Amidst the pages of Chester Himes’ fraught text Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the experience of constant surveillance is not only conveyed through the descriptions of carceral space, but its reach extends to and permeates the interior life of protagonist Jimmy Munroe. His first night within a Midwestern penitentiary, Jimmy is understandably afraid and disoriented, yet he aims to control his physical and external reactions, for he repeatedly finds himself watched and scrutinized by other inmates. The awareness and perception of being monitored incessantly and assessed by other incarcerated individuals is readily established within the novels first pages, as Jimmy is processing his fear and anxiety and discovers that the “red-headed conflict is still standing there, looking at him queerly” (26). This encounter, that which marks the first acquaintanceship to appear within the novel, largely establishes the tone for the whole of the narrative.
What is most palpably articulated within this moment is the imperative to remain ever vigilant while also attempting to preserve some semblance of an interior life. The challenge arises when Jimmy’s interior life, which is always already observed, is manifested externally and is thereby made subject to the surveillance of the institution and its inmates. “There are many hazards in prison, but none greater than the hazard of friendship,” remarks the narrator, punctuating the manner in which fellow inmate Walter was transferred away from Jimmy just as the two had developed a “growing affection for one another,” (44). Here, the extension of the closeness and intimacy with another from his interior to exterior life becomes subject to the institution and fellow inmates alike, resulting in their immediate separation. Though immediate action is only taken when the musings and feelings of his interior life is made manifest externally, this action demonstrates to both Jimmy and the reader that his interior life is as incarcerated as he is.
The experience of having an ally, friend, or partner “hacked off” from him is not limited to this event, as it is repeated when Jimmy develops affection for the manipulative Lively and the effusive Rico. The former results in the transferring of Lively to another cellblock, which is precipitated by the revelation of a note slipped to Lively from Jimmy via Blocker. The contents of the note, a physical (and exterior) manifestation of Jimmy’s interior life, are discovered and shared by other inmates, further demonstrating the compounding surveillance of the carceral experience. Similarly, Jimmy’s relationship with Rico, though more requited, is subject to the same scrutiny when it is made known to other inmates as well as prison staff. What ultimately grants Jimmy reprieve from the immediately felt consequences of this surveillance is knowing that he will soon be leaving prison. It is with his departure that he is able to restore some semblance of privacy to his interior life.