Prison literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Prison literature

Prison literature

The literature of empire is replete with coercion, house arrest, concentration camps, atrocities, and imprisonment. Examples span the centuries, from the New Testament APOCALYPSE literature of the New Testament's Revelation (A.D. 95), reputedly written by John the Divine in a cell on Patmos island, to the Carthaginian apologist TERTULLIAN'S consolation Ad martyras (To the martyrs, A.D. 197) and LEO TOLSTOY'S “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” (1872). Incarceration scenarios appear in many genres, including the Scottish explorer Mungo Park's TRAVELOGUE Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799); the Russian author FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY'S social novels The House of the Dead (1862) and Buried Alive; or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia (1881); and Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of Four (1890), which features a lockup in Agra, India. For the surrealist Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a writer in Prague during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cell confinement seemed less frightening than a grotesque machine that inscribed the court's judgment on the defendant's body, a GOTHIC image from In the Penal Colony (1919) that prophesies the perverted science of Adolf Hitler's war machine. The orator Emma Goldman, an exile from the United States, published My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924) after viewing the squalor and hopelessness of Russian prisons, particularly the concentration camp at Ryazan southeast of Moscow. Such incarceration ended her illusions about Russia as a workers' haven replacing the Romanov dynasty.

The Trinidadian poet and satirist Alfred Hamilton Cruickshank (1862-1927) viewed colonialism in the islands as a form of incarceration. He shocked British sensibilities in 1933 with a rebuke to the abolitionists who congratulated themselves for ending slavery in the West Indies. The poet insisted that the aftermath of slavery was still an issue: “Upon our limbs / Still hang the shackles, clanking, hellish hymns / To greedy Mammon, whom our masters serve on bended knee” (quoted in Neptune 2007, 33). From black work songs, he simulated rhythms and phrasing for “The Convict Song” in Poetry: Poems in All Moods (1937), an androcentric plaint against “manhood draining” that turns a number of male inmates into hardened, hate-filled anti-imperialists (Burnett, 1986, 138).

World War II Prisoners of War

In 1950, the British writer Nevil Shute (1899-1960) reflected on Japanese militarism in a diary novel, A Town Like Alice. Set in the British colony of Malaya, the book's historical basis is the 1,200-mile forced march of 80 Dutch residents of the Dutch East Indies from Padang around Sumatra. The story focuses on the survivalism of the heroine Jean Paget after the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Infiltration by the enemy at first seems unlikely: “Even when the Japanese landed in the north of Malaya there was little thought of danger in Kuala Lumpur” (Shute 2002, 35). The Japanese make it clear there is little hope of mercy for the 17 surviving women: “You do good things, obedience to orders, you will receive good from Japanese soldiers. You do bad things, you will be shot directly” (40). From the prison staff, inmates learn that “all prisoners are disgraceful and dishonourable creatures in the eyes of the Japanese” (86). Guards express their contempt with callous treatment, terrorism, and deprivation of food, beds, and drugs. The author notes a factor common in prison literature: “Men and women who are in great and prolonged distress and forced into an entirely novel way of life … frequently develop curious mental traits” (98), including religious thoughts and fantasies of home and family. To the surprise of a Japanese sergeant, the women prisoners assist him after he falls ill with fever by carrying his load, an act of compassion derived from common humanity.

Throughout the narrative, dual threads of brutality and romance link Paget with Sergeant Joe “Ringer” Harman, an Aussie soldier and would-be rescuer. He suffers crucifixion at Kuantan for aiding the female prisoners by providing stolen chickens, Lifebuoy soap, bandages, splints, and antidotes for dysentery. Before her journey to Kota Bharu on the northern Pacific coast of Malaya, Jean recalls Japanese retaliation: “They nailed his hands to a tree, and beat him to death. They kept us there and made us look on while they did it” (95). Two film versions of A Town Like Alice recreated the concentration camp atmosphere and the secularized image of the prisoner of war as a Christ figure: a 1956 edition, starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, and an Australian made-for-TV reprise in 1981, pairing Helen Morse with Bryan Brown.

