Before the men go upstairs to look for evidence, the sheriff looks around the kitchen and says, "Nothing here but kitchen things." Can someone explain the irony of that statement in A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell?
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Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" is full of great ironies, and the quote you mention is one of them. The sheriff and his wife meet the Hales and the county attorney and the scene of a crime. Mr. Wright was strangled to death, and the men are there to discover exactly how and why he died. Wright's wife, Minnie Foster, is in prison for the crime, but there is no substantive evidence against her.
When the men arrive at the crime scene, they relegate the women to gathering a few things to take Minnie while she is incarcerated. The sheriff looks at the kitchen and says, "Nothing here but kitchen things." The men quickly dismiss the rather untidy kitchen before moving on to what they believe is more productive and significant ground for evidence-gathering.
It is the women who look a bit more closely at the house. They understand the clues they find in a way the men never could. They know Minnie is a woman who cares about how her house is kept because they do, too; and after Minnie was arrested she expressed her concern that her preserve jars would burst if the house got too cold, which is exactly what happened to create at least some of the mess.
As they clean the mess, they discover several things in the small house which mean something to them and help them piece together the reason for the murder.
They find a dirty roller of towels, indicating the carelessness of a husband who wipes his dirty hands on anything he finds rather than washing them first. They are struck by the poor quality of Minnie's cooking equipment and are appalled to find Minnie's beloved canary (a songbird, something Minnie enjoyed because she, too, loved to sing) lying in a box, as if Minnie could not bear to bury it. It has obviously been strangled, and it is certain that Minnie did not do it.
As the women gather some clothing for Minnie, they see that her clothes are drab and worn. Mrs. Hale feels bad because, over the past three years of this marriage, she had noticed that the lively, outgoing Minnie had grown increasing silent and withdrawn. They also see the most recent stitches in the quilt Minnie was working on are uncharacteristically uneven, and they understand that Minnie killed her husband.
Unlike the men who are looking but find nothing, the women have accidentally accumulated enough clues to prove that Minnie killed her husband out of desperation. The irony is that these clues are the very things the men so easily dismissed as simple signs of a sloppy housekeeper.
The irony is even more delicious because the men have obviously dismissed not only Minnie as a possible suspect (what harm could a little woman do, after all) but their own wives as able to discern the truth.
"Oh, well," said Mrs. Hale's husband, with goodnatured superiority, "women are used to worrying over trifles."
The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners--and think of his future.
"And yet," said he, with the gallantry of a young politician. "for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?"
The women have the truth, in the form of evidence, literally in their hands; if they tell what they know, it is possible they will not be believed because of the men's attitudes. Despite their misgivings about withholding evidence, the women understand why Minnie killed her husband. Poor Minnie was virtually strangled by him, and they decide that is enough punishment.
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