“Reading as if for life”: Law and literature is more important than ever

Published date29 February 2008
Date29 February 2008
AuthorTeresa Godwin Phelps
Teresa Godwin Phelps
Over the past few decades, the law and literature movement has
fragmented, expanded, and evolved to include fields as diverse as
hermeneutics and narrative theory. This chapter discusses the develop-
ments in and contributions of these two strains of the law and literature
movement and argues that each respectively provides us with important
ways of seeing acts of interpretation and the use of stories in the legal
culture. Hermeneutics provides an understanding of the phenomenon of
interpretation that avoids the trap of choosing originalism or postmodern-
ism as the accepted method of interpreting legal texts. Narrative theory
provides tools for understanding and critiquing the burgeoning use of
stories in the law.
Early in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, David, trapped in the
‘‘gloomy theology of the Murdstones [which] made all children out to be a
swarm of little vipers,’’ and which, not surprisingly, made David’s life
Special Issue: Law and Literature Reconsidered
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 43, 133–152
Copyright r2008 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(07)00606-0
miserable, finds some solace in his late father’s small library. ‘‘From that
blessed room,’’ David (as Dickens’ first person narrator) relates,
Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of
Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to
keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that
place and time y. This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the
picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in
the churchyard, and I, sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. (Charles Dickens,
1981, pp. 51–52)
‘‘The gloomy theology of the Murdstones,’’ alas, has reappeared, if indeed it
ever went away. And like David we may seek solace, and useful insights, in
literature. In the legal culture, in particular, the insights of the law and
literature movement have become more important than ever, offering
indispensable counterpoints to some of law’s gloomy ‘‘theologies.’’ Each of
us, unhappily, could choose a particular favorite from among the many
absolutisms (theologies) that characterize the legal community of the early
twenty-first century. In this chapter, I focus on two that I find particularly
troubling: first, sanctimonious pronouncements about the nature of ‘‘The
Law’’ and its interpretation and, second, ongoing, unspeakable, human
rights violations, often perpetrated within the confines of the law. What we
Americans have learned in the past few years, if we did not learn it from the
terrible history of the Holocaust, is that the law can justify anything. Seen as
abstract philosophical discourse divorced from the realities of life, the law
and its interpretation can be manipulated at will. It can justify extermina-
tions, disappearances, and torture.
So what has literature to do with this? How can literature possibly offer a
remedy to the malignities of the current legal culture? The law and literature
discipline to which I was introduced as a fledgling legal academic several
decades ago was largely constructed of looking at lawyer characters in
works of literature: the nobility of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird,
the tricky advocacy of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, the problematic
ethics of multiple lawyers in the stories of Louis Auchincloss. Left at that,
the discipline would have remained merely a piece of fluff in the law school
curriculum – a welcome break for former English majors who were tired of
reading cases. But legal scholars did not leave it at that. Instead, the
discipline deepened and fragmented into what is really a series of related
disciplines: fields as diverse as legal hermeneutics, narrative theory, and
linguistics. The developments in the law and literature movement over the
past few decades have been stunning in their complexity, their originality,
and their imaginative transfer of the many tools of the literary enterprise

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