A Jury of Her Peers Essay - Critical Essays

A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell

Introduction

"A Jury of Her Peers" Susan Glaspell

The following entry presents criticism on Glaspell's short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917).

Known primarily as a playwright, Glaspell's short fiction went largely unnoticed until 1973 when her short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” was rediscovered. Though the author of forty-three short stories, Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers” is her most widely anthologized piece of short fiction and is based on an actual court case Glaspell covered as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily. The story, which she adapted from her one-act play Trifles in 1917, has attracted the attention of feminist scholars for its treatment of gender-related themes. On its surface, “A Jury of Her Peers” appears a simple detective story, but through extensive dialogue between two women, Glaspell slowly reveals the story's true underlying conflict: the struggle of women in a male-dominated society.

Plot and Major Characters

“A Jury of Her Peers” opens with controversy surrounding Minnie Foster Wright, who is in jail on suspicion that she murdered her husband by strangling him. Mrs. Wright's story is told indirectly through a conversation between Martha Hale—whose husband discovered the body of John Wright—and Mrs. Peters, the wife of the local sheriff. The sheriff asks Mrs. Hale to accompany them to the Wright's house so she can keep his wife company while the men investigate the murder scene. Thrown together by circumstance, the women form an immediate bond as they begin gathering some of Minnie's belongings to bring to her in her jail cell. Concluding that there is nothing in the kitchen except for “kitchen things,” the men begin their investigation in the upstairs of the house and in an outside barn. Left alone in Minnie's kitchen, however, the two women begin discovering their own clues about Minnie's possible motive for killing her husband. Gradually, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin noticing details about Minnie's life that escape the notice of their husbands. They notice Minnie's desolate, isolated existence, her broken furniture, the rundown kitchen where she had to cook, and the ragged clothing she was forced to wear because of her husband's miserly insensitivity. Eventually the two women stumble across two clues that piece Minnie's case together. They spot the crooked stitching on one of the quilts Minnie was working on, speculating that she must have been upset while trying to complete the project. The two women also find Minnie's cherished canary strangled and carefully tucked away in a box inside her sewing basket. After discovering these clues, the two women begin talking about how Minnie, once sociable and cheerful, evolved into an introverted, lonely woman after marrying her silent, cold husband. Both women also notice the broken hinge on the bird cage, speculating that John Wright might have strangled Minnie's canary, much the way he killed his wife's spirit with his overbearing manner. After the discovery of Minnie’s strangled canary, the two women conjecture that Minnie strangled her husband just as he had strangled her canary. Empathizing with Minnie, the women decide not to tell their husbands about the results of their own investigation. Instead, they repair the erratic stitching on Minnie's quilt and concoct a story about the canary's disappearance, blaming a runaway cat. In silent collusion, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters cover up the clues that reveal Minnie's motive, quietly acquitting Minnie from wrongdoing without their husbands' knowledge.

Major Themes

Now considered a feminist classic, “A Jury of Her Peers” examines the predicaments of women in a male-dominated society. Critics believe that Glaspell, who based this story on a real murder trial in which women were not allowed to serve as jurors, created a jury of those female peers in her story to mete out their own form of justice. A detective story on the surface, “A Jury of Her Peers” is more of a commentary about female oppression, justice, the confining nature of rigid stereotypes, and the differences in perspective between men and women. Throughout “A Jury of Her Peers,” the men in the story never acknowledge Minnie Wright's oppression and how it led her to a desperate act. The men in the story also view their wives as the weaker sex, only valuable as overseers of the domestic arena—an area the men consider insignificant. Bound by rigid stereotypes and the inability to step into Minnie's shoes to solve the crime, the men who are supposed to be the primary investigators in the case, miss all of the clues and are unknowingly outwitted by their wives. After the two women solve the case, they silently decide to protect one of their own, ultimately becoming the true investigators, the judge, and the jury on Minnie's case.

