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Face Value
Physiognomical Thought and the Legible Body in Marivaux, Lavater, Balzac, Gautier, and Zola
Christopher Rivers

In Face Value, Christopher Rivers explores ideas about human physical appearance expressed in French novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the pseudoscience of physiognomy that influenced them. Physiognomy, which purports to "read" the body as an index to spiritual, intellectual, or moral qualities, had its greatest proponent in the eighteenth century Swiss theoretician Johann Caspar Lavater. In addition to closely reading the fictional narratives of Marivaux, Balzac, Gautier, and Zola, Rivers offers the first sustained critical reading of Lavater’s work.

Rivers looks at some of the most compelling and explicit literary treatments of physiognomy in the French canon suggesting that the ways authors use physiognomical ideas to render the world "hyper-significant" poses fundamental questions about the nature of narrative itself. He also shows how physiognomy serves almost invariably as a tool of sexism as it attempts to ascribe intellectual or moral qualities on the basis of corporal features. Linked by more than their physiognomical themes, the novels River studies share similar dynamics of reading, rhetoric, and representation. Ultimately Face Value is an original contribution not only to French literary studies, but also to cultural studies, narratology, semiotics, intellectual history, science and literature studies, and gender studies.

“Rivers stresses the literary nature of Face Value and explicitly disclaims having written a work of intellectual history. Yet historians will find stimulating his argument that Lavater’s science of physiognomy was really a narrative art—and one whose legitimate progeny were the great nineteenth-century novels. Rivers has contributed to a growing body of scholarship on the hermeneutic models that leavened the supposedly positivistic human sciences of the nineteenth century.”—Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

Christopher Rivers is assistant professor of French at Mount Holyoke College.


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November 1994

LC: 94-014586 PQ
288 pp. 6 x 9
4 line drawings

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Paper $24.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-14394-7
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Cloth $55.00 s
ISBN 978-0-299-14390-9
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Face Value is an extremely informative and thoughtful investigation that will be warmly received by scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French literature and culture. I have learned a good deal from it.”
—L. Ross Chambers, University of Michigan

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