Debojoy Chanda: On "Justice"

On the face of it, Langston Hughes’ “Justice” is a fairly straightforward poem devoid of the rich complexity of some of his longer works. Nevertheless its portrayal of the “blind goddess” of justice contains a wealth of meaning that is worth careful examination.

Hughes refers the poem’s reader to the Western judicial tradition’s iconographic representation of the blindfolded Themis, the Greek goddess used symbolically to define the law as objective and impartial. Hughes’ “Justice” claims that Themis’ blindfold, while seeming to connote the impartiality of the law, is actually a façade purported to hide the fact that she is literally blind—or, to be more specific, blinded, as Hughes indicates by his description of her “two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes” (Hughes 3-4). I will try to analyze Hughes’ point in altering the mythological depiction of Themis to make her a blinded figure.

Themis, viewed in Western tradition as embodying the law, was ironically implicated by Greek myth in one of the two primal crimes that Freud considered as having begun the refutation of social law—that of incest. Zeus, after having castrated his father Kronos, married Themis who was actually his aunt (Lesky 99). Since Themis is portrayed in Greek myth as being contrary to the law thanks to her incestuous relationship with Zeus, her cooptation by the law as embodying it is evidently a later event founded on some basis other than her mythological portrayal. While this cooptation is difficult to date, it probably occurred sometime in the sixteenth century when Breugel first portrayed Themis as blindfolded in his drawing Justicia (1559). The representation of Themis’ blindfold as connotative of legal impartiality is in fact an inversion of the content of Breugel’s drawing. Justicia shows people being tortured while Themis, reduced to a state of impotence by being blindfolded and placed on a pedestal, is unable to redress these injustices. Her helplessness is magnified by the torturers’ obliviousness to her presence. The drawing in fact seems to convey the sense that it is the torturers who have blindfolded her to bolster their crimes. Thus Themis’ blinding, in both Breugel’s drawing and in Hughes’ poem, castrates her by rendering her impotent.

The obvious question that would arise at this point is: who does Hughes implicate with the deed of having castrated Themis? Breugel’s drawing, as I have said before, indicates that the torturers are responsible for the deed. Far from seeing her as a figure administering justice, Breugel thus defines Themis as a site on which the law is enacted with its primal act of castration being executed upon her body. In her avatar as the goddess of justice, Hughes’ Themis would therefore have the law correspondingly enacted upon her body by the group whose interests she represents—white patriarchy. Hence I would assert that “Justice” sees Themis as being made to act as the bearer and repository of white patriarchal law specifically through her symbolic castration. Far from being a goddess who possesses divine powers enabling her to mete out justice, Hughes portrays her as a helpless figure who has had the law executed upon her body.

The symbolic castration of Hughes’ Themis makes her an embodiment of the victimization that the African American has been subjected to by the white male figure. After all, the African American, by being deprived of his social rights, is castrated into social impotence—a point that Hughes demonstrates in his poem “Madam and the Phone Bill.” In the poem Alberta Johnson, an African American woman, is having to pay the bill for a long-distance phone call that her lover Roscoe has made to her. Roscoe is in all probability unable to pay for the call himself because white American society has stripped him of the requisite financial resources—which is why he can do no more than call Alberta and tell her he loves her, that being all there is to their relationship. Roscoe’s sexual impotence in this relationship is a direct outcome of his impotence in the racialized white-American social sphere. As the quintessential African American male, his own voice is silenced in the poem, with the content of his talk reaching the reader through Alberta’s repetition of it.

By epitomizing this victimization through her castration, Hughes’ Themis accurately represents white patriarchal law, such victimization being the sole constituent of erstwhile racial white-American law vis-à-vis the African American. As for the African American himself, “Justice” sees him as being “wise” to Themis’ castration because it is brought home to him every moment of his life through his own social castration. By depicting Themis’ sores as still festering Hughes emphasizes the ongoing nature of this problem i.e. the social castration of the African American is not an act that he has recuperated from. I would therefore suggest that far from viewing the blindfolded Themis as being blameworthy for not administering justice sufficiently to the African American, Hughes actually identifies her with the African American, conflating them through their shared misfortune of being castrated by white-American patriarchal law.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950.

Hughes, Langston. “Justice.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2000. 507.

---. “Madam and the Phone Bill.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2000. 521-22.

Lesky, Alwin. A History of Greek Literature. Trans. Cornelis de Heer and James Willis. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1966.


From "Castration and the Law in Langston Hughes’ 'Justice.'" Copyright © 2010 by Debojoy Chanda.


Title Debojoy Chanda: On "Justice" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Debojoy Chanda Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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