Presenting Protagonists Placed in Prison

In last week’s post about author aliases, I mentioned a couple of writers (O. Henry and Voltaire) who spent time in jail. That gave me the idea to focus this week’s post on some of literature’s incarcerated characters.

Yes, I know all characters are imprisoned inside book covers or Kindles, and are sentenced to appear in sentences. But only some protagonists are actually caged in fictional slammers.

Being in jail can certainly make for dramatic, intense reading. Is the character guilty or innocent? A “regular” prisoner or a political prisoner? In a brutal facility or (if rich enough) a “country club” jail? On death row? A prisoner of war? Is racism involved? How is the detainee dealing with the loss of freedom? How long before release? Is an escape planned or possible? Etc. All of that can “raise the bars” in keeping a viewer glued to the page.

In Charles Dickens’ life and work, debtors’ prisons loom large. The author’s father was sent to one, and Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Mr. Pickwick in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were also jailed for monetary reasons. Two fictional examples of how Dickens depicted and expressed his indignation at poverty and economic inequality.

Dickens’ pal Wilkie Collins wrote A Rogue’s Life, in which the protagonist ends up being shipped to a penal colony in Australia.

George Eliot’s Adam Bede includes the jailing of a despondent Hetty Sorrel after the young working-class woman abandons an infant born from her liaison with a rich squire. The prison scene between Hetty and preacher Dinah Morris, just before Hetty’s scheduled hanging, is memorable.

Rebecca is unjustly imprisoned for “witchcraft” in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe — a fate that also befalls a number of women in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which is set in 17th-century Salem, Mass., but is also a parable of the McCarthy era that saw many progressives jailed for their beliefs.

A jailed Canadian woman, accused murderer Grace Marks, is the focus of Margaret Atwood’s set-in-the-19th-century historical novel Alias Grace.

In France, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo sees the innocent Edmond Dantes banished for years to an island prison off Marseille. His escape is clever and riveting.

French author Stendhal’s Italy-set novel The Charterhouse of Parma has the young and charismatic Fabrizio sentenced to a 12-year term in a tower prison for a self-defense murder. But it’s really political and romantic intrigue that gets him locked up. Several months later, the two women who love Fabrizio urge him to try a highly dangerous escape to avoid possibly being poisoned.

Near the end of Herman Melville’s Pierre, the title character is jailed for murder in New York City, where he’s visited by the novel’s two main female protagonists. What happens in that cell to Pierre, Isabel, and Lucy is shocking, and reflects Melville’s despair at negative reaction to his poor-selling Moby-Dick masterpiece of the year before.

One of the most famous 19th-century novels with a prison element is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, although Raskolnikov’s Siberian jailing doesn’t come until almost the end of novel. Still, that conclusion conveys a compelling mix of painful punishment and future hope.

A later Russian writer’s book — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — depicts the unjustly held Ivan’s boredom, huge difficulties, and tiny satisfactions in a harsh Soviet gulag.

Then there are Holocaust novels, such as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, that show the horrors of those genocidal years by focusing on a few individual characters. Also, Billy Pilgrim is a World War II prisoner of war who somehow survives the bombing of Dresden in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Many other 20th-century and 21st-century novels have prison elements. Tom Joad is just released from an Oklahoma jail as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath begins. A huge South Dakota penitentiary is a major presence in Lee Child’s 61 Hours, starring Jack Reacher.

The way the U.S. “justice” system treats African-Americans more harshly than whites is all over literature, as can be seen in novels such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson is falsely accused of attempted rape, nearly pulled from jail to be lynched, and outrageously found guilty — before things get even worse.

Things aren’t always good outside the U.S., either. John Grady Cole, a teen cowboy from Texas, is thrown into a brutal Mexican jail for having an affair with a powerful ranch owner’s daughter in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, while the Spanish Inquisition prisoner in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” story is in danger of being executed in the most painful way imaginable.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison features crime writer Harriet Vane in jail on murder charges when she’s visited by amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Drama and love (?) ensue. Obviously, the mystery and detective genres have many a person locked up — as do dystopian novels.

Characters are also sent to prison for white-collar offenses, as is the case with Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist after his conviction for alleged libel in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Who are the fictional prisoners you remember most? What are the literary works with incarceration elements you remember most?

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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

166 thoughts on “Presenting Protagonists Placed in Prison

  1. Very good discussion on this point. I had one of my characters incarcerated in a Victorian prison, in Ireland. A bit Dickensian, I know, but it added lots of emotion to the book. Only trouble was, I had grown fond of the character and it killed me to do that to him.

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    • Jean, thanks for the engaging comment! Imprisoning a character can indeed add lots of emotion and drama to a literary work. And I hear you about feeling bad when you did that to a character of yours. After all, a person in fiction often does seem almost real to the author — and to readers.

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  2. William Godwin’s “Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams” , which I know I’ve brought up in other contexts is useful in our present one. The servant Williams, who by prying and snooping has learned his master’s most guarded secret, is pursued by various agents of the law, hounded into court on false charges, and imprisoned– more than once, and over the course of many years, thanks to the practical power that men of his master’s class and wealth, especially when acting in concert, bring to bear on the legal and social institutions of the day. In the original ending of the novel, Williams is again imprisoned, where he has become mad, and Falkland,the master, his secret exposed at the trial that preceded Williams’ final incarceration, has died.

    The description of prison conditions and of fugitive capture by mercenary quasi-representatives of the law, are exhaustively laid out, but the novel’s original power, which comes from its exploration of relations and inequalities between master and servant, has been somewhat blunted by all the years between then and now, and the dissolution of both peasant class and master.

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    • Interesting how some novels can fit quite well into conversations under various blog posts, jhNY. I know you’ve mentioned “Caleb Williams” before, and it’s again very relevant here!

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  3. The mention of Bush and Cheney in prison brought up an interesting question: have there been any presidents or vice-presidents of the U.S. that have been sentenced to prison and served a term? I know subordinates such as Charles Colson from the Nixon administration did but to my knowledge, all presidents and vice-presidents have avoided conviction. I suppose impeachment and/or resignation is the worst they can suffer. I was in favor of the impeachment of G.W. before his first term ended. Unfortunately, not enough other people agreed with me.

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    • Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to charges brought against him, but saw the inside of no jail.

      Georgia’s oldest jail, in Warthen, boasts of having hosted Aaron Burr, former Vice President of the US during Jefferson’s first term, for one night, on his way to trial for treason in 1807. He was acquitted, despite Jefferson’s machinations and certainty as to his guilt. I think that’s as close as our presidents and vice presidents have come to a term in prison.

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    • Well said, bobess48!

      I don’t know of any U.S. president who saw the inside of a jail, but former veep Aaron Burr was apparently confined in a fort for a while (for something else besides killing Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel).

