The Great Lawsuit Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 27-page guide for the short story “The Great Lawsuit” by Margaret Fuller includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Self-reliance and the Quest for Enlightenment and Slavery and Imprisonment.
“The Great Lawsuit” is an essay by Margaret Fuller, an American writer known for her contributions to transcendentalism and the women’s rights movement of the 1800s. It was first published in 1843 in The Dial, a journal she edited at the time. Fuller expanded the piece to create Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a book published in 1845.
An early example of feminist writing and a vehicle for transcendentalist ideas, “The Great Lawsuit” centers on concepts such as the equality of all people and humankind’s struggle to reach an elevated state of being. Fuller argues that men and women should have the same set of rights, including the rights to own property and vote. She praises abolitionist principles throughout the essay, noting how American women face many of the same impediments as slaves in the South.
At the start of “The Great Lawsuit,” Fuller wonders if humans will ever reach an enlightened state that allows them to have a closer relationship with the divine. She compares humankind’s current state to slumber. As people’s eyes remain shut, selfishness runs rampant, keeping them from achieving a higher form of existence.
Fuller views this divine state as an inheritance and posits that transcendence to this state is the destiny of the human race. As she states, “the highest ideal man can form of his own capabilities is that which he is destined to attain” (Paragraph 8). Perfection—especially the perfection of divine love—should be humankind’s goal, she adds, citing the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible’s New Testament. How to seek this perfection is a matter of debate. Some believe that the intellect is the best route, while others believe that lived experience is the preferable method, even if mistakes are made along the way. Another group advocates waiting for answers quietly and patiently.
There are many evil forces at work that impede humans’ progress toward enlightenment, Fuller says. She sees numerous examples in the United States, where “the cross, here as elsewhere, has been planted only to be blasphemed by cruelty and fraud” (Paragraph 17). One of the most glaring examples is slavery. She stresses that everyone is born equal and free, despite the country’s “monstrous display of slave dealing and slave keeping” (Paragraph 19). Nevertheless, the United States has inherited some of Europe’s worst qualities, including patriarchal attitudes and a tendency toward violence and abuse. These qualities underpin some of the nation’s worst practices, including widespread mistreatment of women, indigenous peoples, and individuals of African descent.
Fuller notes that women have been leaders in the American anti-slavery movement, putting their principles into action. Equality is for all, including women and people of African descent, so it makes sense for women to join abolitionist efforts. Similarly, it makes sense for abolitionists to fight for women’s equality.
That said, there are plenty of naysayers. Fuller says opponents of equality tend to frame advocates of equality as people bent on destroying the nation’s prosperity and the family unit. These opponents tend to be men who insist that their wives are content with their lot in life. Likewise, they tend to believe that a man is, by nature, the head of his household and thus able to determine what is right for his wife.
Fuller acknowledges that not all men think they should make decisions for their partners. She notes that many “are considering whether women are capable of being and having more than they are and have, and whether, if they are, it will be best to consent to improvement in their condition” (Paragraph 31). But as they ponder these questions, women remain subjugated. For instance, if a man dies without creating a will, his wife inherits only part of his estate, much like a child would. Despite being a partner in the marriage, the woman “does not hold…