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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 742 Response:
Bewildering Stories discusses...

The Knave of Hearts Retried

In James Krehbiel’s Pure in Their Own Minds, Daniel is tried, convicted and executed for murder. How might readers feel about that conclusion? How might the readers themselves serve as “jurors” at Daniel’s trial?

Anna and Sarah could testify that Daniel went to prevent Joseph from shooting the family dog by mistake. But that’s where eyewitness testimony ends; Joseph and Daniel were out of sight when Joseph was shot. Readers will have to decide for themselves between a number of possibilities:

Readers may also want to consider procedural questions, for example: Daniel is 17 at the time of the alleged crime. Can he be tried as an adult? And is Sarah’s testimony hearsay, or does it shed light on Daniel’s state of mind? The imputation of incest between Daniel and Sarah is inflammatory, of course, but are there any witnesses within the story itself? Can any disinterested party in the story offer more than speculation? If not, would such testimony be admissible as evidence in court?

Fictional trials abound in both popular and classic literature. To cite only two:

In Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black), Mathilde de la Mole carries off, in a box on her lap, the head of her lover, Julien Sorel, who has been guillotined for attempting to shoot Madame de Rênal. (Why? Read the book.) Julien doesn’t commit murder, and he would not have been executed for a crime passionnel anyway. However, readers applaud Stendhal for the flourish of Romanticism that provides a satisfying ending to his classic novel.

Daniel’s trial may seem more akin to that of the Knave of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, with its famous “sentence first, verdict afterwards.” However, Pure in Their Own Minds is not a satirical fantasy; it is written in the mode of contemporary social realism.

The readers, like jurors, will have to consider whether there is reasonable doubt that Daniel has committed a crime, especially deliberate, premeditated murder. Some readers will prefer and may even insist upon a “slammed door” conclusion, but no ironclad rule requires such a thing. Since the story — including the ending — is told mostly from Sarah’s point of view, the readers needn’t be handed a kind of “directed verdict.” Sarah could be left waiting with alternating hope and despair for the jury to return, and the readers could decide whether they sympathize with her.

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