Literature and Law

HON 298 – Dr. Maryann Rossi

Modes of Inquiry: Textual Analysis, Historical, Social and Cultural Analysis

Course Description:

We live in a society of laws.  The American Revolution itself was both legal and political in its arguments.  Our society is steeped in English Common Law based upon traditional concepts of justice and precedents. We adhere to laws passed by legislatures.  As such our literature reflects our society.  As Americans we often equate right and wrong with legal and illegal.  They are not necessarily the same.  For instance in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare looks at the interpretation of contracts and at laws against Jewish participation in society.  Dreiser in American Tragedy looks at the effects of a materialistic culture and the decisions it helps to make. In a global society there are enormous cultural challenges. The ability to understand the various discourses and their relationships to one another, i.e. law, literature, art, human rights, helps to respond to these challenges. 

The University of Virginia Law School uses literature to make better lawyers.  Denise Forster of UVA stated, “For years, law professors have woven works of literature- novels, memoirs, short stories, essays- into classes and seminars to tell the stories of law.  Using these works professors and students dissect scenarios not otherwise encountered in traditional legal curricula.” 

Anne Coughlin, also of UVA law, states, “We’re bringing into the Law School a text that’s unconventional in the sense that it doesn’t purport to be doctrinal, it doesn’t purport to be written from the perspective of a legal academic or a legal practitioner.  But it does fill in the blanks.” 

All of the works of literature selected for this course have also been made into movies and we will take advantage of the added dimension and dramatic look provided by cinema. We will be able to compare and contrast the literature with the statements and interpretations being made in the movies.