‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’ – stories by Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe

July 14, 2008 at 12:56 pm (books, Short stories)

Among its many other virtues, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has the kind of bibliography that makes you want to redirect your personal reading program immediately. In the course of telling the story of a mid-nineteenth century crime in a small English village, Kate Summerscale cites two short stories that particularly intrigued me: “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens (1859) and “The Man of the Crowd” by Edgar Allan Poe (1845). Both have to do with the idea of the face as a window into the soul.

[Charles Dickens]

“Hunted Down” is ostensibly about a life insurance scam. The narrator, a Mr. Sampson, identifies himself as an “the Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office.” One day, a man named Julius Slinkton comes into the office to collect some forms to present, he says, to a friend. Despite Slinkton’s open and easygoing manner, Mr. Sampson takes an instant dislike to him.

At first, this antipathy is aroused by Slinkton’s general appearance, and in particular, his facial characteristics. Even more than an aversion to his physiognomy, though, Sampson is repulsed by the way in which Slinkton wears his hair: he parts it in the middle. Sampson is almost morbidly obsessed by  Slinkton’s mode of hairstyle:  “He recalled me to my guard by presenting that trim pathway up his head, with its internal ‘Not on the grass, if you please – on the gravel.'”

Initially, this put me in mind of Poe’s  “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The protagonist in that story feels an irresistible compulsion to murder an old man who, he thought, had “the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” He goes on to explain: “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”

The comparison seemed less apt as the Dickens story progressed. “Hunted Down” actually goes off in quite a different direction and has a terrific twist at the end. And here’s a passage from it worth quoting:

“An observer of men who finds himself steadily repelled by some apparently trifling thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.

That last sentence is going to stick with me, I am sure.

[Here is a link to the full text of “Hunted Down” on The Project Gutenberg site.]

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[Edgar Allan Poe]

In Poe’s “A Man of the Crowd,” the narrator is taking his ease in a London coffee house. He has recently recovered from a serious illness and so feels a renewed zest for life and interest in the world around him: “Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing.” He seats himself deliberately by a window, in order to indulge that interest. Gradually his focus narrows to an elderly man he picks out of the throng in front of the coffee house:

“With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a  decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age) – a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncracy of its expression. Anything even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before.

Once again, it’s the physiognomy that fascinates.

At this point, the narrator gets up, leaves the coffee house, and commences his pursuit of this man through the streets of the great metropolis. And that’s basically what the story consists of: the unnamed narrator (one of Poe’s favorite devices) in pursuit of his equally unknown prey. At the tale’s conclusion, he does come to a rather momentous realization concerning his quarry. Although I’m not sure how he got  there, I nevertheless found myself agreeing with his conclusion.

I included a  terrific quote from this story in my post on the The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Here it is again:

“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told…mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave.

Here is a link to the full text of “The Man of the Crowd” on the Edgar Allan Poe Society site. It’s an odd little story; should you decide to read it, let me know your thoughts.

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