An uneventful town with few inhabitants, Eyam has very few governmental structures in place. Law and order are safeguarded by the vicar and the landed gentry. However, when plague arrives, the Bradfords abandon the town and Mompellion becomes much too preoccupied with tending the victims to handle affairs of justice. Meanwhile, the town must decide how to adjudicate crimes and transgressions it hasn’t faced before. Throughout the novel, two methods of administering justice are at odds with each other: communal judgment, in which a group of citizens tries to establish facts and then applies a punishment, and individual action, in which one person acts to avenge a perceived wrong. Alone, each of these methods proves insufficient to achieve true justice. However, in addressing her own personal traumas, Anna eventually arrives at a sense of justice through a combination of the two methods.
In Eyam, semi-formal tribunals of citizens administer communal justice. In many cases, this tribunal is made up of the members of the miners’ guild, the only organization of any kind in the town. In other cases, Mompellion publicly adjudicates disputes with input from the involved parties and other witnesses. For example, in order to secure Merry Wickford’s mine claim, Anna and Elinor have to appeal to the miners’ guild. This is perhaps the most notable example of the success of communal judgment.
However, communal tribunals can acquire a mob mentality very quickly. As the plague starts to escalate, a group of citizens convince themselves, based on a twisted interpretation of the facts, that the Goodwins are witches responsible for the disease. They stage a “trial” by throwing Mem Goodwin in the pond, and eventually hang Anys as well. This perversion of community justice shows that this system is vulnerable to the community’s superstitious mentality and can’t hold up under pressure of events like the plague.
Community tribunals execute justice through harsh and traditional punishments, of which the community has no shortage. Stocks are used to publicly shame people for minor offenses, witches are ducked in water and deemed guilty if they float, and thieves have their hands stapled to the property they tried to steal. Once the punishment is administered, the criminal is considered to have atoned for his actions and can return to society (this is important, since everyone lives together in such close quarters).
However, as crimes become more extreme, the traditional system of punishments starts to fail. For example, neither the community nor Mompellion can shame Joss Bont out of extorting his neighbors’ goods as a gravedigger. When he is eventually convicted of stealing, the punishment (the stapling of his hands to a miner’s claim) turns out to be too severe; while a family member normally rescues the stapled person discreetly, neither Aphra nor Anna has time to do so and Joss dies as a result. Although it follows traditional practices, this punishment ends up being a miscarriage of justice.
When people feel that communal methods of judging crimes are inadequate, they turn to vigilante justice, or personal acts of revenge. While this method allows for more flexibility than the community’s prescribed stable of punishments, it almost always goes too far and fails to achieve a sense of justice and equilibrium. For example, enraged to discover that Aphra has been selling fake charms to cure the plague and profiting off the distress of her neighbors, two men leave her in a sewer pit for the night without consulting the rest of the community. The ordeal, clearly out of proportion to her crime, drives her insane, and the men feel a sense of guilt over what they did.
Aphra is the victim of two flawed punishments: the misguided communal judgment that led to her husband’s death and her own ordeal of vigilante justice. As a result, she loses her mind and slits Elinor’s throat in the middle of a communal assembly. This is a senselessly violent, completely misplaced act of revenge – Elinor did nothing to Aphra and is the novel’s embodiment of innocence. Aphra’s actions show that when communal justice fails, individual acts of retribution escalate until they reach the height of chaos and irrationality.
In her own life, Anna must address the injustice of the abuse she suffered at her father’s hands during her childhood, a trauma that haunts her even as an adult. She does so by combining the two forms of justice she sees applied in the community: communal and individual. Growing up motherless, Anna was constantly abused by her alcoholic father and neglected by her stepmother, Aphra. She relives memories of her brutal childhood frequently and retains a lingering sense of injustice that isn’t solved by any action toward her father (she mentions that her husband, Sam, punched him in the face after seeing her scars, but that action felt like a futile attempt to address the wrongs of the past).
Anna tries to pretend that this sense of injustice doesn’t affect her adult life, but eventually realizes that it leads her into unjust behavior herself. After her father is stapled to the mine claim as punishment for stealing, she knows that either she or Aphra must take responsibility to free him, but she is too disgusted with her father, so she doesn’t go. As a result, he dies and she feels intensely guilty. Eventually, she discusses both her horrific childhood and her role in her father’s death with Elinor. Elinor helps her rethink all these events in order to achieve a rational “understanding” of her father and the childhood abuse he himself endured. Anna finally achieves a sense of justice by balancing “my guilt in the matter of his death and the debt he owed me for the manner of my life.” In other words, she sees his death as a natural consequence of the pain he caused her.
Here, her thinking process combines both methods of applying justice. While Anna rationally evaluates her father’s own character and history, she takes a more flexible, individualistic approach to assigning punishment, deciding that her and her father’s condemnable deeds balance out. Ultimately, this allows her to heal and move past the trauma of her past.
In a community as small and close-knit as Eyam, the prompt application of justice to any crime is essential for morale and cohesion. Because it prompts new kinds of transgressions, the plague challenges institutionalized forms of justice and causes people to adopt harmful, vigilante-style justice. However, while both systems are flawed, they can be combined into a more compassionate and merciful system of evaluating guilt and justice. Moreover, especially regarding her father, Anna realizes that justice often prevails naturally, without any human intervention at all.
Justice and Judgment ThemeTracker
Justice and Judgment Quotes in Year of Wonders
Dark and light, dark and light…that was how I had been taught to view the world. The Puritans who had ministered to us here had held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking. There was no doubt that she did good: in many ways, the well-being of our village rested more on her works, and those of her aunt, than on the works of the rectory’s occupant. And yet, her fornication and her blasphemy branded her a sinner in the reckoning of our religion.
I did not go, and for that I will forever reproach myself. Because out of our negligence and her loneliness came much rage. Much rage and some madness – and a surfeit of grief.
By gathering and sorting my own feelings so, I was finally able to fashion a scale on which I could weigh my father’s nature and find a balance between my disgust for him and an understanding of him; my guilt in the matter of his death against the debt he owed me for the manner of my life.
To be sure, our stocks were nothing so fearful as the Bakewell pillory. In that market town, where people came and went without deep ties to another, to be pilloried was to be a target of rotten fruit or fish heads or any noisome thing the mob could lay a hand to. […] Even Reverend Stanley seldom called for sinners to be stocked, and Mr. Mompellion had actively discouraged it.