Justice AK Sikri
Justice AK Sikri

The inexplicable yet unavoidable relationship between Law and Literature [Part II]

The piece focuses on the relationship between law and literature.

AK Sikri

Words are simple, they are like notes making up the music, it’s their arrangement that leads to a novel complexity, to a symphony, their arrangement that makes a piece of literature, their arrangement that composes a judgment.

There would be notions albeit a few which share a unique relationship. These notions being independent of each other, fill up a void in the other, complement the other or form such a part that they are interlinked deriving a rather distinctive value from the other, one such relationship is shared by law and literature. It is words and their interpretation that make up the real and as well as the fiction - with the Law on the one hand; defining our rights, punishing our misdeeds, rewarding us damages and literature on the other; creating characters, describing their lives and taking us on the journey with the protagonist all the while making us live vicariously.

Whether it’s our Constitution carefully inked by the constituent assembly, the multiple statutes drafted by our lawgivers, the articulate arguments of our lawyers creating a story in the minds of the listeners and the reasoned judgments or orders of the adjudicator, all embrace a substantial literary aspect that is hard to ignore. Similarly, literary works contain characteristics of law in some form or the other, even in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, primogeniture was the entire pivot on which the ideas of “love” revolved.

There is an overlay between these two genres that forms an incomparable correlation dovetailed by the significance of rhetoric.[1] In this article I shall endeavour to explore the various facets of this relation, it’s significance in reaching the depths of law, appreciating the peculiar conditions that prevail in our society, how quixotically they may be dealt with in literature and realistically they are presently being confronted with in law and primarily I am going to highlight the well-structured judgments that seek the help of literature to support further rationalisation in addition to arousing empathy in the minds of the readers whether they are lawyers or laymen.

For the purpose of understanding this concept with all its intricacies, I intend to deal the connect between Law and Literature in three dimensions: (1) Law – AS – Literature; (2) Law – IN – Literature; and (3) Law – ON – Literature.[2]

Law - IN - Literature – ‘Legalism’ at the heart of literature

Law and literature is considered by many to be nothing more than an apposite word play contrived to create a certain image or interpretation in the minds of the readers/listeners. Law is a manifestation of the will of the people as well as their interests and it is aimed at governing them. It is a reflection of our social norms, beliefs, and customs.

Works of literature are inspired by these aspects while delving into the illimitable reaches of the human experiences. Both are motivated by and aim to address societal issues, and this is the similarity that underlies these two seemingly contrasting notions. A majority of literary texts deal with law or highlight legal aspects and a number of authors are former or practising lawyers. These reasons add to the growing and budding relationship between these two genres.

Literature becomes the medium of conveying not only good aspects of law but also (in fact more often) exposing the loopholes and weaknesses of law. It also becomes the narrative of justice as well as injustice by the courts in particular cases. Literature, at times (willingly or unwillingly), brings about the issues of law and morality in a story form stating how strict applicability of law proved to be unethical or was against the conscience of the society.

In this way, literature plays important role in bringing law reforms. While it is believed by many that from reading and understanding works of literature one can learn a lot of jurisprudence, it is also believed by others that literature only presents a distorted picture of the law[3].

This relationship isn’t a new one and can be traced back to the time where the sole purpose of the protagonist was to seek revenge and this is considered by Richard Posner[4] to be the reason why we have a legal framework[5]. Whether it is Sophocles, Homer or Shakespeare – ‘revenge’ has been the central theme touching on ancillary legal aspects. Sophocles, in his famous play ‘Antigone’ made a distinction between human law and the divine law wherein there was a clash between the divine justice on the one hand and the will of the head of the state on the other.

The Shakespearean courts also dealt with issues encompassing certain legal tones. The storyline regarding the pound of flesh in Merchant of Venice[6] is often thought by many to be an example of ‘specific performance’. The dominant premise in ‘King Lear'[7] is the variance between ‘man’s law’ and ‘natural law’, the natural law is regarded as being tantamount to morality; a conflict that prevails in legal systems, even today around the world. People are familiar with Dostoevsky’s celebrated ‘Crime and Punishment’ which has received world-wide acclaim, though it is not a book that deals with the law in the way Kafka’s ‘the Trial’ does, yet as the title of the book suggests, the book provides a semblance of criminal law, though the protagonist’s conviction was a result of his consciousness rather than the law.

Kafka’s ‘the Trial’
Kafka’s ‘the Trial’

While Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ involves a higher level of ‘legalism’ as the story follows a ‘legal figure’ reminding us about our treasured basic rights, it is the trial of Tom Robinson[8] that converted the happenings of a courtroom and the arguments of lawyers to words on the pages, inked and bound. A literary story that is considered by many to be a pivotal point in establishing this relationship between the law and literature, is the satirical piece by Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’ which followed a law suit and brought out the loopholes in the legal system by employing literary ingenuity topped by tongue-in-cheek humour.

Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’
Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’

A number of popular fiction writers whether its Sydney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Jeffery Deaver among many others, deal with law which is the inevitable consequence in any plot, as a number of stories are thrillers involving the commission of a crime, followed by the role of the story’s judicial system and the triumph of the hero.

While there is a relationship between these two subjects, it is on a general level. The literature doesn’t take into its fold the technicalities of the law for that is not its purpose. The law like a number of other subjects for instance, politics, economics, history etc acts like the muse for the author as the literary works draw inspiration from these themes that form a society.

“Great literature is universal and general and survives on general themes and law is one of them”[9] It is these general aspects that one would find in literature void of any specific and definite details. For literature encompassing legal elements is not a lawyer’s[10] law but a layman’s law. Notwithstanding, at times, literature serves social purpose.

The author is AK Sikri, an International Judge, Singapore International Commercial Court and a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. Views expressed are personal.

[1] Richard Posner Law and Literature 3rd Edition

[2] Robert Weisberg, in his article “The Law-Literature Enterprise” divided the relationship as (1) law in literature and (2) law as literature.

[3] Richard Posner: The Law and the Literature

[4] Supra 4

[5] Robert Weisberg

[6] Shakespeare and the Law

[7] Supra 20

[8] To Kill a Mockingbird

[9] Robert Weisberg

[10] Terry Eagleton Criticism and Ideology 164 (1976)

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news