Tag Archives: art

CFP: The Face and/in World Literature

Together with Professor Anca Parvulescu from Washington University in St. Louis, we are delighted to put together a co-hosted seminar proposal for next year’s American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference.

We currently seek paper proposals for a seminar on ‘The Face and/in World Literature.’

Beginning October 1 (and due October 31) interested individuals may submit a paper proposal to ONE seminar of their choice. Potential seminar organizers will then have the opportunity to select the papers they would like to include in their seminar and submit a complete seminar to the ACLA for approval.

Please see the ACLA call page here to submit a paper proposal. We look forward to hearing from you!

Our proposed seminar brings together scholars working in a range of fields to frame a comparative literary history of the face. From Chaucer through to the contemporary global novel, the seminar considers changing literary and textual discourses about the human face alongside the cultural history of face reading. Working across literary geographies, genres and historical periods, papers and conversations will consider a range of imaginative representations of the face and the conventions that frame such representations. Adjacent fields through which an analysis of the face might be engaged include philosophy, sociology, linguistics, cultural theory, art history, and the history of science. The seminar aims to illuminate the relationship between literature and the long history of social and cultural understandings of the face and allow us to better understand contemporary transformations at the intersection of physiognomy, affect, and, increasingly, technology. We hope this history will offer new perspectives on recent developments in facial recognition surveillance and affect detection technologies, social media practices, and the way in which we increasingly use the face as a social commodity.

Possible topics include:

–literary histories of prosopopoeia

–the portrait and its conventions

–histories of the mask and the veil

–emotion/affect and the face

–physiognomy around the world

–race and the face

–disability and the face

–technologies of facialization 

–theories of interface

–aesthetics and/of the face

–formalisms of the face

–the history of cosmetics and cosmetic surgery

–the face in digital cultures 

–ethics of the face

–comparatism and the face

The Time of the Smile

We will be speaking about our project at the forthcoming conference of The Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. This year’s conference theme is ‘Reception and Emotion’ and the event will be held online via Zoom (hosted by The University of Western Australia), from 27–30 June 2022!

Our proposed panel will consider the following, across three papers by Stephanie, Joe & Tyne:

In The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris (2014), Colin Jones argued that in the eighteenth century a new kind of smile, the “white-toothed smile” came to replace a “snooty, aggressive, closed-mouth smile” that had been dominant in seventeenth century France. This revolution, he shows, was tied to transformations in the history of emotions, in dentistry, in practices of aesthetic representation, and in the progressive urbanisation of eighteenth-century life. Our panel takes inspiration from Jones’s conjugation of the emotional, the physiological and the socio-historical in the sense of a smile, but we want to expand this field of inquiry. We want to look at other times of the smile: earlier periods in the history of the smile and other times in the arc of the smile (the first movements of a smile, the experience of smiling and being smiled at, of smiling to oneself and to another). The three papers on this panel span medieval and early modern texts, practices of close reading, cultural history and digital methods, in order to deepen the cultural history of the smile. 

Reading the smile in nineteenth-century children’s literature

In this first of our guest blog posts for Literature & the Face we welcome the following discussion of the smile in children’s literature by Catherine Gay.

Catherine is a PhD Candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is also a Digital Studio Internship fellow for Literature and the Face, where she is currently working on a digital humanities project about the cultural history of the smile. Stay tuned for more on this exciting project in the coming weeks!

Introduction: Reading the smile

Childhood is a period when a person’s emotional understandings and behaviours are cultivated and influenced. [1] Although children learn emotions through many channels, it has been well established that ‘texts for children and young adults are used as tools for emotional socialisation, enculturation, political persuasion, and moral or ethical education. [2] Whether children absorb or even employ the desired information, children’s texts are nevertheless often written by adult authors in an attempt to mold young minds.

In the English-speaking world, didactic texts emerged in the 1700s, charged with providing moral guidance for young readers and listeners. One such text is Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), which follows nine girls at Mrs Teachum’s school. In each chapter a girl gives both an account of her life and a recites a moral story for the class. The story culminates with nine good, obedient pupils who have learnt their lessons. The Governess states in its opening pages, ‘The Design of the following Sheets is to endeavour to cultivate an early inclination to Benevolence, and a Love of Virtue, in the Minds of young Women.’ [3] Books such as these contained moral messages which could easily be drawn from the text.

