Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"You Must Have Been a Solitary Prisoner to Understand These Perplexed Distinctions": Imprisonment, Sensorial Isolation, and Altered Mental States in A Tale of Two Cities, American Notes, and Oliver Twist

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"You Must Have Been a Solitary Prisoner to Understand These Perplexed Distinctions": Imprisonment, Sensorial Isolation, and Altered Mental States in A Tale of Two Cities, American Notes, and Oliver Twist

Article excerpt

     He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years;    and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and    horrible despair.                           --Charles Dickens, American Notes  113  

This quotation, taken from CharlesDickens's reflections on Philadelphia's EasternPenitentiary, illustrates this article's intention to focus onDickens's handling of solitary confinement imprisonment and onhow the use of coercive sensorial isolation can create an altered statein the psychology of individuals. In exploring how the experience ofbeing "buried alive" with its "torturinganxieties" may change an individual's mental state, thisarticle explores Dickens's position as to whether such persons,having been "changed by the death they died" duringimprisonment, can ever be truly "recalled to life," orwhether they are left permanently scarred by the experience, trappedbetween two states, like "a Spirit moving among mortals"(A Tale 265, 17, 284). In the process, this article interrogates the impactenforced solitude has on the experience of characters'relationships to their spatial environments (how an individual'sstate of mind might become physically situated) and the way in whichDickens's representation of the effects of forced isolationspecifically signposts ways in which the reader can or should interpretthese states of mind. Doing so necessarily requires arguing against along-established critical tradition suggesting that Dickens lackedpsychological insight: an absent psychology school of thought that hasits roots among Dickens's contemporaries and whose on-goinginfluence could still be seen echoed in the commentaries around theDickens Bicentenary three years ago. (1) One of the best-known examplesof this criticism would be George Eliot's comment:

     We have one great novelist [Dickens] who is gifted with the utmost    power of rendering the external traits  of our town population;    and if he could give us their psychological character ...    with the  same truth as their idiom and manner, his books would be the    greatest contribution Art has ever made to the awakening of social    sympathies. (55, my emphasis).  

Though one ofthe most quoted of such critiques, Eliot's comment is hardlyunique, and when we note that such critics have included Mark Twain,Henry James, G. S. Fraser, and George Henry Lewes, it is easy to see whythis perception gained such strong purchase.

One key themethat runs through this school of thought is an Eliotian sense ofDickens's dwelling only on the "external traits" ofhis characters. Fellow novelist Mrs. Oliphant, writing in 1871, statedthat "[Dickens's] instinct leads him to keep on thesurface," and comparing Eliot and Dickens in 1883, NathanSheppard suggested that "[while] Dickens portrays the behaviour,George Eliot dissects the motive for the behaviour" (678; 8). Theinfluence of this "external traits" perception can stillbe felt in modern analysis, such as when Andrew Sanders describesDickens's character-building as being "from the outsideinwards"--although crucially Sanders does allow for a movementtoward an interior (77). In his essay "Performing Character,"Malcolm Andrews eloquently sums up this absent psychology school asholding the position that "having squandered so much on externals[Dickens] either cannot or will not supply much in the way of aninterior life [for his characters]" (72).

This articleargues against the absent psychology school of thought, demonstratingthat significant psychological insight into representing andinterpreting nineteenth-century states of minds is present inDickens's works. In doing so, it refutes George HenryLewes's (author of Problems of Life and Mind) critique that Dickens's "unreal figures" are"wooden, and run on wheels" and his assertion that"one is reminded of the frogs whose brain have been taken out forphysiological purposes," leaving "not characters, but ...caricatures and distortions of nature" (146-48). …

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