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Soliciting opinions/interpretations

What does the word "plain" mean to you, when used in literature as a descriptor of a person's appearance? (edited to specify)

(Yes, there's a reason I'm asking. All will be made clear -- or at least I'll give it a good shot -- in a forthcoming blog post.)

[Edited again to remove "Sorry" boxes. See this news post for more.]

Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
sventhelost
Sep. 21st, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
In literature, like Jane Austen-y kind, I take it to mean ugly but not deformed, but of a high enough social status that people won't actually call the person ugly, at least not to his/her face.
icepixie
Sep. 21st, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
Not pretty, but not homely either. For me, it connotes someone who fades into the background, so I guess it's somewhat linked to personality as well.
(Deleted comment)
thanatos_kalos
Sep. 21st, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
Appearance of person, or of a thing (e.g., a plain table)? I'd usuaslly just think something like 'unadorned' for either; for the former, probably someone unexceptional of appearance.
bentleywg
Sep. 21st, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
By "appearance," do you mean "looks"? In that case: not beautiful, not notably ugly. Just... plain. Medium. Non-descript. (My first mental image was the woman in the American Gothic painting, but upon viewing it I realize she's not really plain -- there's something striking about her.)
sventhelost
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
"Non-descript? I've never heard a woman called that unless she was a robbery suspect." - Shawn from Psych

Just had to share. :D
brainiacfive
Sep. 21st, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
Unremarkable - forgettable. Blends into the surroundings both by looks and personality.
therealjae
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Doesn't stand out in a room full of ordinary-looking people, and doesn't want to.

-J
brightknightie
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
I think it may differ between 20th/21st (trending toward "simple, undecorated") and 18th/19th (trending toward "unattractive, ugly") century literature. Hadn't thought about that before.

For me, a "plain" character (is usually female) registers as on the unattractive side of average; neither attractive nor monstrously ugly; with no particularly distinguishing features. (If the person had very distinguishing features, those would be invoked instead of "plain," my brain assumes.) Novels usually distinguish between the plain and the beautiful, not between the plain and the ugly.

A plain heroine is always marked by her "spirit" instead of her looks. Don't get me started on "spirited" heroines... not while I'm at work. ;-) And back to it I go...! :-)
irish_horse
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
When used for an inanimate object, I take it to mean unadorned and simple. No additions, nothing fancy, just a "basic model".

When used to describe a person (specifically a woman), I would take it to mean neither pretty nor ugly, just... there.
tytaniaherself
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
I agree with the majority opinion- a plain heroine is usually one who doesn't stand out in looks and is a little non-descript. I think that "plain" also suggests that the character doesn't think highly of their own appearance and chooses not to wear the kind of clothes or hairstyle that would stand out. She could probably be more attractive with nicer accessories, but doesn't have the kind of outgoing demeanor that makes people think of her as extremely attractive.

Plenty of famously seductive women (Anne Boleyn, Cleopatra) could have been perceived as plain if they had a less attention-getting personality and less desire to be beautiful.
cybertardis
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
For appearance of things (buildings, pieces of furniture): simple, unadorned or undecorated, underfurnished if it's a room

For the appearance of a person: I always imagine a person who blends in, who doesn't stand out, both in looks and demeanor when I see the word "plain" used to describe someone's appearance.
phantomminuet
Sep. 21st, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
Ordinary. No facial feature, like brightly colored eyes or full lips or high cheek bones, that makes the person's face memorable.
imbri6
Sep. 21st, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
Not reading other comments first, so sorry for duplication, but to me it means "no outstanding feature". It's a lot dependent on the time the story is set, but, generally, I'd think of a "plain woman" as being someone who kept themselves clean and reasonably dressed, of "average" numbers (height, weight), but didn't try to be "fancy". Little to no makeup, little to no hair-styling, not extroverted, somewhat introverted but not so painfully so to cause that to be the defining characteristic. She'd be describe as 'plain' if no other adjectives really apply, though I generally think that someone plain probably also lacks in self-confidence.

A plain person can undergo a makeover and become something more than plain. Make-up/wardrobe can make a huge difference with a plain person, but I think it's also something inside as well. A bit of extroversion, perhaps, the willingness to smile, to shine.

(Deleted comment)
cjmr
Sep. 21st, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC)
Features that look ordinary. They don't stand out as beautiful, nor do they stand out as ugly. Usually goes with hair that is worn in a simple (not-fussy) style. For some reason, I associate plain with a face clear of make-up as well.

