The Prison in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Prison in Nineteenth-Century Literature


The Prison in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The prison as a symbol of both oppression and freedom in English, European, and American literature.

Imagery of prisons in nineteenth-century literature owes much to the eighteenth century, when such penal institutions as London's Newgate Prison and the Bastille in Paris were imposing structures that developed into powerful symbols of oppression. Newgate was rebuilt in the 1770s and attacked by mobs during the Gordon Riots of 1780, during which Protestant protest against laws promoting toleration for Catholics grew into an expression of frustration against the hardships of poverty. On July 14, 1789, crowds of angry Parisians stormed the Bastille, marking the entry of the poorest member of French society into the French Revolution. This day continues to be celebrated every year as the Independence Day of France, a testament to the tremendous significance of both the Bastille and its destruction. The late eighteenth century also gave rise to a prison that was never actually built, at least not exactly as its creator intended, but has nonetheless become famous: Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, designed by the British philosopher in 1791 to serve as a place of incarceration intended to control prisoners by making them feel that they were under constant surveillance. Actual prisons based somewhat on this model were built in New Jersey, Spain, the Netherlands, and Edinburgh, Scotland. According to French scholar Michel Foucault, whose Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) used the idea of the Panopticon as a model for less tangible forms of social control, the Panopticon was the basis of all discussions of prison reform during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Images of the prison in European literature generally fall into two broad categories: the prison as place of Romantic solitude and the prison as brutal, inhuman institution. Earlier writers tended to favor the former view. In keeping with the Romantic authors of the late eighteenth century, writers of the early nineteenth century imagined the prison as a place for the idealized suffering and monastic isolation that were necessary for creativity and growth. French Romantics including Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Honoré de Balzac depict their protagonists longing for the solitude of the prison, where the pressures of the world cannot interfere with a purely spiritual existence. The prison for English Romantics like Lord Byron and John Keats is an almost entirely metaphorical locus: the poets find prisons in history, in nature, in the city, and if sometimes they express a desire to escape, they also acknowledge a certain degree of confinement as a condition of their art.

Toward the mid-nineteenth century, however, some authors became interested in the actual conditions of prisons. Although such eighteenth-century authors as Daniel Defoe and John Gay had featured the image of the infamous Newgate Prison in their writings, Charles Dickens's explorations of the criminal world took a somewhat darker tone. Novels including Oliver Twist (1838), Little Dorrit (1857) and Great Expectations (1861) feature extended scenes in prison. Fyodor Dostoevsky based his novel, Notes from the House of the Dead (1860), on his experiences in a prison camp. Writings from prison also gained more visability as more individuals who possessed the skill to write were incarcerated. Prison biography became a genre in itself, allowing inmates to express the horror of their condition to a wider public. By the time Oscar Wilde began writing about his experiences in prison from 1895-97, prison writing was much more realistic and sordid. Wilde's De Profundis (1905), written during his prison term at Reading Gaol, reveals the witty Wilde completely altered by the utter humiliation and physical suffering of his punishment for “indecency,” a verdict rendered after the author was tried for committing homosexual acts. In other writings, he describes the prison as “built with bricks of shame” where “only what is good in Man … wastes and withers there.” The subject of prison reform also took the stage with the 1865 drama It Is Never Too Late to Mend, although due to strong audience objection the grim scenes of prison torture did not remain in the play after the first night. Increasingly, writings about prison began to assert the rights of the criminal as a person with human dignity. Moreover, to the extent that society itself asserted a prison-like control over individual behavior, some authors pressed on the theme of liberty, questioning where it truly could be found.

Early American writers felt this question strongly. When the French author Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote his famous observations Democracy in America (1835-40), he noted that the democracy that depended on a majority also seemed to enforce a sameness in order to create that majority: equality required conformity. Several American writers addressed the theme. Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter (1850) how society could punish and oppress those who failed to adhere to social codes, drawing a parallel between a physical prison and the confinement of an oppressive culture. The sense of being watched marks a major difference between this literature and the European literature written earlier in the nineteenth century, when imprisonment meant privacy. In contrast, however, Herman Melville depicted the isolation of the office worker as a particularly dehumanizing kind of imprisonment. Surrounded by the walls of the cubicle or the corridors of Wall Street buildings, Melville's characters are closed off from any form of life, virtually entombed by mind-numbing routine and lack of human contact.

