The Prison in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.