I would call Gwen from Torchwood plain.
allmightybecca
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
An unremarkable person with no positive or negative features that are prominent. I usually pictured the character as pale with washed out coloring in the books I've read where it was a description of someone (and generally a white british woman).
damedini
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:32 pm (UTC)
To me it means exactly that: plain. Nothing extraordinary in either direction, neither beautiful in any way nor ugly. Also conveys a straightforward, no nonsense attitude. Plain doesn't stand out in any way and does not hide. Plain just is. Plain can become quite attractive with a glowing smile or some inner joy. It can also be quite unattractive with an attitude of spite or envy.
damedini
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
OK, now I've read the other comments. As examples: Alan Cumming can be very plain, but he's also a chamelion - when he is himself he is no way plain, or when he's in a non-plain character. But when he's not "on", when he's at rest, he is plain. Which allows him to tranform so well.

It's harder to find an actress exemplar because modern society demands that women exert themselves to be attractive at all times. But maybe Cate Blanchette - she can be quite plain when she chooses to be so. But when she chooses to exude personality, she isn't.
seldearslj
Sep. 22nd, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)
I saw Cate Blanchett last night in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I wouldn't call her plain by any stretch of the imagination, even in repose!

At least, not by my definition of plain, which is less 'nondescript' and more 'homely' - not ugly, but...not attractive.

It also either goes with someone who hasn't shown much personality to me, or with someone whose personality isn't sparkling. I've known people whose faces are plain but whose personalities more than make up for any lack of distinction in appearance. (That last phrase sounds awfully Austen.)

No woman in movies or theatre or the modern media is 'plain' - if she hasn't got a basic beauty, she'd have to have personality to make it in entertainment, which takes her out of the 'plain' category entirely.
(no subject) - hopefuldancer83 - Sep. 21st, 2009 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
quasievil_bunny
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
Plain for me = simple, unadorned. When referenced to comliness, average. Not beautiful, but not ugly.
andpuff
Sep. 22nd, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
Unnoticeable.
(Deleted comment)
shadowmaat
Sep. 22nd, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
Generic, bland, unremarkable, not pretty, all the things people have said here. And as a descriptor it definitely has an insulting edge to it, at least when it's applied to other people. A "plain" person is someone you don't even realize is in the room until she (or he) speaks... and then you probably forget her/him again unless they've said something attention-worthy.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 22nd, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
Pains of Plainitude
Dear Valky Valerie (if I correctly discern that your name is Valerie, there's a ton of info to absorb on here): by your blog at least, you have to be one of the most interesting people I've ever "met." More on that at after curtain -
"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him."

This verse from Isaiah came to mind as I contemplated your query concerning being plain. It's suggested to be prophetically describing Jesus - adding to his qualities of humility and lowly birth, et al. The Bible of course, is literature . . . but closer to what you may be asking, I came across this quote from - (as 'fate' would have it - or at least Google . . . if there's a difference) - Valerie Hobson: "I was a very plain wishy-washy child. Large wistful eyes. A real gumdrop. My sister could never believe this pasty-faced mouse was her sister. Everybody called me Monkey." And, as she played Estella in Great Expectations . . . a quote from Dickens's All The Year Round: "Then a grim smile broke out on her plain-featured face – for she was plain, very plain, though not so bad as Jimmy Jessup would have had you believe – . . . "

The first excerpt I thought of because that's exactly what it seems plain means: "nothing in appearance that we should desire" - no outstanding feature(s; not an accepted standard of beauty; but, as Jimmy Jessup exemplifies, beauty is in the eye of the beholder . . . and so it would seem logical to conclude that "plainness" would also reside in one's ocular orb. And besides, Monkeys are cute!

Anything close to what you were looking for?

I haven't a blog to link to, but after reading yours am seriously considering it. I absolutely adore (and relate to) your "skewed" manner of expressing yourself - but that too is up to the observer, and I mean it as compliment and by skewed I mean anything but plain and i've spent way too long writing this and need to give my beholders a rest.

Need to put my music up somewhere. When I get a blog going, will let you know. But . . . hey . . . write me! My birthday is this Friday! (09.25.59) . . . . and I still don't feel like a grownup . . .
And the secrets of Surrogates will be revealed!!!

thanx & slán! jeff kuhl <<kuhlit@triad.rr.com>>
(Anonymous)
Sep. 22nd, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
guess i'll read the comments first next time - jk
studiesinlight
Sep. 23rd, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
In case you hadn't noticed, you were affected by the LJ security breach thing on this post, wiliqueen. I saw the four boxes last night, but didn't know what they were.
wiliqueen
Sep. 23rd, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
How charming. :-P Thanks for the heads up!
diannelamerc
Sep. 24th, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Unremarkable. Ordinary. Not pretty, not ugly. A sort of damned-by-faint-praise: "Well there's nothing actually *wrong* with how they look...".

[ETA: I deliberately answered before reading any other comments, FWIW]

Edited at 2009-09-24 12:35 am (UTC)
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