Montana 1948

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Law versus Justice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Law versus Justice Theme Icon
Family and Loyalty Theme Icon
Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Montana 1948, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Law versus Justice Theme Icon

The central conflict in Montana 1948 concerns the tensions and differences between the practice and enforcement of law and the more abstract notion of justice, and the realization that the law does not or cannot always provide justice. The book repeatedly notes how the practice and enforcement of law is susceptible to public opinion and abuses of power.

Dr. Frank Hayden takes advantage of the fact that the his brother, Sheriff Wesley Hayden, does not have jurisdiction in the reservations, and abuses Native American women who trust him to provide care for them. His abuse is enabled by a legal kind of technicality. What’s more, the Sherriff is an elected official in this town. That means Wesley must make sure he has the support of the people of the town before he makes an arrest. His son David notes, in fact, that his father is at his most social when he is closing in on a suspect. This is in part the reason Gail Hayden, Wesley’s wife, wishes he were a lawyer and not a sheriff—perhaps he could pursue justice in the courtroom in a way he could not on the streets.

The arrest of Frank Hayden proves especially difficult, because the law is not well equipped to deliver justice. The fact that public opinion of Frank Hayden is so high—and the public opinion of Native Americans is generally low—makes it unlikely that he will be indicted on the murder of Marie Little Soldier, though Wesley is sure of his brothers’ guilt. The power that the Hayden Family has in this town is another factor that corrupts the law. Grandpa Hayden (Julian) will make sure that his favorite son Frank does not go to jail—his wealth and influence allow him to bend the law in his favor.

Wesley himself is often torn about his duty as the law describes it and his duty to justice. He knows the law, in practice, will not convict his brother. Yet he decides to continue pressing charges anyway. He refuses to be personally responsible for the unjust release of his brother. Gail also pursues justice over law—though her husband has no jurisdiction on the reservations, and despite the fact that the law has historically failed to protect the rights of Native Americans like Marie Little Soldier, she insists that the Sherriff do an investigation.

The novella thus portrays how the ideal of justice is often unmet by the practical realities of the legal system in the United States, particularly for the less powerful. Following WWII, the US was experiencing a kind of rude awakening, as the horrors of the war ushered in a clash between idealism and realism—Watson is making a powerful point about the reality of corruption, compromises, and abuses that are present even in “all-American” small-town life. The book takes a stand against the notion that the US is idyllically “free” or “fair” by depicting the profound difference between law and justice.

Law versus Justice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Law versus Justice appears in each chapter of Montana 1948. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Law versus Justice Quotes in Montana 1948

Below you will find the important quotes in Montana 1948 related to the theme of Law versus Justice.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The sheriff of Mercer County was elected, but such was my grandfather’s popularity and influence—and the weight of the Hayden name—that it was enough for my grandfather to say…now I want my son to have this job…It would never have occurred to my father to refuse.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Grandpa Hayden (Julian)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David explains that his family is, essentially, Montana royalty. David's grandfather, Julian Hayden, is a well-known figure, prosperous and well-respected. As a result, David's father, Wesley, has a lot to live up to: he wants to impress his father and honor the Hayden name. Thus, when Julian pulls some strings to ensure that Wesley will become the next sheriff, Wesley has to accept: he doesn't want to disappoint his dad.

The passage shows the first hints of corruption in town. For now, the corruption is pretty "standard," just some "good ole boy" nepotism (a father getting his son a good job, but potentially ousting others who were more qualified). And yet the passage shows signs of a tension in the Hayden family: Wesley is loyal and indebted to his family, but he also seems to resent his father telling him what to do at all times. Deliberately, Watson doesn't tell us right away what the crime in Montana was--he leaves us to guess. For now, it seems possible that the crime might have had something to do with Wesley and his father.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“That’s not the way it works. You know that. Sins—crimes—are not supposed to go unpunished.”
Even then I knew what the irony of the conversation was: the secretary lecturing the lawyer, the law enforcement officer, on justice.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Gail Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gail tells Wesley the truth about Frank’s crimes. Wesley has just had a conversation with Frank, and Frank has supposedly promised to stop molesting women. Wesley seems satisfied with the matter, but Gail insists that Frank needs to be punished for the crimes he’s already committed: he can’t be allowed to get away with sexual assault for so many years. David is mature enough to recognize the irony that Gail is telling Wesley, a law enforcement officer, how to do his job.

In a sense, Gail is exactly right: Frank deserves punishment. But it’s easier for her to say than it is for Wesley. Wesley is Frank’s brother, and he can’t bring himself to punish one of his own family members. In the end, we’ll see, Gail’s advice inspires Wesley to become a more committed sheriff, standing up for what he knows to be right instead of sweeping Frank’s crimes under the rug.

“You know what your granddad said it means to be a peace officer in Montana? He said it means knowing when to look and when to look away.”

Related Characters: Len McAuley (speaker), David Hayden, Grandpa Hayden (Julian)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David has a strange encounter with Wesley’s deputy, an old, recovering alcoholic named Len. Len is a loyal follower of Wesley’s father, Julian—at times, he seems more loyal to Julian than to Wesley himself. Here, Len repeats for David a lesson that Julian has often given Len: being a law enforcement officer means knowing “when to look and when to look away.” In other words, it’s implied, Julian thinks that police officers should be able to take the law into their own hands—choosing when and when not to dole out justice.

We’ve already seen that Julian is willing to bend the law to suit his own family’s needs. But here, it’s suggested that Julian might even be willing to ignore his son Frank’s horrific, serious crimes, simply because Frank is his favorite sun. Julian subscribes to an unfair, biased interpretation of justice, in which family loyalties, economic power, and racial prejudices are more important than the law itself.