For some writers, one of the most insidious ways that society could incarcerate its members was in the home. Women authors of the nineteenth century often described the home as a prison for wives. In some cases, the entrapment was literal, as with the “madwoman in the attic” of Jane Eyre (1846). But women's sense of unyielding boundaries was also reflected in limited choices and frustrated attempts at self-realization. Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary (1856) is clearly imprisoned in her middle-class life; Jane Austen's heroines chafe at their reliance on marriage to make their way in the world. In addition, the domestic realm increasingly came under the authority of the law in the nineteenth century, both in Europe and in America. Legal attention to property and the constitution of the family meant that the roles of wife and mother were even more strictly defined and under closer scrutiny. The home also became the foundation for a moral and productive workforce and less a retreat from society, further enhancing the sense of restriction.

Changes in prisons, the law, and society throughout the nineteenth century irrevocably altered the metaphorical connotations of the prison. The gloomy, castle-like Bastille and the criminal-heroes of Newgate Prison were replaced by more structured forms of imprisonment and surveillance, and the author longing for a monastic retreat was replaced by the author imprisoned by a repressive state. Finally, as French scholar Victor Brombert argues, the hope for liberty or redemption expressed through the prison images of the early nineteenth century gave way to existential hopelessness in the early twentieth century. If, as Albert Camus suggested, the city or society itself is a prison, then escape is impossible.

Representative Works

Honoré de Balzac
La Peau de chagrin [The Wild Ass's Skin] (novel) 1831
Le Père Goriot [Old Goriot] (novel) 1834

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (novel) 1846

Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights (novel) 1847

James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers (novel) 1823

Rebecca Harding Davis
Life in the Iron Mills (novella) 1861
Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day (novel) 1862

Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
Little Dorrit (novel) 1857
Great Expectations (novel) 1861

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from the House of the Dead (novel) 1860
Notes from Underground (novella) 1864

Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary (novel) 1856

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter (novel) 1850
The House of the Seven Gables (novel) 1851

Victor Hugo
Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné [The Last Day of A Convict] (novel) 1829
Les Misérables (novel) 1862

John Keats
Lamia (poetry) 1819

Herman Melville
Pierre (novel) 1852
Bartleby the Scrivener (novella) 1853

Charles Reade
Gold (novel) 1835
It is Never Too Late to Mend (drama) 1865

Sir Walter Scott
The Heart of Midlothian (novel) 1818

Le Rouge et le Noir [The Red and The Black] (novel) 1831
La Chartreuse de Parme [The Charterhouse of Parma] (novel) 1839

Oscar Wilde
Ballad of Reading Gaol (poetry) 1898
De Profundis (letter) 1905

Criticism: Overview

Victor Brombert (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “Introduction: The Prison Dream.” In The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition, pp. 3-17. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Brombert suggests reasons for the historical connection between authors and imprisonment. He finds the precursors for the nineteenth-century fascination with prison imagery in both eighteenth-century Gothic literature and the dramatic fall of the Bastille, which reverberated throughout Europe.]

The prisoner is a great dreamer.


this eternal image of the cell, always...

(The entire section is 5265 words.)

Victor Brombert (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “Victor Hugo: The Spaceless Prison.” In The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition, pp. 88-119. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Brombert analyzes the prison imagery in the writings of Victor Hugo, whose novels Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné and Les Misérables were influential for later writers using the prison as a setting or metaphor.]

Where would thought lead if not to jail?

—William Shakespeare


On voit le soleil!” (One sees the sun!) This cry of the Condemned Man in Hugo's Le Dernier Jour d'un...

(The entire section is 11654 words.)

