Crime and Punishment: Prisons in Literature

Reading ‘The Kiss of the Spider Woman’ really got me thinking about new ways of classifying books.  While I personally group them alphabetically, my ideal library is in fact a multi-dimensional space (think Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld) in which books are simultaneously organised into multiple categories.  A bit like the internet really, but with more polished wood and green-shaded lights.  Anyway, one of my impractical dream ways of organising books is according to setting and Puig’s novel would definitely fit into the ‘Books Set in Prisons’ shelf.  It would be amongst some pretty illustrious company.

imageSmollett’s ‘Peregrin Pickle’ (1758) may not be the most fashionable of period reads, but it does contain eighteenth century humour at its most refined (castration! So funny!) and also has an extended section set within the Fleet prison in London.  During this period, most crimes were punished by death or exportation to penal colonies; the Fleet, like London’s Marshalsea prison, was used to confine debtors.  Once arrested the offender would live in the prison, possibly with their family, until they could raise the funds to pay themselves free.  Such an attempt was of course hampered by the fact that the Fleet was itself a profit-making enterprise so prisoners would pay rent for better accommodation, food and other privileges (such as living outside the prison walls).  Smollett is great for all manner of prison-life details and was the writer who introduced me to the idea of the Fleet Marriage.  Closer than Gretna Green, the Fleet was somehow excluded from the 1695 marriage duty act so was the perfect place for eloping lovers; according to Wikipedia (though sadly unsubstantiated), in the 1740’s over half of London marriages took place in the environs of the Fleet Prison.

imageFor a less ribald narrative, there’s always Little Dorrit (1855-7), probably the most famous classic prison novel in English.  Written at the height of Dickens’ realisation that boring, innocent, self-sacrificing child-women were just the best heroines ever, I will admit that passages can be hard-going.  The force of the narrative is also slightly undercut by the irony that, unlike the utterly contemporary social imperative of, for example, ‘Oliver Twist,’ the Marshalsea prison was actually closed in 1842, two years before The Fleet also closed its doors.  Although Dickens himself spent time in Marshalsea, following his father’s imprisonment for debt, this custom was being legislated out of existence while the novel was being written.  I suppose what I’m saying is that I find it hard to take ‘Little Dorrit’ seriously, despite its traumatic subject matter.  I’d never deny its place on this list though, as the archetypal Victorian prison novel.

imageIn stark contrast to Dickens’ sentimentality, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1898) is one of the most harrowing prison narratives I’ve ever read.  Written after Wilde had served two years hard labour for ‘gross indecency,’ it really deserves a much longer description (hopefully to be written during the coming week).  The poem narrates the emotions of an inmate on learning a fellow prisoner has been sentenced to death.  It is a sublime piece of poetry, utterly uncompromising in its view of sin and punishment.  Heart-felt and heart-rending it’s really hard to give an impression of the power of the writing without quoting the whole thing, but I’ll just try to give a taste by offering one verse from near the end: ‘I know not whether Laws be right / Or whether Laws be wrong / All that we know who lie in gaol /  Is that the wall is strong; / And that each day is like a year, / A year whose days are long.‘  It’s a truly incredible poem.

imageNot all prison narratives need to be from the view of an insider.  The Penal Colony (1919), by Kafka is in part an extended monologue by an officer of the eponymous colony, the rest of the short story is a point of view narrative of a traveller.  The device of using an outsider who needs prison regulations explained to them is a basis of much prison fiction, but its rarely used to such alienating effect.  Kafka’s traveller is mostly bored, and his uninvolved stance makes the frenzied enthusiasm of the Officer all the more chilling.  The whole story centres around a ‘peculiar apparatus’ that has been designed as the perfect disciplinary tool.  As in ‘The Trial,’ the point is emphatically not about guilt or innocence, but about exquisite torture and ironic endurance.  The more we learn about The Machine and its evangelical exponents, the more terrifying the penal colony becomes.  Although the shortest and simplest of short stories, this tale can be read as a pointed indictment of the entire justice system.  Or it could be all about the miseries of the human condition.  This is Kafka, so you’ll really have to make up your mind for yourself (the whole story can be read in translation at

imageI couldn’t write about prison literature without mentioning Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.   ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisov’ (1962) is a must read for anyone interested in Russian literature, prison literature or just plain good writing.  It’s a highly autobiographical account of life in a Soviet Gulag for an average inmate, it was also the last work Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish in Russia.  The topic dominates many of his other books however, and if ‘One Day ‘ isn’t detailed enough for you, I highly recommend his 1968 novel ‘The First Circle.’  Taking its title from Dante’s Inferno, in which famous pagan philosophers inhabit the first circle of hell, this book is set in a sharashka (a research and development bureau made of gulag inmates).  It’s powerful and scathing and I’m really looking forward to re-reading it as my Russian Literature project extends into 2016.