Sarah Fielding, The Governess; or Little Female Academy 1749. Image

In the Victorian period, unambiguously instructive texts came to be replaced with narrative-driven material. Yet these children’s stories, from domestic tales to adventures in fantastical worlds, still sought to nurture and provoke normative emotional reactions in their readers. Charlotte M. Yonge’s 1856 domestic novel The Daisy Chain outwardly sought to influence its young readership. Described as a family chronicle, it was:

a domestic record of home events, large and small, during those years of early life when the character is chiefly formed, and as an endeavour to trace the effects of those aspirations which are a part of every youthful nature. That the young should take one hint, to think whether their hopes and upward-breathings are truly upwards, and founded in lowliness, may be called the moral of the tale.

So how did Victorian children’s novels seek to influence and inform ‘youthful nature’? By focussing on one facial trope, the smile, it is possible to see how the representation of this expression and its attendant meanings in texts had a considerable influence on the broad understanding and development of emotions in children. Examining where the word ‘smile’ (and associated words such as smiled, smiling etc.) appears across a range of children’s literary texts reveals a change in usage over time. Other notable changes in the use of ‘smile’ include genres that use the word, characters and situations that use the expression, and the gendered audiences that were encouraged to use the smile.

To reveal this finding I used data from 71 English-language children’s books, published between 1826 and 1911, and drawn from CLiC, a collaborative corpus analysis project between the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham. [4] By concentrating on one facial trope across a select cluster of texts, we can therefore begin to explore how nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century authors tried to influence children’s emotional formations. Fictional texts also provide examples of when someone should or should not smile, and the manner in which they should use the expression. This is often established through dialogue or speech wherein characters compel one another to smile or query why a smile is visible on another’s face. Children’s texts therefore not only presented instances of the smile to children but intimated through dialogue and prose types of appropriate or inappropriate smiling.

Smiling across a corpus

One surprising finding is the gendered distinctions in the smile. In general, male pronouns appear more frequently than female pronouns across the sample texts. This trend suggests that there are more male characters, or at least more active or central male characters, than female characters within the selected children’s books.

When we examine the data on the smile throughout the texts, however, the gap closes. ‘Smile’ as a noun, verb or adjective appears with female pronouns (she/her) 60 times, whereas it appears with male pronouns (he/his) 66 times.

From this data we can infer that female characters smile more than male characters—0.105% of the instances of female pronouns involve smiling, whereas this is the case for only 0.049% occurrences of male pronouns.

Looking at the context and adjectives surrounding the smile and the smiler across the texts paints a more nuanced picture. I examined the 564 instances where the noun ‘smile’ appears across the texts and noted 482 sentences where a clear gender could be ascribed to the smiler. Using adjectives and context to frame these findings, I labelled smiles as either positive, negative or neutral. Positive smiles for example, could be surrounded by adjectives such as ‘sweet’ or ‘beaming’. Negative smiles often used adjectives such as ‘grim’, ‘sad’ or ‘cunning.’ Neutral or ambiguous smiles were characterised as those with descriptors such as ‘strange’ or ‘queer’, in scenarios where it appears that a character is smiling for no obvious reason, had mixed emotions or the smile’s use was ambiguous in the immediate context of the surrounding sentences.

Again, the data reveals more male smilers (304) than female (178). But when we look to the percentages of types of smile, we can see that female characters show a significantly higher proportion of positive smiles, with a similar number of neutral/ambiguous smiles.

As these findings show, a distant reading approach is useful in revealing larger patterns of facial expression. Delving into individual texts through close reading and analysis adds further granularity as to how the smile is used.

Genre and the Smile

When individual texts are closely examined with other information in mind, such as characters and genre, further gendered patterns emerge. The gender of protagonists can have an effect of the frequency of the smile in literary texts. Fantastical stories, centring around medieval royalty or magical lands, appear to employ a gendered use of the smile. The word ‘smile’ appears 11 times in The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872), in which the main character is a princess. By comparison, in Prince Prigio by Andrew Lang (1889), which follows the adventures of a know-it-all protagonist prince, the smile only appears once. Tellingly, it is a female character that bears the expression: ‘Lady Rosalind came sweeping down, with a smile on her kind face.’

