The concept of law joins the three writers we will be exploring this fall—Dickens, Dostoevsky and Kafka—but our course is not really about legal institutions. Rather, law provides a useful point of entry for three geniuses who have both so much and so little in common. To study the three of them together is to undergo a crash course in what happens as the classic novel of the 19th century enters the turbulent waters of modernism.

The Trial, written just 60 years after Bleak House, seems to come from another planet. Or we might think so if we did not know that Kafka admired the “opulence and great, careless prodigality” of Dickens’s novels, and openly modeled his own story, The Stoker, on David Copperfield.

The missing figure in this trio of writers is, arguably, Freud (also an admirer of Dickens’s work). It was Freud who taught us to find the curves concealed in ostensibly straight lines, to grasp the intricacy of undeclared motive and the enigma of human identity.

British fiction of the later 19th century was obsessed with that enigma. Two of the most resonant Victorian manifestations of psychic splitting—Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890)—both testify to the stress being placed on that age’s most precious value: earnestness.

Again it is Wilde who locates the comedy bubbling up hilariously beneath “the importance of being earnest.”

Freud, and Nietzsche behind him, were guiding figures in my own earlier explorations of Victorian fiction. Such “earnestness” seemed to me (in my younger years) necessarily suspect. I was in search of the troubles percolating below, the repressed darker side.

Returning to Dickens some 50 years later, I am still keen to locate the undeclared depths. But older and less iconoclastic in my aims, a touch more at peace with things as they are, I now find myself intrigued by the weirdness of Dickens’s zany surfaces, the endless parade of figures moving across his canvas, the verbal energy of his fictional performance.

This will be an energy we find again, at a submerged level but more openly disturbing, in Dostoevsky’s urban masterpiece, Crime and Punishment. In some ways St. Petersburg, still the epicenter of Russia’s two-headedness (its double-identity as European and Asian), remains permanently marked by the narrative imposed by Dostoevsky’s novel 150 years ago.

By the time we get to Kafka, all will be depth, however such depth masquerades as surface. Is there a trial in The Trial? Is there a crime in The Trial? Questions such as these never occur when reading Dickens and Dostoevsky where there is no lack of crime to account for. Even so, crime or no crime, something has gone incurably wrong in Kafka’s fictional universe.

To say what that is, to try to take the measure of an imaginative journey from Dickensian melodrama through Dostoevskian psychodrama into Kafkan uncanny—this will be one of the pleasures awaiting those who enroll this fall in Fictions of the Law.

Philip Weinstein is the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Emeritus at Swarthmore College. His six-part seminar Fictions of Law begins on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. with a discussion of Bleak House by Charles Dickens at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. For more information and a full schedule, visit