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Courting Failure

Women and the Law in Twentieth-Century Literature

By Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson

Publication Year: 2007

For the past twenty years, the law and literature movement has been gaining ground. More recently, a feminist perspective has enriched the field. With Courting Failure: Women and the Law in Twentieth-Century Literature, Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson adds a compelling voice to the discussion. Courting Failure critically explores the representation of women, fictional and historical, in conflict with the law. Macpherson focuses on the judicial system and the staging of women's guilt, examining both the female suspect and the female victim in a wide variety of media, including novels like Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, theatrical plays, movies such as I Want to Live! and Legally Blonde, and the television series Ally McBeal. In these texts and others, canonical or popular, Macpherson exposes the court as an arena in which women often fail, or succeed only by subverting the system. Combining feminist literary theory with the discourse of the law and literature movement, Courting Failure is a highly readable and analytically rigorous study of justice and gender on the page and screen.

Published by: The University of Akron Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

A number of scholars have lent me time, advice, and sources over the years, including Janet Beer, Susan Castillo, Martin Kayman, Ian Scott, Jacquie Berben-Masi, Annette Bennington-McElhiney, Dianne Dutton, Monika Fludernik, and Greta Olson. I would like to thank Vivien Hughes and Michael Hellyer (retired) at the Canadian High Commission. Some of the research for this book has been made possible through the generous assistance of the Canadian government's Faculty Research Program....

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Introduction. Literature, Law, and Desire

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pp. 1-30

To the extent that law itself is a narrative, it cannot only be the accumulated record of issues resolved through application of law to facts by a neutral decision maker. By recognizing the tinted narrative lens, we can understand how law reinforces the views of the powerful through the continual retelling of stories from the dominant perspective.1 This book emerges out of the recognition that women's literature and literature about women seem insistently to revisit questions of the law, the parameters of the court, and the regulation of desire. It is not based on whether the representations of the law in literature are accurate or truthful...

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Chapter One. Prison, Passion, and the Female Gaze

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pp. 31-54

Twentieth-century women writers engage in metaphorical rewritings of the panopticon, inserting explicit and implicit references to it within many of their novels on women and the law. Designed by Jeremy Bentham as an “inspection-house” and made famous by Michel Foucault's incisive reading of it, the panopticon is a place to set aside and observe the criminal, the damaged, or the subject who needs to be contained. Its central watchtower...

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Chapter Two. Pursuit of Property: Neoslave Narratives and the Law

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pp. 55-103

This chapter explores the way in which African American women have been historically viewed as “property.” Moreover, it explores the impact of constructions of race on women and the law, focusing specifically on neoslave narratives. The term “neoslave narrative” is credited to Bernard W. Bell, author...

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Chapter Three. “Mother Knows Best”: Women, Children, and the Law

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pp. 104-148

Legal stories about contested motherhood stretch as far back as biblical narratives and offer rich sources for twentieth-century texts: in just two examples, Bertholt Brecht updates the King Solomon dispute in his 1944 play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Margaret Atwood rewrites the pact between...

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Chapter Four. Staging the Scene: Women, Drama, and the Law

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pp. 149-171

Pierre Bourdieu’s use of the word “actor” here is not accidental: it highlights the ways in which law courts and the stage have much in common and how each individual plays a role. It is in relation to the staging of guilt or innocence that the connection between these arenas becomes clearest. For example, drama...

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Chapter Five. Spectacular Expectations: Women, Film, and the Law

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pp. 172-223

The relation between women and the law is insistently explored in film and television serials. Indeed, in general terms, the law and film link is perhaps even more apparent than the law-literature connection. Mainstream cinema offers summer blockbusters by John Grisham and Scott Turow, social-conscience films about the law,...

Conclusion. Courting Success

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pp. 224-238

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pp. 239-268

Just as the title Courting Failure conjures up a host of meanings, so, too, does the title of this conclusion, “Courting Success.” It suggests not a final accomplishment, but a process, and signals at least an optimistic stance toward the future. Throughout this book, I have explored a myriad of issues to do with women and the law, reading real-life trials against fictional texts (and vice versa) and closely reading the responses to women's perceived femininity. In many places, these readings offer uncomfortable examples of women's pain and unfairly differentiated treatment before the courts....


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pp. 269-285


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pp. 287-294

E-ISBN-13: 9781935603764
E-ISBN-10: 1935603760
Print-ISBN-13: 9781931968485
Print-ISBN-10: 1931968489

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: none
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 649895531
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Courting Failure

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Women -- Legal status, laws, etc.
  • Legal films -- History and criticism.
  • Feminist literary criticism.
  • Legal television programs -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Law in literature.
  • Women in literature.
  • Courts in literature.
  • Canadian literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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