The narrative significance of the body (part 1)

One of the most important, and trickiest, parts of telling a good story is figuring out how much detail ought to be given to physical descriptions of the characters, and, if so, what those descriptions ought to be like.  This is doubly tricky in our age – for we live in an age of body idolaters and body indifferentists.  If we follow the former, we may describe our characters’ physical characteristics in some detail, but those descriptions will go no deeper than the skin.  If we follow the latter, we will be Gnostics.

That isn’t to say that we must include detailed physical descriptions of characters, or be Gnostics.  The New Testament authors, for example, are quite emphatic that Jesus was and is a real Man, with real flesh, and that He trod upon and did not float over, the real earth (except on the rare occasions that He walked on water).  Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we get a physical portrait of Him.  The only physical detail of significance we get is a curious detail about the risen Jesus: He retained the five wounds of His passion.  That physical detail, though, has considerable narrative significance.  It demonstrates that the Man who walked out of the tomb Sunday morning was the same Man whose marked and lifeless body was laid to rest in the tomb on Friday afternoon.  The Man’s story was graven upon His hands, feet, and side.

We see that kind of sparing physical detail throughout the New Testament.  The only other instances of physical descriptions I can think of in the entire New Testament (excepting the Revelation) are the descriptions of Jesus at the transfiguration, and Luke’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles that in the moments immediately preceding St. Stephen’s martyrdom, his face “was like the face of an angel.”  And Stephen would soon be among the angels.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we get little more.  Meeting young David for the first time we hear three things about his appearance:  First, that he’s less impressive, physically, than his older brothers – for the Lord looks on the heart, not the outward appearance; second, that he’s ruddy from keeping the sheep; and third, that he has beautiful eyes.  The author does not explain that last detail in terms of the color, shape, or set of David’s eyes.  Yet it is significant that the author specially notes the eyes – the part of the outward appearance where the heart is most visible.

The point is that there are physical features that have peculiar narrative significance.  Some of these are common features: eyes and smiles[1], features common to all, have stories written all over them.  Some of the features of narrative importance are more unique: marks from pregnancies, scars from battle, surgical scars.  In marking these features out for particular attention, we avoid both body idolatry and Gnosticism.  Noting them, we preserve the evocative things written upon flesh that make characters.[2]

[1] As to smiles:

So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy –
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.

[2] Character is a word of Greek origin.  In biblical usage, it may refer to an instrument used to make a mark upon something, or the mark impressed upon something by such an instrument.  It’s the word used of Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that he bore the “express image” of God.


Posted on July 15, 2013, in Aesthetics, Characters, Characters, David Mitchel, Story, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. (I’ve been meaning to comment here since I saw this… but working at a summer student program makes time scarce!)

    How curious. But also wondrous. Writer though I am, I haven’t thought much before about the lack of physical description of characters in the Bible, mostly because the souls of the people in the story were so vivid in and of themselves I had no trouble imagining what I thought they might look like. But this concept of describing the physical attributes that tell the story of a person, is quite a liberating idea in our image-obsessed society. It puts the emphasis on story, on what has been suffered, loved, created, borne.

    I think this is also a helpful idea when it comes to the stories we tell ourselves. I had a conversation with my local coffee shop owner this morning, about some research he had discovered outlining how there is a certain part of our brain that will only respond to our own voice. So, what you speak, what you narrate about yourself, the way you describe yourself to others, in some mysterious way shapes who you are and who you will become. How often have I heard (and done it myself!) the self-deprecations we all heap on our own heads regarding our physical appearance? What if, instead, I honored that which was unique in myself, saw it as narrative instead of merely flaw?

    Good stuff, David.

    Also – small world. I’m just seeing that you write here at Lantern Hollow with Don Williams, who will be teaching for a week at the semester program where I work. What a fun connection!

    • Terrific comment, Sarah. “There is a certain part of our brain that will only respond to our own voice” is a memorable comment on its own, but you tied it into the subject of the post very nicely.

      You anticipated part 2 with this: “. . the souls of the people in the story were so vivid in and of themselves I had no trouble imagining what I thought they might look like.” Not going to give all of part 2 away here, but, DV, it will be up one of the next two weeks, and you may see what I mean.

      And I hope Don sees these comments. I like reading everything he writes.

  2. I just read a line in _Jane Eyre_ that made me think of what you wrote. “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious, but still a truthful interpreter – in the eye.”

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