      It’s a shame, because some of those guys should have been jailed. Nixon being pardoned by Ford rather than imprisoned certainly set a bad precedent in our lifetimes. I totally agree that Bush and Cheney should been punished in some way for lies connected with the Iraq invasion/occupation, for authorizing torture, etc.

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        • Secret bombing of Cambodia, bags of cash from Howard Hughes, spying on domestic enemies— I say these are unpardonable acts, though that guy that Lyndon always joked had played too many football games without a helmet felt otherwise.

          On the other hand what the Bush II cabal set into motion, a war based knowingly on lies, which have cost at least 100, 000 Iraqi lives, is a war crime, about which our betters will allow no justice to prevail.

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          • Thanks, jhNY! Again, it’s all relative — Nixon was responsible for so many destructive things, but at least held somewhat moderate views on the environment and a few other issues.

            And, yes, war crimes by American politicians that kill countless thousands are never punished, while people can be thrown in jail for perhaps-bogus minor drug charges, not paying perhaps-bogus traffic fines (as in Ferguson, Mo.), etc.

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            • The deaths of hundreds is not worse than the deaths of thousands, but….

              I read a few places that the momentum of civil rights legislation, inherited by Nixon, as well as policies he approved and enacted, were of sufficient strength that in literal terms, anti-poverty programs, voting rights, equal opportunity, civil rights generally were in their best shape during his first term. So that’s one for Nixon, making two, I guess, including the environment.

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              • Yes..death of one is one too many.
                But..War based on lies with thousands of innocents killed and death of soldiers and them coming home mutilated with PTSD ..also they opened a can of warms to a path of destruction.

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                • Great points, bebe and jhNY! It also doesn’t help that the mainstream media is so much more timid, corporate-controlled, and right-wing-controlled in the 21st century than during Nixon’s term. Not that it was great back then, but I can’t imagine Woodward/Bernstein-like reporters getting the same traction today taking on “the powers that be.”

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                  • Katherine Graham’s power within the Washington Post Corporation was such that she could, on her own, decide on behalf of the corporation, to do things I cannot imagine most corporate executives would even consider today. Then again, seeing it from the inside, Watergate was, for the WP, not just a huge and explosive political scandal but a story with such strong legs it carried the newspaper from being an important regional one to a national brand.

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                    • Yes, sometimes one person — and it being a certain moment in time — can make all the difference. And you’re right that Watergate shot The Washington Post into the stratosphere of admired mainstream dailies — a position it has since partly squandered in all kinds of way, including the don’t-rock-the-boat and/or right-wing tendencies of its simpering editorial writers and some of its opinion columnists. The late David Broder was one example of a Post writer who almost always went with “the conventional wisdom,” even when that wisdom was totally NOT wise.

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                  • Thread’s maxed, so:

                    Broder was not always quite the studied voice of mediocrity of opinion within the Beltway, though he was only so far away from the conventional take at most. He became, by sitting still in one place, a caricature of insider columnist, and a conduit for wisdom convenient to the powerful. In his example, the fall of the WP as a real force of independent reporting is personified– but again, only up to a point. It was awfully convenient to the Democratic Party, their brand of mid-70’s independence. The paper, and its columnist,fell prey to their own success, in that the brand of each was valued enough to be sold off in bits and pieces to power, even if the purveyed were also the purveyors, yet may not not have always known they were on the market. Trust evaporated is harder to trace in process than trust if wiped away in a single swipe.

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                    • Well stated, jhNY, as always! You’re right — Broder was better earlier in his career before gradually becoming, as you said so well, an insider-columnist caricature.

                      I interviewed him a few times by phone, and he was quite friendly. Partly that “Midwest nice,” I guess, from his upbringing. And he worked hard, interviewed tons of people, etc. But either he didn’t interview enough people being hurt by the system, or he mostly ignored their major problems with said system.

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                • The Vietnam War was also based on lies about what never exactly happened in the Bay of Tonkin– but those lies were told during LBJ’s time in office. Nixon, of course, manufactured other lies for his own uses later.

                  PTSD is the inevitable result of being a part of invasion force thrusting itself into the midst of a population that included nationalist patriots. The soldiers in the invading army can never trust, ultimately, anybody but themselves, and IED’s make any road, any trail a front line anytime. Tends to destroy the sense of well-being, the constant fear of random death, even among soldiers who are ostensibly out of harm’s way.

                  The Traumatic Brain Injuries, which so many of our wounded soldiers have endured, are a testimony to: 1) the effectiveness of IED’s, despite our best efforts to root them out, but also 2) our improved battlefield medical practices, which work so well that soldiers who only a few decades ago would have died on the field have been stabilized and moved to hospitals, where they recover as best as they are able, and as best as modern medicine allows.

                  I know someone who works daily with TBI sufferers, mostly Marines. The pain, confusion and long-term prospects for many so afflicted are overwhelming.

                  A war based entirely on lies and dreams of empire leaves a lot of wreckage behind, some human. The liars and dreamers should be made to pay, but won’t be.

                  I know you meant ‘worms’ and I love the mixed metaphor. Also, yes, I too believe that one death is one too many, most especially in this context.

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                  • Thank you for elaborating on the issues, your vast knowledge in such matters is always appreciated.
                    Yes..devastating..and now from all that metal illness some are out there killing innocents in their own country.

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                  • So well said, jhNY. The carnage of wars and lies linger in the traumatized survivors, in the distrust of government, and in so many other ways — while a tiny number of people (including certain politicians, arms manufacturers, etc.) immorally profit. A tiny number, but — with their money, power, media manipulation, and so on — they have almost all the clout. 😦

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                • I’m sure a big part of opening relations with China was so U.S. corporations could make tons of money via that market and so the Soviet Union might become more isolated, but it was still a progressive move in certain ways by the Nixon administration

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                • I was going to say that..about to search to say something sane.
                  Yes..relationship with China…
                  On a funny note did Bawa Walters said not so long ago to find Nixon to be the sexiest president ? I hope I am wrong there 🙂

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    • Just remembered Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior under Harding served time– a year– for charges arising out of the Teapot Dome scandal. He was the first cabinet officer to serve time, and I think the last.

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      • Interesting! I vaguely remember people under a few other presidents (such as Nixon and Reagan) serving time, but they may have been in non-cabinet positions. Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell was imprisoned, for instance, but I don’t think an AG is a cabinet member.

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  4. Dave, Susan, Mary Harris and Pat D all talked about three different thrillers by John Grisham..one of my favorite writer also for his political stance from which he does not shy away.

    Now his latest ” Grey Mountain” is an issue driven legal thriller on under reported environmental issue — strip mining, otherwise known as mountaintop removal for coal mining in Gray Mountain. At the center of this novel is one of Grisham’s protagonists, Samantha Kofer, a Wall Street lawyer given a leave of absence after September 2008, when the economy tanked and panicked law firms began ridding themselves of associates and partners which caused an overall panic — within the legal profession. We all remember 2008…Dave.

