The short story The Conscience of the Court by Zora Neale Hurston is a reflection on the state of justice and racism in the United States, detailing the account of one Laura Lee Kimble in her struggle against stereotyping and self-doubt. Notably the story lingers on the topics of loyalty, faith and duty and the nature and limits of personal obedience, as the unlearned protagonist is dragged through an intimidating, alien legal system for charges she is innocent of and begins to worry that she had been forsaken by the mistress she so dutifully sacrificed for through the years. Ultimately, The Conscience of the Court is a meditation on the redemptive value of truthful speech and a morally straight life, implying that while a system might seem corrupt or capricious, the honest person, marked black by the treacherous, will eventually be redeemed, both in spirit and in physical safety. Â It is the character of the protagonist which simultaneously supplies the conflict and theme for the story, her virtue clashing in action with the antagonist and also serving as moral parable, reflecting on the nature of our greater society.
The plot of the story is fairly simple and begins in court during the opening proceedings of a case the reader has yet to be acquainted with. We are informed immediately that Laura Lee Kimble, a middle-aged African American woman and maid for the wealthy Ms. Clairborne, is on trial for “felonious and aggravated assault… Mayhem… Premeditated attempted murder on the person of one Clement Beasley” as well as “obscene and abusive language” (Bausch 682). It is implied from the outset that the accused was not responsible for the murder, her gentle disposition, kindly manner and honest speech immediately apparent. Ignorant and uneducated, Laura Lee is greatly confused and mentally stressed as the court officers and judge attempt to explain what is going on, using words which are outside of her minimal vocabulary and the understanding of her country experience (683). It is soon apparent that the woman has no legal counsel, and after it is offered and the gravity of the situation explained to her by the fair-minded judge, the prosecution stakes its case against her, claiming that the plaintiff Mr. Beasley came to collect a loan from the defendant’s employer that was past due, and as the latter was not home and seemingly had fled town to avoid paying her debts, Beasley inquired to collect on the collateral, namely the whole of the furniture inside the house. It was at this point, claims the prosecution, that the defendant brutally attacked and attempted to murder Mr. Beasley, that his life was only spared by the arrival of neighbors who had heard the ruckus. (683-684)
Dramatically dressed in bandages and splints, Mr. Beasley evokes a seething sympathetic rage from the mob of court onlookers and it seems that a guilty verdict is all but assured. Laura Lee rambles through her defense, providing a full history of her life, from the time of her childhood to the present, detailing her relationship as a maid and servant to the generous Beaufort family (Ms. Clairborne’s maiden name) up until the present, providing a different depiction of events (684-690). Laura Lee claimed that she did in fact attack the plaintiff, but only after he attempted to break into her employer’s house to commit robbery and had already assaulted her, explaining that Ms. Clairborne did not flee town but was on a deliberate vacation to relax after the stressful event of death in the family. Furthermore we are informed that Ms. Clairborne is quite wealthy, living off of just the interest accrued from her deceased father’s remaining estate, that an individual piece of antique furniture in the house is worth more than the whole sum of the $600 loan. Finally, the defendant claims that the loan was taken out to pay for the funeral costs of her deceased husband, not to defraud the lender, as was implied in the prosecutor’s case. Rather than maliciously attack the plaintiff, the story is depicted as a defense against an intruder attempting to steal her employer’s valuables, and the evidence, the bank note itself, sorely missing from the prosecution’s case, is fortuitously located to corroborate her story, the due date for the loan turning out to be three months into the future from the present date.