A gripping fictional account of Japanese wartime cruelty was Pierre Boulle's World War II novella Le Pont de la riviere Kwai (The Bridge over the River Kwai, 1952), winner of the Prix Sainte-Beuve. It was appreciated for its depiction of the contrast between the national pride and imperial styles of Great Britain and Japan, symbolized by the interaction between the impeccably dignified Colonel Nicholson and the sadistic Colonel Saito, a minor dictator who knows that “a high-level Japanese inspection was imminent” (Boulle 1954, 50). A member of the French Resistance in Burma, China, and French Indochina, Boulle wrote from memories of capture and forced labor superintended by the Vichy French. He had languished in a Saigon prison during the bridging of the Mekong River for the 258-mile Burma Railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma. He knew from personal acquaintance with the enemy the pride of a man like Saito, who resents his job for keeping him out of front-line action and from the glories of imperial victory.

Like Nevil Shute, Boulle emphasized the communal mentality of the shared miseries of prisoners of war. The novel tells of the 500 inmates as being one part of the “sixty thousand English, Australians, Dutch, and Americans assembled in several groups in one of the most uncivilized corners of the earth, the jungle of Burma and Siam” (10), a milieu that mirrors the barbarity of the Japanese army. Balancing themes of discipline and destruction, Colonel Nicholson finds himself torn between setting an example of steadfastness under pressure and outfoxing the Japanese by sabotaging the bridge that has cost the prisoners their energy and health. In the rush to complete construction, he worries about the growing effects of beri-beri, dysentery, malaria, and slow starvation: “Bit by bit, day by day, hour by hour, some of the living substance of each prisoner came apart from its individual organism to be swallowed up in the anonymous material universe” (141). Wartime decision making requires an assessment of possible gain against probable loss—how much work completed on the bridge versus how many lives ruined. David Lean's 1957 film version, The Bridge on the River Kwai, won an Academy Award for screenplay and a second Oscar for Alec Guinness, who played Colonel Nicholson opposite Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito.

Soviet Torments

The chronicler of prison torments in Soviet Russia, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) earned the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature for his accounts of imperial brutality. While serving in the Russian army in East Prussia in February 1945, he posted a criticism of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in a letter that censors intercepted. This resulted in Solzhenitsyn’s arrest, interrogation, and beating at Lubyanka prison, headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. After his trial in absentia, his incarceration began at a labor camp where he worked as an installer of parquet floors and concluded with a three-year carpentry and masonry detail in 1953 at Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.

The misery of subfreezing weather, whiteouts, and a starvation diet of bread and gruel pervades Solzhenitsyn’s fictional prison memoir One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), which he first published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir (New world). The narrative voices the unrest resulting from suppression of civil rights under Stalin, a vain, emotional tyrant given to paranoid spying, forced confessions, petty vengeance, terrorism, meaningless hearings, and capricious executions. Victims vanish into gulags, an acronym for the government agency that ran remote lumber and mining camps reserved for zeks (political dissidents). Through the horrifying detail of the life of inmate Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the author describes workgang sufferings from scurvy, overwork, and callous treatment. Aiming machine guns at prisoners’ heads, guards order the men to stand bootless on frozen ground. The text enumerates repetitive head counts and outdoor body searches for hidden food, civilian clothes, and contraband letters: “When it was freezing, the frisking routine was not so tough in the morning—though it still was in the evening” (Solzhenitsyn 1963, 35). Inmate complaints of violations of the criminal code prove unwise. Old timers learn to cope, hiding their trowels from confiscation, cadging treats and cigarettes, and retreating to the infirmary to recover from fever and aching muscles. The author salutes the typical survivor for endurance: “His mind was set on one thing—never to give in” (172).

