Women: The Good, Bad or
Ugly in Law & Literature Text
by Joyce A. McCray Pearson
Antigone, Trifles, A Jury of Her Peers and Presumed
Innocent. What do these literary pieces; a Greek tragedy,
an early twentieth century play and short story, and a contemporary
film have in common? The common thread between them is that they
depict women who where compelled to murder, or defy the law.
As the title of my article suggests, one of the women did something
good. Antigone's act of defiance represents a good deed, a moral
act that moved critics to describe her as the "heroine of
civil disobedience". An act of civil disobedience that eventually
produced legal and political reform. Minnie Wright represents
the bad in the title; she allegedly murdered her husband in A
Jury of Her Peers. The admitted murderess in the film Presumed
Innocent definitely represents the ugly in her carefully
planned murder of her husband's former lover.
There are many legal issues in the texts and film. Natural (divine)
law and positive (man made law or law of the state/polis) law,
civil disobedience and male/female perspectives of the law are
central issues in a discussion of Antigone. Physical/psychological
abuse or domestic violence and an exclusively female jury's perspective
of murder are the central focus of Trifles and A Jury
of Her Peers. Presumed Innocent is, unfortunately,
about everything that is wrong with the legal system and questions
the relationship between law and justice.
The law and life are inseparable. And that is precisely why there
are so many novels, plays and films based on legal issues or
with lawyers as central characters.
The Story and Setting
Modern psychologists and clinical sociologists use the phrase
"dysfunctional family" to describe a family unit which
suffers from serious problems such as alcohol or drug abuse or
incest. Antigone, the main character in this ancient Greek tragedy,
comes from such a family. Her father, Oedipus, once king of Thebes
and solver of the riddle of the sphinx (what walks on four legs
in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?
- man) As Mark Howenstein puts it, Oedipus "...comes
to realize the underlying horror of his existence. Throughout
the play his insatiable hunger for knowledge propels him down
a dreadful path of self-discovery. His relentless inquiry into
the causes of King Laius' death reveals that he has unknowingly
killed his father and married his mother, and has incestuously
begotten four children by her. Overcome by disgrace, he gouges
out his eyes and goes into exile, attempting to escape the misery
that he alone has wrought."
After wandering for years in
exile with Antigone, Oedipus finally settles at Colonus, a sacred
grove, an appropriate place to die and find peace for his wretched
soul. Creon, Antigone's uncle, tries to lure Oedipus back to
Thebes to no avail. Oedipus dies, so no longer needing to care
for their father, Antigone and her sister Ismene return to Thebes.
Antigone's brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, fight for control
of the kingdom and slay one another in combat. Creon succeeds
to the throne. Eteocles died fighting for his country and is
thus entitled to a proper burial. Creon issued an edict which
forbade anyone to bury Polynices. His body is left exposed to
the elements, to rot and be eaten by beasts and birds because
he fought against his native city and is deemed a traitor.
Antigone is left with a moral dilemma. Should she abide by her
familial obligation to her brother and the holiest laws of the
gods which require one to bury one's deceased kin? Or obey the
edict - man made law of king Creon? Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's
fiancé, contests the law, but Antigone boldly and openly
defies it. She buries Polynices. Creon plans Antigone's punishment
and banishes her to a sealed cave to die a slow and agonizing
death. Later, Creon reverses himself, buries Polynices and orders
Antigone's release from the cave. But his change of heart came
too late. Antigone hangs herself in the cave, and when Haemon
finds her body he stabs himself. Creon's wife, Eurydice, commits
suicide upon learning of her son Haemon's death leaving only
Creon and Ismene to agonize over all the deaths in the family.
Multiple Legal and Philosophical Issues
Legal thinkers, scholars and philosophers continue to analyze
Antigone and its numerous themes. In Costas Douzinas' philosophical
article on ontological and psychoanalytical ethics he maintains
"Antigone is as important
for the exploration of the origins and the force of law as Oedipus
is for the foundation of identity. We are all aware of the jurisprudential
and speculative readings of Antigone. The tragedy concerns the
unfolding of a series of conceptual juxtapositions, embodied
and represented by the two diametrically opposed protagonists.
