The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

In Grishams Pelican Brief, Darby Shaw is the focus of the novel, the protagonist that keeps the whole actions alive and thrilling. She is depicted in highly complimentary terms and can easily serve a role model for many modern girls.

Darby is highly intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, brave, focused, and obviously on her way to becoming a completely self-made woman. In addition, she is very attractive, although she is not intent on underscoring her feminine charm at every convenient opportunity. Surprisingly, the start of the novel finds her connected to an alcoholic, embittered, middle-aged man as her lover, picking Professor Thomas Callahan over younger and better-looking suitors.

Why is Grisham portraying such a seemingly unequal relationship? In my view, Darby chooses Callahan because she feels that with him she can be more herself, gain more freedom and room for self-assertion than with younger partners because of her ability to win recognition from him through their professional bonding, her relative strength in comparison to Callahan, and his touching late love for her. One can claim that she views Callahan as a fatherly figure, but this seems hardly true since one like this alcoholic, dishevelled man with a loose life style can hardly aspire to act like a father for a strong woman Darby is, despite her young age.  

Professional Connection

One of their possible points of connection is their mutual professional interests. They do not simply share a profession: they share an enthusiasm and passion for this field. True, Darby soon loses interest in law after the pelican brief nightmare emerges, but she is painstakingly studying law before. In this area Callahan is a master, whose authority Darby respects. At the same time, she knows that thanks to her intelligence and superior abilities for law, he does not only view her as merely an eager listener swept by his expertise and knowledge; she is also a person who can in time become his rival on professionalism in law. She is aware that Callahan realizes this, at least because he is her professor, and she is doing very well in his class. He himself characterizes her as very capable student in his talk with Vereek at the end of Chapter 12, when he suggests that his friend see the notorious pelican brief.

Callahan is surely choosing Darby not only for her brains – he is most definitely swept by her beauty and youth, but he also recognizes and admires her push for success and her character that can be expected to overcome many life’s problems. In a scene when he comes to her place with a pizza (Chapter 10) after they had not had a date in a few days, he is mostly preoccupied with sex. However, when she introduces the subject of the research she did on Rosernberg’s death, he cannot help showing some interest – after all, Rosernberg was his idol for a long time. Another man would have missed this part altogether, but Callahan thanks to his interest in constitutional law cannot help showing some reaction. In the talk with Vereek (Chapter 12), he also refers to her as someone who is passionate about the same subject, constitutional law.

Given Darby’s relative modesty about her appearance manifested in the unwillingness to expose her attractions to fellow students (Chapter 2), one can suppose that she is the type of woman who is some ways would prefer being treated like a male buddy. Throughout her life as a young woman, she has attracted male eager stares. She should by now have little interest in sparking their sensual fancy – instead, someone who would treat her as intellectual rival, discussing professional matters of mutual interest, might look more attractive. This would allow Darby to feel stronger.

This quality, in a sense, reminds of feminist philosophy under which a woman seeks to assert her position by aspiring to a life no less fulfilling than that of a man, retreating from the view in which marriage and family should be the main goal. Her partnership with Callahan is therefore more close to a relationship she would have with a friend than a way for Darby to find a husband. Obviously, Callahan is no great match for family life, so she is probably with him for reasons other than husband-seeking.

Darby’s Maturity

Darby can also reckon that with Callahan she will be more in control since she is most probably the stronger of the two. Callahan, being older, has a life to look back upon, and probably one filled with a lot of bitterness, considering by his heavy drinking habits. Darby, on the contrary, is nothing else but youth and promise, she has all the happiness in the world ahead of her, and even her difficult family life does not make her embittered in the least, only pushy and willing to succeed. Darby is also financially independent; she can afford to support herself, which also renders her power in their relationship. With a younger and more promising young man, she would be more likely to become an object for all kinds of demands, rather than a cherished treasure.

Darby exhibits inner strength in the scene in which Callahan gets killed instead of her. She is devastated later on. However, at the moment when she goes to the bar with Callahan, she first attempts to control him by enumerating the drinks that he had over the course of the evening. When she recognizes that this is a flawed technique, she begins to coax him into letting her to drive his car in order to avoid the accident. This situation is probably typical of the many they had throughout their relationship when Darby was acting like the older of the two trying to make him do the ‘right thing’, talk him out of acting in a stupid way that might be dangerous to his life.  

His dependence on alcohol, therefore, makes her even stronger as opposed to him: she can act soundly where he loses his mind to drinking. A dependent person is always weaker because of that addiction. Darby, in fact, may be finding consolation in her motherly role toward Callahan, a role she would not be able to get with a younger and stronger partner. Here she can exercise the habitual feminine role of caring for somebody in his weakness, being psychologically the older.

