This essay asks not how literature imagines the death penalty, but how it doesn't—and what this narrative resistance can tell us about our culture's relationship to capital punishment. With the abolition of public executions in England in 1868 (and the last public execution in the United States in 1930), the public had to imagine, rather than witness directly, the death sentences carried out by its government. This essay argues that, in fact, the public did not imagine such concealed violence—that instead, one witnesses a narrative turn away from direct representation of the death penalty. Tracing this suppression, it proposes that the euphemistic, elided language that comes to describe executions constitutes the birth of a cultural secret. In positing the secret not simply as a theme in literature but as a literary form, the essay shows how it shapes two works that both evoke and avoid the death penalty: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Albert Camus' The Stranger. The desire to witness expressed in these narratives finds its legal iteration in lawsuits brought by journalists seeking to televise executions—petitions that courts have routinely rejected. A close look at the stakes of such cases reveals a shift from the language of desire to that of rights, as well as courts' unswerving trust in the ability of representation to fully transmit a political reality.
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Ravit Pe'er-Lamo Reichman; Open Secrets, or The Postscript of Capital Punishment. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 July 2008; 107 (3): 547–570. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2008-006
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