Study Guide

Evangeline Justice and Judgment

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Justice and Judgment

Yet am I not of those who imagine some evil intention
Brings them here, for we are at peace; and why then molest us?' (295-296)

Oh, Benedict—poor, naïve Benedict: you might imagine that, just because you haven't done anything bad to the English soldiers, they won't do you any harm. But then again, you wouldn't be banking on the presence of injustice in the world.

'Must we in all things look for the how, and the why, and the where-fore?
Daily injustice is done, and might is the right of the strongest!'
But without heeding his warmth, continued the notary public,—
'Man is unjust, but God is just; and finally justice
Triumphs; (298-302)

René Leblanc—the old notary public with the flowing blond mullet—totally sees that the world is not just. However, he's also sure that God's version of justice will always win out in the end. Do you think this poem's conclusion supports, or subverts, that idea?

'Once in an ancient city, whose name I no longer remember,
Raised aloft on a column, a brazen statue of Justice
Stood in the public square, upholding the scales in its left hand,
And in its right a sword, as an emblem that justice presided
Over the laws of the land, and the hearts and homes of the people.
Even the birds had built their nests in the scales of the balance,
Having no fear of the sword that flashed in the sunshine above them.
But in the course of time the laws of the land were corrupted;
Might took the place of right, and the weak were oppressed, and the mighty
Ruled with an iron rod. Then it chanced in a nobleman's palace
That a necklace of pearls was lost, and erelong a suspicion
Fell on an orphan girl who lived as a maid in the household.
She, after form of trial condemned to die on the scaffold,
Patiently met her doom at the foot of the statue of Justice.
As to her Father in heaven her innocent spirit ascended,
Lo! o'er the city a tempest rose; and the bolts of the thunder
Smote the statue of bronze, and hurled in wrath from its left hand
Down on the pavement below the clattering scales of the balance,
And in the hollow thereof was found the nest of a magpie,
Into whose clay-built walls the necklace of pearls was inwoven.' (306-325)

Sorry for the long passage here, but this is Leblanc's entire story about God's justice and so we thought it was worth looking at more closely. What really happened here? A girl was wrongfully convicted and executed for stealing a nobleman's jewelry. Then it seems that God revealed the truth to the villagers by breaking the statue and revealing the true culprits: magpies (we knew it). Um, we hate to stop René when he's on a roll here, but is this actually justice? Isn't it just truth? After all, we don't hear about the girl coming back from the dead, nor even the nobleman being punished for his terrible mistake. Is truth always just? Can justice require lying? Big questions, Shmoopers—and it's not clear that René has all the answers.

[…] all your lands, and dwellings, and cattle of all kinds
Forfeited be to the crown; and that you yourselves from this province
Be transported to other lands. God grant you may dwell there
Ever as faithful subjects, a happy and peaceable people!
Prisoners now I declare you; for such is his Majesty's pleasure!' (436-440)

Boom—here is your one-stop injustice shop. Just because it "pleases" the king, the Acadians lose everything. This is the central injustice of the poem, one that never really seems to be fixed.

Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured, 'Father, I thank thee!' (1380)

This ending is a bit of a noodlescratcher. Do you think Evangeline finally experiences justice at the end, even though Gabriel up and dies on her in like 15 seconds? Or does the fact that she saw him again in life make up for the past injustices that were done to her? How you answer those questions will really color your reading of the whole poem.

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