Justice and justification in A Death by Stephen King
The New Yorker
March 9, 2015
This short story was published in March 9th issue of The New Yorker. The review contains spoilers—be aware!
Stephen King is called “the father of horror” and viewed as an iconic writer of supernatural and science fiction at the first place, but it’s easy to notice that all his diverse works are focused on the same object—the human.
People, their backgrounds, life choices and behavior are more important for the writer than any of the mystical phenomenons or monsters you may meet in his books. Stephen King explores people, and for this purpose he places them in unique conditions, such as a giant dome over a small town, a distant hotel inhabited by supernatural forces, or an inescapable prison in Maine. He tortures his characters, drives them to unbearable choices, kills them and turns them into killers, and locks them up. Yeah, he locks them up pretty often. Themes of the crime, guilt, and incarceration are very common in his works, and the new short story A Death concentrates exactly on these topics.
The events take place in the town of Black Hills, Dakota, which is not yet an American state. Jim Trusdale, the town nitwit, is arrested for the murder of a young girl and for stealing her silver birthday dollar. The 19th century machine of justice is fast and horrifying: a judge and a prosecutor are the same person, a public defender has two years at a business school, and a gallows is erected before the trial ends. From the death of the girl, the story inevitably moves to the death of the man who is accused of the crime.
But is he really guilty?
This question runs through the story from the very beginning. A lot of details contribute to reader’s doubts. Jim Trusdale is a simple-minded guy, who’s incapable to understand what he’s up to, and it’s impossible to envision him as a cold-blooded murderer. Moreover, the evidence is suspiciously straightforward, the “townsmen” are repulsive and violent, and the trial is poorly held. In other words, we as readers have a lot of reasons for disbelief, which grows steadily as the town’s sheriff Barclay shares it.
An innocent man on a death row is a painful image, especially depicted by such a master storyteller as Stephen King. With simple dialogs, frugal descriptions, and clichéd yet soulful scenes of Jim Trusdale’s last meal and last words, King strengthens our belief that Jim Trusdale can’t be the murderer. A lot of feelings are evoked: an inevitable desire to stop all these brutes, who are overwhelmed by hate, anger, and vengeance, a hope that the real murderer will be found, and feelings of suspicion towards almost every character of the story. And when the trap drops, the reader and the sheriff share this awful feeling that they have allowed the killing of the innocent.
Good literature evokes strong emotions.
Then we learn about that silver dollar found in Jim Trusdale’s underwear. It’s just the right moment to realize that all this “you took the wrong man” certitude was based solely on emotions. As Jim Trusdale’s advocates, we never had facts that could beat what Jim’s opponents have on him. All we had was bias and confidence that we can’t be wrong, and at this point we’re no better than bloodthirsty Black Hills residents. We substituted justification with compassion and pity the same they substituted justice with vengeance.
At this moment, Sheriff Barclay called himself a fool, and so did I. Because Mr. King fooled us all.
He never wanted to tell the story of murder and catch the reader’s attention with detective narrative—at the end of the day he doesn’t really give us a solid answer (it might be enough for the sheriff, but personally I’m not convinced that the dollar proves the guilt; there are a lot of possibilities for it to appear in the hangman’s underwear). It occurs to me that the real intention of the writer was to make us believe in a fallacy that we, as invisible spectators of the Black Hills events, are the only glorified souls around there. The author feeds us an illusion of our superiority over all these hateful people and their shortsighted conclusions. For a short time, we gladly accept that we can’t be wrong, we know better, and we are better.
Skillful literature makes you develop fantasies and illusions.
So here’s the truth and it’s disappointing. The story teaches us an unpleasant lesson: one can’t be always right, even if one’s feelings are kind and clean and rooted in a belief in humankind. It doesn’t matter what exactly—love or hate—blinds you, if you lose the ability to act justly. Just imagine: the girl’s murderer, whoever it is, was overwhelmed by the flash of belief that his itch for that dollar is more important than girl’s rights on it, and his impunity weights more than her life. How is that really differ from the feeling of superiority we’ve just had reading the story? No difference, I would say. So, how often do we sacrifice justice to our affections? How often do we choose a position just because it’s opposite to the position of unpleasant people? How often do we become slaves of our own illusions?
Mighty literature makes you ask questions.
That’s exactly what A Death is—a piece of mighty literature, capable of addressing readers’ emotions, mind, and conscience. A modest, but powerful story that draws the reader in a psychological experiment. Not to mention it’s very, very well written.
You might have met these high brow snobs who argued that Stephen King’s books on your shelf indicate bad taste. For such type of people, Mr. King will probably forever remain a guy who wrote the scene of underage group sex in a sewerage pipe, but try to give them this short story. I bet the person who won’t be fooled by it and won’t love it knows nothing about literature.