Literature and Legal Discourse: Equity and Ethics from Sterne to Conrad

Literature and Legal Discourse: Equity and Ethics from Sterne to Conrad

Literature and Legal Discourse: Equity and Ethics from Sterne to Conrad

Literature and Legal Discourse: Equity and Ethics from Sterne to Conrad

Synopsis

The intersection between law and literature is a developing area in literary studies. Recent work argues that literature provides an imaginary forum in which legal ideals and practices may be tested. Dieter Polloczek's study develops this idea to show how the novel, with its increasing social scope and formal sophistication provided a means of transmitting, questioning and refining society's traditions, values and modes of self-questioning. Polloczek's study is both theoretical and historical, extending from the eighteenth century to the modernist period, and covering texts from Sterne, Dickens, Bentham and Conrad.

Excerpt

In this study, I examine literary fictions and legal fictions in selected texts of the modern period. in trying to make an interdisciplinary contribution to the field of literary study, I also draw on such diverse discourses as the history and sociology of law as well as contemporary cultural anthropology. My main goal is to discuss the relationship between the marginal, the equitable, and the unparalleled as one way of tackling the question of ethics in contemporary literary study. Narrowing the scope of this question, I focus on how, during the modern period, the equitable force of conscience informed the languages of sentiment, philanthropy, and solidarity. Essentially, I argue that this branching out generated complex literary responses to a gradual disjunction of equitable justice and critical reason.

For the purpose of this argument, I single out two specific legal fictions, Civil Death and Substituted Judgment. They are both striking metaphors of marginalization and divining rods for the nexus of law and literature in modern England. in the light of Bentham's critique of legal fictions, I reread different cross-overs between literary fictions and legal fictions in the canonical authors Sterne, Dickens, and Conrad. These cross-overs indicate how literature's marginal impact on dominant notions of equitable justice supplemented a significant number of common-law practices.

Sentimentality, utility, philanthropy, and solidarity can be considered nonlegal rhetorical institutions of equitable justice. in my readings of Sterne, Bentham, Dickens, and Conrad, they prove to be implicated in, and acting upon, problematic relations between altruistic and economic personality, a judge's and a subject's conscience, sympathetic and responsible character formation, and racial and national identity. in each case, the two legal fictions and the rhetorical institutions of equitability are alike in performing critiques of institutions within the very institutional setting that allows them to operate. Thus they often end up . . .

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