From recent popular books such as John Grisham’s The Firm to literary staples such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the law is commonplace in literature. However, it would be a mistake to limit the idea of law in literature to law firms, trials, and legal procedures. The ways that literature contributes to our broader thinking also connects to the law.
Martha Nussbaum, professor of Law at the University of Chicago, illustrates this concept well. She believes that literature provides us with the opportunity to better understand the complexities of life. When we have better understandings of the complexities of life, Nussbaum contends, we are better able to understand concepts of justice.
For example, think about a young child who reads E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. From this, the child can learn about everybody’s intrinsic worth. Or, think about a Supreme Court Justice who reads Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. From this, the judge can more deeply consider the competing values of freedom and control. In either situation, the result is a reader with a greater understanding of the complexities of life.
When our understandings of the complexities of life expand, the opportunity exists for us to become more fair-minded people. Fair-mindedness can make for better understandings of justice, which can ultimately leads to society creating more just laws.
As citizens, the democratic process gives each of us responsibilities for the laws and regulations that guide our society. We democratically elect governments to create and administer laws on our behalf. If we are more fair-minded citizens, the decisions we make about our governments will be more fair-minded. And when our governments are more fair-minded, our laws are more fair-minded.
The relationship between law and literature is complex. Literature holds the ability to teach us about the “nuts and bolts” of law. But beyond that, literature also holds the ability to make laws more fair-minded and just. Reading literature not only teaches us about the law: it can actually contribute to humanizing the law.