Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
Loyalty Laura Lee’s devotion to Mrs. Clairborne compels her to protect her things, even if it means putting herself in the path of a violent man. She bodily defends her employer’s furniture when Beasley arrives to take it, and when he hits and kicks her, she incapacitates him. She is...
(The entire section contains 631 words.)
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Laura Lee’s devotion to Mrs. Clairborne compels her to protect her things, even if it means putting herself in the path of a violent man. She bodily defends her employer’s furniture when Beasley arrives to take it, and when he hits and kicks her, she incapacitates him. She is passionate in her loyalty, and she will not let Beasley steal Mrs. Clairborne’s treasured possessions without a fight.
Laura Lee’s story of her history with Mrs. Clairborne is moving to the reader and to the jury. Her relationship began at Mrs. Clairborne’s birth, and the affection between the two women deepened over the years. Unable to think about life away from Mrs. Clairborne, Laura Lee convinces Tom, her husband, that they should follow the family. Laura Lee’s devotion seems to have a dual nature: She loves Mrs. Clairborne and wants to be with her for that reason, but she also wants to continue to play a part in taking care of her. It is a familial love she describes when she says, ‘‘I love her so hard, and I reckon I can’t help myself.’’
In return, Mrs. Clairborne is loyal to Laura Lee. She continues to employ her and see that her needs are met, and she trusts her. When Laura Lee is widowed, Mrs. Clairborne offers to pay for Tom’s body to be transported back to his hometown for burial, something Laura Lee would never have been able to afford on her own. In truth, Mrs. Clairborne cannot afford it either, and she must borrow the money until her next dividend check. She offers as collateral the most cherished and prized possessions in her home, items she has refused to sell repeatedly because she loves them so much. But to keep her promise to her friend to bury her husband in the family cemetery in Georgia, she includes them in her negotiations with Beasley. She values her friendship more highly than her finest possessions.
The title, ‘‘Conscience of the Court,’’ underscores Hurston’s theme of justice as a moral and reliable force in the American judicial system. Even though the case presented in the story is one involving a lowly black maid with no attorney against a moneyed white man, the side of good wins in the end. At the beginning of the story, justice is at a disadvantage, as the people in the room and the judge himself all look on Laura Lee as guilty. Hurston writes that when Laura Lee entered the courtroom, ‘‘The hostility in the room reached her without her seeking to find it.’’ When the judge sees her struggling to understand protocol, he hesitates before helping her because ‘‘[t]his was the mankilling bear cat of a woman that he had heard so much about.’’ Besides all of the impressions and rumors Laura Lee must overcome to attain justice, there is clearly a secret deal between the judge and the prosecutor of which she is unaware. Faced with the trusting innocence of Laura Lee, the judge remembers his early fervor for justice when he was a professor, and it awakens in him his old sense of judicial integrity. So when the issue of the promissory note is presented, he demands to see it, which is clearly in violation of an agreement made with the prosecutor. Hurston describes the lawyer’s response: ‘‘The tall, lean, black-haired prosecutor hurled a surprised and betrayed look at the bench.’’
Despite so much weight against her case, Laura Lee manages to win. The judge and jury set aside any prejudices that initially impede good judgment, and they are able to see clearly that Laura Lee was justified in her attack on Beasley and that he is petty and has violent tendencies.