Solzhenitsyn reiterated his charges against Stalin in The First Circle (1968), an expose of gulag conditions at a technical work camp, the subject of a 1973 Polish film and television miniseries in 1991 and 2007, starring F. Murray Abraham as Stalin. In 1973, Solzhenitsyn returned to prison fiction with his satiric masterwork The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume work banned in the Soviet Union until 1989. The narrative charges dictator Vladimir Lenin with using punitive work camps as sources of slave labor, the backbone of the Russian public works system. Solzhenitsyn wrests humor from the terrain of the mother country, which was “not slow to discover exile… . Our great spaces gave their blessing—Siberia was ours already” (Solzhenitsyn 2007, 421). Within such prison microcosms, the ferment of barrack conspiracies, strikes, and internal banishment creates a pervasive hopelessness and despair for a normal life.

Prison in Postcolonial Africa

In Nigeria, the poet and playwright Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), a Yoruban from the southwestern coastal town of Abeokuta, wrote from a Kaduna prison cell of the plight of postcolonial Africans. He was 26 years old when his nation won independence from the British Empire. In the political turmoil after independence, he tried to negotiate peace within warring tribes and to protest fraud in a radio broadcast. During 22 months of solitary confinement on a charge of spying from 1967 to 1969, like Shukov in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he developed cunning skills of self-preservation and a loathing for the “power prostitutes,” the vicious leaders who sought to rule Nigeria by force (Soyinka 1988, 36). To issue Poems from Prison (1969), he scribbled intertextual lines on the pages of seven smuggled books. He continued baiting his warders with verse in A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), picturing civil war as a crucible “to force impurities in nationweal / Belly-up, heat-drawn by fires / of truth” (Soyinka 1972, 6). He lionizes the courage of the rebel as a “passive valour,” a simmering nemesis awaiting release from prison (21). Despite Odyssean hardships, the oppressed plot “burnt offerings” to reinvigorate Nigeria’s “violated visions” (89). In The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972), he outlines his way of coping with filth, odors, and treachery. He does so through mental disengagement: “Reality is killed and buried with memories of the past” (Soyinka 1988, 128). At a time when he wants to write about the collective plight of postcolonial peoples, he voices outrage at arbitrary isolation, degradation, and repression. He states his object to be a “denunciation of war … to repudiate and end both the secession of Biafra, and the genocide- consolidated dictatorship of the army,” which he vilifies as an “anti-human barrier” (19). Nigerian authorities banned his memoir because of its demand for full disclosure of government documents.

In Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988), Soyinka sought a renewal of what he called “race retrieval” from the “life-usurpers” by mocking the elaborate protocols of military regimes. By relating the god Ogun and the Zulu hero Shaka to 20th- century conflicts, he reminds the world of “our pride once boasted empires / Kings and nation builders” and of the power of defiance embodied by imprisoned South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, “a black, unwilling Christ” (Soyinka 1989, 15, 1). Soyinka's poems nominate prisoners of conscience as martyrs for enduring sleep deprivation, starvation, shackling in an upright position, lunacy wards, slow-acting poison, and electric shocks to the genitals. Through verse, he recounts his own tenuous grip on sanity during a hunger strike and his resolve to remain whole, physically and mentally. For his humanism, in 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. During four years of self-imposed exile from his homeland, he returned to the issues of administrative corruption and illicit jailing and torture in The Open Sore of a Continent; A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996) and its sequel, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1998).


Boulle, Pierre. The Bridge over the River Kwai. Translated by Xan Fielding. New York: Bantam, 1954.

Burnett, Paula, ed. The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse.

Middlesex, U.K..: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Kato, Megumi. “Typical Evil? The Japanese Represented in Australian War Writings.” In Beyond Good and

Evil?: Essays on the Literature and Culture of the Asia- Pacific Region, edited by Dennis Haskell, Megan McKinlay, and Pamina Rich, 65-78. Claremont: University of West Australia Press, 2006.

Neptune, Harvey R. Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Shute, Nevil. A Town Like Alice. Callington, U.K.: House of Stratus, 2002.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

----- . One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley. New York: Bantam, 1963.

Soyinka, Wole. Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems. Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1989.

----- . The Man Died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. New York: Noonday, 1988.

------- . A Shuttle in the Crypt. London: Methuen, 1972.