    After searching without any positive responses .Samantha finds herself interning at a legal clinic in the desolate, impoverished valley of Brady, Virginia, one of many Appalachian towns raped by the coal companies, leaving the land pockmarked and the residents deathly ill.

    Samantha rented a Toyota Prius and was on her way to the Appalachian mountains when road became narrower and steeper..and saw a car in her bumper with flashing blue lights when she panicked. A man with mismatched outfit named Romey yelled at her…accused her of reckless driving was even more upset because he never heard of a car called Prius and was clueless of what a hybrid car meant and ordered her to hop in to his car and on his way to jail.
    Evidently Romey was a self appointed police man unnecessarily detains people at his will and was known to all in the small town.
    The story continues on…and Samantha finds herself more and more entangled with deadly litigation.

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    • Great description of “Gray Mountain,” bebe! Sounds like a riveting novel. I will try to read it when I can. And it’s so true that one of the things that make John Grisham’s work so appealing is his sense of social justice.

      2008 — yup, a year that will live in infamy for so many people losing their jobs as the economy tanked due to “banksters” and others who never got punished.

      I also found your book summary interesting because I now drive a Prius. 🙂

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      • That encounter was funny…the man was totally out of it, evidently he was known to the county as a loose cannon but for a New Yorker without a job driving to an unknown place and arrested like that was scary. That time she had no clue what would happen to the rental car.
        Yup..every day last days of Bush`s era the market was plunging 800 some points, people panicked senior lost their all their savings .

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        • It does sound like a VERY memorable encounter, bebe!

          I remember 2008 well because I lost my job that year, indirectly thanks to America’s financial “wizards” who are now richer than ever. They love to socialize the losses and privatize the gains… 😦

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          • Terrible…bad reminder ..several retires lost all their life savings.
            while starting the war and that Bush is painting now..and Cheney should be in Prison. ugh…

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            • You’re absolutely right — a lot of retirees lost all or much of their life savings because of the big money men. And Bush and Cheney! Nice for them to not suffer any consequences after being responsible for the deaths and injuries of thousands of soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and the financial grief of millions of people.

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                • So true, bebe. So much injustice.

                  I would love to write a column about bankers and other ultra-rich corporate crooks in jail. Unfortunately, not enough material. Plenty of crooks, but they almost never get imprisoned. 😦

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                  • It’s through this life I ramble
                    I meet lots of funny men
                    Some will rob you with a six gun
                    And some with a fountain pen.
                    Yes it’s through this life I ramble
                    It’s through this life I roam
                    But I ain’t never seen no outlaw
                    Drive a family from their home.– Pretty Boy Floyd The Outlaw, by Woody Guthrie

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                    • Great song mention, jhNY! The double standard of “justice” for the rich vs. the poor has rarely been explained better.

                      A tangential point: the Guthrie-admiring Bob Dylan of course wrote/sang “Hurricane,” about the imprisoned Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

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      • Wonderful cat and mouse game …..Another great suspense of John Grisham ” The Racketeer” where the protagonist went to prison and how he brilliantly played to cards to his advantage trying to to turn the table or was he able to is one of my favorite.

        Now I hear it is going to be a movie…here you go Dave, from the word of the author.
        Dave this book i highly recommend for you !

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        • Thanks, bebe! Another Grisham book I need to read! I have “The Firm” out of the library now; will be renewing it in a week and hopefully will start reading it then.

          Great, intelligent interview of Grisham — by three people, no less! — in your link. Amazing that he had to sell his first book out of the trunk of his car. Publishers are often so clueless when it comes to new talent.

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          • Dave if you see The Racketeer at the library I suggest you read that first and set The Firm aside for later . It is more recent , The Firm is also very good but written long time ago and almost every other person have read that.
            But both are very good .

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  5. I’m guessing that none of the good readers here ever spent time in an actual prison although I’m sure I’m not the only one who slept a night or two in a jail back in the days of a partially misspent youth. While I honestly don’t think I could survive the ordeals discussed in posts below I have always wondered about reports from acquaintances that spent a night in the NYC Tombs and about the inedible bologna sandwiches they’re famous for serving ,I believe I could “house” a couple. On the flip side the fictional prison that I’d snitch on my mother to avoid would be Askaban, definitely not doing time in Askaban!

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    • That “Harry Potter” prison? No can do! It certainly did a number on Sirius Black before his ultra-rare escape.

      For me, prison is only an imagined thing, but I guess many of us have read enough about U.S. jails to be dismayed with them (though the ones for the rich — the few times they get locked up — are of course less harsh).

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    • As my youth was mostly misspent, I guess I’ve known a few more folks who spent time in prison than some here might have: I knew a classical guitar player from Texas who’d been stopped near the border with a horse trailer full of marijuana in an abortive bid to radically increase his income, who offered up unsolicited advice from time to time as to how to get fellow inmates to leave you alone– sucker-punching and sporadic outbursts of violence were invariably included.

      An old room-mate in DC had for a couple of years been an invited guest in CT’s prison system, also for drug charges.

      Another old friend I ran into during a visit to Nashville at a barbecue pit at lunch-time. He was, just then, he confided as we stood in line for our food, on work-release from the local hoosegow. He was more than little lucky, I realize now, in that he was on work-release and thus got a taste of the real world, and also, because that taste came in the form of Jim Coursey barbecue (the pit, I regret, has been shut for years), superior in every way I am sure to Tombs bologna.

      One fellow I knew during my time on a construction site had been put in prison for, among other things, possession of a falsified license plate– he’d painted it to match the new plates he hadn’t acquired, and was stopped by the highway patrol– the license plate thing was bad enough, but the sawed-off shotgun in the trunk earned him several years behind bars. He was actually grateful– he and his no-good buddies had scored an immensity of cocaine, which they intended to sell, but only after they’d sat out the winter in a mountain cabin in Nowhere, West VA. Cabin fever and boredom combined to form overwhelming temptation amongst the boys, and they dangerously depleted their inventory by an an amount worth many thousands– so much so they became too paranoid to do the little things, like replace their license plates in the legal manner. Or eat. Or sleep. Had it not been for his arrest, he maintained, he very well might have died. I think so too– if not by over-indulgence, then almost certainly by firearm– cocaine and firearms, once combined, are seldom apart, and constantly provide the possessors with bad ideas to be acted upon without reflection– till the law steps in.

      There are others.

      Me? I have over all the long years listened intently to such tales as they happen on me, to date, thank heavens, vicariously, and with nothing to add, by way of experience of life inside. Even overnight. But then, what the folks I have described were doing, I was not.

