Sunday, 14 July 2013

Human Justice by Charlotte Bronte

This is a devoir written by Charlotte for M. Heger, translated by Jean Inebnit. This translation appears in the Brontë Society Transactions, 1952. Observe, in Villette, Lucy Snowe has to write an essay on Human Justice too.

Moralists of all times, both ancient and modern, have held forth upon the imperfections of the human race. By their telling, there is no gold unmixed with lead; perfection is out of man's reach; in the best institutions of the wisest legislators, flaws are to be found. At times one is impatient at hearing these arid sayings so often repeated; yet the moralists have right on their side; it is easier to scoff at what they say than to disprove it. What can be loftier than justice in this abstract? - But its administration is subject to gross abuse.
Let us take the case of one accused of crime. True justice requires that conviction shall precede punishment, but human justice deems that even mere suspicion permits the imposition of severe penalties. The accused undergoes long imprisonment ere he is summoned before the tribunal that is to decided his fate; if alas, he has already a bent towards learning what vice can teach him, where better can it be developed and perfected? Supposing, on the other hand, that his soul is uncontaminated, what can compare with the sufferings of the virtuous, surrounded by wicked and unfortunate whose condition he is powerless to ameliorate?
But the accused is at last brought before the judge; his trial takes place; the ablest lawyer in the land is charged with the office of accusing him; the King's attorney sets for him the deceitful traps of the law; employs against him all his art, all the tricks of the trade, seeking to entangle and intimidate.  By so doing, he is sometimes the friend of justice; tearing off the mask of vice he shows the man as he really is and assigns the punishment that is his due; but sometimes he is the foe of virtue - these harsh epithets, these bitter invectives, this powerful oratory smirch the unsullied robe of innocence. Allegory says the filth falls off, leaving it unsoiled; reality shows that, not infrequently, innocence succumbs to the unjust attack - yields; and allows herself to be covered with the black mud that is thrown.  But of five charged with crime, three are usually acquitted; is Justice, then, after all, just? Before the gaze of the world she is; in public she functions well. But follow the accused when he leaves the court, accompany him to the home from which, some months before, he was torn. He is perhaps a poor man; during his absence his family has undergone the visitation of hunger, thirst and misery - gruesome guests; he finds both wife and children changed, paler and sadder than before; yet joy rekindles in their hearts when he returns; hopes accompanies him, his presence seems to drive out suffering. He counsels courage and patience, "I will work," he says; "my children shall hunger, my wife grieve, no more." He leaves his home to find work; it takes longer than he expected; he learns that nothing is as it was before him; he is a leper. His innocence is recognised in law; but by the charge brought against him it has been smirched, and he is repulsed by human justice. Driven from the homes of virtue, vice offers a refuge. He may resist her attractions: but he may succumb to them, and upon whom then should we lay the burden of responsibility for his crimes? Should he alone sustain it? or should not the pharisees by whose scorn he was made desperate, assume their share?
And here is the extract from Villette, about the two examiners demanding Lucy writes Human Justice,
"Pious mentors!" thought I. "Pure guides for youth! If `Human Justice' were what she ought to be, you two would scarce hold your present post, or enjoy your present credit".
An idea once seized, I fell to work. "Human Justice" rushed before me in novel guise, a red, random beldame, with arms akimbo. I saw her in her house, the den of confusion: servants called to her for orders or help which she did not give; beggars stood at her door waiting and starving unnoticed; a swarm of children, sick and quarrelsome, crawled round her feet, and yelled in her ears appeals for notice, sympathy, cure, redress. The honest woman cared for none of these things. She had a warm seat of her own by the fire, she had her own solace in a short black pipe, and a bottle of Mrs. Sweeny's soothing syrup; she smoked and she sipped and she enjoyed her paradise, and whenever a cry of the suffering souls about her pierced her ears too keenly—my jolly dame seized the poker or the hearth-brush; if the offender was weak, wronged, and sickly, she effectually settled him; if he was strong, lively, and violent, she only menaced, then plunged her hand in her deep pouch, and flung a liberal shower of sugar-plums.
Such was the sketch of "Human Justice", scratched hurriedly on paper, and placed at the service of Messrs. Boissec and Rochemorte.
They think her work is too good to be by a student, and was written by Paul Emanuel who passed it off as his student's work, hoping to gain credit as a good teacher. This is not true. It is interesting that Human Justice is in "novel guise" - it is more an emotional story, judging from Charlotte's devoirs, than a logical argument along the lines of 18th century philosophers. From the passage, it seems that Human Justice does not exist for those sufferers who need it. "The honest woman" is comfortable and insensitive to the cries of the people, and when they protest too much (to her) she shuts them up. Why an honest woman? Is she the personification of Human Justice? But here's another clue: this dame will persecute a weak offender who dares complain and silence him, but if the protester is strong, lively and violent, she will placate him by rewarding him. Basically only the strong and violent survive, according to Charlotte in this essay. It is an effective way of showing Lucy's own pessimistic and naturalistic (before Naturalism became a movement) views on life and existence, and foreshadows Lucy's own fate. She, weak, unloved and unlovable, is unrewarded and does not gain a high position in society, though she rebels against society. But people like Ginevra, who demand more, get it because she is strong and lively. Especially Mme Beck, a strong, violent woman, gets her way, and so does Mme Walravens. It is like natural selection before Darwin, only Charlotte was a devout Christian and not scientific at all.  Some are meant to be happy and prosper, she darkly intimates, near the end of the book, whereas some are meant to be alone like her. Lucy is unfortunately weak, unconnected and uncharming, and so she gets no share of justice. We can see both devoirs are different, but the unwritten devoir in Villette seems to bear the mark of emotional maturity and existentialism; the first is more conventional.

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