After endeavoring for ninety-odd pages to interest myself in the pious lives of George, William, Susan, Eden and the devilish ways (in varying degrees of strategy, treachery, and cruelty) of Levi, Meadows and Crawley I was delighted and relieved to return, in chapter ten, to the only character I had up to that point felt any sort of camaraderie with, the cheeky good-hearted criminal Tom Robinson. Imagine my dismay, therefore, when it became evident that my man Tom was doomed to a much worse fate than living out a life of unspeakable dullness like his fellow characters (although, come to think of it, that is part and parcel of the prison punishment). The prison narrative, comprised of Tom Robinson’s experiences and observations while in Newgate Prison (as well as the transplanted clergyman Eden’s impressions), make up the better part of the next one hundred pages. Though Robinson is far and away my favorite character I had to wonder what purpose his narrative served in a story deemed by the narrator to fall into the category of “matter-of-fact romance” (98). Furthermore, what could Reade have gained by spending a hefty chunk of his novel’s beginning in introducing a plot and characters that would then take a back seat to a seemingly unrelated Shawshank focus at the tenth chapter? Perhaps this abrupt departure from the comparatively idyllic setting of Grassmere and The Grove into the sterilized walls and fixtures of Newgate is meant to shock readers into reform (similar to the bucket of water’s desired effect on Josephs No. 15 ) and I believe it is the reader’s task to ascertain whether or not this narrative break is effective in achieving this aim.
In Charles Dickens’, “The Great Penal Experiments” he describes the disparities in prison systems in London, referencing both the near opulence of Pentonville prison and the utter squalor of Smithfield prison, the two institutions Dickens says though just two miles apart are “antipodes” in every way (252). For Dickens, it is this inconsistency in prison life that is to blame for the stagnant state of criminality in London rather than the individual deficiencies of these two institutions. In Reade’s novel, the two existing strains of narrative function in much the same way-they stagnate the text’s effect on the reader. Moving focus from the petty romantic concerns of Susan and her paramours to the bodily torture being inflicted upon Tom and his fellow prisoners is too much of a narrative disparity for the narrative to function effectively as a whole.
The prisoners of Newgate belong to a prison system like the one Dickens describes, broken and inefficient, prone to dole out punishments disproportionate to the crime. The description of the treatment of the prisoners, led by Hawes and his acolytes, the incomprehension and cruelty of the Justices, and the incompetence of well-meaning men like the Mr. Jones is grounds aplenty for Reade to make a case for reform of the prison system that would naturally coincide with the intended reformation of the prisoners incarcerated there, however, the organizational placement of this concern makes it less effective than it could be. If we were to get glimpses of the prison narrative spliced within the descriptions of the evil Mr. Meadows’ endless scheming than I believe it would be easier for the reader to draw parallels between wrong-doers (namely men in power who outwardly appear moral, I’m looking at you Hawes et Meadows), as well as parallels between the injustices taking place in the narrative. Would we pity Robinson’s plight more if we had his narrative of pain and want coming on the end of the crotchety old Giles’ realization of his blessings and good luck? I believe we would. I think it is obvious that Reade wants to pick up Dickens’ exhortation to reform a flawed penal system, perhaps even as Dickens advises through the implementation of national education, however Reade’s narrative structure does not suggest an emphasis on prison reform or even character reform because it is too fragmented to make a cohesive statement, or at least as of yet (253).
Dickens, Charles. “The Great Penal Experiments.” Household Words.1.11 (1850):250-253. ProQuest. Web.
Reade, Charles. It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Miami: HardPress, n.d. Print