Law & Lit

I am always fascinated by how the law is viewed by non-lawyers. Fiction is always a good place to come across these viewpoints. I saw an excellent example recently when reading John Steinbeck’s ,The Grapes of Wrath.

It tells the grim tale of the Joad family, forced off their land in Oklahoma by drought and the economic hardship of the Great Depression.

They pile all of their belongings on to a modified truck and head west, lured by handbills calling for fruit pickers in California. Grandpa dies of a stroke on the road. The family is confronted with the dilemma of whether to report the death and pay undertaker’s fees, as required by law, and thereby ruin their chances of getting to California, or bury him themselves. (They run into a similar problem later with Grandma.)

Here is how Pa sees the law:

“Sometimes the law can’t be foller’d no way,” said Pa. “Not in decency, anyways. They’s lots of times you can’t. When Floyd was loose an’ goin’ wild, law said we got to give him up – an’ nobody give him up. Sometimes a fella got to sift the law. I’m sayin’ now I got the right to bury my own pa. Anybody got somepin to say?
The preacher rose high on his elbow. “Law changes,” he said, “but ‘got to’s’ go on. You got the right to do what you got to do.”

Sifting the law. Strikes terror in the heart of the lawyer. Obvious to the Joads.


  1. Michael/Lawviathan

    Expanding on this point it isn’t just writers that have a perspective on law, it is artists of all sorts. Now that I have a little more exposure to the legal world, I’m fascinated with the disparity with court room dramas, and news stories. What I find even more interesting is how literature, and “the arts” are a model which the laymen follows. I’ve noticed in mediations that participants seem to take a cue from these sources, using the language of and setting a tone that really is only appropriate for TV.

  2. David Cheifetz


  3. john o'sullivan

    Michael I was once cross examining a witness in a Toronto trial where the witnesses kept calling me “counsellor” until Spence J pointed out it was an American TV term, and stopped it.

  4. john o'sullivan


    As in WH?

  5. David Cheifetz


    Yup. WHA’s “Law Like Love” here or here

    And many other places. If the links don’t work, type law like love into you browser