Most critics agree that Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” is, by far, her best short story. First published in Everyweek on March 5, 1917, the work is a faithful adaptation of her play Trifles, produced the year before by the Provincetown Players. Cook had decided to stage two one-act plays for the company. He already had O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (wr. 1913-1914, pr. 1916, pb. 1919) but needed another, and he told Glaspell to write one. She protested because of her lack of experience as a dramatist and the pairing with O’Neill. Reaching into her past as a courthouse reporter in Iowa, she remembered covering a murder trial and her impressions of entering the kitchen of the accused. She had meant to write about the experience as a short story but had never gotten to it.
So I went out on the wharf . . . and looked a long time at that bare little stage. After a time the stage became a kitchen—a kitchen there all by itself. I saw just where the stove was, the table, and the steps going upstairs. Then the door at the back opened, and people all bundled up came in—two or three men, I wasn’t sure which, but sure enough about the two women, who hung back, reluctant to enter that kitchen.
The play was a big success for Glaspell and the Provincetown Players. It is considered one of the finest short pieces written for the American theater and is frequently anthologized.
Glaspell had only to make minor changes in adapting Trifles to a short story. As with some of her other literary work, the main character is never seen. The setting is the Iowa farm of Minnie Wright. Minnie has been charged with murdering her husband. Her guilt in committing the crime is never questioned. Three men—a sheriff, a county prosecutor, and a neighbor—have come to gather evidence to support the prosecution. Two women—wives of the sheriff and neighbor—accompany the men. Their purpose is to pick up effects for Minnie.
Glaspell skillfully shows how the men and women look at the household differently. While the men seek evidence to convict the accused, the two women come across trifles such as a disordered household, an irregular quilting pattern, and a strangled canary. They conclude that such details are indicative of Minnie’s motivations for the murder. The women gossip openly about Minnie’s abusive and authoritarian husband and discuss why they sympathize with her desperate act. Glaspell creates a courtroom in that Iowa farmstead, and the women become jurors who decide that Minnie is not guilty. They base their judgment not on legality but on simple humanity and compassion. The women decide not to reveal their evidence to the male investigators out of respect for Minnie’s long suffering.
Martha Hale is baking bread one cold March morning when the county’s most extraordinary scandal forces her out of her kitchen. She has been asked by Sheriff Peters to assist his wife in gathering personal belongings for Minnie Wright, whom he has jailed on suspicion of murdering her husband. Martha approaches the Wrights’ isolated farmhouse with her husband, Lewis, Mr. and Mrs. Peters, and George Henderson, the county attorney. She pauses before crossing the threshold, overwhelmed with guilt because she had never visited in the twenty years Minnie, her girlhood friend, has been married. She nervously listens to her husband describe coming to the Wright place on their isolated country road the night before, because he wanted to convince John Wright to get a telephone and share the installation costs. Martha hopes her husband will not incriminate Minnie, but his remarks imply the Wrights were not happily married.
George Henderson takes notes as Mr. Hale tells how Mrs. Wright sat unemotionally rocking in her chair and responded oddly to his request to see her husband. She calmly replied that although he was home, he could not talk because he was dead. Pleating her apron, she said he died of a rope around his neck while he was sleeping in bed with her; she did not know who did it because she was sleeping on the inside and she slept soundly.
That Minnie has murdered her husband seems clear to the attorney, but without her confession, he knows that a jury will want definite evidence, especially when trying a woman for murder. Seeking evidence of a motive, the sheriff looks around at the kitchen things, and Mr. Hale comments with a tone of superiority that women worry over trifles. Reacting defensively to the men’s condescension, Martha and Mrs. Peters instinctively move closer together and defend their neighbor as if she were a close friend. After Mr. Hale questions whether the women would even know a clue if they came on it, the men leave the kitchen to solve the mystery.
Now alone to piece together the puzzle, the two women deduce from small details, such as spilled sugar not cleaned off the table, what must have happened the day John Wright was killed. They conclude that John was stingy because of Minnie’s broken stove and much-repaired clothes. Martha suddenly understands that Minnie, once a lively girl who wore pretty clothes and sang in the choir, kept to herself after marriage because she was ashamed of her shabby appearance. Mrs. Peters realizes that a person gets discouraged and loses heart after years of loneliness. Turning their attention to Minnie’s unfinished quilting, Martha asks Mrs. Peters whether she thought it was to be quilted or knotted. At that moment, the men come in. Laughing at the trifling question about the quilt, Mr. Hale mockingly repeats it.
When the three men leave for the barn, the women discover more clues. Mrs. Peters sees erratic stitches, so different from the even sewing of the other pieces. Martha immediately pulls out the uneven stitches, despite Mrs. Peters’s warning about touching anything. They recall how Mrs. Wright once sang so beautifully, and they think she no doubt had a canary because they see a birdcage. While looking for Minnie’s sewing things to bring to her in jail, they find her canary wrapped up in a piece of silk with its neck wrung. Just as they figure out that John must have violently ripped off the birdcage door hinge and silenced the chirping canary by wringing its neck, the men return. Without plotting any collaboration, the women instinctively conceal the dead bird in the sewing basket and make excuses to divert the men’s attention. When she is again alone with Mrs. Peters, Martha describes her rage when a boy once took a hatchet to her kitten when she was a girl. Then Mrs. Peters admits her loneliness while homesteading in remote Dakota after her baby died. How the men would laugh to hear their talk about such trivia as a dead canary, she says.
The story concludes as Henderson, who has failed to come up with incriminating evidence, facetiously remarks that at least they found out Mrs. Wright was not going to quilt the material; he asks the ladies to repeat the exact quilting technique mentioned earlier. With her hand against her coat pocket, hiding the dead canary, Mrs. Hale responds, “We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson.”