Andrew Lang, Prince Prigio 1899. Image


George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin 1872. Image

Comparing domestic and adventure novels (the latter usually aimed at boys and the former at girls) reveals different uses of the smile. In the above-mentioned The Daisy Chain, smile, smiles, smiled and smiling appears 228 times. Though a large novel, at nearly 700 pages, the relative frequency of smile is high, at 767.67 per million words. The novel follows a doctor’s eleven children, but centres on the third daughter Ethel. The Daisy Chain includes a ‘smile of assent’, ‘smiling sweetly’, ‘a half smile’, ‘grateful smile’, ‘amused’ smiles and many others amongst the cohort.

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Daisy Chain 1856. Image

The 1857 adventure novel The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne contains numerous instances of smiling. The book was explicitly written for a male audience as evidenced by Ballantyne’s remark: “I present my book specially to boys, in the earnest hope that they may derive valuable information, much pleasure, great profit, and unbounded amusement from its pages.”

With an all-male cast of characters, the smiles present do not always hold positive connotations. A conniving villain captures the protagonist:

“So, youngster,” he said, with a Sardonic smile, while I felt his grasp tighten on my shoulder…”

The text also exhibits ‘bitter’, contemptuous and ‘cold sarcastic’ smiles, alongside ‘joyful’ and ‘friendly’ ones. The relative frequency of the smile and smiling is 481.38 words per million in The Coral Island.  

R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island 1857. Image

Conclusion: Ambiguous smiles

As this brief foray in distant reading shows us, the smile holds an influential and revealing place in nineteenth-century children’s literature, with clearly gendered uses and subtle shifts detectable across variations in genre. The frequency and positivity of female smiles speaks to the gendered socialisation of Victorian-era children and the extent to which authors of the period were enmeshed in social and cultural traditions that shaped and informed children’s emotions. Finally, examining instances of the ambiguous smile in these texts, gives an indication of the complexity of the smile as a facial trope. Despite being commonly associated with positive or happy emotions, the smile can also be vexed, vague, troubling, or used as a curious mask to conceal an otherwise turbulent inner state.  


[1] Olsen, Stephanie, ed. Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

[2] Kristine Moruzi, Michelle J. Smith, and Elizabeth Bullen, eds., Affect, Emotion, and Children’s Literature: Representation and Socialisation in Texts for Children and Young Adults (New York: Routledge, 2017), 2, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315266961.

[3] Professor M O Grenby, ‘Moral and instructive children’s literature’, the British Library; Image.

[4] Mahlberg, M., Stockwell, P., de Joode, J., Smith, C., & O’Donnell, M. B. “CLiC Dickens: Novel uses of concordances for the integration of corpus stylistics and cognitive poetics.” Corpora 11, no. 3 (2016): 433–463. clic.bham.ac.uk   

A Glance of Brightness

Stephanie and Tyne recently spoke on a panel in a new series by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethics (CAIDE) at the University of Melbourne entitled ‘Technology and the world around us.’ Alongside Dr Vanessa Bartlett and Dr Marc Cheong, we explored the theme of Art, Literature & Technology: Understanding Human Experience, Expression & Emotion in the Datafied Age. 

Here you can read Stephanie’s thoughts on the crucial role of Literature in helping us navigate pressing contemporary concerns around privacy, affect-recognition technology and human emotion.  

The face has long been considered a privileged site for conceptualising the human. Our faces help us articulate relationships with each other, with different forms of cultural, racial and ethnic alterity, with other species, and also, according to many philosophers, with the divine.

We observe faces all the time, assessing them according to changing cultural standards of beauty, normality or disfigurement, and through a series of complex cognitive, perceptual and increasingly technological modalities. The most obvious way of analysing facial emotion and expression is through visual images. Facial emotion in art, sculpture, cinema and other visual media is dramatic and immediate. Equally, in more self-conscious and analytic studies, in the long history of physiognomy, for example, images of human faces are consistently used to illustrate the differences between emotions. This history stretches from medieval and early modern manuals, to the drawings of Charles le Brun in the seventeenth century, and Johann Lavater in the eighteenth, to Charles Darwin’s treatise on emotions in the nineteenth century, and the influential work of psychologist Paul Ekman in the late twentieth century. 

In contrast, literary texts offer far more layered and indirect representations of the face, facial gesture and emotion. These representations are less immediate, but have the advantage of slowing us down to consider some of the cognitive, affective and cultural pathways by which we understand each other’s faces. Fiction and film are sometimes referred to as “empathy machines.” I think “empathy” is only one of many things these media offer, but the idea of literature as a kind of “machine”, with its own systems and patterns for showing and teaching us about emotions is an intriguing one. 

