First impressions: phrenology and physiognomy in David Copperfield

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Southern New Hampshire University
This paper examines the influence of phrenology and physiognomy in Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield. The title character spends a large section of the novel indicating various characters’ appearances as a way of illustrating his feelings towards them, following the popular culture of the time in which the book was both set and written in. One of the most prominent characters examined in this paper is Uriah Heep, who unnerves young David almost immediately upon seeing him because of his unsettling appearance. Though the Victorians may have popularized phrenology and physiognomy, the concept of understanding someone's personality based on their appearance can be traced back as early as Plato and the ancient Chinese civilizations. Other characters, such as the Murdstones or Mrs. Crupp, are also affected by these pseudosciences because of David's impression of them. During and even after the Victoria era, people used phrenology and physiognomy to attempt to prove criminals guilty simply because they had suspicious facial features. This paper uses these examples and others from both the culture at the time and the novel itself to determine if there is any truth in David Copperfield's judgment of other characters based on his first impressions of them. (Author abstract)