Crime, Punishment, and the Body in Eighteenth-Century Literature

by Claire Porter

Western civilization underwent a complete shift in its understanding of crime and punishment in the eighteenth century, culminating in the Penitentiary Act of 1779. There were many elements in this shift, including the transition from orthodox belief to enlightenment ideology, from public to private treatment of criminals, and ultimately from definite to abstract punishment. Due to this transitory nature of penal reform, the sources considered for this essay exhibit considerable contradiction and irony. Philosophers De Beaumont and De Tocqueville provide empirical evidence for these contradictions and outline the predominant elements of reform to be discussed in this paper—isolation and labor. Situating the body in regards to punishment, crime and identity in the eighteenth century can be understood by examining the manifestations of these contradictions within literature. Daniel Defoe’s simultaneity of liminal prison and penal reform and Gay’s redirection of crime as a business are both literary representations of crime that resonate with and confront the empirical penitentiary texts, bringing their contradictions to consciousness. The relevant theories of moral philosophers and the epistemology of the penitentiary can be teamed with the semi-fictional representations of crime and punishment in order to illustrate the inconsistencies of this reform, as well as draw interesting comparisons between the literature and theoretical advances.

Daniel Defoe’s simultaneity of liminal prison and penal reform and Gay’s redirection of crime as a business are both literary representations of crime that resonate with and confront the empirical penitentiary texts, bringing their contradictions to consciousness.

On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France is the primary empirical text for the following analysis, as its interest is in the pragmatics of penal reform. This discourse surrounds the argument that if idleness is defined as the cause of crime, then labor is the cure for it. The question of why these aspects of prison reform do not resonate in popular criminal literature is the subject that will be explored. Philosopher Gustave De Beaumont and prison reformer Alexis De Tocqueville indulge in a lengthy interviewing process with the prisoners of the Eastern State Penitentiary, entitled: Inquiry into the Penitentiary of Philadelphia (1831). Their recordings through this process are synonymous, as the results show a common thread of outcome from convict to convict; it can be assumed that there is a general consensus among the effects of the system on the bodies and souls of the individuals. An appreciation for solitude and a need for labor are the two most significant findings, and the authors suggest that these elements of the penitentiary cannot be separated lest the convict lose his mind or the system prove ineffectual: “Yet whatever may be the crime of the guilty prisoner, no one has the right to take life from him, if society decree merely to deprive him of liberty. Such, however, would be the result of absolute solitude, if no alleviation of its rigours were offered” (De Beaumont and De Tocqueville 22). It is interesting to note that this is the opposite of the workings of society, in which physical rest would be considered the alleviation of the rigors of work. The administrators of the Auburn prison system, a New York facility that in the nineteenth century stressed group work alongside solitary confinement, believed that the reformed prison should reflect society, and in fact be a “microcosm” (Foucault 238) of it. The individual body, in this case, is placed within an “optic of imprisonment” (Kelly and Muche 328) that reflects the social constructs of society. This contradicts itself when labor is understood through these interviews.

The Penitentiary Act of 1779 instituted punishment as more of a “metaphysical construct” (Darby 617), with the soul being imprisoned by the body, which, naturally, only death could free. From a religious point of view, the concept of labor as a tool for reforming the criminal came from the belief that the biblical Adam was himself a criminal, emblematic of the source of man’s sinful nature: “Standard eighteenth-century theology saw Adam as a criminal and God’s response to him as a sentence and condemnation. The concept of redemption through labour was thus a Biblical concept reinterpreted by the Georgians” (Darby 618). Already there is this implicit contradiction at work within the role of labor. From the more secular, or enlightenment point of view, labor is an alleviation of pain granted by the mercy of the penal system. However, from a sacred, or orthodox view, the institution of labor is seen as a form of punishment itself, more so than just an exercise. These seem to be ideas that are too conflicting to coexist, but nonetheless, labor is essential to the reformatory.

Labor, in the secular sense, according to De Beaumont and De Tocqueville, is necessary even if the convict gains no solace from it:

This is the reason why labour is introduced into the prison. Far from being an aggravation of the punishment, it is a real benefit to the prisoner. But even if the criminal did not find in it a relief from his sufferings, it nevertheless would be necessary to force him to it. It is idleness which has led him to crime; with employment he will learn how to live honestly. (22)

This definitive statement elucidates the understanding of the condition of the convict. It promulgates employment to be the equivalent of honest living and idleness to equate to crime. It would seem that this idea is gender specific. Considering the social understanding of domesticity at the time, the classification of women within penal reform only grows more complicated. The purpose of this paper is not to vouch for equal rights, but it is important to mention this interesting contradiction regarding women in order to better understand the treatment of crime and punishment in Defoe. De Beaumont and De Tocqueville do not provide many facts regarding the treatment of female criminals, but it can be assumed that the use of labor as a reformative tool is equally distributed. There exists an essentially egalitarian view of punishment and reform within the penitentiary. It is a surprisingly democratic system in which the same treatment extends to all races and genders. If the prison is a microcosm of society, then it ironically seems to be a more progressive version in this way.

