“Punishment,” written by Rabindranath Tagore, and “Conscience of the Court,” created by Zora Neale Hurston, is two stories in which an innocent woman finds herself in court after being accused guilty of something she did not do. Even though these pieces of writing discuss two absolutely different cases with diverse characters, the themes they underline are very similar. “Punishment” speaks about the family relationship and love between two brothers and their wives, whose world collapses after the murder of one character, while “Conscience of the Court” speaks about devotion and genuine love of an employer that is challenged by the accusation of a crime. Thus, the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and women’s place in the world can be compared while speaking about Chandara Rui, Laura Lee Kimble, and the courts that tried them.
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Even though both stories represent women as dependent human beings, who cannot control their lives to the full, the main female character in “Punishment” reveals her strength while the one in “Conscience of the Court” tends to be vulnerable. Tagore’s Chandara Rui is a strong character who is not willing to yield to the circumstances. She realizes that her world is ruled by men, but she is ready to protect herself and make others respect her.
Chandara quarrels with her relatives if she believes that something is wrong. For example, as her husband, Chidam, tries to lock her away, she runs to her uncle, even as she realizes that she will have to return: “Chandara had fled three villages away, to her maternal uncle’s house” (Muzaffar 28). In this way, the woman shows that even though she accepts her role in the family and in society, she is not going to forget her own self and will stand her ground.
Hurston’s Laura fails to create such a strong rebel impression and appears to be more defensive. Being a maid who cares for and loves her employer just like a mother, Laura looks like a very simple and humble static character who is not ready to face the difficulties and injustices of the world: “You jury-gentelmens, they asked me if I was guilty or no, and I still don’t know whether I am or not” (Rimstidt 112). Being in the court, the woman emphasizes her innocence but is more reactive than proactive. She is looking for support and fair justice, while Chandara realizes that passive behavior cannot save. In this way, though in similar situations, the protagonists of the two stories act differently.
Feminist critic Rita Felski, as well as many other professionals, notices that female protagonists of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Chandara and Laura, tend to have very limited opportunities in their lives (Brändström 7). Their destinies are tightly connected with males so that they can live unhappily but married (Chandara) or widowed and lonely (Laura). Moreover, the area in which they live and act rarely extends further than their marital home or the one where they lived with parents (Brändström 7).
Both stories reveal those events that take place in a very limited territory that mainly includes only home and the court. In this way, the readers have an opportunity to understand that the main characters could not live their lives differently. Rosalind Barnett also supports such an idea, claiming that people tend to focus on one particular role of women, even though they can maintain several of them at the same time (158). For example, she emphasizes employment and motherhood.
Chandara is expected to be a perfect woman who obeys her husband even when he tells her to take responsibility for the murder. People do not need her to do anything else, even if she is able to. In the same way, Laura turns out to be a loyal and reliable employee. She lives to serve Mrs. Celestine Clairborne, protecting and assisting her. Even in the court, the woman does not really think about herself. She just wishes to ensure that the truth will be revealed and she will be able to care for Mrs. Celestine.
The themes of loyalty and betrayal are typical for both “Punishment” and “Conscience of the Court.” For example, in the story written by Tagore, the attention can be paid to relatives and their relationship. The family members are expected to support and protect each other regardless of the situation, but this utopian view vanishes with the first scenes as Chidam’s brother murders his wife. Being a faithful wife who depends on males, Chandara seems to be expected to take the guilt and confess even though she is innocent. But it also means that her family is to support her so that she can be saved. Still, the woman is betrayed:
Ramlochan appreciated his logic. ―Then say what actually happened, he said. ―You can‘t protect yourself on all sides. He had soon, after leaving, spread it around the village that Chandara Rui had, in a quarrel with her sister-in-law, split her head open with a farm-knife. Police charged into the village like a river in flood. Both the guilty and the innocent were equally afraid (Muzaffar 27).
This situation shows that there is no sense for Chandara to be a faithful wife and sister-in-law, as these people are ready to sacrifice her in order to save themselves. Even presupposing that she can tell the truth and avoid the death penalty, her family fails to assure her that she will have a happy life.
Just like Chandara, Laura does not receive expected support from the person she cares most of all. The woman asks several times of Mrs. Clairborne, but it turns out that her employer is not aware of the situation. Still, her loyalty and determination to reveal the truth for Mrs. Clairborne are enormous: “Maybe it reached her, and then maybe again it didn’t. Anyhow, I ain’t had a single scratch from Miz’ Celestine, and here I am. But I love her so hard, and I reckon I can’t help myself” (Rimstidt 116). Even the court is impressed by this trait of the protagonist, and the judge believes that it helped him to find the true criminal, as he says, “I am the one who should be thanking you” (Rimstidt 122).
In this framework, it is also critical to mention that the court plays a critical role in the lives of the protagonists. In general, it is expected to find the truth, which means that women should be saved. But such an outcome is reached only for Laura, whose judge believes that:
The protection of women and children, he said, was inherent, implicit in Anglo-Saxon civilization, and here in these United States, it had become a sacred trust. He reviewed the long, slow climb of humanity from the rule of the club and the stone hatchet to the Constitution of the United States (Rimstidt 122).
In “Punishment,” the judge also tries to reach the right conclusion, but, feeling that she is betrayed and not loved by her husband, Chandara considers that it would be better for her to die, so she insists on being guilty and waits for the death penalty, which is the opposite of Laura’s situation.
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Thus, “Punishment” and “Conscience of the Court” are two pieces of writing that tell similar stories that are concerned with loyalty, betrayal, and the place of women. Still, their female protagonists are so different that the outcomes they reach have nothing in common.
Barnett, Rosalind. “Women and Multiple Roles: Myths and Reality.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 12 (2004): 158-164. Print.
Brändström, Camilla. “Gender and Genre”: A Feminist Exploration of the Bildungsroman in a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Martha Quest, 2009. Web.
Muzaffar, Hanan. Introduction to Comparative Literature, 2010. Web.
Rimstidt, Aaron. Famous Contributors: Zora Neale Hurston, 2012. Web.