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Pits, Pendulums, and Panopticons


Compose a short response to one of the two questions below. While you only need to respond to one of these questions on the blog, be prepared to discuss your thoughts about both questions in class.


QUESTION 1. Literary critic Jason Haslam insists that we should read “The Pit and Pendulum” in light of the emergence of new forms of incarceration taking shape in the nineteenth century. He observes that the American physician, Benjamin Rush, was especially interested in how prisons might mentally alter or reform inmates. Rush seized upon Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, which sought to train prisoners to discipline themselves in lieu of physical punishment or completely visible forms of surveillance. It was generally thought that these disciplinary models also could be applied generally to society to create order and cohesion among large populations. Haslam, however, suggests that Poe believes society must still rely on physical punishment. Haslam explains: “Poe's tale helps to highlight telling fractures in the shift in the discourse of punishment from bodily torture and public suffering to narratives of mental and ideological control. Ultimately, the spectacle of punishment remains a central cultural goal and tool of the prison even as the physical punishment itself is hidden behind the prison walls” (“Pits, Pendulums, and Penitentiaries: Reframing the Detained Subject” 269-70).

Do you agree with Haslam’s analysis? Is this story a commentary on the emergence of a new disciplinary society, or is it culturally significant in a different way?


QUESTION 2. In one of the most provocative readings of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Gita Rajan argues that we shouldn’t assume the narrator is a man. Reading it through the perspective of a female narrator, Rajan suggests the story is about a woman’s struggle to free herself from a male oppressor (e.g. Rajan views the heart as an embodiment of emotional abuse and the narrator’s obsession with his eye as the desire to castrate him). As Rajan acknowledges, however, a woman in the mid-nineteenth century can never truly escape male dominance, so the female narrator is invariably taken into the custody of the police. Is there any merit to Rajan’s reading (or parts of it)? How important is the gender of the narrator to the rest of the story?


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