Taking a short break from the wide-angle applications of literary study, please join me for a short foray into pure literature appreciation…
After a ridiculously extended reading period, I recently finished Brothers Karamazov by F. Dostoyevsky. This book is not to be – and in fact cannot be – taken lightly. For one thing, with almost 900 pages, the hardcover weighed almost as much as Shakespeare’s collected works.
Although the book is thick with philosophy, it would not have the same concluding weight (literal or otherwise) without it. The last 200 pages are mesmerizing, especially the courtroom scene. Besides leading me to offer my own laudatory remarks to the volumes that have kept Brothers K on the classics list, the scene also started me thinking about great courtroom scenes in literature. A person who has rhetorical prowess is always compelling to me. When I “know” the characters and the backstory, the rhetoric is only more engaging.
So here are my 10 favorite courtroom scenes in literature. If you have a favorite, or think another book deserves to make this list, drop me a comment and let me know. Even though my reading list is years long, I’m always happy to add to it.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, with or without Gregory Peck, is outstanding.
2. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. Hank Rearden’s refusal to defend against a corrupt system is truly memorable. I especially like the line, “I will not help you to pretend that you are administering justice.”
3. Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Both lawyers’ uses of psychology and philosophy are captivating. The discourse on restorative justice is especially interesting.
4. The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare. Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech has always been a favorite, as well as her brilliant maneuvering around Shylock, a complex and controversial character in his own right.
5. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. This play centers on the Salem witch trials, so it is no surprise that the scenes are powerful. When John Proctor fights for his name (his honor), I get chills.
6. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. The existence of “reason free from passion,” as Aristotle defined the law, is brought into question by each of the struggling characters in Forster’s India.
7. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. In what I consider one of Dickens’ best works, courtroom scenes frame the story – and the characters. The revelation of the “other” denunciation in Darnay’s second trial is brilliantly drawn.
8. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. This Newbery-award winning children’s novel contrasts the effects of irrational fear and respect for the individual. Kit’s trial is, in effect, a trial of these two conflicting forces.
9. Billy Budd, by Herman Melville. The state or the individual? The letter of the law or the intent? Though short, Billy Budd’s case asks many significant questions about justice.
10. Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. On a lighter note, the Queen of Hearts’ farcical trial provides the capstone to Carroll’s nonsense world, but it is also the final step in Alice’s journey to assert her own rationality and authority – her coming of age, if you will.