Revising Justice: Punitory Thought and Action in the Work of Atwood, Jordan, and Oates

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Hall, Amy Laura

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*Designated as an exemplary master's project for 2015-16*

This paper examines how contemporary literature contributes to the discussion of punitory justice. It uses close analysis of three contemporary novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, and Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, to deconstruct different conceptions of punitory justice. This analysis is framed and supported by relevant social science research on the concept of punitivity within criminal justice. Each section examines punitory justice at three levels: macro, where media messages and the predominant social conversation reside; meso, which involves penal policy and judicial process; and micro, which encompasses personal attitudes towards criminal justice. The first two chapters evaluate works by Atwood and Jordan, examining how their dystopian schemas of justice shed light on top-down and bottom-up processes of punitory justice in the real world. The third chapter uses a more realistic novel, Oates’s Carthage, to examine the ontological nature of punitory justice. It explores a variety of factors that give rise to and legitimize punitory justice, both at the personal level and within a broader cultural consensus. This chapter also discusses how both victim and perpetrator can come to stand in as metaphors to both represent and distract from broader social issues. As a whole, analysis of these three novels illuminate how current and common conceptualizations of justice have little to do with the actual act of transgression itself. Instead, justice emerges as a set of specific, conditioned responses to perceived threats, mediated by complex social, cultural, and emotive forces.





Barker, Natalya (2016). Revising Justice: Punitory Thought and Action in the Work of Atwood, Jordan, and Oates. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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