Character in the Corpus: Justice

Justice and society

Aristotle’s discussion of virtue recognises its importance as a shared enterprise between fellows, stating justice “is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbour also; for many men can exercise virtue in their own affairs, but not in their relations to their neighbour” (NE, V.i). Such societal conceptions of justice find their reaffirmation in literary fiction.

As attested in the A-level literature corpus, fictional texts have come to focus on how society understands and dispenses justice. Narratively speaking, stories concerning justice invariably entail that key narrative ingredient: conflict. In terms of societal concern, what is evident throughout the corpus is a concern with societal injustice, and the gaps that exist between justice and the law. Those gaps are an area in which literature is both interested and which it seeks to remedy.

The justice system, and its associated injustices, have been a staple of fiction, inspiring both its content and its critique. Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) lampoons courtrooms for their circumlocution and hazy language; whilst at the same time appropriates the foibles of legalese for fiction. The exhortation that opens The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is similarly written in legalese and indicates fiction’s mischievous relationship with law:

‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR per G.G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE’

But there is an even more fundamental, historical association between justice and literature. Fundamentally, legal justice is textual, codified as law. Indeed, fictional narrative’s didactic properties have proved a useful tool for virtue literacy across time: “People learned about the gods, and about the justice of Zeus, not from sacred books but from the poets, notably from the early poets, Homer and Hesiod.” (Lloyd Jones, 2001: 461).

‘Poetic’ justice

The ethical role that literature plays means that fiction has become a space for both illustrating injustice and imagining more just societies. It has the power to dispense ‘poetic justice’, a phrase attributed to the thirteenth-century poet Thomas Rhymer who himself alluded to Aristotle to argue that philosophy guides poetry. Of course, poetic justice predates its classification as such, with the mythological figure Nemesis delivering retribution centuries before.

Poetic justice also relates to the Aristotelian idea that fiction is a “literary counterpart to ‘equity’ in the disciplines of ethics and law” (Eden, 1982: 17). The ability, and indeed practice, of fiction to generate contextualised examples of justice, means that it can do so in imaginative, nuanced, and complex ways. One way in which to engage students with the link between literature and virtue literacy is to consider poetic justice as both a literary conceit and moral obligation.

Fiction has the ability to supplement “distributive justice principles” with an “empathy-charged, need-based component” (Hoffman, 2001: 259). Viewing justice at heart as an emotional, rather than an intellectual, virtue (Kristjánsson, 2002: 292; 2004: 291) and claiming feeling as a key aspect of moral education (Kristjánsson, 2013: 509) makes fiction a potentially useful instrument for educating individuals’ sense of justice.

Justice in the corpus

In general language usage (as captured by the British National Corpus), institutional mechanisms of justice are much more evident with justice’s top collocates being criminal, Lord, court, Mr, Chief and Act. Fairness and equality are the only terms which recur alongside justice and that come close to virtue language. This usage varies by text type however, with fiction showing the lowest number of instantiations of the term, just above that of speech. Over the past thirty years general usage has outstripped prose fiction, perhaps suggesting the proliferation of public conversation around issues of social justice.

Surprisingly, despite a judicialstyle informing in its establishing shot, the text in which justice is least present is Huckleberry Finn. Second least is Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, a story of capital punishment. Such examples show the caution that attends corpus analyses that focus on vocabulary alone as this specific virtue term does not necessarily attend to those narratives that deal with justice. Justice appears most in the following five texts from the A-level corpus:

TextPer million words
Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), Gabriel-Ernest (1909)408
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Axe (1974)303
Ann Radcliffe, The Italian (1797)260
Henry James, What Maisie Knew (1897)188
Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818)168

The spread across time represented here is borne out in the corpus overall: that is; there is no one literary period in which justice was a particularly salient literary theme.

Within the corpus, justice shows a behaviour common to other virtue terms in that they coalesce. Justice’s collocates include compassion (stat. 9.4) and mercy (8.7), perhaps reinforcing justice’s emotional aspects. Common also ranks highly, underscoring the term’s thematic treatment by ‘institutional’ versus ‘virtue’ understanding. The concordance below shows its coupling with other virtue terms:

This ‘cluster’ analysis indicates the kind of concepts, amongst them virtues, alongside which justice is considered. These include benevolence, compassion, generosity, clemency, honesty, and love. Also collocating are synonyms or terms derived from the same semantic field, such as equity, fair play, judgement, mercy, and vengeance. In terms of virtue literacy, justice as instantiated in the A-level corpus signals passages that consider justice not alone, but how it relates to other virtues.

The most common cluster, justice+to, indicates (as with other virtue terms) justice has a broader, discoursal meaning: ‘to do justice to’ (i.e., the ability of text to offer a realistic, truthful portrayal, often with regards to character). Indeed, truth is justice’s most common companion, and the texts display a metanarrative concern with how to do justice to a subject, character or story, conferring an ethical responsibility for both literature and language. This is not a tangential association, but rather one that it critically linked to the faculties of judgement and understanding character. The experiential and emotional aspects of justice finding a neat fit within fiction.

Just as truth had been a concern of philosophers, so it became a dominant guiding principle for novelists. When George Eliot recognises the challenges of Victorian Realism in Middlemarch, she attempts to put into fiction a practice more typical of philosophical discourse. Her protagonist Lydgate, working on a universal, unifying philosophical theory, finds the task impossible in part, due to his own unsympathetic nature.

And in this, Lydgate represents a second, practical and ethical respect in which novelists ‘do justice’ (worthy of consideration in virtue literacy lessons) by inspiring human behaviour and social justice. Famous nineteenth-century examples include Oliver Twist, reportedly altering the composition and enactment of the Poor Law and Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to whom Abraham Lincoln asked: “So this is the little lady who made this big war?” In this sense, fiction writing is credited with a lofty responsibility in regard to social justice alongside its place as an imaginative space in which justice can be enacted.

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