illustration of a dead bird lying within a black box

A Jury of Her Peers

by Susan Glaspell

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What is the irony in the method of killing in "A Jury of Her Peers"?

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With a gun available to her, it seems ironic that the oppressed and apparently unassertive Mrs. Minnie Foster Wright would choose a brutal and strenuous method like strangling to kill her husband.

Early in the narrative, a neighbor to the Wrights, Mr. Hale, tells the county attorney what happened when he came to the Wrights' house the day before Mr. Wright's death. Mr. Hale mentions that he stopped to ask Mr. Wright if he would like to "take a telephone." At the time of this story, telephones were expensive for people who were far from town because of the added costs to the company in providing the lines and other necessary equipment. So, Mr. Hale hoped that he could get other neighbors to go in with him on a party line. Further, he tells the attorney that he planned on mentioning how much the womenfolk would enjoy having a telephone, although he says he "didn't know what his wife wanted made much difference to John--"

There are other suggestions that Mrs. Wright has surrendered to a life unlike her former one. One is recounted by Mrs. Hale as she talks with Mrs. Peters, the sheriff's wife. When Mrs. Peters gathers the articles of clothing that Mrs. Wright requested, Mrs. Hale notices the worn quality of this clothing, and she tells Mrs. Peters that Mr. Wright was "close." Mrs. Hale says,

"I think maybe that's why she [Mrs. Wright] kept so much to herself. I s'pose she felt she couldn't do her part; and then, you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be of the town girls, singing in the choir."

The little songbird that Mrs. Wright owned may have been quite meaningful to her as it sang when, in her depressed state, she herself no longer could. Perhaps, too, the death of this songbird carries a significance known only to Mrs. Wright. So rather than use her husband's gun or another weapon, she may have repaid the death of the sweet bird in kind—a form of poetic justice. Such brutality is ironic, or unexpected, given her submissive nature and Mr. Wright's oppresive acts. Nevertheless, frightened and angered women can exhibit a strength that they normally do not possess. Minnie Wright just might have had enough strength to "wring his neck" and strangle him unexpectedly, just as he strangled her precious bird.

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Mr. Wright was found dead in his bed with a rope around his neck. As the story unfolds, the irony of the way he died becomes clearer. Three types of irony related to the cause of death are apparent. Situational irony refers to events that are the opposite of what one might expect. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that a character doesn't know. Verbal irony refers to the use of words to mean the opposite of their literal meaning. 

First, that Mr. Wright would be strangled in his bed with a rope is ironic--unexpected--for several reasons. There was a gun in the home, and anyone who wanted to murder the man could have done so more quickly and easily with the gun. Second, that he didn't wake up while the rope was being put around his neck is unusual. Third, the method of death was like a hanging, a way to administer justice to a wrong-doer, yet the man was murdered, so the one who was administering the "justice" would be the wrong-doer--making for an ironic role reversal of the victim and perpetrator. 

Dramatic irony comes in when the women discover clues that the men--the sheriff and county attorney--don't know about. Readers learn that Minnie Wright was knotting a quilt--drawing a connection with the knot she tied around her husband's neck. The women discover the canary with a broken neck and conclude that Mr. Wright broke the innocent bird's neck, revealing that the method of Wright's execution was poetic--or ironic--justice for his brutality. The act of violence toward the bird represents the larger pattern of abuse that Wright perpetrated on his wife. The murderer killed him by "slipping a thing round his neck that choked the life out of him," but he was guilty in a different way of choking the life out of his wife over a period of twenty years. 

Finally, verbal irony surrounds the method of death. The men mock the women for debating whether Minnie was going to quilt or knot the squares of her quilt together. The innocent knot associated with quilting is ironic when juxtaposed with the deadly hangman's knot around Mr. Wright's neck. 

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