Law and Literature

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - August 11, 20216/28 - 8/116 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineRavit Reichman

Course Description

This course considers how law and literature contribute jointly to our sense of justice and our understanding of injustice. Through novels, poetry, film, legal writings, and legal opinions, we examine how law and literature create interrelated narratives that shed light on issues like identity, sexuality, injury, policing, speech, and silence. Together, we will work to discover connections between interpretation and world-making—that is, between how we read, respond to, understand a story or event, and how this understanding generates our sense of justice and our ideas of responsibility. The guiding principle of this course is that law is not a distinct field cordoned off from everyday life, but a set of interpretive practices that are part and parcel of the culture in which they grow. Literature, film, and television are part of the legal world we live in, and the work of interpretation is not relegated only to lawyers and judges but is an ethical obligation that we all share as legal subjects.

Students will be invited to think about how law and literature share common ground in addressing some of the urgent questions of our time. Rather than thinking about how law is represented in literature, it asks students to consider how legal and literary texts tell stories about ethical problems—that is, how their combined force shapes our sense of justice and injustice. We begin with W.H. Auden's poem "Law Like Love," and think about our culture's love affair with law—why it is that our stories are so filled with lawyers and trials when in practice, law is often boring or impenetrable. We then take up the topic of injury, and how legal opinions and novels respond to injury in a rapidly changing world; in this module, we will read the famous legal opinions Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad and Brown v. Kendall. The next module turns to the novel — Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway — to see how fiction handles the very questions raised in the legal opinions. We follow this with a module on how law and literature help us to name previously unnamed harms, such as hate speech or acquaintance rape. Following this, we spend two weeks on race and policing, reading Plessy v. Ferguson, the legal opinion that made "separate but equal" the law of the land, alongside the novel by James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. We'll also read cases on "reasonable force" in the context of policing, together with Claudia Rankine's poetry collection Citizen. We then examine LGBTQ rights through 2 legal cases and the film Brokeback Mountain, and conclude with the concept of silence in law — "you have the right to remain silent" — through Miranda v. Arizona and two poems about silence. Students will post several times weekly: an initial response, and a more in-depth analysis that asks them to close-read a passage and develop an argument or question. I will ask them to respond to each other’s posts, so that students have opportunities to engage with each other and build on their peers’ ideas. At the end of the week, they will submit a short but substantial essay building on the reading and writing they did throughout the week. Their final submission will be a nontraditional project, which students will workshop with each other and with me in the weeks leading up to the end of class.

At the end of this course, students will be able to: • Navigate literary works and legal opinions in terms of both content and form. • Apply close reading techniques to literary and legal texts. • Identify ethical problems in diverse literary and legal narratives. • Observe how cultural and historical issues are addressed in literature and law. • Make a case for or against justice/injustice via legal dimensions of literature and literary dimension of law. • Discover how questions of justice work in narrative that is not explicitly legal; see law at work in art, and vice-versa.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEEL1011

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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