix Guattari. ‘Year Zero: Faciality.’ In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: 167-191. 
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin, 2013.  
  • Russell, R., Brad Duchane and Ken Nakayama. ‘Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability.’ Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 16.2(2009): 252-257. 

As if to say (1)

One of the key aspects of our project is the study of the silent discourse of the face: the way literary texts characterise the face as communicating a message or a feeling to others. Our shorthand phrase for this is the “as if to say….” trope. Sometimes faces “speak” in complex sentences; at others their expressions are simpler. We will probably blog about this expression several times, so I have numbered this post as first in a series.

Our blog’s epigraph features the “glance of brightness” that Captain Wentworth gives to his old love Anne Elliot when he sees a stranger admiring her. This glance

seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818.

In this highly emotional narrative context, this trope has a temporal immediacy. The glance is the work of a moment; it is a gift; and it recalls a older, but still strong connection between the characters.

The trope is very familiar from other forms of popular culture. Many readers will think of these lines from Toto’s song Africa, from 1982.

I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”

Toto, Africa, 1982.

One of the reasons this trope fascinates our research team is its capacity to conjure the effect of a visual image, entirely through text.

At the same time, we are equally interested in the intersection of text and image.

This morning on Radio National’s “Art Show” I was listening to the Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont, who has spent many years in Afghanistan as a war photographer. Dupont speaks about the personal ethics of taking photographs in time of crisis and moments of trauma, and the experience of an “underlying connection” with subjects who implicitly allow him to take their photograph in the split second when asking for formal permission is not possible.

He says you can feel if they give you a spiritual “yes” or the connection that says, “Take my photograph.”

A minute later he revisits the same trope, speaking of a “subtle spiritual” thing, as people give their blessing.

They kind of look at you in a way and it says, “Do it.” Or they’ll look at you in a way that says, “You take my picture I’ll kill you.”

The grammatical form of these examples of the speaking glance, or look, is the imperative, or the command. In effect, Dupont transfers the agency and decision-making to the potential photographic subject.

Dupont’s use of this trope captures the temporal urgency and immediacy of the “as if to say”, but in the context of this interview, it is fascinating for us as the verbal representation of a moment that either precedes the actual photograph, or indeed, that prohibits a photograph being taken.

Text and image wind around each other in these emotional moments.  A powerful image is produced, but the drama of that image is captured in the silent discourse of the face. 

Stephanie Trigg

Chaucer reading his poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer, Taylor Swift and Scott Morrison: From Smiling to Smirking

In the song “Happiness”, from her 2020 release Evermore, Taylor Swift articulates the break-down of a relationship. She asks a bitter rhetorical question:

Tell me, when did your winning smile
Begin to look like a smirk? 

In one of those uncanny moments when popular culture addresses our historical research interests, these lyrics jumped out at me. I have been working on the history of the gesture we know as smiling. Curiously, this history intersects and overlaps with the very different trajectory of the word smirk.

The verb to smile — originating in a hypothetical Middle Low German word smilen — is not recorded in English before the fourteenth century. And when it does appear, it does so in a very specific, remarkably tentative way, as if people really are “beginning” to smile.

Here is a telling example.

In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1386), Pandarus has been trying to persuade his niece Criseyde to accept the love of Prince Troilus. Finally, she overcomes her initial hesitation, and asks if Troilus can speak well of love.

‘Kan he wel speke of love?’ quod she; ‘I preye,
Tel me, for I the bet me shal purveye.’                      [so I may prepare myself the better]

Tho Pandarus a litel gan to smyle,
And seyde, ‘By my trouthe, I shal yow telle….’

                        (Troilus and Criseyde, II. 503-506)

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 061, Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, f.37r,
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Pandarus’s smile is described only briefly; and it is minimal. Yet to the attentive reader, it signifies Pandarus’ unspoken pleasure and knowledge that Criseyde has started to unbend and warm towards the idea of Troilus.

Middle English is notoriously slippery in its use of the verb onginnen, from Old English onginnan. When used in the past tense (gan)as an auxiliary verb, as here, it sometimes carries the full meaning of “began to do something…”; though at other times it is simply a short-hand auxiliary verb to signify the past tense. Here, does Pandarus begin to smile a little, or does he smile a little? Either way, the gesture calls up a world of understanding between narrator and reader as we observe Criseyde responding to Pandarus’s powers of persuasion. This slow-moving smile is a good example of what I think we might call intimate faciality: the close-up examination of the face.

