When this class first began in August, I knew very little about Victorian literature and I was unsure of what to expect. However, as the class progressed, I learned more than I was anticipating. Some of my favorite topics we discussed included Victorian women, religion, and orphans. However, looking back on the semester, the most interesting thing I learned about was the prison conditions of the time.
Oscar Wilde’s description of prison in The Ballad of Reading Gaol struck me. He claimed that every prison “is built with bricks of shame, and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim.” He wondered how society could accept one man controlling another man, especially in such awful conditions. Charles Dickens offered another description of the Victorian Era prison system in “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature.” After visiting a prison, he said “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment… inflicts upon the sufferers… I hold this slow and daily tampering… to be worse than any torture of the body.” Both men were taken aback by the conditions they witnessed. This surprised me because most Victorian Era citizens seemed to accept the conditions that criminals were placed in, even though they were inhumane.
In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde writes “and by all forgot, we rot and rot.” This line exemplifies the fact that prisoners lose themselves while in jail because the outside world doesn’t care about them. While I was reading both of these pieces, I was reminded of today’s prison conditions. When Wilde wrote that the prisons are “bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim,” it reminded me of wrongful convictions. There have been many instances where the wrong people get placed in jail for other people’s crimes. Jail cells sometimes hold citizens who suffer the conditions of prison when they are undeserving. This truth existed during the Victorian Era and it still does today. Sadly, the jails haven’t changed much since Wilde and Dickens wrote about their experiences. It causes me to wonder if the conditions will ever change. I understand that people go to jail for committing crimes, but most humans do not deserve to be treated with complete disrespect.
I enjoyed the fact that I felt like I was reading about today’s prison system through pieces of literature that are centuries old. This topic was the most interesting thing I learned because it puts the conditions of prison into perspective and made me realize the injustice that exists within our country.