A Jury of Her Peers
Susan Glaspell 1917
Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” first published in 1917, is a short story adaptation of her one-act play Trifles. Since their first publication, both the story and the play have appeared in many anthologies of women writers and playwrights. Although Trifles was written first and performed in 1916 by Glaspell’s theater troupe, the Provincetown Players, the play was not published until three years after the short story appeared in the March 5, 1917 edition of Everyweek magazine. Inspired by events witnessed during her years as a court reporter in Iowa, Glaspell crafted a story in which a group of rural women deduce the details of a murder in which a woman has killed her husband. Understanding the clues left amidst the “trifles” of the woman’s kitchen, the women are able to outsmart their husbands, who are at the farmhouse to collect evidence, and thus prevent the wife from being convicted of the crime. The play was received warmly, and Glaspell made only minor changes in adapting the play into a short story.
Glaspell claimed that “A Jury of Her Peers” was based on an actual court case she covered as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily. On December 2, 1900, sixty-year-old farmer John Hossack was murdered in Indianola, Iowa. His skull was crushed by an ax while he and his wife were asleep in bed. His wife, Margaret, was tried for the crime and eventually released due to inconclusive evidence. Like Minnie Wright, the main character of Glaspell’s story, Mrs. Hossack claimed not to have seen the Page 155 | Top of Articlemurderer. The trial was attended many of the town’s women. Among them was the sheriff’s wife, who showed much sympathy to Mrs. Hossack throughout the trial despite having initially testified against her. Critics believe that Glaspell based the character of Mrs. Peters on this woman. Because women were not allowed to be jurors at the trial, Glaspell created a jury of those female peers in her short story.
Playwright, novelist, and short story writer Susan Glaspell was born July 1, 1876, in Davenport, Iowa, though some sources cite her birth year as 1882. She received a rural, middle-class public school education. Eventually she attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated in 1899 with a degree in journalism. In college Glaspell acquired several awards and made a name for herself as a competitive student. Following her graduation, she began work as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily, writing on local crime and politics, an unusual occupation for a woman of her time.
In 1913 Glaspell married playwright George Cram Cook. The couple never had children together, but she became stepmother to his two children from a previous marriage. They spent summers at their East Coast property and in 1915 founded the Provincetown Players, an organization of playwrights and actors, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Recognized as a dramatist in her own right, Glaspell often acted in her own productions and provided artistic support for other young writers and performers, most notably Eugene O’Neill. Glaspell was widowed in 1924 and married playwright Norman Matson. They divorced in 1932.
In her lifetime, Glaspell wrote thirteen plays, fourteen novels, and more than fifty essays, articles, and short stories. In 1931 she became only the second woman playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize. Trifles, the play upon which “A Jury of Her Peers” is based, is Glaspell’s most anthologized work and accounts for much of her popularity as a twentieth-century American playwright. She died in Provincetown of pleural embolism in 1948. Glaspell had lived and worked during a time when ambition and independence characterized many women, whose newfound political power was a driving force behind the suffrage and the temperance movements. This strong sense of female identity challenged the perceptions of many who viewed the public realm as a “man’s world” only.
The story begins with Mrs. Martha Hale being hurried along by her husband, Lewis Hale. She leaves her kitchen in the middle of making bread, hating the fact that she is leaving things half done. She accompanies George Henderson, the county attorney, Sheriff Henry Peters, and his wife, Mrs. Peters, to the scene of a crime at the home of the Wrights, a couple they all knew. Mrs. Hale has been asked along to keep Mrs. Peters company, even though the two women have met only once before. The crime they are investigating is the murder of Mr. John Wright. His wife, Mrs. Minnie Wright, whom the women refer to by her maiden name, Minnie Foster, is being held at the jail as a suspect. The Hales, the Peters, and Attorney Henderson all meet at the scene to determine what might have happened the day before.
Mr. Hale and his son, who are the Wrights’ closest neighbors, were the first to see Minnie and her dead husband. Mr. Hale tells how they arrived at the Wright home to find Minnie in her rocking chair looking “queer” and pleating her apron. When Mr. Hale asked to see John, she calmly told him he was upstairs and had been strangled to death; she claimed that someone had slipped a rope under her husband’s neck and killed him while they were sleeping. Mr. Hale explained that he was there to inquire if John wanted a telephone installed; a request that caused Minnie to laugh. Shortly afterward, the coroner arrived with the sheriff to begin investigating the scene and Minnie was taken away to jail as a suspect.