Moving across the Atlantic, this section would not be complete without a stylish copy of Stephen King’s ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ (1982).  Much less famous than the more snappily titled film, this was originally published in the short story collection ‘Different Seasons, or Hope Springs Eternal.’  If you know the movie, you know the story.  Andy Dufresne is falsely convicted of double murder; he doesn’t belong in the sadistic and corrupt world of the prison.  He’s stuck there however and slowly he begins to find his place within the system.  Like the best prison literature, this story contains scathing social indictment with wonderfully engaging characters.  Certainly Red, the narrator and our guide to the Shawshank community, is a wonderful literary creation.  If you loved the film, you’ll love the book, and, personally, I think it’s good to find a little redemption in this list.


I’ve already written about ‘Alias Grace’ as one of my top Atwood reads, but it’s always a good time to repeat the recommendation.  ‘Alias Grace’ belongs on this list because of its source material; it is a fictional re-working of the life of Grace Marks (a woman with several aliases), convicted ‘murderess’ and poster-woman for prison reform and charitable causes.  Atwood brings her satirical and sympathetic eye to a whole host of nineteenth century interests, from spiritualism to immigration to the place of women in society.  There are several strands to the story, but for the purpose of this post, I’d draw your attention to the moments in the prison and, a personal favourite, the prison governor’s home.  Both are brilliantly described through Grace’s disingenuous and yet disturbingly perceptive point of view.

imgres.jpgThe most recent book to make it onto the list has to be the 1999 novel ‘Affinity.’  Sarah Waters is a hugely impressive author, not least because she takes topics frequently relegated to ‘genre’ or non-prominent bookshelves in shops and, through the brilliance of her prose, forces them into the mainstream.  ‘Affinity’ is a thriller, a (possibly) supernatural horror, a lesbian romance and a historical novel.  It is also set within Millbank prison, where the lovelorn Margaret Prior’s life is given new meaning when she takes on the role of ‘lady visitor’ for the edification of the inmates.  These inmates include Selina Dawes, convincing spiritualist, convicted fraud, possible murderer.  The story is gothic and gripping, and the descriptions of Millbank prison, made up of geometric pentagons, are incredible.  As the story becomes more wild and obsessive the reader is introduced to more and more of the prison’s secrets.  A must read for Waters fans, and for anyone interested in the Victorian penal system.

So there we are, it’s not quite a full bookshelf, but it’s just a taste of the variety and wealth of prison literature out there.  What key texts have I missed out, and what other sections should exist in my dream, multi-dimensional library?

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14 Responses to Crime and Punishment: Prisons in Literature

  1. Ste J says:

    L space would help fit all the books in as long as you have a simian librarian to fetch the books for you. The idea of having a books set in prison shelf is intriguing and reminds me I have Jean Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose to read. Memoirs from the House of the Dead is an interesting contrast to Solzhenitsyn as well.

    • Of course – though I have to confess that was one of the Dostoyevsky’s that slipped through the net last year; it’s back on the list now. There is a wonderful tradition of prison-set tales in Russian literature including one of my favourite Andreyev short stories ‘The Man Who Found the Truth,’ as well as, of course, the obsession with crime and punishment in books by the big D.

  2. Great post Shoshi – lots of wonderful reads and its got me dreaming about my own multi-dimensional library, how have I managed this long without one?

    I’m sure I’ve seen a film or TV programme where a prisoner is reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a visual joke, but I just can’t remember where I saw it – anyway, that is the novel that springs to mind when I think about literary prisons 🙂 There’s also the Dumas story about the Man in the Iron Mask, part of Ten Years Later – this is making me want to watch Richard Chamberlain films… 😉

  3. Elle says:

    Oh, God, L-space. One of the best ideas Pratchett ever had. (Also, many yes-es for Little Dorrit, Alias Grace, and Affinity! And for Smollett. Nice to meet someone else who’s read him! He’s very out of fashion. I haven’t read Peregrine Pickle, but Humphry Clinker provided great distraction in my junior year of high school.)

  4. Some great reads there Shoshi!

    • For such a depressing topic, it’s certainly inspired wonderful literature. Let me know of any other suggestions to add to the list!

      • Well, one I am reading/just finished reading at the moment is a novella – Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

        Of your list, the Solzhenitsyn, Alias Grace, Reading Gaol were all ones which really resonated, and Affinity is my favourite Waters by a long way

        I’ve just thought of The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Richard Flanagan, set in a POW camp. In a completely different kind of prison, and ‘real’ rather than fiction, I found Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling about his time imprisoned in Beirut an extraordinary book. I also found Gerry Conlon’s Proved Innocent an absorbing read, prison close to home. And then of course there is Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom…..

  5. BookerTalk says:

    Love the idea of organising books based on themes rather than authors or genres. You have a good list already but just to add to the mix how about The Man in the Iron Mask by Dumas or, coming more up to date, The Devil in the !Marshalsea

  6. Sarah says:

    Fantastic post Shoshi! I found myself nodding in agreement to many of your suggestions as well as making notes to myself to get round to reading both Smollett and Solzhenitsyn. My TBR is ever-growing!

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