"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.”