[un]Stable Societies: Justice and Public Opinion in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of The Gods

Ibn al-Jawẓi (May Allāh have mercy on him) mentions that oppression almost never occurs unless it is against someone weak who possesses no helper except Allāh, and emanates from the darkness of [a person’s] heart because if [the heart] had been illuminated with the light of guidance it would have considered the end result [ of such actions].(al-‘Aynī) What is that end result? The Prophet ﷺ has informed us that oppression will be darknesses on the day of Judgement.(al-Bukhārī) That is it will be a means of darkness for the oppressor or it will cause them distress and misery on the day of judgment. (Ibn Sultan)

The rise of urban culture towards the beginning of the 20th century marked a move from the farm to the city, a place of faceless anonymity that may not have suited some people. Twelve years before the chaotic cacophony of the city was glorified by Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, Paul Laurence Dunbar depicted the pernicious influence the city can have, especially on people unaccustomed to it.(Sandburg) Beneath this, there is an undercurrent in which he critiques the interplay between public opinion and the justice system by detailing the manner in which Mr. Hamilton is incarcerated and then released not on the basis of evidence but through public opinion.

Laws, generally speaking, are established to promote order in society and help people to live their lives in peace. Governments are put in place to ensure those laws are followed. In Dunbar’s story we are shown a world in which neither of these mechanisms are operating properly.  Society is not operating based on the rule of  law, order is nonexistent, and the government is not stepping into to ensure order is being kept. The result is an agonizingly slow decent into the chaos of lawlessness that seems, at times, to be deliberately sluggish, perhaps an attempt to tug at the heart and elicit bouts of outrage at the miscarriage of justice.

The first time we are introduced to the justice system is through an agent of the law. This character is presented as a sympathetic figure who is determined to unearth the truth and serve justice to the guilty party. As the story moves along, we find that despite the clues pointing in one direction, the law is unable to pursue the evidence to its logical conclusion. It is restrained by a powerful individual who has already made up their mind about who is, and is not, guilty. Guilty until proven innocent does not exist here. The influence of this individual hijacks the justice system and forces an innocent man into the bowels of the prison, an act mimicking real life right up to the present. This is evidenced by the recent case of Annie Dookhan, a state chemist who tampered with drug tests and may “have tainted tens of thousands of criminal cases”.(Bidgood)

The second time we are introduced to the judicial system and the influence public opinion has on it, Joe has been incarcerated, and a reporter, Skaggs, is attempting to unearth the truth about Joe’s father. Skaggs’ success at freeing Mr. Hamilton, however, is just as troubling as the manner in which he was put away. Instead of being a triumph of the justice system, it is evidence of more outside tampering. The courts are seen not as independent agents ensuring order in society, but as the equivalent of a vigilante mob swayed by emotion or pawns firmly gripped by oligarchs. Mr. Hamilton is not freed because he was not guilty; the din of the proletariat forces the state to release him, and they begrudgingly assent by pardoning him, a word calling forth ideas of forgiveness for a wrong committed. To put it another way, he is not released as an innocent man, but as a man who has served enough of his sentence to pay for his ‘crimes’.

These acts of oppression by the courts not only cause the law enforcement and justice system to be looked upon with suspicion by ‘minorities’, they also destroy families and the society. An artificial cycle of incarceration, short as it is, is set in motion by Maurice, though Frank certainly bears some of the blame as well. The oppression unleashed by these two consumes Mr. Hamilton, spitting him back out as damaged goods, thoroughly destroys his son, and crushes both his daughter and his wife. Bereft of the head of their household and cloaked in shame, the family unit, the very bricks upon which societies are built, is torn apart, and scattered to the winds. This fictional depiction somehow manages to vividly display the plight of modern families afflicted by a court system, and the agents of that system, which are collectively biased and corrupt, as the juristic principle states lil akthari ḥukm al-kul [the majority has the rule of the entirety]. That is, if majority of a set is a particular way the whole set is treated as though it were the same. Bearing all of the above in mind, Dunbar’s perceived critique of the justice system and public opinion raises another interesting question. How stable is a society that willfully tears apart the family and ignores its own laws?


al-‘Aynī, Mahmūd Ibn Aḥmad. ‘Umdah al-Qārī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Beirut, Lebanon. Dar Al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah. 2001. Electronic.

Bidgood, Jess. “Massachusetts Justices Clear Way for New Trials in Cases Chemist May Have Tainted.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 May 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

al-Bukhari, Muhammad Ibn Ismail. alJāmiᶜ al-Musnād as-Ṣaḥīḥ Min Ḥādīthi Rasullāh Ṣallāhu Alaihi Wa Sallam Wa Sunanihi Wa Ayāmihi. 2nd ed. Karachi, Pakistan. Qadimi Kutub Khana. 1961. Print.

Ibn Sultan Muhammad, Ali. Mirqāṭ Al-Mafāṭīḥ Sharḥ Mishkāh Al-Maṣābīḥ. Ed. Jamal Itani. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Beirut, Lebanon. Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiyyah. 2007. Print.

Sandburg, Carl. “Poetry Magazine.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.


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