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  • “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
  • Kris Siefken (bio)

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 Charles Dickens’s reflections on Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary, illustrates this article’s intention to focus on Dickens’s handling of solitary confinement imprisonment and on how the use of coercive sensorial isolation can create an altered state in the psychology of individuals. In exploring how the experience of being “buried alive” with its “torturing anxieties” may change an individual’s mental state, this article explores Dickens’s position as to whether such persons, having been “changed by the death they died” during imprisonment, can ever be truly “recalled to life,” or whether they are left permanently scarred by the experience, trapped between two states, like “a Spirit moving among mortals” (A Tale 265, 17, 284). In the process, this article interrogates the impact enforced solitude has on the experience of characters’ relationships to their spatial environments (how an individual’s state of mind might become physically situated) and the way in which Dickens’s representation of the effects of forced isolation specifically signposts ways in which the reader can or should interpret these states of mind. Doing so necessarily requires arguing against a long-established critical tradition suggesting that Dickens lacked psychological insight: an absent psychology school of thought that has its roots among Dickens’s contemporaries and whose on-going influence could still be seen echoed in the commentaries around the Dickens Bicentenary three years ago.1 One of the best-known examples of this criticism would be George Eliot’s comment: [End Page 55]

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 of the most quoted of such critiques, Eliot’s comment is hardly unique, 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 why this perception gained such strong purchase.

One key theme that runs through this school of thought is an Eliotian sense of Dickens’s dwelling only on the “external traits” of his characters. Fellow novelist Mrs. Oliphant, writing in 1871, stated that “[Dickens’s] instinct leads him to keep on the surface,” and comparing Eliot and Dickens in 1883, Nathan Sheppard suggested that “[while] Dickens portrays the behaviour, George Eliot dissects the motive for the behaviour” (678; 8). The influence of this “external traits” perception can still be felt in modern analysis, such as when Andrew Sanders describes Dickens’s character-building as being “from the outside inwards”—although crucially Sanders does allow for a movement toward an interior (77). In his essay “Performing Character,” Malcolm Andrews eloquently sums up this absent psychology school as holding the position that “having squandered so much on externals [Dickens] either cannot or will not supply much in the way of an interior life [for his characters]” (72).

This article argues against the absent psychology school of thought, demonstrating that significant psychological insight into representing and interpreting nineteenth-century states of minds is present in Dickens’s works. In doing so, it refutes George Henry Lewes’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 for physiological purposes,” leaving “not characters, but … caricatures and distortions of nature” (146–48).

The Preparation

On January 2, 1842, Dickens set sail for America. Such had been Dickens’s meteoric rise that, having published his first newspaper sketch in December...


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