As any great lawyer or law professor will tell you, studying law is as much about the heart as it is about the mind. For years, law professors have woven works of literature into classes and seminars to tell the human stories behind each case. These stories provide the emotional complexity sometimes missing from contracts and statutes. Novels, poems, and plays can offer insights not only into legal concepts, but also into political values, cultural mores, and the psychology of criminals, victims, and prisoners.
Below are ten great works of literature guaranteed to make you think about the role the law plays in the human condition.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Atticus Finch is the paragon of the noble attorney. The trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, is the focal point of the story, and civil rights and liberties are a central theme. It is safe to say that there are more than a few lawyers whose reading of this short novel determined the course of their careers.
2. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Considered canonical in the law and literature movement, Bleak House is a biting satire of bench and bar, organized around the lawsuit of “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce” in the Court of Chancery. Dickens employs all his literary tricks to denounce the legal system for its corruption and decay, but he does so optimistically, in the hope that each generation will improve on its failings and take one step closer to justice.
3. The Trial, by Franz Kafka
What if the basic legal rights we take for granted–a speedy and public trial, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, knowing the nature and cause of an accusation–were reversed? From its opening sentence, The Trial portrays just such a world, a judicial system turned terrifyingly on its head: “Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”
4. Billy Budd, Sailor, by Herman Melville
The law is almost never black and white, and this classic text about the Indomitable, a warship in the British Navy (and a microcosm of political society), masterfully explores the gray areas of morality. In well under a hundred pages, Melville raises the fundamental questions in the philosophy of law, beginning with: What happens when the good guy becomes the criminal?
5. The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato
In one of history’s most famous trials, Socrates plays both defendant and defense attorney in a case for his life. This book is a compilation of four of Plato’s greatest dialogues and, in addition to being an excellent introduction to Western philosophy, is one of the most moving stories in literature.
6. The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
Pitting justice against mercy, the Bard dazzlingly analyzes the subtleties of law. In the process, he creates one of his most interesting and memorable villains, the moneylender Shylock, who is intent on carrying out a gruesome contractual obligation: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it.”
7. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was found guilty of the murder of her employer and his mistress. She spent the next thirty years in prisons and insane asylums. In a fictional retelling, Atwood embraces the ambiguity and mystery of the case, letting the reader decide what really happened in this riveting, emotionally charged tale.
8. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
The trial of Aziz, a young Muslim doctor in India accused of assaulting an Englishwoman, illuminates the tensions and prejudices that characterized the interactions between the Indian people and the British colonists who ruled India. In his masterpiece, Forster exhibits deep sympathy for his characters and an ability to see more than one side of an argument, both critical qualities for an aspiring attorney.
9. A Time to Kill, John Grisham
The first in Grisham’s long line of bestselling legal thrillers, A Time to Kill is both a gripping story of a father’s revenge on the rapists of his daughter and a profound exploration of the difference between what is illegal and what is wrong. It is a question as old as Sophocles’ Antigone: Do familial obligations supersede one’s duties to the law?
10. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
A story of a murder trial, this haunting novel explores the nature of race relations, community, and war. Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of killing a man he believes has stolen his family’s land during the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. As his drama unfolds, we’re left wondering about the proper role of law in a world governed by forces beyond our control, a world of chance and fate.
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