The aforementioned quote is also undermined within the same section of the text, transforming the idea of labor slightly, but transforming it nonetheless: “As solitude is in no other prison more complete than in Philadelphia, nowhere, also, is the necessity of labour more urgent. At the same time, it would be inaccurate to say, that in Philadelphia, penitentiary labour is imposed; we may say with more justice that the favour of labour is granted” (De Beaumont and De Tocqueville 22). Here the authors are suggesting that labor is voluntary on the prisoner’s part, though the authors mention previously that it is also forced. This contradiction muddles the role of labor because in one case it represents a sense of power over the criminal and shows the hierarchy of the prison to be harsh and relentless; in the other, autonomy of the criminal seems to be an important principle. Both cannot coexist in a prison society in which structure and predictability is key, and so a justification of this forced labor is given:

When we visited this penitentiary, we successively conversed with all its inmates. There was not a single one among them who did not speak of labour with a kind of gratitude, and who did not express the idea that without the relief of constant occupation, life would be insufferable. (De Beaumont and De Tocqueville 22)

Therefore, because labor is necessary for relief of solitude, this principle is used to blanket the role of authority involved to include the autonomy of the prisoner:  a rather confused conclusion.

To further examine the use of labor for reform purposes, the motivations behind learning a trade can be seen as twofold: facilitating the integration of the convict back into society and providing the convict an opportunity to contribute to the economy. This concept undermines the idea that the skill or labor pertains to the convict’s own preference and adds a manipulative edge to an idea that was understood as an entirely humanitarian endeavor:

Labour is not only salutary because it is the opposite of idleness; but it is also contemplated that the convict, whilst he is at work, shall learn a business which may support him when he leaves the prison…The prisoners therefore, are taught useful trades only; and among these, care is taken to choose such as are the most profitable, and the produce of which finds the easiest sale. (De Beaumont and De Tocqueville 34)

…the concept of labor as a tool for reforming the criminal came from the belief that the biblical Adam was himself a criminal, emblematic of the source of man’s sinful nature.

This closefisted attestation to the economy of the penitentiary purports the idea of the laboring criminal to be not only involuntary, but also contrived. The fixed discipline makes it physically impossible for the prisoner to act any differently. It can be considered that this economic benefit might occasionally outweigh the significance of labor as subjective to the prisoner, contradicting the role of labor as an individualized reforming tool.

These ironies of the penitentiary are more subtle than the ironies of public punishment, as the form of punishment itself is more abstract. Punishment is seen as both a humanitarian pursuit as well as a dehumanizing practice. The difference is between the perception and the reality: “…the penitentiary has most often been understood as one of the great enlightenment reforms, a humanitarian endeavour that replaced the gore and spectacle of public mutilation with a more rational, benevolent discipline” (Smith 28).  On the other hand: “To prisoners and others more suspicious of the penitentiary’s designs, however, the gothic monstrosities of its interiors have sometimes seemed to destabilize the very foundations of sentimental humanity” (Smith 29). These conflicting views show the contradicting thought surrounding the process of penal reform to be that of the perception of humanity itself. It is either improving humanity, or destroying it, but there does not seem to be a middle ground.

There are also contradicting representations of idleness in the body of the individual convict. It is unclear which holds more weight: idleness of spirit or idleness of body. Though both may seem inseparable, or at least one in consequence of the other, they must be separate sources of corruption altogether, for according to these reformers the body and soul are separable, and even opposite as Smith suggests:

In the literature and critical scholarship of the American prison, then, we confront two starkly opposed figures: a reflecting, self-governing soul and a cadaverous, dehumanized body. Each is fundamental to the carceral imagination of the past two centuries, yet the two seem almost irreconcilable. (5)

This leads us to the understanding of the self within the individual prisoner, as he now has two representations of himself to discipline: his carceral body and his spiritual soul, whichever be the source of corruption. The only way to discipline both aspects of the criminal, and resolve this conflict, is to tame the antagonizing part of the self. This contradicting and counter-productive self “lives in a state of painful conflict, and it imagines that peace will come only when one side of the self, or ‘Consciousness,’ is subdued by the other” (Smith 3). The enlightenment principles of penal reform are optimistic in nature and assume the mental strength of the criminal to naturally react to this system by controlling his own consciousness; however (and this is where orthodox views of the natural state of man are subsumed), it is instead the prison that “dominates by subjugating the consciousness of the prisoner” (Smith 4). The external power of the prison creates the internal reform, not simply the inner reflection of the prisoner on his abhorrent past. In this unification of the subjective criminal’s secular and sacred selves, both enlightenment and orthodox beliefs about the body can coexist, and the virtual rebirthing process of the criminal can begin.

