The Lifeboat

What happens when law is nowhere to be found?

Imagine you’re drifting on a menacing sea in an overloaded lifeboat. The boat will sink and all will perish unless some of the survivors leave the boat. You are starving, cold, and weak after many days on the open sea. Rising waves swell into the boat as a storm approaches. You must act. You must choose. Do you help others who conspire to throw fellow passengers overboard? Do you risk being thrown over yourself if you remain passive? Do you come to the aide of those who may be jettisoned?

In the confusion and terror of the moment, you are drawn into an altercation that results in a crew member going overboard. He drowns. The boat doesn’t sink in the storm. You are saved within days by a passing boat.

But salvation does not greet you at the shore. The legal system will now judge your actions. You are arrested and tried for murder. The very laws that were so conspicuously absent on the boat will now determine your fate. The historical facts and intentions that were so ambiguous and confusing now lay in the hands of twelve strangers on the jury. The legal process is governed by procedures and rules alien to you as – it would seem – the lawyers are to the truth. You are lost at sea again, this time metaphorically, as you face justice in the American legal system.

These are among the central tensions in The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan’s novel of morality, legality, and indeterminacy in law and life. We ask what happens when law is absent and when it returns to adjudicate its subjects. In such circumstances, how can our legal system fairly adjudicate facts – how can we possibly know what really happened on the abandoned boat at sea? And how then can we judge such “facts”?

These questions return us to the deeper concerns that have occupied us: is it ever necessary to ignore or break the law? Are there times when law and morality become incompatible and, if so, how do we choose between them? Here, again, what is law and why should we obey? Put in the starkest terms, would you sacrifice others to save yourself? Yourself to save them?


  1. Paul Aker says:

    Is the Empress Alexandra a metaphor for Grace’s life…a fleeting moment of security—even opulence—only to be struck by tragedy and left with nothing?

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