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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