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In Defiance of the Law

From Anne Hutchinson to Toni Morrison


Marisa Anne Pagnattaro

Nearly every law mediates between the desire for individual liberty and the perceived necessity for maintaining social order. Literature is a powerful tool to explore jurisprudential issues and to look critically at the American legal system. This book analyzes works in American literature to consider the tension between the desire for social control – as evidenced by the law – and the effect on individuals – as depicted in art. The concept of ‘justice’ is considered in each work in which female characters act according to their own code, which is at odds with civil law. As revealed by the examination of Anne Hutchinson and the trials against two American Indian women in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted laws on an as-needed basis to thwart political dissension and to subdue the threat of the Pequot Indians. Moreover, federal and state law was used to entrench slavery and to deny African Americans rights enjoyed by other American citizens. The effects of such laws are considered in connection with slave women who violate the law in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In each context, women acted according to a core sense of beliefs and values, despite man-made rules of law. Their acts of civil disobedience make a powerful statement about the importance of defying unjust laws and remind readers of the social and legal change that has occurred in the past and of the necessity to look critically at current law.