A Prison of the Mind by Charles Dickens

Posted on April 19, 2012

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In his childhood, Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt, throwing his family and young Charles into circumstances which forever haunted the writer.  In his fiction, Dickens returned to prison many times, often exploring the theme of the terrible power of prisons over the soul.  As the following passage makes clear, Dickens understood as well as any modern jailer the process of institutionalization, where the prisoner grows to depend on his prison, where prisons of walls and stone become prisons of the mind.  After awhile what confines you can seem to protect you.  Some variation of this notion also explains, perhaps, why toxic societies—where whole classes of society are oppressed, exploited, neglected and controlled—continue to survive, often being defended by their victims.

It was getting dark; that is to say, a few gas jets were kindled in this place which was never light, by way of compliment to the evening, which had set in outside. As it was rather warm, some of the tenants of the numerous little rooms which opened into the gallery on either hand, had set their doors ajar. Mr. Pickwick peeped into them as he passed along, with great curiosity and interest.

Here, four or five great hulking fellows, just visible through a cloud of tobacco smoke, were engaged in noisy and riotous conversation over half-emptied pots of beer, or playing at all-fours with a very greasy pack of cards. In the adjoining room, some solitary tenant might be seen poring, by the light of a feeble tallow candle, over a bundle of soiled and tattered papers, yellow with dust and dropping to pieces from age, writing, for the hundredth time, some lengthened statement of his grievances, for the perusal of some great man whose eyes it would never reach, or whose heart it would never touch. In a third, a man, with his wife and a whole crowd of children, might be seen making up a scanty bed on the ground, or upon a few chairs, for the younger ones to pass the night in. And in a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh, the noise, and the beer, and the tobacco smoke, and the cards, all came over again in greater force than before.

In the galleries themselves, and more especially on the stair-cases, there lingered a great number of people, who came there, some because their rooms were empty and lonesome, others because their rooms were full and hot; the greater part because they were restless and uncomfortable, and not possessed of the secret of exactly knowing what to do with themselves.

There were many classes of people here, from the labouring man in his fustian jacket, to the broken-down spendthrift in his shawl dressing-gown, most appropriately out at elbows; but there was the same air about them all—a kind of listless, jail-bird, careless swagger, a vagabondish who’s-afraid sort of bearing, which is wholly indescribable in words, but which any man can understand in one moment if he wish, by setting foot in the nearest debtors’ prison, and looking at the very first group of people he sees there, with the same interest as Mr. Pickwick did.

‘It strikes me, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick, leaning over the iron rail at the stair-head-‘it strikes me, Sam, that imprisonment for debt is scarcely any punishment at all.’

‘Think not, sir?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘You see how these fellows drink, and smoke, and roar,’ replied Mr. Pickwick. ‘It’s quite impossible that they can mind it much.’

‘Ah, that’s just the wery thing, Sir,’ rejoined Sam, ‘they don’t mind it; it’s a reg’lar holiday to them—all porter and skittles. It’s the t’other vuns as gets done over vith this sort o’ thing; them down-hearted fellers as can’t svig avay at the beer, nor play at skittles neither; them as vould pay if they could, and gets low by being boxed up. I’ll tell you wot it is, sir; them as is always a-idlin’ in public-houses it don’t damage at all, and them as is alvays a-workin’ wen they can, it damages too much. “It’s unekal,” as my father used to say wen his grog worn’t made half-and-half: “it’s unekal, and that’s the fault on it.”‘

‘I think you’re right, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick, after a few moments’ reflection, ‘quite right.’

‘P’raps, now and then, there’s some honest people as likes it,’ observed Mr. Weller, in a ruminative tone, ‘but I never heerd o’ one as I can call to mind, ‘cept the little dirty-faced man in the brown coat; and that was force of habit.’

‘And who was he?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.

‘Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d,’ replied Sam.

‘But what did he do?’

‘Wy, he did wot many men as has been much better know’d has done in their time, Sir,’ replied Sam, ‘he run a match agin the constable, and vun it.’

‘In other words, I suppose,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘he got into debt.’

