Definition of Evidence

Evidence is any sort of information that supports a certain assertion. The evidence can be weak or strong, can lead to only one or multiple conclusions, and can come in many forms. For example, in the field of law, evidence can take the form of testimony, physical evidence, or documentary evidence. In science, the definition of evidence generally takes the form of observations and experimental results. In literature, evidence comes from the text itself in order to support a critical theory, or can be included in the text to support the author’s ideas.

The word evidence comes from the Latin word evidentia, which meant “distinction, vivid presentation, clearness.”

Common Examples of Evidence

The most familiar examples of evidence are used in court cases. Here are a few evidence examples from famous trials:

  • Lindbergh Kidnapping: Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. when authorities matched his writing to that on the ransom notes, as well as connecting the wood used as a ladder in the kidnapping to that in Hauptmann’s attic.
  • Howard Hughes Hoax: Authors Clifford Irving and Richard Suskind were convicted of fraud when they sold an autobiography manuscript of recluse Howard Hughes to publishers McGraw-Hill; Howard Hughes called to report that he had never authorized nor collaborated with such an autobiography, and a “spectographic voiceprint analysis” determined that it was indeed Hughes’s voice on the call.
  • O. J. Simpson Murder Case: One of the most famous examples of evidence in an American court case is that of a leather glove found at a murder scene that O. J. Simpson was accused of committing. In the courtroom, the prosecution asked Simpson to try on the glove, which appeared too small to fit his hand. The defense for Simpson then came up with the catchy slogan, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Simpson was indeed later acquitted of these murder charges.

Significance of Evidence in Literature

There are a few key ways in which evidence is connected to the study of literature. One of these is either internal to the piece of literature itself, i.e., the evidence that an author gives to support his or her own beliefs or positions, or the evidence that a character gives in order to support a proposition that has bearing on the plot. The former case is particularly prevalent in non-fiction works of persuasion or argument, while the latter is found in most all detective genre novels. Most of the examples below are of the latter type—examples of evidence that characters use to prove their points.

The other way that we might think of evidence in literature is that which can be extracted externally by a reader to support a literary theory. For example, a reader who is called upon to write a critical paper might pull out quotes from a novel in order to prove his or her hypothesis. Any text can lend itself to this kind of literary critique.

Examples of Evidence in Literature

Example #1

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants; the mother will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

(“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift)

“A Modest Proposal” is a piece of satire that Jonathan Swift composed to criticize the Irish government’s approach to social issues of his day. He proposes that Irish citizens start eating children in order to solve the problem of poverty. Though this is clearly a satirical premise, Swift supports his ludicrous proposal with many different evidence examples where he cites statistics and numbers in order to make his ideas seem more similar to how a politician would really write.

Example #2

“But why? It was most obvious. Did not Monsieur Lawrence make the sour face every time Mademoiselle Cynthia spoke and laughed with his brother? He had taken it into his long head that Mademoiselle Cynthia was in love with Monsieur John. When he entered his mother’s room, and saw her obviously poisoned, he jumped to the conclusion that Mademoiselle Cynthia knew something about the matter. He was nearly driven desperate. First he crushed the coffee-cup to powder under his feet, remembering that she had gone up with his mother the night before, and he determined that there should be no chance of testing its contents. Thenceforward, he strenuously, and quite uselessly, upheld the theory of ‘Death from natural causes’.”
“And what about the ‘extra coffee-cup’?”
“I was fairly certain that it was Mrs. Cavendish who had hidden it, but I had to make sure. Monsieur Lawrence did not know at all what I meant; but, on reflection, he came to the conclusion that if he could find an extra coffee-cup anywhere his lady love would be cleared of suspicion. And he was perfectly right.”

(The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie)

The above excerpt is from one of mystery-writer Agatha Christie’s novels about the detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot is able to notice and analyze evidence that no one else understands at all. The above exchange demonstrates how he uses an example of evidence to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

Example #3

Cheever: Why – He draws out a long needle from the poppet – it is a needle! Herrick, Herrick, it is a needle!
Herrick comes toward him.
Proctor, angrily, bewildered: And what signifies a needle!

Cheever, wide-eyed, trembling: The girl, the Williams girl, Abigail Williams, sir. She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris’s house tonight, and without word nor warning she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out. And demanding of her how she come to be so stabbed, she – to Proctor now – testify it -were your wife’s familiar spirit pushed it in….’Tis hard proof! To Hale: I find here a poppet Goody Proctor keeps. I have found it, sir. And in the belly of the poppet a needle’s stuck.

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

Specious reasoning abounds in Arthur Miller’s allegory of The Crucible. Set in the times of the Salem Witch Trials, the drama centers around a young girl named Abigail Williams who will stop at nothing to convict Goody Proctor of being a witch. In the above scene, we are horrified to realize that she falsifies evidence and sticks a needle in her own abdomen and plants a voodoo doll in order to incriminate Goody Proctor.

Example #4

“Would you write your name for us?”
he asked. “Clearly now, so the jury can see you do it.”
Mr. Ewell wrote on the back of the envelope and looked up complacently to see Judge Taylor staring at him as if he were some fragrant gardenia in full bloom on the witness stand, to see Mr. Gilmer half-sitting, half-standing at his table. The jury was watching him, one man was leaning forward with his hands over the railing.
“What’s so interestin‘?” he asked.
“You’re left-handed, Mr. Ewell,” said Judge Taylor.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

A key piece of evidence in the trial central to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is how a young girl’s wounds were inflicted. Based on the fact that her right eye was blackened, it’s obvious that a left-handed person must have done it. The defendant Tom Robinson is right-handed and indeed his left hand was previously mutilated, whereas the girl’s father is left-handed, as proven above.

Example #5

“I knew it,” Hermione gasped, “Snape—look.”
Ron grabbed the binoculars. Snape was in the middle of the stands opposite them. He had his eyes fixed on Harry and was muttering nonstop under his breath.
“He’s doing something—jinxing the broom,” said Hermione.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)

Not all examples of evidence lead to the proper conclusion. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione notice their professor, Snape, murmuring incantations. They believe this is to jinx Harry’s broom. Only much later is this example of evidence clarified to show that Snape was actually trying to save Harry.

Test Your Knowledge of Evidence

1. Which of the following statements is the best evidence definition?
A. The available body of information indicating whether a proposition is true or valid.
B. A suspicion based on rumors and opinions.
C. A conclusion that synthesizes multiple premises which are generally true.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is NOT an applicable way in which evidence is related to literature?
A. An author supports her own claims in a text through proven facts.
B. A reader pulls out quotes from a novel to support his critical hypothesis.
C. A book is suspected as a murder weapon.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Do all examples of evidence lead to the correct conclusion?
A. Yes: Evidence is factual, and therefore must be believed.
B. No: Even if the evidence is factual, its meaning may be misconstrued by the reader or viewer.
C. Maybe: We can never really know what evidence means.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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