Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane

by Etheridge Knight
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How does the narrator of Knight’s poem construct Hard Rock into a mythic prison figure?

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Although Hard Rock is a prison inmate, Knight portrays him not as a criminal or villain but as a hero. His fights with other inmates are epic battles and his scars are a testament to his courage. One particular scar "plowed through a thick / canopy of kinky hair" (l. 5-6), which suggests that the hardships he has endured are intricately connected to his racial identity; because he is African American, he is not more likely to commit a crime but far more likely to end up in prison. Just as heroes in mythology struggle against the forces of nature and the whims of the gods, Hard Rock fights against the forces of authority. He also rebels against disease by turning his "syphilitic spit" (l. 22) into a venom-like weapon.

Like all mythic figures, the source of his power comes from "the Word," (l. 6) that is the stories that others tell about him. His feats of strength and bravery are measured by the number of guards it takes to restrain him or the number of days he ends up in solitary confinement.

Mythic figures often have a tragic flaw that leads to their downfall. However, Knight suggests that the tragic flaw is the prison system itself. In order to quell Hard Rock's rebellion, doctors perform an unethical and experimental medical procedure. After he is lobotomized and subjected to electroshock, Hard Rock becomes docile. His punishment mirrors the restraint and mutilation of such mythic figures as Prometheus, who steal the gods' power, and Loki, the Norse God who brings chaos to the world. Both Loki and Hard Rock are called "The Destroyer."

When "the Word" of Hard Rock's condition reaches the the prison population, their stories of heroism become admissions of defeat.

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