In the end the protagonist is hailed as a hero by those assembled in the court room while the cunning Mr. Beasley is reviled as a villain, a reflection on the capricious whims and devotions of the mob, and the racist tendency of the era: during the author’s time, you were guilty until proven innocent, if you happened to be black and poor. As fast as the gathered crowd deemed Laura Lee’s execution just and called for its expedience, they afforded to her praise and affection when the judge spoke of the plaintiff’s treachery, reflecting their imprudence and lack of foresight. Rather than deliberate on the basis of evidence and motive, the court seems almost initially to be a kangaroo trial, Laura Lee going through motions of a corrupt system to inevitably and inescapably meet her demise. It is only the judge and Laura Lee herself who remain devoted to greater principles than instant gratification: Laura Lee disregards her own wellbeing and feels more concerned about restoring the sullied honor of her mistress, feeling compelled to act upon her own defense not to save her life but to restore her employer’s credibility (684), while the judge is inspired by passionate ideals of justice and fairness and the example of civic work of statesman John Marshall (683-684). The other inhabitants of the court room have baser motives: the mob, and perhaps the jury, is there to be entertained (oblivious to the gravity of life and death) while the plaintiff and prosecutor care only for money, willfully manipulating the truth and questing to destroy an innocent woman’s life for their own monetary gain.
The character of the protagonist is the common thread tying together the narrative and conflict. Laura Lee Kimble is an honest, dutiful, courageous, altruistic and just individual, almost unbelievably so, marked by an innocence and naivetÃ© common to that of children. Like the “noble savage” of enlightenment era mythology Laura Lee is both virtuous and simple-minded, unsullied by the modern obsession with acquiring wealth at any cost, contrasting severely with her treacherous foil, Mr. Beasley. For Laura Lee, the wellbeing of people, dutiful service and good works are most important (fulfilling her role as a friend and maid to her employer in the face of all hardship and scorn), and she seems oblivious to the deceptions and injustices levied against her, instead speaking from her heart with unadulterated honesty and hoping the world is fair enough to judge her rightly. As Laura Lee is honest and altruistic, she could not allow Mr. Beasley to pass into her employer’s house to steal her goods without feeling ashamed and as she is dutiful and courageous she barred him entry at any cost, more eager to perish in resisting than betray her oaths of friendship and service. These circumstances are responsible for the conflict of the story itself, as her virtue compelled her to action against Mr. Beasley and so fostered the legal action and eventual trial against her.
It is interesting to note that while Hurston depicts Laura Lee as a stereotypical black maid, upon closer inspection shades of irony and ambiguity are apparent. Valerie Boyd elucidates this topic clearly in Wrapped in Rainbows, an authoritative biography of the author:
…there is often something ironic in Hurston’s tone, as when Laura Lee describes her sound pummeling of the white bill collector… the story’s ending is particularly odd. Cleared of the charges against her, Laura Lee comes home hungry. She is… remorseful about ever doubting [Ms. Clairborne’s] love for her and the ultimate rightness of the world. Thus, before she will eat, Laura Lee pulls out the silver platter to polish, making ‘a ritual of atonement Â by serving.’ Hurston’s attitude toward Laura Lee seems intentionally ambiguous – but on one level she certainly appears to mock the servant who is so blindly loyal to her mistress that, even in her absence, she pushes her own hunger aside to serve. (Boyd 405)
Boyd’s cynical interpretation of the final scene alludes to the guilt the protagonist felt after worrying that her mistress had abandoned her as the trial began, the maid having sent out SOS correspondence weeks earlier that seemingly went unanswered. It is revealed later in the trial by the judge that Mr. Beasley had suppressed such correspondence and that Ms. Clairborne had in fact not received her maid’s letters (691). Laura Lee is devastated by this, having realized the error of her only moral failing of the story: the abandonment of faith in loved ones. Boyd interprets her cleaning of the silver at the end of the story to represent the author’s mockery of blind obedience, but it can also be interpreted as a symbolic act of purifying doubt and a restoration of fidelity, a plot device for the protagonist to apologize to Ms. Clairborne for doubting her love without her being physically present in the story.
In truth Laura Lee is a virtuous character, not through fear, ignorance or blind obedience but by sincere disposition and willful devotion; her honesty is explicit in her words and actions and no coercive force or brainwashing element is substantiated in the story as having forced her hand to action, her heart to swell with love for Ms. Clairborne and the duties she proudly upholds. The story contends that in the end, if one remains humble and righteous, to use an old clichÃ©, the truth shall set him or her free.
Bausch, Richard, and R.V. Cassill. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Seventh Edition. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: the life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner,