Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Mary E. Panke

Committee Members

Allen Dunn, Charles Maland, Otis Stephens


This project investigates the use of legal discourse, particularly the language of contractual obligation and rights claims, in selected works by Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. By carefully examining specific instances of legal discourse in these writers' texts, I suggest its importance to these writers as a means to articulate specific claims about human needs and to challenge the ways in which, generally speaking, law and philosophy respond to these claims. Thus, I argue that legal discourse works in two primary ways in these writers' texts: first, legal discourse marks the intersection of legal and ethical claims, and second, legal discourse calls up both the limits and possibilities of law, and by extension philosophy, as a means to resolve such claims. Each author, in one or more major works, uses legal discourse to address questions about justice and thus asks us to consider what characterizes and ethical person and what constitutes ethical relationships with others. An analysis of the work of Alcott and Howells reveals the relationship between rights claims and their origins in contract as interpersonal promising and within the broader framework of the social contract and legal contracts as means to define and to establish justice. This relationship, rendered problematic by Alcott and Howells, is extensively critiqued by James and Wharton.

Files over 3MB may be slow to open. For best results, right-click and select "save as..."