Most other uses of smile in Middle English are modified in this way, as characters begin to smile, or smile a little, or in part. This use of the verb smile corresponds in meaning to French sourire, Italian sorridere, from Latin subrideo, a sub-laugh: a smile on the way to becoming a laugh.

But what did medieval people do before they used the verb to smile? The Old English verb for smiling is smearcian, and this appears several times in Middle English as smirken. This is the same word as modern English “smirk”, but the modern associations with a malicious or contemptuous expression aren’t part of its medieval meanings at all. These associations don’t enter English until about the sixteenth century. In effect, it was only as smiling became more widespread that smirk developed its current meaning of a malicious or smug gesture.

Conversely, the word “grin” from Old Norse grenja, “to howl”, enters English as a word that describes the particular physical gesture of opening the mouth and baring the teeth. It is used in Old English and Middle English of demons, the devil, monsters, and wild animals. It does not develop the modern sense of a less threatening and more cheerful gesture until the sixteenth century.

It’s not surprising that words in English change their meaning and usage. But these semantic and textual histories are important documents in our history of facial rhetoric and facial gesture. They add another dimension to the cultural history of the smile by Colin Jones, for example, who writes illuminatingly about the social and cultural difference made to the public meaning of the smile by hygiene and dentistry in eighteenth-century France.

For example, if fourteenth-century poetry starts to show interest in the slow-motion movement of a smile associated with private knowledge and inner understanding, we might develop the hypothesis that this kind of intimate facial gesture becomes more apparent and of greater interest in the increasing use of private rooms in late medieval domestic architecture, where instead of eating and spending their lives in the public hall, the noble family would increasingly retreat to a private chamber. This social phenomenon was noted by Chaucer’s contemporary, William Langland.

Unhappy is the hall, every day in the week,
Where the lord and the lady have no liking to sit.
Now has each rich man a rule to eat by himself
In a private parlor to avoid poor men,
Or in a chamber with a chimney-corner, and leave the chief hall empty
That was made for men to eat their meals in.

William Langland, Piers Plowman, B.X.97-102, trans. E. T. Donaldson.

Reading poetry in English might well have taken place in this smaller, more close-up setting, where facial expression might also have been studied with closer attention.

Taylor Swift’s question about a smile becoming a smirk also raises issues of temporality, sociality and private knowledge on a small and intimate scale. Was this a particular smile that began to change into a smirk? Did the outer edges of the person’s mouth move upwards? Or did her perception of the smile change? Perhaps it was not a smile on a particular occasion but a characteristic facial gesture, at first attractive, and now less so? Is a smile an intentional act of communication, or something perceived and remembered by another? Swift’s ingenuous address, “Tell me … ”, plays on this ambiguity of perception: how could it be possible for the smiler to answer her question? And what is a “winning” smile? That’s another word with rich shades of meaning from something that might be charming, to something that might be triumphant, on the way to becoming an unpleasant smirk.

We are finding that in modern culture, from the late medieval period on, people read faces closely all the time, not just in literary texts, but also, in popular lyrics and in political culture.

The current Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, sometimes wears a facial expression that has become known as a smirk. It was the work of only a few minutes on Twitter to find close analysis of the Prime Ministerial face. Here is just one gloss on some video footage of Scott Morrison from March 2021, when Liberal MP Andrew Laming was charged with taking photographs of a woman in a shop as she bent down. The accompanying tweet reads:

Chin raised up because he feels superior looking down his nose at the journo, smug and arrogant. Covers his face to try & hide his smirk because he sees upskirting as being funny probably everything else. This shows he only responded when people protested.

The Prime Ministerial smirk

Smiles and smirks are mutable, both in the case of particular gestures, and in semantic histories. Whether it’s in the analysis of political images, the finely wrought lyrics of popular song or the incidental plot machinery of late medieval romance, the vocabulary and semantic history of the smile — and the smirk — are rich topics for the cultural history of facial gestures.

Stephanie Trigg