Monday, February 25, 2013

Blink: Facial Expressions in Literature and Life

Perhaps the most common -- and most important -- forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and the impressions we form of other people. Every waking minute that we are in the presence of someone, we come up with a constant stream of predictions and inferences about what that person is thinking and feeling. 
When someone says, "I love you," we look into that person's eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that afterward, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, we may say, "I don't think he liked me," or "I don't think she's very happy." 

We easily parse complex distinctions in facial expression. If you were to see me grinning, for example, with my eyes twinkling, you'd say I was amused. But if you were to see me nod and smile exaggeratedly, with the corners of my lips tightened, you would take it that I had been teased and was responding sarcastically. If I were to make eye contact with someone, give a small smile, and then look down and avert my gaze, you would think I was flirting.

If I were to follow a remark with a quick smile and then nod or tilt my head sideways, you might conclude that I just said something a little harsh and wanted to take the edge off it. 


You wouldn't need to hear anything I was saying in order to reach these conclusions. They would just come to you, blink.
Excerpt from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

We all read faces by nature with varying degrees of perception -- even my baby seeks out my eyes when I speak to her -- but I believe the authors of the classics were uniquely attentive to facial expressions and body language.  Long before Lie to Me, long before Dr. Paul Ekman's research findings and co-discovery of micro-expressions, writers of the world's greatest literature were expertly unpacking the human face.
In respect of character a face may make certain admissions by its outline; but it fully confesses only in its changes. So much is this the case that what is called the play of the features often helps more in understanding a man or woman than the earnest labors of all the others members together.
~ The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Sometimes a flash of expression merely adds depth to characterization. In The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Caspar Goodwood did not have to tell Henrietta Stackpole in words that he was desperate to meet Isabel Archer in England.
"Did he ask you to speak to me?"
"Not in so many words. But his eyes asked it -- and his handshake, when he bade me good-bye."
~ The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

It can mean more than what a character actually says in dialogue. Sometimes what is written on a character's face even contradicts what he says.
...[Anna] was not listening to [Vronsky's] words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression of his face. 
~ Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Often what flashes across a character's face is critical to the plot. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is burdened with attempting to conceal his guilt from Porfiry Petrovich, the magistrate in charge of investigating the murder of an elderly pawn broker and her sister.
Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at [Raskolnikov] with obvious mockery, narrowing his eyes and as if winking at him. However, perhaps it only seemed so to Raskolnikov, because it lasted no more than an instant. There was something of the sort, at least. Raskolnikov would have sworn to God that he winked at him, devil knew why."He knows!" flashed in him like lightening. 
~ Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel comes upon her husband, Gilbert Osmond engaged in a conversation with their mutual friend, Madame Merle. 
...the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.
~The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Indeed, body language ultimately reveals all.
"Dost thou know child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?""Truly I do!" answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother's face. "It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!" 
~ The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Your poor lip is twitching again, like the other day," Porfiry Pertrovich muttered, even as if sympathetically. 
~ Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
And of course it is especially effective in a love scene.

Yeobright and Eustacia looked at each other for one instant, as if each had in mind those few moments during which a certain moonlit scene was common to both.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
The moment had arrived when [Eustacia's] lip would tremble in spite of herself, and when the gasp could no longer be kept down. 
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
At the very instant when the apparition was vanishing, [Kitty's] truthful eyes glanced at [Levin]. She recognized him, and her face lighted up with amazed delight.
~ Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Did I mention it is effective in a love scene? Oh yes

Here is Kitty and Levin's love scene:
. . . swift, swift light steps sounded on the parquet, and his bliss, his life, himself -- what was best in himself, what he had so long sought and longed for -- was quickly, so quickly approaching him. She did not walk but seemed, by some unseen force, to float to him. He saw nothing but her clear, truthful eyes, frightened by the same bliss of love that flooded his heart. Those eyes were shining nearer and nearer, blinding him with their light of love. She stopped close to him, touching him. Her hands rose and dropped on his shoulders. She had done all she could -- she had run up to him and given herself up entirely, shyly, blissfully. He put his arms around her and pressed his lips to her mouth that sought his kiss.  
~ Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have collected literally hundreds of examples of blink from my reading. It was difficult to choose which ones to share with you for this post. I hope these quotes will inspire you to be more attentive to facial expressions and body language in both literature and life.


  1. Fascinating quotes and reflections here. I will definitely be more aware of these things in reading & life. It relates v much to our reading of Pride & Prejudice too -- how much is revealed in a look or gesture. E.g. Elizabeth sees the look that passes between Darcy & Wickham when they meet in the street (one turns white, the other red) and she immediately wonders what their connection could be.

    1. Oh yes -- I recall that scene you describe Jeannie! Blush!

      And this is one of my new favs. Describing Darcy's response to learning that Elizabeth had just formed an acquaintance with Wickham:

      "The effect was immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he said not a word, and Elizabeth, though blaming herself for her own weakness, could not go on."

  2. On another Jane Austen note, I thought of the scene where Brandon visits Marianne toward the end of the novel, and Elinor watches him enter the room:

    "... she soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, brought back by that resemblance between Marianne and Eliza"

    Melancholy eye and varying complexion - now there's a pretty picture. You'd think he was the one who was sick!

    1. That is another great example, Tim. I haven't reached that point yet in my reading, but I'll be looking for it.

    2. Oops, I hate to give spoilers. Oh well, that was a fairly obscure quote I left, so I hope you are not peeved at me!

    3. :) Of course not! I'm glad you shared that. I was actually impressed that you recalled an incidence of facial expression from P&P.

    4. It just occurred to me: there are so many Austen "sequels" and "modern versions" etc. out there now: has anyone ever written a novel in which JA characters from different books meet? That'd be awesome.

    5. Not that I know of! What a great idea, Jeannie! Why don't YOU write one? :)

  3. So interesting... and what a great collection of supporting quotes. I loved the tv show Lie to Me.

    1. Me too. We watched it every week. Too bad it had to go and get cancelled. We saw Kelli Williams (Gillian Foster) on another one of our favorites, The Mentalist, after that.

    2. Thank you Christine. We don't have network TV at our house. Several months ago, my husband and I went on a Lie to me binge with Netflix instant play. ("Just one more ...")

      My husband likes The Mentalist too, Tim.


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