‘Just that, Sir,’ replied Sam, ‘and in course o’ time he come here in consekens. It warn’t much—execution for nine pound nothin’, multiplied by five for costs; but hows’ever here he stopped for seventeen year. If he got any wrinkles in his face, they were stopped up vith the dirt, for both the dirty face and the brown coat wos just the same at the end o’ that time as they wos at the beginnin’.

‘He wos a wery peaceful, inoffendin’ little creetur, and wos alvays a-bustlin’ about for somebody, or playin’ rackets and never vinnin’; till at last the turnkeys they got quite fond on him, and he wos in the lodge ev’ry night, a-chattering vith ’em, and tellin’ stories, and all that ‘ere. Vun night he wos in there as usual, along vith a wery old friend of his, as wos on the lock, ven he says all of a sudden,

‘”I ain’t seen the market outside, Bill,” he says (Fleet Market wos there at that time)—”I ain’t seen the market outside, Bill,” he says, “for seventeen year.”

‘”I know you ain’t,” says the turnkey, smoking his pipe.

‘”I should like to see it for a minit, Bill,” he says.

‘”Wery probable,” says the turnkey, smoking his pipe wery fierce, and making believe he warn’t up to wot the little man wanted.

‘”Bill,” says the little man, more abrupt than afore, “I’ve got the fancy in my head. Let me see the public streets once more afore I die; and if I ain’t struck with apoplexy, I’ll be back in five minits by the clock.”

‘”And wot ‘ud become o’ me if you WOS struck with apoplexy?” said the turnkey.

‘”Wy,” says the little creetur, “whoever found me, ‘ud bring me home, for I’ve got my card in my pocket, Bill,” he says, “No. 20, Coffee-room Flight”: and that wos true, sure enough, for wen he wanted to make the acquaintance of any new-comer, he used to pull out a little limp card vith them words on it and nothin’ else; in consideration of vich, he vos alvays called Number Tventy.

‘The turnkey takes a fixed look at him, and at last he says in a solemn manner,

‘”Tventy,” he says, “I’ll trust you; you Won’t get your old friend into trouble.”

‘”No, my boy; I hope I’ve somethin’ better behind here,” says the little man; and as he said it he hit his little vesket wery hard, and then a tear started out o’ each eye, which wos wery extraordinary, for it wos supposed as water never touched his face. He shook the turnkey by the hand; out he vent—’

‘And never came back again,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Wrong for vunce, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘for back he come, two minits afore the time, a-bilin’ with rage, sayin’ how he’d been nearly run over by a hackney-coach that he warn’t used to it; and he was blowed if he wouldn’t write to the lord mayor. They got him pacified at last; and for five years arter that, he never even so much as peeped out o’ the lodge gate.’

‘At the expiration of that time he died, I suppose,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘No, he didn’t, Sir,’ replied Sam. ‘He got a curiosity to go and taste the beer at a new public-house over the way, and it wos such a wery nice parlour, that he took it into his head to go there every night, which he did for a long time, always comin’ back reg’lar about a quarter of an hour afore the gate shut, which was all wery snug and comfortable. At last he began to get so precious jolly, that he used to forget how the time vent, or care nothin’ at all about it, and he went on gettin’ later and later, till vun night his old friend wos just a-shuttin’ the gate—had turned the key in fact—wen he come up.

‘”Hold hard, Bill,” he says.

‘”Wot, ain’t you come home yet, Tventy?” says the turnkey, “I thought you wos in, long ago.”

‘”No, I wasn’t,” says the little man, with a smile.

‘”Well, then, I’ll tell you wot it is, my friend,” says the turnkey, openin’ the gate wery slow and sulky, “it’s my ‘pinion as you’ve got into bad company o’ late, which I’m wery sorry to see. Now, I don’t wish to do nothing harsh,” he says, “but if you can’t confine yourself to steady circles, and find your vay back at reg’lar hours, as sure as you’re a-standin’ there, I’ll shut you out altogether!”

‘The little man was seized vith a wiolent fit o’ tremblin’, and never vent outside the prison walls artervards!’

From The Pickwick Papers [1837] by Charles Dickens