The idea that struck me as most horrifying in Dickens’ “A Visit to Newgate” is the physical, moral, and mental decay of the innocent in society. In a time where millions worked in menial jobs in order to buy scraps of bread, hunger and desperation were the norm. All of the factories and coal mines developed to ease the lives of the wealthy promoted cheap labor and long hours for the poor. In addition to malnutrition, many young children developed rickets because they had no exposure to sunlight in the working world. The fact that these children turned to thievery and violence in order to assuage their hunger and pay the rent cannot be surprising.
And yet, society punished these children alongside the worst of offenders. In addition, the children who were left free were perhaps less lucky than those incarcerated. For example, Dickens writes,
In one corner of this singular-looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue, in earnest conversation with a young girl—a prisoner, of course—of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the old woman. The girl was a good-looking, robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind— for she had no bonnet on—and a man’s silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders. The old woman was talking in that low, stifled tone of voice which tells so forcibly of mental anguish; and every now and then burst into an irrepressible sharp, abrupt cry of grief, the most distressing sound that ears can hear. The girl was perfectly unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she listened doggedly to her mother’s entreaties, whatever they were. (page 3)
This passage seems to suggest the girl in Newgate is in better condition than her mother. Physically, she is fed daily, gets adequate rest, and lives free of industrialized labor. Emotionally, she is hardened by her experiences—we do not know whether it is her time in jail or her life before prison that changed her. Her mother, however, is physically and emotionally falling apart. She continues to feel the strain of dealing with her role in society. The image of this woman is echoed in a young girl who visits her mother in prison. Dickens describes her lack of emotion in a manner similar to that of the girl already in prison.
The girl was thinly clad, and shaking with the cold. Some ordinary word of recognition passed between her and her mother when she appeared at the grating, but neither hope, condolence, regret, nor affection was expressed on either side. The mother whispered her instructions, and the girl received them with her pinched-up, half-starved features twisted into an expression of careful cunning. (page 4)
This child not only shows evidence of emotional damage, but she suffers physically as well. Whether this girl will become like the old woman or the girl in prison is unclear. What is obvious is that in the industrial society Dickens describes, ending up in prison is not the worst fate a child can suffer. If anything, this work ought to make readers question whether or not they want to live in a society where prison may be the best option for a child. Would you be comfortable knowing your child’s best option would be a life in prison?