Literature and the Law

Professor Thomas Morawetz uses examples from literature to help students at the School of Law examine legal questions and concepts.

<p>Thomas Morawetz, professor of law. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Thomas Morawetz, professor of law. Photo by Peter Morenus

Can reading The Scarlet Letter help aspiring jurists understand the nature of punishment? Does the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inform future lawyers about the power of addiction or the divide between good and evil? Can the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird fuel a discussion on how attorneys design their arguments to appeal to specific juries or society as a whole?

Tom Morawetz, Tapping Reeve Professor of Law and Ethics at the UConn School of Law, believes that in addition to the usual regimen of case studies and clinics, having a well-rounded perspective on the legal profession includes delving into a field not normally associated with the law: literature.

Morawetz is the author of Literature and the Law, a book built on two courses he has taught for the past 15 years: “Law and Literature” and “Law and Literature of Crime.” Both are centered on the theme of using literature to broaden the thinking of law students about their future profession and themselves. The book examines dozens of authors, from Franz Kafka and Albert Camus to William Faulkner and Agatha Christie – among many others – and connects each with larger ideas in the field of law. Themes include freedom and crime, criminal minds, trial and punishment, and wider discussions on the window fiction provides on the law and lawyers, and finding meaning in a legal career.

“Many issues that arise from a literature standpoint can have a great impact on the way students access their own thinking about legal concerns and their own role in law,” says Morawetz. “It’s not very different from the impact of legal philosophy; it gets students to look at the shape of law as a whole – from the standpoint of another discipline.”

With his courses, Morawetz struggles against the kind of homogeneity that comes in legal education, he says, with many students assuming they must put aside any interest they have in the humanities and social sciences and adopt a certain standard legal thinking.

“The class breaks down categories of thinking and allows students to see how different issues they had thought of as separate can be juxtaposed,” says Morawetz. “My feeling is that students are much more likely to be good lawyers if they understand what unique package of talents and values each of them brings.”

Students in Morawetz’s classes read and discuss literature, but they also produce it, writing short stories or autobiographical essays for the class.

“I’ve found quite often the autobiographical work is immensely useful and very successful,” he says. “The chance to write in literary modes gives students a chance to assess where they’ve been and where they’re going.”

One thing this exercise helps to do, he says, is impress upon law students that their careers will be unpredictable, just as his was.

Morawetz had an early interest in literature, as evidenced by his personal library of more than 10,000 volumes. After graduating from Harvard in 1963, Morawetz pursued interests in law, literature, and philosophy at University College, Oxford, on a Fulbright Fellowship. He then earned master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy at Yale University, where he also received his J.D. He taught in the Yale philosophy department between 1969 and 1977, first as assistant professor and then as associate professor of philosophy. He has taught at the UConn School of Law since 1977.

So how does Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde help examine legal questions and ideas?

The premise of the book is that we are divided between two selves, says Morawetz: the good self and the evil one. His students discuss the usefulness of that premise and about how helpful it may be in thinking about human nature.

He also asks whether Jekyll should be legally responsible for Hyde’s actions. Can Jekyll be held liable? To what extent is Jekyll’s condition comparable to individuals who have addictions?

“At a certain point he is clearly addicted to becoming and being Hyde,” says Morawetz. “The analogy with addiction is a strong one. Can this influence our thinking about how addicts are treated by the legal system?”

When it comes to Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Morawetz asks: To what extent should a lawyer adapt his arguments to the audience? Is Finch speaking to the jury or to humanity at large? If the latter, is that really what the lawyer is supposed to do? Or should he only be concerned with achieving the favored result for his or her client in the most direct way possible?

“We contrast Finch’s strategy with that of a lawyer who is willing to do anything to save his client, even if it has an undesirable social effect,” says Morawetz. “Finch tends to be seen as the best that a lawyer could hope to be, but one thing we discuss in class is whether or not that’s so obviously true.”

Overall, Morawetz has found that students become reflective about the availability of different points of view toward some of the questions they examine.

“Students learn to be more in touch with the quirks of their own intellect,” he says. “I think students come out with a revitalized perspective on law as a career, and themselves as individuals within the law. That makes it a particularly valuable experience.”