He had long since stopped being my father. He was now my interrogator, my cross-examiner. The Sheriff. My Uncle’s brother.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David explains to his parents that he’s seen Frank walking to and from the house the previous afternoon. Wesley is very curious about David’s story: he asks David lots of questions about when, exactly, Frank was walking around the house, and what he looked like. As David answers his father’s questions, he can feel his father transforming into a different kind of person altogether. Wesley isn’t acting fatherly at all: on the contrary, he’s acting like a sheriff—deliberate, sharp, serious, etc. David also notes that Wesley is acting like Frank’s brother. The big question in the second half of the book is whether or not Wesley is capable of being sheriff and Frank’s brother (and David's father, as David himself is now involved) at the same time—how to parse out the different parts of his identity, weighing loyalty against justice, family against the law.

Chapter 3 Quotes

He was building a case, and my father did this the same way he ran for reelection—by gathering in friends and favors. I suppose he was collecting evidence as well, but that part was never as obvious to me. What he seemed intent on doing—just as boys at play do, just as nations at war do—was getting people to be on his side.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David watches his father being more social than usual—a practice that usually means that Wesley is running for reelection as sheriff. This time, Wesley is trying to build as much community loyalty as possible before he arrests Frank for molesting Native American women: he wants to be sure that when he arrests a hugely popular local, his own brother, people will support him in his actions.

As David notes, Wesley seems to be becoming like Frank in the act of preparing to arrest him: in other words, he’s being witty and social, generally charming people into agreeing with him. One could say that Wesley is changing his entire personality as he pursues his brother. Wesley is no longer content to sit back and allow his brother to occupy the spotlight—nor is he willing to let his brother get away with crime. Watson suggests that Wesley is acting both out of an abstract sense of justice and a highly personal desire to boot his brother off the “pedestal.”

“Screwing an Indian. Or feeling her up or whatever. You don’t lock up a man for that. You don’t lock up your brother. A respected man. A war hero.”

Related Characters: Grandpa Hayden (Julian) (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, David eavesdrops on his grandfather Julian as he verbally abuses Wesley, David’s father. Wesley is suggesting to Julian that Frank—who’s always been the favorite child—should be sent to prison for molesting his Native American patients. Julian doesn’t deny that Frank has molested some Native American women; he simply says that such actions aren’t really crimes at all.

Put bluntly: Julian is an openly racist character—someone who doesn’t consider Native Americans “real” Americans, or even real humans, deserving of basic dignity and rights. Thus, he lashes out at Wesley for suggesting that Frank is anything other than a great man. Julian argues that Wesley shouldn’t arrest his own brother—and yet Frank, in spite of being Wesley’s brother, is a vile criminal, and deserves to be locked up. One wonders how much of Wesley’s motivation for arresting his brother is an abstract respect for the law and how much is his desire to assert his independence from his own family and his overbearing, racist father.

“He’s guilty as sin, Gail. He told me as much…Goddamn it! What could I have been thinking of? Maybe a jury will cut him loose. I won’t. By God, I won’t.”

Related Characters: Wesley Hayden (speaker), Gail Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Wesley spells out some of the consequences of arresting his brother for the murder of Marie. Frank has most definitely killed Marie—he admitted it to Wesley moments before. Now, Wesley is prepared to arrest Frank for his murder, in spite of the fact that they’re brothers. Wesley recognizes that it seems unjust to punish one’s own family so harshly, and yet he also recognizes his duties as the sheriff of the community.

It’s important to note that Wesley’s philosophy of justice, and that of the townspeople, reverses 180 degrees here. Previously, it has seemed that Wesley might pardon Frank for his actions, acting out of brotherly loyalty and respect for the Hayden name. Now, however, it’s clear that Wesley will enact justice “by the book,” while the jury might clear Frank out of respect for the Hayden name. As Wesley investigates Frank’s crimes further and further, his commitment to justice becomes more intense.

Epilogue Quotes

I wondered again how it could have happened—how it could be that those two people who only wanted to do right, whose only error lay in trying to be loyal to both family and justice, were now dispossessed, the ones forced to leave Bentrock and build new lives.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Gail Hayden
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that David’s parents, Gail and Wesley, are essentially forced to move away from Montana after Uncle Frank’s suicide. Wesley never speaks to Julian again, and his role in Frank’s suicide makes his continued existence as sheriff in Montana impossible. Thus, David is forced to watch as his beloved parents pack up and leave their house, taking David with them. David is mature enough to recognize the injustice here; even though Gail and Wesley were only trying to do right, while Julian was trying to conceal a racist murderer’s crimes, it’s Wesley and Gail who have to move, and Julian who remains in his position of power.

This injustice within the Hayden family then highlights the regular plight of Native Americans, for whom this kind of thing happens all the time on an institutional as well as individual level. Indeed, it's suggested that nothing changes in the status quo of Mercer County after all this--Julian, along with his racist ideals and white community support, remains in power, and the Native Americans who were molested (and killed, in Marie's case) by Frank don't even receive the comfort of having their suffering acknowledged.

I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that David grows up to be a successful history teacher. He teaches his students what the books tell him to, but inside he knows that this must not ever be the whole story--his experiences as a child (those related in the novel itself) have taught him as much. Because Frank's suicide was ultimately ruled an accident, and his crimes of rape and murder were never investigated, all these events were essentially erased from history (except, of course, the history related in David's writing). Thus David has personal experience with the way history is inherently biased and incomplete, constantly being told and revised by the "victors"--those in power who want to cover up their crimes and erase the suffering of their victims.