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  6. The Itchy Parrot, as some translations have it, or The Mangy Parrot: The Life and Times of Periquillo Sarniento Written by himself for his Children (Spanish: El Periquillo Sarniento) by Mexican author José Joaquín Fernández de Lizard, according to wikipedia
    “is generally considered the first novel written and published in Latin America. El Periquillo was written in 1816, though due to government censorship the last of four volumes were not published until 1831. The novel has been continuously in print in more than twenty editions since then.”

    This novel, in a 1948 translation into English, was made a present to me in my early adolescence by my father. It is considered to be anti-colonial, and it is; it is also a picaresque novel, very much in the Spanish tradition, and so, traces the follies of a wayward and obstinate youth from indolent innocence to ruin.

    Inevitably, as such tales go, he comes to his senses– and resolves to live a responsible upright life– in prison. Conditions therein varying according to wealth available to the imprisoned– a very old-fashioned, if not medieval theory of incarceration in practice– makes money indispensable– for food, clothing, even a blanket, resulting in hard calculations, such as: can one sell only the clothes one might be able to live without in order to obtain bread, without which, one cannot live?

    Rueful, savagely funny, thoroughly entertaining– this book, in English, deserves more readers.

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    • Wow — never heard of that book before, and wish I had. Amazing that there might have been no novel written and published in Latin America before 1816. Thanks for the excellent description, and all that information! A shame that money determines almost everything, including how one fares in prison.

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            • Am now a viewing veteran– had seen some of it before, and having recently attempted to read, and having gotten through the NYC part of James’ American Scene, I found myself thinking I was looking at the city as James saw it at the time he wrote the book, more or less, especially those scenes taken of the harbor.

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              • That’s right, jhNY! Henry James’ time, during the late peak of his career. Fascinating to think about the footage through his eyes. I’ve never read James’ travel writing or other nonfiction (except a review or two — such as his look at George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”). One of these days…

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                • Liked best the fire laddies, and the black man who lost his hat (looks like it might be Army issue, as it reminded me of what Pershing wore when he chased Pancho Villa) in the winds swirling around the Flatiron building– nice to see him among all the paler citizens. Also the street market on the LES….

                  Thanks again for the link!

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                  • Yes, that African-American guy losing his hat (he was indeed a rare sight in that video), the wind ruffling that woman’s dress (on 23rd Street?), that mean-looking cop twirling his billy club, the ancient cars — so mesmerizing, mostly because all of those people and things are long gone.

                    You’re welcome!

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      • “A shame that money determines almost everything, including how one fares in prison.”

        No tengo mi lapiz
        No tengo papel
        No tengo dinero
        Dammit to hell!

        When I was attempting to relearn Spanish at 12, a friend’s father recited these lines to me, doubtless a rueful lament dear to the hearts of Yankees stranded down Mexico way a few generations back. Sadly apart from this l’il poem, and a memory of my Cuban-born teacher’s exasperation with the quirks of English– which he illustrated with the example ‘snow plow’– I recall nothing, including a lot of Spanish

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  7. Since bobess48 has mentioned The House of the Dead, I won’t dwell in it long, except to mention the dog, named I think Shaslik, who warms to the narrator because he, unlike so many imprisoned, greets and pets him– somehow, more than any description of prison fare or disputes among the imprisoned or conflicts with the guards might have done, this collective absence of affectionate acts toward the dog plainly illustrated for me the hopelessness inside the prisoners inside the prison walls.

    And also, the Jew Isaiah Fomich: “There was in him a most comical mingling of naivete, stupidity, sharpness, impudence, artlessness, timidity, boastfulness and effrontery. It was very strange to me that the other convicts did not laugh at him at all, except when they amused themselves by chaffing him.” He is a jeweler, and a money-lender at interest, and a curiosity and a figure of fun, whose dignity, and even his religion are challenged but never entirely overcome by guards or fellow inmates.

    “Papillon” has also been mentioned, so I will only say that my father, a connoisseur of prison novels, was very happy to have met its author, Henri Charriere, in South America in the years after his escape from captivity and the book’s publication.

    Then of course, thinking of a French author of a prison novel leads me inevitably to the master of such tales: former serial inmate Jean Genet, whose essential perversities cannot obscure entirely, or at least for long, a formidable writing talent, which is also beautifully, poetically outrageous.

    Finally, in “Killing Floor”, the first novel in his Reacher series, author Lee Child sets his protagonist, among other places, squarely inside a state prison, with nothing to protect him from the vicious gangs within and the corrupted administration above but wit and force. Guess who wins?

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    • That dog and how it’s (mostly) treated sound very sad and compelling — and Isaiah Fomich seems quite an interesting character, too. Will try to read “The House of the Dead” one of these days.

      I’ve never read Jean Genet. Might have to give him a try, too.

      Re “Papillon”: Your father really got around. 🙂

      “Killing Floor”! I just finished my third excellent Reacher novel — “A Wanted Man” — and they’re all among the more recent entries in Lee Child’s series. So I’d like to read an earlier one. Yes, Reacher does seem to always come out victorious, though there’s plenty of suspense and collateral damage along the way.

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      • I’ve got the same problem– I’ve read maybe seven, but out of order and sometimes when I look at the list, I’m a bit iffy as to which I should try next…

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          • That would be a list to cherish, bebe! 🙂 Those books are SO good. For the foreseeable future, I think I’ll be taking out a Reacher novel each time I go to the library (which is once a month to borrow 4-6 books).

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            • And just think– Child is so prolific that at your rate of consumption, you’ll be reading him monthly for a year plus– after which time, he’ll probably have finished another Reacher novel, so that you might read about Jack another month!

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  8. ” Everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison ” Always loved that line. Seriously though Dave great topic again. First character that occurred to me was Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich who I think one of the more intriguing creations in modern lit as he is a hero by virtue of little more than remaining decent and true to himself amongst unspeakable horror and adversity. In assessing the Gulag though it is a true shame the writings of a 17 year survivor of the worsts the camps had to offer aren’t better known in the west. Varlam Shalamov spent most of the years between 1937 and 1954 incarcerated in the Kolyama region of Siberia ,probably the coldest region of northeastern Eurasia. His Kolyama Tales were originally circulated as Samizdat in the 60s and by an unknown route made it to the west where they were published without his approval in the early 70s. Stark yet understated though often lyrical in their descriptions of Siberian landscape and nature the stories have often been compared to those of Chekov from a literary stand point. Without comment or much color we are given in a world where it’s unremarkable to risk life by robbing a grave to steal the underwear of the interred to trade for food , where on an average day spit freezes before it hits the ground and a barrel of mechanical grease from the lend lease program is raided to be used as lard or butter. Solzhenitsyn himself said of Mr. Shalamov that he’d endured more and gone deeper into the abyss of the Gulag than any who’d made it out to write about it. Not sure if translations are still in print , I plan on hunting down my copy from the 80s to revisit but I fear, like Samizdat , I moved it along to other readers.

