Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Glaspell uses rich verbal and dramatic irony to show that women’s intuitive powers can be superior to men’s analytical skills. Aware of the details of daily household chores, the two women grasp the overall scenario: an enraged husband killed by an even more enraged wife. Besides showing how women know that trifles are not insignificant, Glaspell dramatizes gender differences to foreshadow the women’s rebellion. The women, for example, respond sympathetically on seeing the mess from broken jars of fruit, upset at the futility of a woman’s hard work in the intense summer heat. On the other hand, the men berate Mrs. Wright for sloppy housekeeping, as if she could have prevented the cold weather from bursting the jars while jailed overnight.
The descriptive narration, interwoven with insightful dialogue, skillfully reveals a sense of place, characterization, and plot events. For example, Glaspell sets the Wrights’ farmhouse in a hollow, suggesting the emotional emptiness of their lives. She compares John Wright’s hardness to “a raw wind that gets to the bone,” and Minnie is like a bird herself—“sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery.” Although caged up, small, and defenseless like the canary, Minnie becomes enraged enough to murder John.
As the pieces of a patchwork quilt are sewn together, Glaspell slowly stitches together details that reveal the pattern clearly. She makes clever use of the quilting term of...
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Turn of the Century Images of Womanhood
The era between 1914 and 1939 is sometimes referred to the modernist period of literary history. During this time, the social climate of many Western countries began to change dramatically. In 1917 the United States entered World War I. This international event threw many accepted social traditions into chaos. While the men were off fighting in the war and dying in greater numbers than ever before, women remained on the home front and increased independence was necessary for their survival. In order to support themselves and their families, mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters began to move into the work force and take charge of their family's well-being. Modernism in literature was a movement characterized by a rejection of traditional literary methods and values. Gone was the adherence to bourgeois values, and in its place was an often pessimistic sense of foreboding and questioning.
The poet W. H. Auden characterized the national sentiment of this era and its response to women's increasing independence as the "Age of Anxiety." The rise of women's suffrage challenged the male world of politics and government and ended their absolute power over the public realm. In 1918 women in England were granted the legal right to vote and suffrage for American women followed in 1920. Political power and economics were now shared—at least somewhat—between the sexes, and the preexisting gender divide between...
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Deception and Loyalty
As Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale piece together a probable scenario for Mr. Wright's murder, they become torn between deceiving the men, particularly Mrs. Peters' husband, who is the sheriff, and maintaining their loyalty to a woman with whom they identify. Because the men are so reluctant to consider the quilting, the preserves, and the state of the kitchen to be significant details of the crime, the women may feel that any attempts to convince them of how important these ''trifles'' really are will only be met with more dismissive sarcasm "The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove,'' says Mrs. Hale, succinctly summarizing their quandary. Their deception is borne of their loyalty to another woman—even if it is someone neither of them knew well. Even after the men have searched the grounds and are returning to the kitchen, their minds are not made up. At the end, the attorney tells Mrs Peters that "a sheriffs wife is married to the law." when asked if she sees it that way, and she replies ''Not— just that way."
Public vs. Private Life
The men investigating the crime are unsuccessful in determining a motive that would have prompted Minnie to kill her husband because the are in unfamiliar territory. The division of public and private life in the early twentieth century was very clear. Women remained isolated m the private sphere as homemakers, and men were required to function in the public world as...
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Compare and Contrast
1910s: The average salary for farm workers is $830 a year.
1990s: The average farm laborer makes approximately $22,000 a year.
1917: The United States enters World War I. Women are prohibited by law from fighting in the battlefield, but nearly 9,000 Red Cross nurses, including many women, serve with the Army and Navy Nurse Corps in Europe.
1991: During the Persian Gulf War, 13 American women soldiers are killed and two are taken prisoner.
1880s: Approximately 2.5 million U.S. women engage in paid work.
1990s: Over 3 million U.S. women work at least two jobs to make ends meet.
1917: The homicide rate is 6.9 per 100,000 people in the United States.
1992: The homicide rate is 9.3 per 100,000 people in the United States.
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Topics for Further Study
"A Jury of Her Peers" is based on Glaspell's own one-act play Trifles. Consider what reasons the author may have had for rewriting the play in short story form. What are the main differences between telling a story through narration and telling it through drama? How might the story be different if it were adapted as another form, such as a poem or a film?
Read Trifles and write an essay comparing the differences between the short story and the play. Which gives you a better idea of who Minnie is? Are there any improvements that you find notable in the short story? Any distractions?
Think about the significance of the title ''A Jury of Her Peers.'' What images might it evoke for a reader? What might it represent in relation to the story?
Glaspell's story demonstrates the domestic roles women were expected to live by at the turn of the century. Research how most women lived back then. What things have changed and how? What has remained the same? Why might some things have changed while others have not?
In what ways does "A Jury of Her Peers" resemble a classic murder mystery? In what ways does it differ from one? What do these similarities and differences say about justice and the duty of law-abiding citizens?
Suppose the situation in "A Jury of Her Peers" were reversed: Suppose John Wright had been a pleasant man, full of the love of life until his marriage to Minnie Foster, at which point he found...
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What Do I Read Next?
Trifles (1916), the one-act play by Susan Glaspell, upon which ''A Jury of Her Peers" is based, was written and performed for the Provincetown Players, a theater troupe founded in Cape Cod by Glaspell and her husband, fellow playwright George Cram Cook. It is considered to be her best play by many critics and is frequently included in anthologies of American literature.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is the first-person account of a young woman committed to bed rest and psychiatric care by her husband, who believes that her intellectual pursuits, such as reading and writing, are ruining her health.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, tells the story of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in the South who struggles with her grandmother's lessons that a woman should not marry for love alone. After years of following this advice, Janie decides to marry Tea Cake, the only man she has ever loved. Their romance ends when Tea Cake dies and Janie is tried for his murder.
The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin is a short story of Edna Pontellier, a young married woman struggling to discover her own individuality. After a series of events that try her own sense of sexuality, womanhood, motherhood, and freedom, she asserts herself by taking her own life.
''Lamb to the Slaughter," a short story by Roald Dahl published in 1953, is a black comedy...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Davidson, Cathy and Lmda Wagner-Martin, eds. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 355, 954, 956,958,966,968.
Fetterly, Judith. ' '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, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 147-64.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women- The Tradition in English, Norton, 1985, pp. 1216-1242,1388-1389
Hallgren, Sherri.'' '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 Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgan, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp 203-18
Makowsky, Veronica. "American Girl Becomes American Woman: A Fortunate Fall7," in Susan Glaspell's Century of American Women, A Critical Interpretation of Her Work, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 13-28
O'Brem, Edward, ed. The Best of Short Stories of 1917, Small, Maynard& Co., 1918, pp 256-82
Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell;...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Susan Glaspell’s Contributions to Contemporary Women Playwrights.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction to Plays by Susan Glaspell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Dymkowski, Christine. “On the Edge: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” Modern Drama 1 (March, 1988): 91-105.
Goldberg, Isaac. The Drama of Transition: Native and Exotic Playcraft. Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1922.
Makowsky, Veronica A. Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women: A Critical Interpretation of Her Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Noe, Marcia. Susan Glaspell: Voice from the Heartland. Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1983.
Ozieblo, Barbara. “Rebellion and Rejection: The Plays of Susan Glaspell.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. London: Associated University Presses, 1990.
Ozieblo, Barbara. Susan Glaspell: A Critical Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.:...
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