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Cambridge University Press 2002

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Battling narratives are everywhere

The legal trial is by no means the only arena in which stories are made to do battle. One finds these contests almost everywhere. What distinguishes legal contests is the intensity of concentration both of and on narrative and the degree to which the contest is regulated. A trial has an umpire, the judge, who interprets an array of rules that governs the narrative contest over which he or she presides. The judge rules on what can or cannot b-included, on who can speak, when they can speak, how they can speak on how parts of the narrative may or may not be elicited from subsidiary narrators or the witnesses, and so on. But in less regulated forms, narratives are in combat in most compartments of life, public and private. Academic debate is frequently a narrative contest with, depending on the field, varying degrees of refereeing. Most obviously in the field of history, researchers spend their professional lives coming up with new narrative renderings of old stories, often with newly discovered supplementary or even constituent events. Less obviously, much of the theoretical work in fields ranging from physics to economics is a contest in the rendering of deep structural stories (as, for example, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction or that bad money drives out good). These are stories that undergird a multitude of the longer and more particularized narratives of everyday experience. Establishing these universal stories involves an extended agon of narratives (results of experiments, accounts of business failure) set against each other. Political contests, though they ostensibly focus on issues, are often a chaos of narrative contestation. There is some regulation of these contests on the floor of congress or parliament, but on the campaign trail, the contest of narratives can be unreined. Much of the energy of a campaign is devoted to the manufacture of narrative discourse within which opponents situate the excellence of their own character and, more often than not, the sad insufficiencies of their rival's character. Commercial advertising is a con­stant warfare of micro-narratives showing sad tales of folks deceived into paying hidden charges to their long distance carriers or happy tales of folks empowered by their automobiles. Finally, what is writ large on grand legal, intellectual, political, or commercial stages, is also a common occurrence of everyday life. When neighbors quarrel, or friends fall out, or family mem­bers recall their grudges, or lovers recriminate, it is almost invariably a matter of people trying somehow to certify their narrative version of events against competing versions.

"You said such cruel things to me. And then you flounced out of the room."

"I was only trying to help you. And I didn't flounce. My hip is bad."

"Bad hip, my eye. You flounced. And you were smirking."

"I wasn't smirking, I was in pain. I bit my tongue at lunch. You saw how swollen it was."

Some of us get into these contests more than others. But one way or an­ther, professionally or in our personal lives, we find ourselves in contests of narrative. Some of these make us wiser. Some don't.


Selected secondary reading

Major works in the field of "Law and Literature," which includes both proponents and critics of critical legal studies and critical race theory, are Ronald M. Dworkin, Law's Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Sanford Levinson and Steven Mailloux, eds.. Interpreting Law and Literature: A Hermeneutic Reader (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988); Stanley Fish, ed., Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989); Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz, eds., Law's Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); and Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature, revised edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).


Additional primary texts

About Lizzie Borden, the text I drew on for examples in this chapter is Trial of Lizzie Borden, edited by Edmund Pearson. This book has long been out of print and contains an introduction that is quite partial to the prosecution. But it has an ample selection from the trial, including stretches of direct and cross examination, opening and closing remarks by both the prosecution and defense, the judge's instructions to the jury, and Lizzie's testimony at the inquest. There have been many theories about these murders. One not entirely implausible argument contends that neither Lizzie nor her sister, Emma (another perennial candidate), nor Dr Bowen, nor Bridget, nor a stranger killed the Bordens, but rather Andrew Borden's illegitimate son. This is Arnold R. Brown's Lizzie Borden: The Legend, the Truth, the Final Chapter (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1991).

One good text on another famous trial that is currently on the market and that includes both trial transcript excerpts and related material is ^ Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti, edited by Robert P. Weeks (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958). Of course, the law section of any good library abounds in case studies and trial transcripts. There are also a fair number of novels, plays, and films that are largely structured as trials in which different narrative constructions of the same evidence carry the agon. One of the most famous, and successful, of these is the film version of Judge Robert Traver's 1958 novel. Anatomy of a Murder, which was nominated in 1959 for numerous Academy Awards. Another is the screen adaptation of Twelve Angry Men (1957). Originally a television play, the narrative is largely confined to the deliberations of twelve jurors in the jury room. Two other notable film adaptations in which narrative reconstruction during a trial scene predominates are Agatha Christie's short story and 1953 play, Witness for the Prosecution, filmed in 1957, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which was made into a movie in 1962.

One problem with stressing the narrative use of the trial scene is that it obscures a main point in this chapter, which is that narrative contestation can be found throughout the field of life-representative texts, fictional and non-fictional (just as it can be found throughout the texture of our lives). Any well-written narrative holds us because there are a plurality of possible stories lying ahead of us as we read. In our minds, these stories jostle with each other. This is a good working definition of suspense. If the perennial problematic narrative, Rashomon (and its 1964 American adaptation, The Outrage), is a kind of high-water mark of unresolved narrative contestation, any complex narrative can be read, viewed, or taught as a process of narrative contestation. In this chapter, and these recommendations, I have focussed on trial literature because it so vividly anatomizes this condition of narrative.

Chapter 12
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