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    • “Everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison” IS a great line, Donny. I had heard it but couldn’t place it; a Google search seems to indicate that Tom Waits coined it for one of his songs?

      Yes, Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich character is SO low-key in a way, which makes the novel even more compelling and believable. Understatement can be very powerful.

      I was fascinated by your superb description of Varlam Shalamov and his Gulag experiences. Definitely a shame his born-out-of-suffering work isn’t better known in the West.

      Thanks — and glad you liked the column!

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        • Geez, I though I had that line all figured out– as the Cliff Notes summary of “Howl.” ( a joke)

          Makes sense if it’s Waits though, as nobody honored the Beat Generation with their own creativity more than he did.

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          • Much of Tom Wait’s career honors the beat sensibility often taking it to a new level, in particular The Black Rider. A 1990 opera collaboration with Robert Wilson and William Burroughs, Burroughs wrote the book while Tom did the music and lyrics with some input from Mr. Burroughs . Incredibly eclectic in style as everything post Swordfish Trombones is there’s among other things a heavy 30s German Avant Garde sound ,based on German folklore you even get the dark irony of the plot revolving around a William Tell incident gone horribly wrong. Genius is an overused term in my opinion but I’d unhesitatingly attach it to Tommy Waits.

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            • jhNY, just listened to “Diamonds on My Windshield” — very nice and, as you said, very Beat-ish. Loved the lyrics, the singing, and the bass line.

              Donny, from your description, “The Black Rider” sounds amazing — and of course the collaboration with William Burroughs is a major Beat connection.

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            • I’d certainly attach the term ‘genius’ to Burroughs too, if the term fits Waits, though not for his employment of a firearm to play William Tell, by which means he gave us an instantaneous and broadened new definition of ‘Mexican divorce”.

              Sounds as if The Black Rider has a bit of the old Brecht going for it, by way of posterity.

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  9. The oldest English language novel in my library is “Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe, which I read for the first time earlier this year. Interesting how your theme pertains to one of the earliest of novels. Written in 1722, it follows the life of Moll Flanders, born to a mother who is a felon in Newgate Prison, as she tries to make the best of her life given her limited opportunities in 17th Century England. She refuses to accept her “place” in the world, which is predetermined by both her social position and her gender. She tries, at first honestly, to seek a social standing and financial security that she feels she deserves. She is quickly frustrated, and turns to deception, manipulation, and downright criminality to achieve what she feels is the life to which she is entitled. In achieving this, the reading is impressed with her intelligence and ambition. This seems like a pretty radical theme, considering that 17th Century England, as I understand it, did not much entertain the idea that anyone deserved anything based on merit. Your birth and you gender predetermined how you should act.

    To get back to your theme, Moll gets caught during a burglary (after a long career in that occupation) and gets thrown into prison. In prison, she accepts redemption, forswears her criminal life, and barely avoids the gallows as she is banished to the colonies, going to Virginia, and ultimately settling on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (this isn’t really a spoiler: the reader knows this is where she ends up upon reading the first chapter). A tidy ending to a complicated life. One doesn’t quite sympathize with her, (she does leave a path of destruction, include the abandonment, on several occasions, of various children), but the reader does tend to route for her and understand her confilicted morality.

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      • A VERY relevant novel for this discussion, drb19810! And a wonderful summary of it, complete with interesting reflections by you. Thanks!

        I read “Moll Flanders” in school (can’t remember if it was high school or college) and still have the copy. I may just have to reread it. 🙂

        Makes one think about how many novels before “Moll Flanders” had a protagonist who saw the inside of a jail. I can’t recall if “Don Quixote” or the 11th-century “The Tale of the Genji,” among other pre-Defoe books, had any prison scenes.

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        • Cervantes claimed in a prologue to have begun writing DQ while in jail for debt, and was later jailed for fighting at age 57, along with his family, for a week or more. I dimly remember DQ himself as having been put in prison for a time before his release was secured by Sancho Panza, but dimly is the word.

          However, and on the topic of things written in prison– a tangent, as is my penchant here– I found the following on the internets:

          http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/sep/19/books-written-in-prison

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          • Thanks for that great link, jhNY! Authors who were imprisoned (as opposed to jailed characters) could be another interesting blog post!

            I read a Cervantes biography a few years ago, and remember him spending some time in prison. You may very well be right about the “Don Quixote” title character being in jail for a spell, but I read that great novel too long ago to confirm your dim recall of that. 🙂

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  10. Hi Dave … I hate to keep referencing this book, but “The Firm” came to mind (again) when I was reading your column and the comments. The main character is pressured by the government into turning over information about the the prestigious — and highly lethal — law firm for which he works; the impetus is the early release of his brother from prison. For some reason that book is stuck firmly in my head lately. Maybe I just need to reread it and get it over with 🙂 Hope you have a great week, Dave!

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    • A John Grisham novel is worth referencing several times. 🙂 It sounds like the prison element you cite is VERY central to “The Firm.”

      As I might have mentioned before, I took “The Firm” out of the library last month — and look forward to reading it soon! (I may have to renew it because another novel I borrowed the same day took me two weeks to finish, setting me back on other books I took out. 😦 )

      Have a great week, too, Pat — and thanks for the comment!

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  11. In ” Gone with the Wind”..Dave, Rhett Butler was thrown into jail on some fake charges where he was having a great time playing cards and gambling with the jailers.
    That was time Scarlet was seriously stressed for money and drummed up some schemes to borrow money from Rhett.
    But Rhett was too smart for her act caught her in her scheme , her hand showed tell tale sings of a worker .

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  12. Funny the form a prison can take. I just finished a novel called The Circle by Dave Eggers, a writer whom I’ve never read. I’ve begun a review. The first paragraph gives an idea:

    “There are many ways to view a circle: one as a closed system. Once a cog is admitted to the circle, it is designed to remain in place and help sustain the whole. The new cog in Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, is a young woman named Mae. The Circle is giant Internet technology company which largely focuses on social media in ways that make current social media seem tame and quaint. Mae, through the help of an old college friend, Annie, now a high-profile member of the Circle, is given an entry-level position as a CE (customer experience) representative. Mae is awed at what seems some vast progressive campus of free-flowing thought and innovation. It is less that and more of a disguised re-education camp. Employees may work eight-hour days (more of course is encouraged) but they belong to the company 24/7…”

    There are many prisons without walls and bars. This character is comparable to Winston Smith, but at least Smith opposed the system before he was tortured. The character in Eggers’ novel may briefly question the nature of this version of Big Brother, but finally embraces it without compulsion. Perhaps a sadder ending than 1984.

    Dave, it also calls to mind Hamlet: “All of Denmark’s a prison.” “I could be bounded in a nutshell and be considered a king of infinite space.”

