The Self in the Cell: Narrating the Victorian Prisoner (review)
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The Self in the Cell: Narrating the Victorian Prisoner, by Sean Grass; pp. xi + 299. London and New York: Routledge, 2003, £60.00, $90.00.

In the beginning—Edmund Wilson's The Wound and the Bow (1941)—the Dickensian prison was a metaphor for social and psychological confinement. Soon after, Lionel Trilling transformed it into a figure for the opposition between individuals and the social, [End Page 545] while J. Hillis Miller recast it as a complex of images. In the 1970s Michel Foucault rescued the prison from image and abstraction even as he made it newly metaphorical, finding its structure in hospitals, schools, and other institutions, and D. A. Miller soon made escape effectively impossible, revealing the carceral subjectivities of the Victorian novel's characters and readers.

Sean Grass situates his book in opposition to these prisons of images and metaphors, staking his claim to revisiting the well-traveled field of what he calls "prison-criticism" on an insistence on the real: the function of actual prisons and prison-related events in Victorian life. Despite detailed, sometimes fascinating discussions of the realities of prison structures and prison life, however, he finally has it both ways. For as soon as small rooms and other prison-like spaces are allowed into the argument—once the prison becomes the cell, and thus inevitably the self—it has returned as metaphor once again.

Early nineteenth-century reforms advocating separation or solitary confinement led, Grass asserts, to reform in narrative as well, forever linking the actual, solitary prison cell with the invention and production of coherent self-narrative. The prison produced neither a subject nor a self-authored text, argues Grass, but rather a narrative: fictionalized and filled in for the sake of coherence, its content determined more by the demands of the physical prison and prison authorities than by its putative author. Like slave narratives, he posits, prison narratives are subject to the authority of an "other"—in this case, prison officials. Narratives told by prisoners often tell officials what they want to hear, and such examples as Newgate narratives teach us that prisoners' stories no less than others fulfill generic expectations. Grass argues not that the prisoner invents him or herself via narrative, but rather that "English authorities institutionalized the practice of inventing the prisoner from a vantage point outside of the narrative subject" (37). Neither the prisoner's life nor his life story may be said to be his own.

Because of this, the argument continues, we cannot say that the Victorian novel includes a "fantasy of omniscience" (my phrase, in Vanishing Points, 1991); Victorian "prison novelists" (Grass's term) concede the privacy and unknowability of the self. Indeed, the psyches of prisoners, like prisoners themselves, are particularly unavailable to the omniscient gaze, situated as they are behind thick prison walls. In this solitude (and in seeming contradiction to the argument described above) they can "declare" their own identities, revealing to readers "the truths contained by the cell" (125). But Grass's substitution of an externalized, insistent stare for a diffuse, panoptic effect sidesteps the Foucauldian argument that this dynamic of concealment and disclosure is itself evidence of the panopticon's pervasiveness, the aggressive cultural alignment of confession and truth.

Grass's chapter on Villette (1853) both affirms his original contention (that the story of the self is authored and authorized by others) and broadens it so far beyond its initial scope that the point on which he stakes his originality—his insistence on the importance of bricks-and-mortar prisons—breaks down. For if the construction of Lucy Snowe's subjectivity depends upon "the solitude of so many metaphorical prisons" (197), then all those enclosed places where selfhood is articulated—the cell, the classroom, the closet— once again become analogies for the self. Indeed, Grass's claim that the reformed prison leads to the modern psychoanalytic subject is less convincing than the idea, also suggested here, that this prison emerges as a site for the production of autobiographical narrative not because it redefines the self but rather because it is a structural analogue for emerging beliefs about the self. The move toward solitary confinement would...


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