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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 121-145

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Fictions of the Panopticon:
Prison, Utopia, and the Out-Penitent in the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne

E. Shaskan Bumas

The great utopian writers from Plato through Thomas More explained their social worlds by contrasting them with imaginary, transcendent, perfect societies; but increasingly since Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), the prison system has served as metaphor for and immanent microcosm of society. Both the prison and utopia are well-developed structures in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter’s first chapter is “The Prison-Door,” the second sentence of which reads, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison,” the latter a “black flower of civilized society.”1 Such new colonies would have included the nineteen Praying Indian communities founded in the seventeenth century by the Reverend John Eliot, who was greatly admired by Hawthorne, visited by Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, and taken as a role model in The Blithedale Romance by the prison reformer Hollingsworth. Blithedale’s narrator, Miles Coverdale, is excited by the idea of a cemetery and Hollingsworth by the idea of a prison, with which he would like to replace the utopian colony of Blithedale. More’s apocryphal Utopia, however, had no prisons; a two-tiered justice system provided pleasant slavery for a first offense and execution for a two-time loser.2 The approach to managing criminals in More’s sixteenth-century Utopia is like the one Foucault finds in the nineteenth-century chain gang: “The ideal would be for the convict to appear as a sort of rentable property: a slave at the service of all.”3 What’s more, in [End Page 121] Utopia the punishment is so just and humane that a convict would rather be a slave than free in another country with a different social organization.4 (Here one imagines More drawing from Plato rather than from life.) Perhaps the relation of utopia and prison occurs in Hawthorne’s fiction because of his interest in how society works, particularly in how his nation works. And according to Foucault’s Chronology, the idea of the nation emerged at approximately the same time that modern states were defined by their prison systems.5

Systems of punishment figure prominently in Hawthorne’s romances. The title The Scarlet Letter refers to Hester Prynne’s social exile; The House of the Seven Gables relates the story of Clifford Pyncheon after his release from prison and his subsequent move into a more gothically arranged, enclosed space; The Blithedale Romance centers itself around the figure of the prison reformer Hollingsworth; and The Marble Faun concludes with the imprisonment of the flesh-and-blood faun. In the three American romances, Hawthorne deals with temporally specific forms of punishment. Hester Prynne’s physical humiliation on the scaffold (an official version of Major Molineux tarred and feathered) reminds readers of days before the penitentiary.6 The scaffold, the narrator explains, “was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France,” though in the country where people were titled “citizen,” citizenship and punishment would have had different meanings (SL, 58).7 In The House of the Seven Gables, Clifford’s imprisonment is a more “humane” punishment than Hester’s (in Hester’s day he would have been executed), despite its incorrect justification: he is guilty only of blundering between a more powerful man and the object of that man’s greed. But prison has broken him, rendering him a quivering old man afraid to venture outside; it has not reformed him, because he was no murderer to begin with, and the only lesson he needed to learn is to avoid dead bodies that could be attributed to...


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pp. 121-145
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