A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell
"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.
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.
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.”
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 (drama) 1921
The Verge (drama) 1921
Chains of Dew (drama) 1922
The Road to the Temple (biography) 1926
Brook Evans (novel) 1928
The Comic Artist [with Norman Matson] (drama) 1928
Fugitive's Return (novel) 1929
Alison's House (drama) 1930
Ambrose Holt and Family (novel) 1931
Cherished and Shared of Old (juvenilia) 1940
The Morning Is Near Us (novel) 1940
Norma Ashe (novel) 1942
Judd Rankin's Daughter (novel) 1945
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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. Despite the increasing contemporary interest in women in literature, it is difficult to perceive from the simple progress of events a complexity of thought warranting the current fascination with this work.
Critics tend to agree on the basic theme indicated by the sequence of events: Loyalty to and sympathy for the murderess, Minnie Foster (Mrs. Wright), determine the women's decision to conceal the truth from their husbands and the law. The following statement of Karen Stein in her commendable article on Trifles [in Women in American Theatre] is typical of the general approach:
The women here realize, through their involvement in the murder investigation, that only by...
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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 immigrants who find themselves isolated on the prairies, the plains, the remote countrysides, in a constant struggle with loneliness and hardship. More often than not, these protagonists are married, a convention only broken by the stigma of spinsterhood or the death of a spouse. And the kinds of matrimonial conventions illustrated in the fiction of the American wilderness compound the protagonists' struggle. Such conventions create an externally imposed conflict between husband and wife, a conflict derived from the disparity between social decorum and psychological needs.
Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond, in American Voices, American Women, describe this conflict that emerges from marriage as “a tension between social...
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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 readers and readings. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a climactic moment occurs when Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale's shirt and finally reads the text he has for so long been trying to locate. What he sees we never learn, but for him his “reading” is complete and satisfying. Or, to take another example, in “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne's misreading of Daisy provides the central drama of the text. Indeed, for James, reading is the dominant metaphor for life, and his art is designed to teach us how to read well so that we may live somewhere other than Geneva. Yet even a writer as different from James as Mark Twain must learn to read his river if he wants to become a master pilot. And, of course, in Moby Dick, Melville...
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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 alike. And even those few who have noticed the changes that Glaspell made in the process of generic translation have done so only in passing. In his monograph on Glaspell, Arthur Waterman, who seems to have a higher regard for the story than for the play, suggests that story is a “moving fictional experience” because of the progressive honing of the author's skills, the story's vivid realism owing to her work as a local-color writer for the Des Moines Daily News, and its unified plot due to its dramatic origin. More specifically, Elaine Hedges appropriately notes the significance of Glaspell's change in titles from Trifles, which emphasizes the supposedly trivial household items with which the women “acquit” their...
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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 novelist and playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for her novel Alison's House, Glaspell had been all but forgotten until her story was reprinted in Lee R. Edwards and Arlyn Diamond's American Voices, American Women. On the surface a detective story about two Iowa women who unintentionally solve a crime right under the noses of their officious husbands, who cannot see the very clues they're searching for, the plot of “A Jury of Her Peers” is an in-joke among women, who recognize the narrative's clues.
When the story opens, a farm woman, Martha Hale, is being called from her bread baking to accompany her husband, John, along with the sheriff and his wife and the county attorney, on a trip to the...
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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 revisited landmark on our “map of rereading.” For Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond in 1973 it introduced us to the work of one of the important but forgotten women writers who were then being rediscovered, and its characters, “prairie matrons, bound by poverty and limited experience [who] fight heroic battles on tiny battlefields,” provided examples of those ordinary or anonymous women whose voices were also being sought and reclaimed. For Mary Anne Ferguson, also in 1973, Glaspell's story was significant for its challenge to prevailing images or stereotypes of women—women as “fuzzy minded” and concerned only with “trifles,” for example—and for its celebration of female sorority, of the power of sisterhood. More recently, in...
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Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, 299 p.
This complete bibliography of Glaspell's works includes archival material, plot summaries, production histories, and review summaries of her plays, as well as an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.
Kolodny, Annette. “A Map for Rereading; or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts.” In The Mother Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, pp. 241–59. Edited by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Discussion of gender-related variations in reading texts, including Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers.”
Additional coverage of Glaspell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9, 78; Drama Criticism, Vol. 10; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 55; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.
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