The key conflict may be that between divine and human law, or
between law and justice, family and state, or individual and
society; but its narrative presentation always follows the same
...But it is Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, who has guided
the steps of philosophy and psychoanalysis to the primal scene
from which jurisprudence emerges, and from which it never leaves."
A mainstay of the law and literature
curriculum, Sophocles' Antigone is among the purest examples
of natural law theory. It contains the moral absolutism that
underscores natural law theory and suggests dramatic contrasts
with legal positivism, the dominant force in modern western law.
Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers
True life events are often the source of plays, novels and movies.
Susan Glaspell based the play Trifles, which was a year
later transformed into the short story A Jury of her Peers,
on an actual case. Decades later in 1981, it was adapted by Sally
Heckel into an Academy Award nominated film. The actual case
was the 1901 trial of Margaret Hossack, in State v. Hossack,
89 N. W. 1077 (Iowa 1902). Hossack was convicted of murdering
her husband with an axe while he was sleeping in bed. There was
evidence introduced at the trial of Mr. Hossack's physical and
emotional abuse of his wife. Susan Glaspell became familiar with
the case as a reporter for a Des Moines newspaper. She was assigned
to cover the case shortly after the murder of John Hassock. She
had no experience or exposure to the law or the courtroom. The
investigative reporting of the murder would be her introduction
to the criminal justice system. There is no doubt that the Hossack
(1901) case inspired the play Trifles and A Jury of
her Peers. But it took Glaspell fifteen years to pen Trifles
(1916) and A Jury of Her Peers (1917).
The setting for all three works
- the play, short story and the film - is the same: a gloomy
farmhouse kitchen. John Wright, recently strangled, and his wife
Minnie, who claims innocence and is in prison for the crime,
are never seen. Five people travel to the Wright farmhouse to
investigate - the sheriff, Mr. Peters, the prosecuting attorney,
Mr. Henderson, Mr. Hale a neighboring farmer, Mrs. Peters, the
prosecuting attorney's wife who has come specifically to gather
clothing for the accused woman and Mrs. Hale, the farmers wife.
Throughout the short story you never hear the voice of Mrs. Wright.
You only hear her words through the account of the conversation
Mr. Hale has with Mrs. Wright when he comes to her house to speak
with her husband John. He came to the farmhouse to ask John if
he would like to have a telephone installed in his house.
"'Can I see John?' 'No,' says she kind of dull like. 'Ain't
he home? says I. Then she looked at me. 'Yes," says she,
he's home.' 'Then why can't I see him?' I asked her, out of patience
with her now, "Cause he's dead,' says she, just as quiet
and dull, and fell to pleatin' her apron. 'Dead?' says I, like
you do when you can't take in what you've heard. .... 'Why, what
did he die of?' "He died of a rope round his neck,' says
she; and just went on pleatin' at her apron. "Who did this
Mrs. Wright?" 'I don't know,' she says. You don't know?'
..... 'Weren't you sleepin in the bed with him?' 'Yes,' says
she, but I was on the inside.' 'Somebody slipped a rope round
his neck and strangled him and you didn't wake up?' says Harry.
'I didn't wake up.' she said after him'."
The different perspectives of the men and women are immediately
evident. The men carry the weight of authority, they are charged
with the investigation of the murder. Based upon the time of
the setting, 1916, the men would decide what is relevant under
the law and act as judge and jurors, responsible for deciding
the fate of Mrs. Wright. The women are marginalized, they can't
serve on juries, their abilities are perceived to be limited
to domestic duties of cooking, sewing and housekeeping. After
the men enter the house they take charge attempting to solve
the crime based upon the evidence at the scene. Although they
are searching for a motive for the killing, "something to
show anger - or sudden feeling," they spend only a few minutes
in the kitchen, where Mrs. Wright has spent most of her life.
The things in the kitchen are irrelevant to the men, and they
laugh at their wives and Mrs. Wright for their concern over domestic
"trifles" and criticize her poor housekeeping.
