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Race, Gender, Justice

Storytelling in ‚The Greenlanders’

Jason S. Polley

Pages 27 - 50


In ‘The Greenlanders’ (1988), a novel that I read as a meditation on the nature of justice, Jane Smiley crafts indispensable links between survival, legality, and shared narrative. In her critically ignored masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist posits how increased seclusion leads to the loss of collective stories in Greenland, the only established European civilization to fall apart and disappear. At the height of her fictional case study of justice, Smiley’s ill-fated characters disband their annual tribunal (evocatively titled the ‘Thing’). In doing so, they forfeit their chances of survival. To put it simply, the law equals life in Greenland. Without the Thing and its inherent—and essential—ironies, ironies that tie the practice of justice to memory, debate, and liability, the colony cannot endure. For Smiley, irony is the preserve of justice. Since irony is one way of creating correctives to the law, justice integrates incongruity in order to serve and protect. Without a system of law to question, however, there can be no corrective, no means by which to redirect the unjust courses of legality.


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