In Charles W. Chestnut's short story "The Sheriff's Children," what is the significance of "the law"? What does "the law" represent? What effect does the title have on the story and the plot?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Charles W. Chestnut's short story "The Sheriff's Children," the law represents a form of justice that is tainted and crippled by all of the prejudices characteristic of post-Civil War America near the South.

In the short story, characters speak of the law mostly in terms of penalties. What's more, the characters form prejudicial opinions about who should be receiving such penalties. For example, when the narrator reflects on the townspeople's experience with past murders, the narrator states that "every well-informed citizen" could speak of every murder that had taken place in the county over the past 50 years and talk about "whether the slayer, in any given instance, had escaped, either by flight or acquittal, or had suffered the penalty of the law." In this sentence, it's very evident that the townspeople ignore the tenant of our criminal law system--presumption of innocence, meaning that it is believed we are innocent until proven guilty. Instead, the townspeople are so prejudiced that they believe wholeheartedly in guilt, even if the accused is acquitted, and as a result, believe that the sole purpose of the law is to dole out penalties. Hence, law as the townspeople speak of it represents a duty to punish, or serve justice, but that duty is tarnished by the townspeople's prejudices.

However, the sheriff sees the law as basic principles upon which to act and as a means of protecting these basic principles. Nevertheless, the right to a fair trial is not one of the principles he is protecting when he blocks the lynch mob from illegally lynching the prisoner. Instead, as sheriff, he sees it as his duty to lynch the man himself. Hence, the law in the short story also represents a set of principles, but those principles are sadly skewed due to prejudice.

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