Criticism: The Romantic Prison

Victor Brombert (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “The Happy Prison: A Recurring Romantic Metaphor.” In Romanticism: Vistas, Instances, Continuities, edited by David Thornburn and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 62-79. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Brombert reviews the many variations on the theme of the prison in Romantic literature, including the prison as a place of fortunate solitude and as an opportunity for escaping temporal and physical restraints to spiritual development. Brombert suggests that the Romantics' emphasis on the individual prisoner allowed for a more poetic view of imprisonment than would become possible in the twentieth century, when the horrors of collective...

(The entire section is 5556 words.)

Nicola Trott (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Trott, Nicola. “Keats and the Prison House of History.” In Keats and History, edited by Nicholas Roe, pp. 262-79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Trott proposes a tension between history and poetry in Keats's writings, in part reflected in his use of prison metaphors, in which history is imagined as a constraining force on the imagination.]


The poetry is for the most part ironed and manacled with a chain of facts, and cannot get free; it cannot escape from the prison house of history … Poetry must be free!


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Lisa G. Algazi (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Algazi, Lisa G. “Throw Away the Key: The Prison as Maternal Space in the Stendhalian Novel.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 26, nos. 3-4 (1998): 286-94.

[In the following essay, Algazi discusses the novels La Chartreuse de Parme and Le Rouge et le Noir extending the analysis of Victor Brombert's The Romantic Prison to suggest that the happiness and self-discovery of the prison relied partially on the fantasy of the prison as a return to the mother-infant relationship.]

vivre sans vous voir tous les jours serait pour moi un bien autre supplice que cette prison! de la vie je ne fus aussi heureux! … N'est-il...

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Criticism: The Domestic Prison

Leland Monk (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Monk, Leland. “The Novel as Prison: Scott's The Heart of Midlothian.Novel 27 (1994): 287-303.

[In the following essay, Monk argues that rather than its brief attention to the actual prison mentioned in its title, the novel's more significant engagement with the theme of imprisonment is its mechanism for discipline. Drawing from the ideas of Michel Foucault, Monk argues that the novel itself acts as a disciplinary structure more effective than a physical prison by compelling the reader's self-regulation.]

“The heart of Midlothian” is the almost affectionate nickname given to Edinburgh's Tolbooth prison by the functionaries of the law in Walter...

(The entire section is 8327 words.)

Laura C. Berry (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Berry, Laura C. “Acts of Custody and Incarceration in Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.Novel 48 (1996): 32-55.

[In the following essay, Berry incorporates a study of the Infant Custody Bill of 1839 into her analysis of Charlotte and Anne Brontë's novels. Berry argues that the Brontës depict the domestic realm as a place of confinement or imprisonment, and that the issue of child custody illuminates the relationship between individuals and the social and legal structures that contain them.]

If perversity were not so often the defining mode in Brontë criticism, it might seem perverse to assert that Wuthering Heights...

(The entire section is 13571 words.)

Lisa A. Long (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Long, Lisa A. “Imprisoned in/at Home: Criminal Culture in Rebecca Harding Davis' Margret Howth: A Story of Today.Arizona Quarterly 54, no. 2 (1998): 65-98.

[In the following essay, Long compares the discourse of American prison reform and the discourse of domestic culture in the 1860s, focusing on the work of progressive social critic Rebecca Harding Davis, whose novel Margret Howth connects the struggles of middle-class white women to those of marginalized groups in American culture, especially African Americans and supposed criminals.]

Midway through Rebecca Harding Davis' first novel, Margret Howth: A Story of To-day (1862), her...

(The entire section is 13253 words.)

Criticism: America As Prison

Nicolaus C. Mills (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Mills, Nicolaus C. “Prison and Society in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.” Western Humanities Review 24 (1970): 325-31.

[In the following essay, Mills uses the works of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain to discuss the theme of American society as a prison. Mills suggests that Puritan society, Wall Street, and the culture of slavery were all forms of imprisonment in the writings of nineteenth-century American authors.]


“Don't be shocked when I say that I was in prison. You're still in prison. That's what America means—prison.” These words of Malcolm X come as no surprise to anyone familiar with American writing in...

(The entire section is 3340 words.)

Robert Shulman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Shulman, Robert. “The Artist in the Slammer: Hawthorne, Melville, and the Prison of Their Times.” Modern Language Studies 14, no. 1 (1984): 79-88.