The concept of virtual death and rebirth is an important element of penal reform that shows up explicitly in empirical texts, and more subtly in fictional ones. According to Smith, the “poetics of the penitentiary—developed by reformers, theorists, and literary artists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—were organized around a narrative of rebirth, and that the narrative required, as a precondition, the convict’s virtual death” (6). In less dramatizing words, this concept was worked out symbolically through isolation and labor. Isolation created a sense of lost identity and lost rights, in a tomb-like existence, in which the convict is able to reflect on his sin without interruption. Labor, then, was conceptualized as the means of regaining this identity and starting over with the assurance of “a glorious return to citizenship and humanity” (Smith, 6), in which the body became cadaverous, but the soul was reanimated. From here the conflict of orthodoxy and enlightenment can be examined through literature.

From a literary view, Defoe and Gay both bring up some of the key contradictions within this discourse of penal reform but also the current understanding of the body in both sacred and secular ideas. Both authors embody these contradictions and demonstrate how coexistence of both the principles of orthodoxy and enlightenment thought can be perceived. As the authors De Beaumont and De Tocqueville both outline, in the Eastern State Penitentiary, the institution that represents the zenith of enlightenment reform both physical and spiritual, isolation and labor are the key ingredients to a successful reform process. Labor is the ultimate alleviation of misery within the system of isolation, and the men claim to be unable to survive without it. This appears to be purely physical labor, which the authors De Beaumont and De Tocqueville claim to be the primary tool for curing idleness, the source of corruption in all convicts:

Perhaps leaving the prison he is not an honest man; but he has contracted honest habits. He was an idler; now he knows how to work. His ignorance prevented him from pursuing a useful occupation; now he knows how to read and to write; and the trade which he has learnt in prison, furnishes him the means of existence which formerly he had not. (59)

The concept of virtual death and rebirth is an important element of penal reform that shows up explicitly in empirical texts, and more subtly in fictional ones.

This conclusion purports a broad spectrum of assumptions about criminals. It assumes not only that their ignorance has lead them to crime, but also that their ignorance is a willful choice.  In other words, convicts have chosen idleness over pursuing an education. It also suggests that this idleness is partly that of the mind, but more directly connected with the body. It is more of a bodily laziness informed by a lack of interest of the individual. It seems that De Beaumont and De Tocqueville see physical idleness as the root of the problem, a more secular approach than Defoe presents.

However, this leaves out a continuum of criminals that are intelligent, and choose to commit crimes simply because it is convenient or thrilling. In Moll Flanders, Moll chooses not to be employed, but to experience something more important than working: the life of a gentlewoman. Indeed, Moll does not know that she is foreseeing her life as a criminal through this early desire, but it is important that she does not prefer mediocrity. Moll does not fit into the category of criminals outlined by the authors, and so challenges the stereotype of the criminal in their argument. According to Bender: “Moll describes death in prison as a death of her old self…in terms of the old psychological category of acedia, the sin of spiritual sloth…” (45). Here, idleness is considered purely existential, and not simply physical laziness, which adds another element to the reformatory. Defoe’s process of penal reform suggests Moll’s problem is in her spiritual idleness. Once truly repentant in her soul of her materialistic mindset, her old self, she can experience new life.

Moll’s experience in prison raises many questions about penal reform and the possibilities of self-willed reformation of the criminal, challenging the actual constructs of the penitentiary and assuming the possibility of arbitrary reform. Her body becomes somehow repressed in prison. She experiences reform of her soul, though her body had become a trained vessel for sin. It seems impossible in light of the penitentiary system that she should be able to undergo such reform without a tempering of the flesh, raising either the question of her true reform or the validity of the penitentiary.

