Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

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A narrative lattice-work

At one point in the trial of Lizzie Borden, the prosecution calls Hannal Reagan as a witness. A matron at the Fall River police station, she ) ports overhearing the following conversation between Lizzie and her sistt Emma, while Lizzie was in the matron's charge:

Lizzie: Emma, you have gave me away, haven't you?

Emma: No, Lizzie, I have not.

Lizzie: You have, and I will let you see I won't give an inch. (234)

After this, according to Reagan, Lizzie gestured with her finger that they should be quiet. She then turned her back on her sister and did not speak to her for the rest of the morning. Here, then, is a short separate narrative that is not a part of the events immediately connected with the narrative of the two murders. But the prosecution introduces it, clearly, to suggest that Lizzie has indirectly admitted her guilt.

The defense, in its turn, could have chosen to focus on the ambiguity of this exchange between Lizzie and her sister, but they make another, stronger move. During cross-examination, they elicit the information that Reagan immediately went to the press with this story, and that later she retracted it in a signed statement declaring that it was false. By shifting the focus to a framing narrative that contains Reagan's original narrative, a narrative in which Reagan is no longer narrator but active player, they seek to undercut her reliability. By converting her into an unreliable narrator, the defense hopes to bury her initial narrative under the immense problems of narrative credibility that we discussed in Chapter Six. In its turn, the prosecution, during "re-direct" (a return to "direct examination" of the witness), seeks to restore Reagan's reliability as a narrator by adding its own supplementary details to this framing narrative. Prosecution brings out the fact that the document signed by Reagan was prepared in advance by a friend of the defense, who pressed it on her saying, "If you will sign this paper it will make everything right between Miss Lizzie Borden and her sister" (236). Here, in other words, prosecution gives evidence to imply defense's unreliability in telling this framing narrative.

The narrative of Hannah Reagan is one of a great number of subsidiary, yet sometimes very important narratives, that were drawn on to supple­ment the central competing narratives in the trial of Lizzie Borden. In this way this trial, like any trial, necessarily generated a whole lattice-work of narrative extending outward from the core events. Some portions of this lattice-work are more important than others, and to the extent that their narrative reliability is either undermined or supported, the overall struc­ture is rickety or sturdy. In the case of Hannah Reagan's narrative, the defense, by adding more narrative lattice-work to frame its own rendering of her tale, created sufficient doubt to damage the utility of Reagan's story for the prosecution, despite prosecution's repair work on its version 9 the framing narrative. Still more damaging is the competing testimony introduced later of Lizzie's sister, who claimed that no such incident took place.

Out beyond such narratives as Hannah Reagan's there are still more narratives that never make it into the sphere of judicially acceptable evidence. These are narrative satellites like that of the French Canadian farmer who claimed to have seen a man in the woods twelve days after the crime with a hatchet in his hand and blood on his clothes, repeating the words "poor Mrs. Borden." Another is the story of Lizzie's attempt to buy prussic acid the day before the murders. By order of the judge, for one legal reason or another, such narratives are not allowed to be part of the long narra­tive the jury hears. Yet despite their unacceptable status as evidence, they remain paratexts, part of that immense constellation of narrative business connected with the trial that the public at large may eventually read and wonder about.

In addition to all these evidential narratives, the trial itself as it proceeds becomes reflexively narrativized. That is, one side or the other will look back from time to time to relate their own or their opposition's actions to gain a rhetorical advantage. "I heard what Miss Emma said Friday," says the prosecuting attorney in his summation,

and I could but admire the loyalty and fidelity of that unfortunate girl [sic; she would have been 42] to her still more unfortunate sister. I could not find it in my heart to ask her many questions. She was in the most desperate strait that an innocent woman could be in, her next of kin, her only sister, stood in peril and she must come to the rescue. She faintly tells us die relations in the family were peaceful, but we sadly know they were not. (336)

Here one sister is dressed with the kind of generosity of spirit that damns the other sister. Emma's generosity in this reflexive narrative rendering of the trial is matched only by the generosity of the prosecutor, who "can not find it in [his] heart" to press the case (even, one must presume, at the risk of letting a murderer go unpunished). This generosity is in turn extended out to the jury who "sadly know" the truth. In this and numerous other ways, both sides exploit the trial itself as a narrative resource. In his very last words, the prosecuting attorney tells a prophetic story about the jurors themselves and in the process extends his narrativization of the trial out into the future:

And, entering on your deliberations with no pride of opinion, with impartial and thoughtful minds, seeking only for the truth, you will lift the case above the range of passion and prejudice and excited feeling, into the clear atmosphere of reason and law. If you shall be able to do this, we can hope that, in some high sense, this trial may be adopted into the order of Providence, and may express in its results somewhat of that justice with which God governs the world. (392)

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