[In the following essay, Shulman explores the theme of society as a prison in American literature, with special focus on the repression of creativity and artists. Shulman argues that authors including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe expressed in their writings a sense that even outside of a physical prison, the artist was confined by a particularly American drive toward conformity and sameness.]

Prisoners live in enclosed places. They want to get out but if they are in for a long time...

(The entire section is 5192 words.)

Criticism: Physical Prisons And Prison Authors

Elissa Deborah Gelfand (essay date 1980-81)

SOURCE: Gelfand, Elissa Deborah. “Women Prison Authors in France: Twice Criminal.” Modern Language Studies 11, no. 1 (1980-81): 57-63.

[In the following essay, Gelfand compares the writings of women prisoners to the work of canonized male writers such as Villon, Sade, and Wilde, suggesting that the themes and tone of their texts counter the “power-centered” male texts that generally constitute the genre of prison literature.]

The following quotes by some well-known students of prison literature will give an idea of the qualities long expected of and thought inherent to important prison texts:

(Albert Camus): Si l'âme est...

(The entire section is 3067 words.)

Jeremy Tambling (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Tambling, Jeremy. “Prison-Bound: Dickens and Foucault.” In Great Expectations, edited by Roger D. Sell, pp. 123-42. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, republished several times after its first appearance in 1986, Tambling applies French philosopher Michel Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon to Dickens's Great Expectations.]

Great Expectations has been called an analysis of ‘Newgate London’,1 suggesting that the prison is everywhere implicitly dominant in the book, and it has been a commonplace of Dickens criticism, since Edmund Wilson's essay in The Wound and the Bow and Lionel Trilling's introduction...

(The entire section is 8143 words.)

Daniel Barrett (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Barrett, Daniel. “It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1865) and Prison Conditions in Nineteenth-Century England.” Theatre Research International 18, no. 1 (1993): 4-15.

[In the following essay, Barrett describes the historical sources for Charles Reade's graphic theatricalization of corporal punishments used on British prisoners. Barrett recounts the audience reaction to the first onstage depiction of the grisly conditions of prisoners, noting that the play (an adaptation of Reade's novel) helped pave the way for the presentation of serious social issues in Victorian drama.]

The première of It Is Never Too Late to Mend at the Princess's Theatre on...

(The entire section is 7618 words.)

Robert L. Jackson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Jackson, Robert L. “Dostoevsky and Freedom.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal (1995): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Jackson examines Dostoevsky's Notes From a Dead House, his account of imprisonment in Siberia, suggesting that although the novel ostensibly addresses the inhumanity of a physical prison, it also imagines Russia itself as a prison.]

There is a breathtaking moment in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol when the Spirit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points to Scrooge's own grave stone. Scrooge anxiously asks: “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that...

(The entire section is 8485 words.)

Tim Youngs (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Youngs, Tim. “‘A Sonnet out of a Skilly’: Oscar Wilde's ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’” Critical Survey 11, no. 3 (1999): 40-7.

[In the following essay, Youngs analyzes Wilde's poignant poem about a prison execution to highlight the ways in which prison changed the poet and his writings, concluding that the sordid, bestial conditions of prison compelled Wilde to confront realism.]

One remarkable career may have been launched at an institution in Reading (John Lucas's, which this volume honours, at the University), but another reached an inglorious end at a different institution there: Oscar Wilde's in Reading Gaol. Perhaps the arrival of John, a...

(The entire section is 3087 words.)

Further Reading


Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “The Thing He Loves: Murder as Aesthetic Experience in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’” Victorian Poetry 35, no. 3 (1987): 349-66.

Evaluates Wilde's poem as it relates to the rest of his work; suggesting that Wilde underestimates the brutality of the murder he describes as he shifts between symbolism and realism.

Bagby, Lewis. “Dostoyevsky's ‘Notes from a Dead House’: the Poetics of the Introductory Paragraph.” Modern Language Review 81 (1986): 139-52.

Discusses how the novel's introduction mediates between fiction and experience and traces its themes of grace and...

(The entire section is 558 words.)