The rhetoric of imprisonment in Dickens

Donna Rae Foran, Marquette University


The Rhetoric of Imprisonment in Dickens traces a theme central to the works of Charles Dickens through four of his major novels: Barnaby Rudge, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities. Barnaby Rudge, an early work, and A Tale of Two Cities, one of Dickens's later works, are both historical novels, serving to frame, situate, and put into context the more complex and contemporary statements Dickens makes in Bleak House and Little Dorrit. This structural arrangement allows Dickens's view of the law and imprisonment in the eighteenth century to inform and illuminate his nineteenth-century conclusions. Viewed through the philosophy of Michel Foucault, as outlined primarily in his work Discipline and Punish, Dickens's position can be seen as a reflection of a philosophical, historical, and finally, legal progression of thought regarding the concept of imprisonment. Contemporary illustrations of legal positions and problems regarding imprisonment, taken from contemporary newspapers and magazines, also point out the modernity of Dickens's nineteenth-century views and his valid warnings of potential future developments. The historiographical aspects of the four novels show the nineteenth-century's preoccupation with revolution and progress and the law's need for growth and development so that the former can be averted and the latter promoted. Dickens's attitudes toward and manipulations of "imprisonment"--whether actual or metaphorical--indicate his broadening concern with the extension of punishment from an arena of "spectacle" (in a Foucauldian sense) to a more far-reaching, more personal, arena of panopticism (a term Foucault borrows from legal historian Jeremy Bentham). This extension of observation-as-imprisonment lends an Orwellian dimension to Dickens's appreciation for--and struggle with--the right of the legal representative to investigate, versus the right of the human being to keep his own secrets.

Recommended Citation

Foran, Donna Rae, "The rhetoric of imprisonment in Dickens" (1994). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9517927.