Callahan’s Love Gives Darby More Power

Another reason why Darby can enjoy more power in her relationship wit Callahan is his attitude towards her. In a partnership with another student or young professional about her age, Darby would most likely be yet another link in a long line of relationships that happen in a man’s life. At twenty-something, people realize that they have time for experimentations and trials and are unwilling to commit themselves to a partner who does not meet their whole “list of specifications”. On the contrary, with someone Callahan’s age, a girl can be sure that she will have a chance to capture the heart of an aging man with her youth and real or imaginary naiveté and innocence. This is exactly what is happening. Callahan’s friend Vereek (Chapter 12) recognizes that his long-time buddy is finally in love. Callahan tries to dodge his friend’s push for truth, but finally has to admit that he is ‘hooked’ on Darby.

At the same time, it is clear that Darby can find many men who, in the eyes of the society and perhaps Callahan as well, will be superior to him in all ways. When she flies into the classroom where Callahan is teaching his course on constitutional law (Chapter 2), the heads of fellow students turn with admiration. They regret the fact that she is unwilling to change her baggy shirt and jeans for a mini-skirt, exposing more of her exquisite figure. Callahan, seeing her often in the classroom settings, is bound to know that she has many choices, so that must elevate her worth even higher in his eyes.

Callahan himself is reputed to have had many affairs with female students to look back upon (Chapter 2). Darby must be aware of it. However, his affairs are most probably just sexual partnerships: few of these students would consider marrying an aged professor even if they fall for his wit and experience. Darby, on the contrary, is the dream of many men who would like to make her their partner in all respects: sleep with her, marry her, start a family with a charming law student.

His attitude towards her allows Darby to be the rule-setter in their relationship. In the first place, she demands that he cut down on his drinking. This is one aspect on which they conflict: she cannot drink more than three wine glasses, and he could drink much more. Her life was then a constant struggle, but the very fact that she could negotiate on this issue shows her power in relations with him.

Callahan was so eager to get her that he tolerated a month’s period of courtship before they went to bed (Chapter 14). Then Darby decided to put forward a few rules to which Callahan agreed, even if after some hesitancy. She demanded that he have no other affairs and that they keep their relationship a secret. Callahan finally had to agree, since there was probably a chance that otherwise he will not get Darby. This approach shows that she recognizes her superior value to him: she is free to leave him if he does not obey her rules. Although Callahan was not very good in carrying out her third demand, one about cutting down on drinking, this should not be attributed to his naughtiness or neglect for her wishes. Rather, he was by that time in a state of strong substance dependence, one that he could not remedy by his will alone.

Can Callahan Be a Fatherly Figure?

There is little that would connect the sharp law professor with Darby’s late father. Callahan failed to build a family; Darby’s father kept connections between all the members of their family, separated in different locations. Father provided emotional support for Darby; with Callahan, she had to be the focus of his life herself. Finally, father was perhaps an important role-model for his little girl; Callahan with his drinking and habits could hardly be a role model for Darby. In fact, she herself recognized that having neither a degree, nor a job, she could not afford to spend the whole morning in bed like he did (Chapter 5).

Besides, his very interest in the sexual side of their relationship could hardly convince Darby that he is like a father to her.  They cannot even sleep together comfortably since they keep tugging the blanket (Chapter 5). This is hardly like the father-daughter relationship in which the older man tries to protect and shield the younger girl. In fact, Callahan does little to protect Darby or make her life easier: for this, he is too preoccupied with his profession and too boggled in his drinking. In fact, he even considers shouting on her when she comes late for his class (Chapter 2) and only stops because he is aware that Darby is not afraid of him because of their relationship.


Thus, the partnership between Darby Shaw and Thomas Callahan can hardly be described as a father-daughter relationship in which a stronger man tries to protect and support the young and immature girl. Darby, in contrast, brings up much more maturity than her partner, being the one with strong intellectual ability and inner stamina and having learned independence. In fact, she may have chosen the relationship with Callahan as opposed to younger men because it gives her more power. She can be valued by her professor for her intellectual ability, not just looks and sexual attraction. Second, being morally the stronger of the two, she can act like a mother, caring for the immature and dependent child. Finally, Callahan’s obsession with her makes him give up to her on many points, as he fears to lose the woman who has become so dear to him. Thus, Darby most probably chooses this relationship because it is empowering and gives her a great degree of independence.


Grisham, John. The Pelican Brief. Dell, 1993.