Critical Reception

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her drama Alison's House, Glaspell attained much critical acclaim as a playwright and as an important contributor to the development of modern American drama. Her short fiction, however, was often considered regional, sentimental, and full of formulaic plots. Most of her forty-three short stories fell into the genre of local color writing, the staple of many magazines at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of Glaspell's stories were published in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and the Woman's Home Companion. Of all her short fictional works, however, critics have hailed “A Jury of Her Peers” as a feminist classic, noting the story's significance-laden details and its insight into motivations of men and women. In 1912, a reviewer for the Boston Evening Transcript praised Glaspell, saying: “Rarely do we meet with a writer who lifts the masks of life, who shows us the naked souls of men, their dreams, their sufferings, their hopes.”

Principal Works

Lifted Masks 1912

“A Jury of Her Peers” 1917

The Glory of the Conquered (novel) 1909

The Visioning (novel) 1911

Fidelity (novel) 1915

Suppressed Desires [with George Cram Cook] (drama) 1915

Trifles (drama) 1916

Close the Book (drama) 1917

The Outside (drama) 1917

The People (drama) 1917

Tickless Time [with George Cram Cook] (drama) 1918

Woman's Honor (drama) 1918

Bernice (drama) 1919

Inheritors...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Criticism

Karen Alkalay-Gut (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Jury Of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 1–9.

[In the following excerpt, Alkalay-Gut analyzes details of “A Jury of Her Peers.”]

The continuing popularity of Susan Glaspell's story, “Jury of Her Peers,” and the play Trifles from which it emerged, can not really be explained by an examination of the plot. Two housewives, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, accompanying their husbands who are investigating the murder of a man by his wife, discover in the kitchen the clues which indicate the motive of the murderess, and silently agree to withhold this evidence from their husbands....

(The entire section is 3901 words.)

Victoria Aarons (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “A Community of Women: Surviving Marriage in the Wilderness,” in Portraits of Marriage in Literature, Western Illinois University, 1984, pp. 141–49.

[In the excerpt below, Aarons stresses that American pioneer women needed the support of a larger female community in order to withstand the isolation of pioneer life.]

American fiction written by women during the years surrounding the turn of the century illustrates the mounting tension between the rigid social structures of patriarchal conventions and the women who stood as pioneers in the often oppressive wilderness. The women protagonists in this corpus of fiction characteristically are portrayed as...

(The entire section is 4429 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Reading About Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, The John Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 147–64.

[In this excerpt from a larger treatment of gender-based reading, Fetterley discusses how Glaspell attempted in “A Jury of Her Peers” to teach male readers how to “read” female narratives.]

As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which American texts are self-reflexive. Our “classics” are filled with scenes of...

(The entire section is 3898 words.)

Leonard Mustazza (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell's ‘Trifles’ and ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 489–96.

[In the following essay, Mustazza maintains that when Glaspell adapted the play Trifles into the short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” she changed the focus from the so-called trivial details of women's lives to women's powerlessness in the American legal system.]

Commentators on Susan Glaspell's classic feminist short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), and the one-act play from which it derives, Trifles (1916), have tended to regard the two works as essentially...

(The entire section is 3265 words.)

Sherri Hallgren (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “‘The Law is the Law—and a Bad Stove is a Bad Stove’: Subversive Justice and Layers of Collusion in ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’” in Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women's Writings as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 203–18.

[In the following essay, Hallgren demonstrates how readers of “A Jury of Her Peers” are meant to collude with Glaspell-as-narrator in the same ways the female characters band together to mete out justice.]

Susan Glaspell's 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers” has been quietly stunning women readers since its reappearance in a feminist anthology nearly twenty years ago. A...

(The entire section is 7049 words.)

Elaine Hedges (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Small Things Reconsidered: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’” in Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi, The University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 49–67.

[In the excerpt below, first published in 1986, Hedges reconstructs women's social history of the nineteenth-century American West to explain the symbolism of Glaspell's story “A Jury of Her Peers.”]

Susan Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers” is by now a small feminist classic. Published in 1917, rediscovered in the early 1970s, and increasingly reprinted since then in anthologies and textbooks, it has become for both readers and critics a familiar and frequently...

(The entire section is 7404 words.)