The primary literary element present in Susan Glaspell’s short story is irony. This quality refers to a disconnection or reversal between expectations and reality or to restricting information from some of the characters or the audience. This story uses situational irony, in which the reader’s expectations are reversed.
The irony in the story derives from the different ways of understanding people that the women and the men bring to the situation. Glaspell initially leads the reader to see the story as a mystery that Sheriff Peters and other men are trying to solve: who killed John Wright? Closely related to the question of the killer’s identity is that of their motive. The women have come to the Wrights’ home to help the widow, so it seems that their roles will be subordinated to those of the men.
While the mystery is resolved during the course of the story, it is not the male detectives who figure out the who or the why of the murder. Although they suspect Minnie, who has been arrested, they find no firm evidence that will prove their suspicion. Instead, the women, by examining items that do not immediately seem to constitute evidence, are able to analyze the psychological elements of the Wrights’ lives. They can see Minnie’s despair and growing rage in small signs such as a quilt or a birdcage, while the men dismiss their concerns as irrelevant.