The women act as the true judge and jury. In the most significant
dialogue and scenes in the play and story, the women discover
the evidence, a clue that the men, if they discovered it could
point to the motive of the crime, the specific event that could
have triggered Mrs. Wright's violent reaction. They find the
most incriminating evidence, the dead body of a songbird - canary
in Mrs. Wright's sewing box, gingerly wrapped in a beautiful
piece of silk, as if in preparation for a sacred burial. The
bird's neck was broken, twisted, the life "choked out of
him". The women deduce that Mr. Wright strangled Mrs. Wright's
bird, her only source of joy in that lonely house. It was that
final act of cruelty that made her commit her violent act of
I chose to include a film, a different literary medium, to point
out the difference in contextual communication between written
word and film. Sometimes film is a better vehicle for expressing
images that relate to identity and power. Novels, whether intentionally
or unintentionally often shroud the story from the reader. When
a novel is eventually made into a movie you often hear people
comment that "the book was better than the movie".
In the case of Presumed Innocent, arguably the movie was
better than the book.
The Story - In Brief
Rusty Sabich chief deputy district attorney investigates the
rape and murder of female attorney, Carolyn Pohlemus, another
deputy. His boss, the D.A., is up for election, he loses, and
new D.A. Della Guardia takes office. After the election Sabich
is charged with the murder of Pohlemus based on evidence at the
scene of the crime. His fingerprints are found on a glass, a
semen sample taken from Pohlemus matches Sabich's blood type,
phone records indicate they communicated, and after a search
of his home they find traces of Pohlemus's blood and traces of
her carpet fiber. In the meantime the D.A.'s office is under
internal scrutiny. A bribery file (b-file) points to a D.A. that
took a $1,500 bribe which was paid to a judge, the judge who
just happens to preside over Sabich's trial.
Sabich's attorney Stern is very good, but he has help from an
informant friend Lipranzer who hides the most damaging evidence,
the fingerprinted glass. They never find the murder weapon. Witnesses
lie on the stand. Stern trips up the pathologist. Pohlemus's
tubes were tied so she wouldn't have used a spermicide and somehow
they deduce then that the semen sample had to be from someone
other than Sabich. Stern threatens to disclose the judge's involvement
with the b-file. The judge dismisses the case, Sabich walks.
But that is not the end.
One afternoon as Sabich is rummaging through his toolbox he finds
the murder weapon, a small hammer soaked with blood and blond
hair. Barbara, his wife, enters as he's cleaning off the murder
weapon. "I did it", she says. The words have double
meaning; she's speaking of her job interview, he thinks she's
confessing. In the final scene of the movie she tells her husband
what she did and why. She claims she would have confessed in
time to save her husband's life. But would she really have done
so? And who would believe her?
Female Identity - Women and Power
The image of the woman attorney in the film is not based upon
her legal prowess, but on her sexuality. In fact, the overall
message of the film suggests that it was her sexuality that caused
her murder: "the lady was bad news." is the phrase
used repeatedly to describe her. Even though she is violently
murdered before the narrative begins she remains a sexualized
presence throughout the film through flashbacks and reminiscent
day dreams. One of the lines in the film summarizes the way the
male attorneys viewed Pohlemus. Note the order of each descriptive
word or phrase used to describe her. "What a waste, (referring
to the murder) beautiful, sexy gal, hell of a lawyer." She
was a "hell of a lawyer" last, beautiful and sexy first.
The film portrays her as an ambitious and talented, yet promiscuous,
attorney who had a sexual relationship with almost every male
character in the movie.
The women have control and power through their sexuality and
violence in Presumed Innocent. The legal system is portrayed
as a bumbling machine that is more concerned with hiding human
flaws and frailty than serving justice. As often is the case,
the real criminal remains free. The "ugly" referred
to in the title of the paper could apply to everyone, not just
the women, in this film.
Who are Antigone, Minnie Foster Wright, and Barbara Sabich and
why did they do what they did? One woman was compelled by natural
law and familial love to defy the law, the others were motivated
by anger or desperation to kill. Did they have purely female
reactions to their circumstances or did they behave simply as
human beings? What all three women have in common is that they
felt they had no other choice; each one could have ended her
story with the same words of Barbara Sabich:
"You understand what happened had to happen. It couldn't
have turned out any other way. A woman's depressed with herself,
She feels power, control, the sense that she's
guided by a force beyond herself
And life begins again."
Posted December 17, 2003