I’m going to share just one example that shows how literature both appeals to, and also teaches us about these patterns and processes of emotional understanding. It is a very famous example, from Jane Austen’s Persuasionwritten in 1818. 

Several years before the main action of this novel begins, the heroine, Anne Elliot, was encouraged by her friends to reject the marriage proposal of a man who was not of the right wealth or class. Anne’s health and appearance suffer, but she eventually recovers her sense of self. In the novel, the former lovers are thrown together again by circumstance, and their relationship is strained. But one day they are out walking in a group and encounter a stranger, who is obviously struck by Anne’s appearance: 

It was evident that the gentleman, (completely a gentleman in manner) admired her exceedingly. Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance, — a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, — and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.” 

Austen does not describe faces here; Wentworth’s head moves, but Austen does not describe any specific movement of eyes or mouth. There is no obvious named emotion here, either. But it is a very powerful moment of recognition and acknowledgement through the medium of two glances. Wentworth “sees” Anne anew through the eyes of another man – and it is important that this man’s gaze is not lubricious or improper. The stranger’s class and bearing are completely gentlemanly, so his admiring look is validated by the narrator as worthy of our attention, and consonant with the cultural and class-based ethics of proper behaviour in the novel. 

Wentworth’s own quick glance has three components. First, it is a gift to Anne; something he gives her. As such it recalls their previous intimacy as well as opening up the possibility of renewing such intimacy. Second, it is a glance of brightness that we may imagine as lighting up his own face, as he also looks with renewed interest on her own. Third, and most importantly, Austen then deploys what I call the ‘speaking face’ trope. 

In this trope, a face is not only expressive; it seems to speak its own silent discourse. The face is given its own rhetoric and syntax. Wentworth’s face here speaks in a complex sentence that moves from what Wentworth seems to see in the other man’s expression, to what he sees as he looks anew at Anne, and the comparison with what seems to be his memory of “Anne Elliot”, the woman he used to love.

Three times Austen stresses how quickly this happens: it is instantaneous, it is “momentary,” and it is transient, “in this moment”. Yet narrative time slows down here, as this glance of brightness is analysed in detail. This slowness gives the readers time to work their way into the understanding of this expression and its significance. At the level of dramatic action, it is just a quick glance as the stranger passes; at a narrative level, action slows down to emphasise and reveal the workings of the gaze and the way a glance between two people can carry a tremendous weight of mutual recognition, understanding, and feeling. 

This trope is first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century and has a long, though unwritten history, in English literature.

From what we have found so far, when the face speaks in this “as if”, or “seeming to say”, the face always speaks in the first person, and in the present tense. And it is always truthful. Faces can express all kinds of emotion in fiction; they can tell stories that are true or false. Faces may express or mask true feelings, but the rhetorical conventions of the speaking face suggest that facial discourse does not lie. This is not to say that all characters can read faces accurately: but readers of fiction can. Literature creates an artificial world, if you like, in which readers are interpellated as perfectly reliable face-readers. 

The rhetorical trope of the speaking face is also naturalised in everyday speech, in political commentary, the way we put captions on photographs of our pets and babies, and in popular song. But it is nevertheless a complex one that has been developed in tandem with the conventions of the novel, and one that also performs a pedagogical function. It is not a translation of a visual image; rather it seems to produce a visual image through its appeal to a common understanding of how a face might seem to speak, and more precisely, what a face that could be said to say “That man is struck with you… etc.” might look like. Equally, this trope also encourages the reader to feel how their own face might move if it expressed such a feeling, in what Guillemette Bolens calls kinesic knowledge. And in this romantic context, this trope encourages us to think what it might feel like to receive such a glance: in this case, as a gift from an old lover. 

This is a very different world from the simple equivalence of a static image of a face paired with a single emotion word: happiness, anger, etc. Austen’s is a particularly complex example of the speaking face, but it demonstrates how literary expression and the textures of language can produce layers of mediated intelligence that combine emotion, expression and the rhetoric of the face. Through that very simple tag — “seemed to say” — the reader’s emotions and embodied cognition are thus brought into play as full participants in the production of meaning. 

To read more about our panel or listen to the recording, head to the CAIDE event page here