Richard Parker in Law and Literature Reply

Richard Parker is a name that is synonymous in Law and Literature with the same defilement of the profane. Cannibalism. Yes — Richard Parker pops up cannibalized on a regular basis in literature and law.7 Most recently, Richard Parker was a tiger trapped in a boat in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a wonderful little book on limits of humanity. Author Yann Martel said regarding his character, “So many Richard Parkers had to mean something.” And again, Richard Parker indulges in human flesh. wpid-richardparker.jpeg

The first significant occurrence of Richard Parker in the law was in 1797 when one Richard Parker (pictured) was involved in the Nore mutiny — a copycat exercise by British sailors of the Spithead mutiny in an attempt to obtain higher wages. Parker, for his excellence at leadership, was hanged at sea.

Then, in 1836, Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only novel. In the story, after a mutiny and a terrible storm which left the sailor’s ship debilitated, the four remaining sailors draw straws to determine who should perish, so that others would not die of starvation. In Pym, it is Richard Parker who suggests cannibalism as a resort to survival. But in a twist of irony, Parker is the poor sole who receives the short straw and is eaten by his three companions.

And in a strange twist of mystical coincidence, nearly sixty years later, the same circumstances by which Richard Parker in Poe’s tale was subject to the cannibal rages of his human companions, another REAL Richard Parker died to the appetite of those lost at sea. Those of use who studied law may recall the English case K v Dudley, (1884) 14 QBD 273 (QB), which was a prominent case in my criminal law text book. In Dudley, like in Author Gordon Pym, three shipwrecked sailors draw straws for whom should die so that the others might not die. Many theories abound regarding the coincidence. My favorite is that Poe tapped into a time dimensional world during an opium high in which he foresaw the poor, poor fate of Richard Parker. The other more popular theory is that reality took a turn imitating fiction — the sailor’s familiar with either Poe’s tale of the mutiny on the Nore saw Richard Parker as a fated soul.

And of course there is Richard Parker, the legal scholar at Harvard who wrote this nice column in the Boston Review. Whatever the case, Ah, RIchard Parker. Your name is fated to be remembered.

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