Literary and Legal Intersections

A cartoon depicting the sailors from Regina v. Dudley and Stephens contemplating their terrible decision.

A cartoon depicting the sailors from Regina v. Dudley and Stephens contemplating their terrible decision.

Before entering law school I taught English literature. My work focused on helping students improve their writing, researching, and reading skills, but it is also involved the very abstract responsibility of training young people to think critically about morality, individuality, and society.



The Island of Dr. Moreau

The poet and teacher in me reads these cases and delights over their compelling human drama. Of course there’s often little time to dig into the more abstract considerations of a case (there are always more cases to read and more material to review). Yet often I am reminded with glee of the stories and lessons I was able to discuss with my own students. In fact, an episode nearly identical to the rowboat cannibals mentioned above occurs in the novel The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. Did Wells know of this case? It occurred in 1884 with much public sensation and Wells published his novel in 1896. Seems plausible!

Of course, it may be no surprise that writers draw upon the sensations of their time to inspire their literary endeavors. That said, it’s interesting to see how the court and the novel treat basically the same set of facts.

For the English court¹, the case involved weighing the necessity of three men’s choice to kill a boy in order to live another day. The court clearly struggles between condemnation of their crime and sympathy for their awful position. They were found guilty of murder, denied a justification defense and sentenced to death, but the Crown commuted their sentence to six months’ imprisonment. In serpentine fashion, the judiciary and the executive of England was thus able to pass judgment on and thereafter grant mercy.

Lord Coleridge, Chief Judge

Lord Coleridge, Chief Judge

Wells’ realization of the same facts is perhaps less optimistic. After all three inhabitants of a boat at sea draw lots to consume one among them, a fight breaks out that causes two men to tumble overboard, leaving the narrator alone and desperate. He ends up getting picked up by a passing ship and delivered to an island, but the island is inhabited by a mad scientist attempting to turn animals into human beings. He escapes back to England but remains haunted by an inability to draw distinctions between men and animals. Indeed, the first scene in the rowboat serves to foreshadow this sentiment: were those sailors, drawing lots to eat one another, any more elevated than the beasts the narrator encountered subsequently on the island? Even the narrator does not escape guilt-free, as he had consented as well in drawing the lots.

Ironically, then, the court’s verdict and the Crown’s mercy provides a more optimistic result than the work of fiction. In real life, those sailors were condemned by society but given another chance to be members of society. In Wells’ fiction, two of the sailors fail to escape death and the third lives a cursed existence, plagued by doubts about his own humanity and alienated from his own society.

Which story do you prefer? Did the court get it right? Or is Wells’ version more thought provoking?



¹ Presided over, by the way, by John Coleridge, the great-nephew of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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