“A row of screaming Russian dolls”: Escaping the Panopticon in David Mitchell’s number9dream


In 1786, Jeremy Bentham began a series of letters detailing a controversial prison structure. Printed in 1791, the preface opened with a hefty promise: “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened […] all by a simple idea in Architecture!” (31). Bentham’s ‘simple idea’ was the panopticon, a new architectural concept and principles aimed at reforming an outdated prison system. In his design, prisoners were separately housed in transparent cells around the outer ring of a circular prison, built around a central inspection tower. Allowing a perfect view of all inmates at all times, blinds at the windows of the tower made it impossible for prisoners to see when they were being watched. Run by a single inspector, it harnessed a powerful method of psychological control. Bentham’s letters emphasise “the most important point” of its design: inmates “should always feel themselves as if under inspection,” fostering constantly compliant behavior (43).

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