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    • Great to see your comment, Joe!

      So true what you said about there being “many prisons without walls and bars.” That really takes this discussion up a notch — thanks!

      I haven’t read the Dave Eggers novel you’ve started to review so eloquently, but “1984” is a terrific example of how life in general can essentially be one big jail. Conform or else can apply to anything from dystopian dictatorships to not-quite-as-dangerous-but-soul-deadening corporate offices, factories, and other workplaces.

      Perfect “Hamlet”-themed ending.

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          • Excello was a fine little label, recording in Louisiana but based in Nashville. I think the owner was white, but nearly all or all his artists were black. The most famous among them nowadays, in order: Slim Harpo (the Stones covered his tunes King Bee and Hip Shake) and Lazy Lester, who recorded Sugar Coated Love, a Jimmy Reed-flavored classic. The original record of Little Darling, I think by the Gladiolas, was on Excello– but it’s the cover that made most of the money.

            Because I was a teen in Nashville, I was lucky enough to have seen Slim Harpo perform, in the band shell in Centennial Park, home of the cement copy of the Parthenon, probably to promote himself, on instructions from Excello, among area deejays. He died young; too few got to see him outside of the south.

            But back to that Lonesome Sundown single– it’s a beaut, though atypical of Excello’s output

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    • Thanks, Ana! I agree! I think it’s one of Margaret Atwood’s two or three best novels. While she sets most of her books in the recent past, the present, or the future, she showed in “Alias Grace” that she could write a terrific, gripping historical novel.

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  13. It’s no surprise that I will start off by mentioning Native Son by Richard Wright (goes to show how powerful this book is…it can fit so many of your topics). Bigger Thomas was hunted in the streets of Chicago by police for the rape and murder of Mary Dalton, and his girlfriend Bessie Mears. He of course was only wanted for the crimes against Mary Dalton; the rape and murder of Betsy Mears were only being used by the prosecution to highlight his propensity for violence and build a stronger case against him for the Dalton crimes.

    Bigger was finally captured on a rooftop, jailed, and remained in jail until the trial and his ultimate death sentence.

    You mentioned Grapes of Wrath, so I’ll mention another Steinbeck book. One of the members of Mack and the boys from Cannery Row (the skilled mechanic who kept the cars running and fixed Lee Chong’s truck) was a frequent visitor of the county jail. Gay repeatedly got into fights with his wife and arrested.

    What was so interesting about Gay was the fact that jail didn’t bother him. He had a good time with the Sheriff. They played games, he had access to good food, a bed, and he didn’t have to be bothered with his wife hitting him. It even got to the point where Gay would purposely pick fights with her just so he could go back to jail. The wife was funny though. When she found out that Gay enjoyed going to jail and all the freedom that he had there, she forbade him from going ever again (I’m trying to get a visual of her telling her husband that he is not allowed to hang out at the prison with his homies. LOL). Gay did end up getting arrested again for a drunken fight at a party, and that was the last time he was a member of Mack’s crew.

    This book is by no means fictional, but Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is appropriate here. Dr. King wrote a lengthy letter in response to his critics who felt that interfering in civil rights battles in Alabama via protests was a waste of time. They believed that waiting for justice through the court system was a more rational approach.

    Dr. King’s response was phenomenal, as is this book. It is very intimate/personal and really highlights the events that led up to the boycotts and demonstrations in Birmingham. That of course was not the only time that Dr. King had been in jail. It was very common for civil rights protestors to be hit with false charges and placed under arrest. One of his daughters recalled in this book how kids at her school were referring to Dr. King as a “jailbird” because he was getting arrested so many times.

    In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus was no stranger to prison life, but his brushes with the law didn’t come until the family fell into deep poverty. He was arrested for vagrancy, loitering, panhandling, and other minor offences. I think the most serious crime he committed was assaulting the employer who threatened to fire his wife if she didn’t sleep with him…which she eventually did. Jurgis couldn’t make bail and served 30 days.

    Even though The Jungle was published in the early 1900s, there are still people in 2015 who unfortunately face the same problems as Jurgis did. Poor and homeless people are arrested for petty crimes (traffic violations, trespassing, possession of 1-2 marijuana joints, loitering) on a much higher scale than people of means. They often have to sit in jail because they can’t afford the high bails (modern debtor’s prisons?) And to add insult to injury, additional fees are added to the original citations, which keeps poor people mired in poverty, and constantly rotating through the criminal justice system. It’s a never-ending cycle.

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    • Wow — what a wide-ranging comment, Ana!

      The great “Native Son” does fit with many topics. Definitely at or near the top of my list of novels to reread.

      Your evocative description of Gay from “Cannery Row” reminded me of O. Henry’s memorable story “The Cop and the Anthem,” whose homeless Soapy protagonist wants to be jailed in order to have food and to get out of the cold. Of course, given that it’s an O. Henry tale, Soapy continually fails to get himself locked up until…

      Terrific mentions of “The Jungle” and that famous Martin Luther King letter! It’s true that the way America’s collection system, “justice” system, etc., are set up remind one of debtors’ prisons (something Kat Lib and also discussed below) and, in general, just infuriate any humane person with how awfully and differently low-income citizens are treated in the U.S. It’s a scandal.

      Thanks for all the information and the impassioned discussion of it!

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    • When government sees the citizenry as a profit center for political donors, or sees the poorest, least-connected citizens as the payees in a system that for political reasons will not raise tax on those who can afford it, you get these terrible outcomes, which are also not accidental.

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      • You said it perfectly, jhNY. Whatever one calls it — “blowback,” “the chickens coming home to roost,” etc. — the understandable reaction is indeed not accidental or surprising.

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  14. Dave, this is a difficult topic for me, as I have a general rule to not read novels or watch movies that mostly take place in a prison. I know that sounds odd coming from someone who reads as many mysteries, detective fiction and crime/legal thrillers as I do, but the books I do read are usually ones in which the detective or lawyer meets with his or her client in an interview room, such as in “Strong Poison,” and not so much about the client’s experience being in prison. One novel I found fascinating and horrifying at the same time was “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” by Lionel Shriver. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s told from the standpoint of a mother writing letters to her estranged husband, after their son commits a school massacre. She relates the story of Kevin’s childhood, her ambivalence about having a child, and her inability to become attached to her young son, even as a baby. She also tells her husband of her difficult once-a-month visits to Kevin in the juvenile correction facility, made more from a sense of duty than from love, up to the time he is transferred to Sing Sing as an adult. As a mother herself, my sister found she wasn’t able to read past a certain point; whereas I, who have never been a mother, could be a bit more dispassionate.

    “Little Dorrit” was already mentioned by bobess, and although I haven’t read the novel, there is, as usual, a very good BBC adaptation of it on DVD. It still boggles my mind that there once were such things as debtor’s prisons, although when you look at our country and know that there are people who can’t pay for heat/water or have enough money to feed their families or are even homeless, I shouldn’t be so surprised.

