Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article

“NEUTRAL PHYSIOGNOMY”: THE UNREADABLE FACES OF MIDDLEMARCH

Josh Epsteina1

a1 Vanderbilt University

Abstract

Mr. Brooke himself has already been described by the narrator as having a “neutral physiognomy,” and that neutrality itself identified as one of few “striking points in his appearance” (503). Part of the effigy's menace, clearly, is its uncanny similarity to the original. As described, however, the effigy is unlikely to be a piece of skilled imitative craftsmanship; indeed, it is the very shoddiness of the thing that makes it eerie. Unlike the banality and apparent harmlessness of this vaguely empty caricature, a rag-doll in waistcoat and monocle, the “parrot-like, Punch-voiced echo of [Mr. Brooke's] words” threatens because it offers no legible meaning, instead forcing interpretive agency onto the reader. Indeed, the “neutral physiognomy” must foreground interpretive agency, otherwise it would be impossible for a non-trait such as neutrality, either in Brooke or in his effigy, to be a “striking point” at all.

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