Moll’s emblematic death parallels the ideals of the penitentiary: “I degenerated into stone; I turn’d first stupid and senseless, then brutish and thoughtless, and at last raving mad as any of them were; and in short, I became as naturally pleas’d and easie with the place, as if indeed I had been Born there” (Defoe 279). This characterization resembles the symbolic death that our philosophers consider integral to the process of reform, and indeed, for Moll, it is the first step towards her “glorious rebirth”: “Moll appears to be undergoing a symbolic rebirth that displaces her sense of first origins. Next should come either death or new social replacement” (Bender 46). The only difference between the fictional Moll and the convicts in a penitentiary is Moll has no idea that she will be saved, and she has no hope of rebirth. It seems that these must be universal sentiments upon entrance to prison, for the prisoners interviewed by De Beaumont and De Tocqueville share a similar sentiment of hopelessness: “at first, he said, solitude was insufferable” (190). While Moll’s regeneration process is due to orthodox views of original sin, God’s mercy, and penitence provoked by an ordinary,[1]her rebirth is not of spiritual renewal, but of physical freedom and financial success.

Gay’s depiction of crime as a business in The Beggar’s Opera, and Macheath’s imprisonment and arbitrary redemption also participate in this reformist discourse. Though not the primary intent of his satire, Gay participates in a reformist discourse as well that displays similar sentiments as Defoe, but with a more dichotomous view of criminals and crime, and liminal and penitentiary discourse. The liminal imprisonment displayed by Newgate shows prison to be a place of paradox and not just a place of marginality. It equates the low and high classes, giving a sense of symmetry between crime and virtue. The opening lines in Act I of the Beggar’s opera shows this:

Through all the employments of life
Each neighbour abuses his brother;
Whore and rogue they call husband and wife:
All professions be-rogue on another.
The priest calls the lawyer a cheat,
The lawyer be-knaves the divine;
And the statesman, because he’s so great,
Thinks his trade as honest as mine. (Gay 43)

Here is the idea that, like Moll, these criminals are not idle, and their crime is in fact a business. According to Bender, Gay “sets reformist thought in motion by subjecting the old prisons and the social order they symbolized to a scrutiny that brings their character to consciousness” (88).

Macheath’s arbitrary release from Newgate parallels Moll’s release and challenges the assumed redemptive quality of the penitentiary system. While headed toward the death penalty, both characters experience a sudden reprieve that is both undeserved, and in Macheath’s case, undesirable. Macheath is ironically redeemed, yet returned to his life of crime. Moll is also redeemed due to her penitent nature, but she goes on to live vaguely corrupt life. Macheath does not even desire redemption, for he would rather be hanged than deal with his wives; but the player insists that Macheath be released if the audience is to be pleased. The ironic ending of Gay’s play is different from Defoe’s, as Macheath is rewarded for his participation in the business of crime. Though his employment was criminal, his reprieve seems to alleviate his criminal dealings, suggesting that villainy was synonymous with other forms of work, as Mr. Peachum suggests at the beginning of the play. It is interesting that Macheath was penitent, but unlike Moll, he is ready and willing to meet his end when he was suddenly reprieved.

Moll does not fit into the category of criminals outlined by the authors, and so challenges the stereotype of the criminal in their argument.

This juxtaposition of orthodox views of mercy with secular views of inner reform suggests an abstract, causal punishment. The arbitrariness of the old system’s exterior is intermingled with this internal, emblematic, penitentiary-like reform. The ending of the play is both representative of the old system and the new: “But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow, / The wretch of today, may be happy tomorrow” (Gay 122). This rhyme simultaneously challenges and embraces enlightenment ideology, presenting both a preview and an antithesis of penal reform. The “may” seems to be giving permission to the wretch to experience this kind of freedom, as the penitentiary instills the hope of a glorious rebirth, while suggesting that it may also be an arbitrary circumstance that allows the wretch to be “happy tomorrow.”

Although these findings result in seemingly disjointed sentiments, these contradictions imply that the crossover from orthodox beliefs about the body and soul (the old system) to the more secular beliefs of the Enlightenment (the new system) create a paradigm that is yet unresolved when the penitentiary becomes an institution. These literary representations make the contradictions surrounding the specific principles of penal reform into generic principles that inform the identity of both the individual and society.

Works Cited

Bender, John B. Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-century England. University of Chicago, 1987.

Darby, N. “A Protestant Purgatory: Theological Origins of the Penitentiary Act, 1779 – by Laurie Throness.” Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 35, no. 4, 2012, pp. 617-18. EBSCOhost,

De Beaumont, Gustave, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Francis Lieber. On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and Its Application in France: with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes. Philadelphia, Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833.

Defoe, Daniel, and Paul A. Scanlon. Moll Flanders. Broadview, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Pantheon, 1977.

Gay, John, Bryan Loughrey, and T. O. Treadwell. The Beggar’s Opera. Penguin, 1986.

Kelly, Veronica, and Dorothea E. Von. Muche. Body and Text in the 18th Century. Stanford UP, 1994.


[1] An ordinary—defined in terms of eighteenth-century judge or probate that might visit a criminal in attempts to reform through penitence.

Claire Porter is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program .