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    • Kat Lib, terrific point about how a lot of novels with prison elements (including mysteries, etc.) often have scenes in prison visiting rooms rather than in the cells themselves.

      “We Need to Talk About Kevin” sounds like a compelling/depressing book. You described it well.

      The BBC seems to almost never do a bad job with 19th-century British literature! And I hear you about how shocking yet not shocking debtors’ prisons seem. Today’s U.S. jails are sort of like debtors’ prisons because less-affluent prisoners can’t always make bail, because the crimes/alleged crimes that got them locked up were directly or indirectly caused by poverty, because wealthy people often avoid jail for the same or worse crimes, etc.

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      • Too true, Dave, about your last sentence, especially when you think of all of the people (disproportionately young men of color).who are in prison over minor drug offenses. While I’ve never cared for pot myself, it seems to me to be time to legalize it across the country, rather than have it legal in just a few states.

        Wow, my comments are rather depressing today, which I’ll attribute to winter weather weariness. On the other hand, every year I say I can’t wait for spring, yet once it comes, I’m totally miserable from a severe allergy to tree pollen exacerbating my asthma, even to often being hospitalized. Sometimes, you just really can’t win, although at least it’s so much prettier when everything blossoms. 🙂

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        • Thanks, Kat Lib! Some topics are just depressing, and there is no way around it.

          I haven’t read many nonfiction books in recent years, but Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” takes an impressive, devastating look at how young men of color are treated by the U.S. “justice” system.

          Probably a good idea to nationally legalize pot (though I’ve literally never tried it even once in my life). The disparities in sentencing between whites and people of color who use the same drugs is horrible. (Plus many white users never get arrested in the first place.)

          This winter IS wearying. Coldest February since 1934, I heard. (Not sure how much of the country that applied to.) Sorry that spring for you is a very mixed blessing. 😦

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          • Dave, I may be reaching here, but I thought about a book I’ve read several times, “Still Alice,” by Lisa Genova. It has come into prominance lately because of Julianne Moore’s multiple awards for portraying Alice, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, but I read this book, and two others of Genova’s, about left-neglected and about autism, before the film was made. I have also read an excerpt from an article or book in Slate, by a writer who is suffering from early dementia. I think that knowing one is losing one’s memories as well as one’s self must be, metaphorically speaking, as traumatic as being imprisoned.

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            • Not a reach at all, Kat Lib. Excellent comment! Devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s indeed make people prisoners of their limitations — with no hope of release or escape.

              A novel like “Flowers for Algernon” is a variation on that, with the young protagonist locked in his limited mental capacities before some interesting things happen.

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            • Beautifully said Kat lib, that is a worse kind of imprisonment in life. No crime was committed but the body becomes the prison for the mind. I have not read the book but certainly want to watch the movie when it is available in DVD.

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                • I’m sure you know this, Kat Lib, but the “Flowers for Algernon” movie is called “Charly.” I’ve never seen it, but Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for playing the main character.

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                  • I know you are right on this, but I remember reading the book, although I’m not sure that I ever saw the movie. Dave, I’m listening to a show on MSNBC now where they are talking about the DOJ’s findings about the police department in Ferguson and their profiling of the black community. It’s disgusting and I wonder how we ever get past this.

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                    • I read about that report, too, Kat Lib. As you say, so dismaying what it found. The Ferguson police filling the town coffers by constantly stopping, fining, and jailing lower-income black drivers for minor or non-existent offenses while mostly leaving alone white drivers who did the same or worse. Racist and immoral. And I’m disgusted that Darren Wilson will not be hit with federal charges. Anyone who says the U.S. is “post-racial” is deluded or deliberately ignoring reality. 😦

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                  • Dave, I’d like to mention a nonfiction book written by a sociologist, Erving Goffman, that I had to read for a Sociology course I took in college. The book is “Asylums,” which is mostly about mental illness institutions, but also other inmates. I was personally interested because it was about this time that my brother was put in prison for refusing to take a combatant role in the Vietnam War.

                    On another less serious note, I’d like to thank you for starting a discussion on a subject that has many of us imprisoned in our own homes during this last week. I don’t think I’ll be able to dig myself out until Saturday. I was able to get out yesterday for lunch with a friend, but otherwise I have been stuck inside all week. Ugh! 🙂

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                    • That “Asylums” book sounds really interesting/depressing. I’ve seen the inside of many a mental-health facility from visiting a family member. And thank you for bringing up another kind of imprisonment — for opposing a war, like the Vietnam one, not worth fighting. Sorry your admirable brother had to go through that.

                      Yes, this crummy weather does sort of imprison people! I’ve been in all day myself because of many new inches of snow, but will be sloshing around outside tomorrow because I have a lot to do. 😦

                      By the way, I started “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” yesterday, and am finding it VERY absorbing. Thanks again for recommending it!

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              • I’ve always wondered which would be worse, to be trapped in a perfectly viable body while one’s mind goes away like it does in “Still Alice” or “Flowers for Algernon”, or for a perfect mind to be trapped in a devastated body with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as is the case with Stephen Hawking as depicted in “The Theory of Everything”. Is Alzheimer’s worse on the family than it is on the patient? Is ALS worse on the patient than it is on the family? I’ve had up close and personal experiences with both of these diseases and they are horrific!

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                • Heartbreaking questions, lulabelleharris, and sorry you’ve had to deal with those diseases in a close and personal way. You’re right that ALS and Alzheimer’s are devastating for the families as well as for the person directly suffering (and for close friends, too). Meanwhile, America’s spotty health-care system adds yet another layer of agony for many.

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                  • It really does, Dave! I have heard politicians (including Mitt Romney) say that people aren’t dying for lack of health care, but they are “dead wrong”! Emergency room treatment is not health care.

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                    • So true! Emergency-room treatment often comes too late, is impersonal, is hugely expensive, etc. Because of the way America’s health-care system is set up, thousands of uninsured people die every year who didn’t have to die.

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                • Hi lulabelleharris, both are heartbreaking and devastating for the caregiver and the person suffering from either of the syndrome .
                  Jan Peterson wife of 60 mins Barry Petersen chronicled the love of his life Jan.
                  I cant even imaging what you yourself have to go through.

                  The love of his life had forgotten him at a very early age. The beautiful lady was herself an CBS news correspondent .
                  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/former-cbs-news-correspondent-jan-petersen-dies-at-63/

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                • I know a man, father of a good friend, a vigorous 97, unfortunately, in that his strength is visited on his carers– he has severe Alzheimer’s, and has been confined to a facility for the last couple of years. I haven’t seen him since he was admitted.

                  From what my friend has imparted, he is mostly happy, very much in the now, and nowhere else. He is occasionally even delighted, though disturbingly to his carers, by such things as the feel of toothpaste put to work as a hair cream.

                  I realize a sample of one makes a bad survey– but in this instance I am near-certain the carers and family members, who have been both, until caring got too hard to handle at home, have had a harder time going through the motions of this terrible affliction than the afflicted man has had.

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                  • I’d agree that at some point, people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s may not be aware of their disease, yet one of the most important points that “Still Alice” made was that Alice knew what her diagnosis entailed and even had a plan in place if she got too far gone, which once it happened, she was unable to enact. I’ve read about those people who are supposedly happy during their state of not knowing their loved ones, but there are also those who get violent, especially towards their caretakers.

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                    • And there also those, like the man in my example, who are happy by all accounts (very much including his own) on a daily basis and also occasionally violent– which is most of all why he had to leave his home for an institution.

                      I hope nothing I’ve said and nothing in the way of I’ve said it might lead you to believe I’m making light or too little of this terrible, wasting affliction.

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    • Years before that BBC film, back in the late 80’s, a two-part theatrical version was made:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Dorrit_%28film%29

      I thought it was interesting that it was essentially two feature-length films. I think originally the parts were shown on alternate nights in theaters. I checked out the two-part VHS from the library around 20 years ago. I waited until after I read the novel so it would make more sense. The visualization was very impressive, especially the debtors’ prison. Alec Guinness played William Dorrit and he always greeted visitors as if he were royalty and asked them if they’d brought him any ‘gifts’ by which he meant financial donations, I believe, so he could get closer to paying off his debt.

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      • Thanks for that great information, bobess48! And your mention of VHS tapes brought back a lot of memories. 🙂

        Most of Dickens’ novels are so full of characters and details that it makes sense for screen productions to be way over a 90-120-minute length.

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  15. Dave, Dumas’ continuations of the Musketeers also includes a prisoner “The Man in the Iron Mask” a political prisoner is ever there was one. I should also mention Steven King’s “The Green Mile.” John Coffey and many of the cast are all on death row. The narrator, Paul Edgecombe, is the head of security on the mile.

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    • That’s right, GL! The prisoner in “The Man in the Iron Mask” is indeed about as political a prisoner as one could get. You also reminded me how excellent the various sequels to “The Three Musketeers” were — with “The Man in the Iron Mask” one of them. Not as good as the first book, but still quite good.

      And great to mention Stephen King in this context! In addition to “The Green Mile,” there’s also his “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” novella that inspired the admired movie.

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    • That’s rarefied company, Almost Iowa! I reread “Crime and Punishment” a few months ago, and was again bowled over by how riveting that novel is. And despite its “challenging” reputation, it’s quite readable.

      I just put “Darkness at Noon” on my list, and look forward to reading it! I’ve seen that book on many best-novel lists, but somehow had never gotten to it. Thanks!

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  16. “Papillon” is an absolutely riveting autobiography by Henri Charrière about his years as a prisoner on Devil’s Island and his attempts to escape, which he finally does. The book is not nearly as well known as the magnificent movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.

    “The Chamber” by John Grisham is about a not-very-nice grandfather deservedly on death row. It’s not a happy book, obviously, but Grisham makes it a page-turner.

    “Sounder”, by William H. Armstrong, is another compelling novel set in the south about a black father sent to prison for stealing a ham and the trials of his family with him gone. Again, the outstanding movie is more well known that the novel.

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    • “Papillon” was quite a book, Mary! I read it back in college, and still have the paperback. I’ve never seen the movie, but it sounds like it really had some star power.

      It’s the opposite with “Sounder” — I saw the film but never read the novel. A poignant story, made even more so by the prominence of the canine title character.

      I haven’t read “The Chamber,” but I can believe it’s a page-turner! John Grisham certainly knows how to write THOSE. There’s also the detained boy in Grisham’s “The Client,” but that’s more a juvenile lockup than a jailing.

      Great comment! Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Prisons and jails figure prominently in Dickens’ work. ‘Little Dorrit’ is probably the novel that deals with the debtor’s prison issue head on as William Dorrit has spent so many years in the prison that three of his children have grown up in it, including the ‘Little Dorrit’ title character, Amy. The protagonist Arthur Clennam becomes acquainted with the Dorrit family and tries to help them. It’s been over 20 years since I read the novel so the details are sketchy but I believe that William Dorrit is the heir to a fortune that Clennam uncovers and uses for Dorrit to pay his way out of prison. The prison has made such a deep impression on Dorrit’s consciousness that, even though he is physically liberated, he is still in a prison mentally. I remember the novel making a very strong impression on me, more so even than many of the ones that are referred to most frequently as Dickens’ greatest. Even in the much earlier ‘Oliver Twist’ Fagin ends up in prison at the end. As I read ‘Oliver Twist’ even farther back in time than ‘Little Dorrit’ my memory of it is even sketchier. And, of course, in ‘Great Expectations’ the former convict Magwitch turns his life around and becomes the mysterious benefactor for Pip, who helped him when he was trying to escape many years earlier.

    Dostoevsky lightly fictionalizes his Siberian prison experience in ‘The House of the Dead’ in which the protagonist is sentenced to penal servitude for murdering his wife. As he grows used to the environment he begins to see the souls beneath the savagery of the other inmates. Dostoevsky also used prison in more than one or two instances. It is also the destination of Dmitri Karamazov at the end of his great final novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.

    Of course, that’s just two authors. There are many more examples from both of them as well as several others. I’ll get back to you if others come to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bobess48, thanks for mentioning “Little Dorrit” — a novel I also haven’t read for a long time. You described it amazingly well from distant memory!

      Dickens definitely had jail elements in a number of novels. And, as you say, some of his lesser-known books are as good or almost as good as his iconic works. For me, “Dombey and Son” is one example of that.

      Dostoyevsky was prison-haunted in several novels — undoubtedly in part due to his own incarceration (mentioned by you). Heck, he barely escaped a firing squad, and his health was never the same.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, in both the cases of ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘The House of the Dead’ I cheated a bit–looked them both up on Wikipedia.

        Another one that came to mind is Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables.’ Although most of it takes place after Jean Valjean is out of prison, the injustice of his prison sentence (convicted for stealing bread) casts a shadow over all the subsequent action of the novel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not a problem, bobess48 — I also often use Wikipedia to refresh my memory about novels I haven’t read recently. A VERY valuable site for literature bloggers and people who converse on those blogs. 🙂

          Very apt mention of, and observation about, the prison element of “Les Miserables”! Thanks!

          Like

        • I do that all the time, bobess, even when it’s a book I’ve read not all that long ago. I find that my memory for books or movies is not very good unless I have read or watched it multiple times, and even then I usually have to check my facts.

          Liked by 2 people

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