The men are slightly appalled at Minnie’s messy kitchen and criticize her housekeeping. Convinced that there is “nothing here but kitchen things,” the men search for clues upstairs where the body was found and outside in the barn, while the women stay in the kitchen and gather some items to take to Minnie. Among the unfinished and badly sewn quilting, the jars of preserves that have burst due to the cold, and the dirty pots and cooking area, they begin to uncover their own clues about why Minnie might have wanted to kill her husband. They uncover evidence that the men overlook, such as the crooked stitch of the quilt, Minnie’s old and drab clothing, the rundown kitchen in which she had to
cook, and her beloved canary that had been strangled and saved in a box. Mrs. Hale has known Minnie since they were young girls. She discusses with Mrs. Peters how Minnie had been more cheerful and sociable before she was married. She notices that she had changed into a more serious, lonely, and introverted person after she became Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Hale recalls what a strict and cold person Mr. Wright was. She remarks that he was too selfish and somber a person to match Minnie’s lively and generous spirit. Over and over Mrs. Hale remarks that she should have visited Minnie more often—it was a crime not to have seen her in over a year. Mrs. Peters tries to comfort her by stating that “somehow, we just don’t see how it is with other folks till—something comes up.”
Both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters imagine what it must have felt like to live in such a horrible environment. Mrs. Peters sadly remembers the solitude of her farmhouse after her only child died. Mrs. Hale recalls the hurry in which she left her kitchen earlier that day, with her cooking and cleaning half done. The women discuss how only a distracted woman could leave her housework unfinished, her kitchen untidy, and her stitching crooked.
Together, they determine that such a lonely household could only make Minnie “lose heart.” Seeing the broken hinge on the bird cage, they speculate that the canary may have been killed by her husband, much the way they believe he killed Minnie’s spirit with his overbearing manner. They blame Mr. Wright for Minnie not having nice clothes to wear in public and for having to live and cook in a rundown home without even a telephone to keep her connected to the outside world. Both women put themselves in Minnie’s place to try and feel what she may have been feeling. All the while they exchange knowing, uncomfortable glances.
The women repair her poor quilting and concoct a story of a runaway cat to explain the disappearance of the canary. In doing so, they conceal clues that might reveal Minnie’s motive for murder. Neither one is able to say for certain who they believe is guilty of the murder, but they suggest that all of this information about Minnie, her marriage, and the dead canary holds the answer to who committed the crime. The women do not tell the men about the canary or about their assumptions about Minnie’s unhappy marriage. The story ends with Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters nervously removing the canary and the unfinished quilting from the premises.
See Minnie Wright
Lewis Hale is an Iowa farmer and a neighbor of the Wrights. He is called on the day after John Wright’s murder to participate in the investigation as a witness. He tells the police how he found the body in the upstairs bedroom and of Minnie’s peculiar behavior that day. Through his narrative the reader and the other characters learn about Minnie’s state of mind after the murder. He tends to be long-winded when he speaks, and his wife is frequently worried that he will not get the story straight. Along with the other male characters, Mr. Hale searches for clues in all the obvious places, yet misses some of the most crucial evidence in the kitchen.
Martha Hale is the only character visible for the entire story. The narrator follows her from her own kitchen to Wright’s kitchen. While waiting for the detective to investigate the premises, she conducts Page 157 | Top of Articleher own examination of the scene. Rather than search Minnie Wright’s home with the critical eye of the law, Mrs. Hale observes it with the sympathetic eye of a farm wife. As an acquaintance of Minnie’s for over twenty years, she provides the reader with background on what Minnie was like before and after marriage. She represents loyalty and female solidarity by concealing evidence that would implicate Minnie in the death of her husband.
George Henderson is the young county lawyer who intends to prosecute Minnie Wright for the murder of her husband. As part of the investigating party, he asks questions and take notes. His sarcasm about the women’s attention to minor domestic details aggravates the women and shows him to be narrow-minded.
As a man of the law, the sheriff’s main goal is to convict John Wright’s murderer. He is described as the perfect example of a sheriff—heavy and big-voiced. He is driven by the belief that he and his assembly of men can solve the crime of their own accord without the help of the women. He dismisses the women’s observations as a silly waste of time.
Mrs. Peters’s first name is never revealed in the story. She is the sheriff’s wife, and the county prosecutor reminds her that she is “married to the law.” Her first tendency is to discourage Mrs. Hale from rushing to conclusions and tampering with the evidence they uncover in the kitchen. Later, Mrs. Peters’s female sensibility causes her to pardon Minnie of her possible crime, and she assists Mrs. Hale in concealing evidence. For the greater part of the story, she is clearly undecided about whether to side with the men, who want to prosecute Minnie, or with Mrs. Hale, who is sympathetic to Minnie’s predicament. Hers is the “swing vote” on whether or not to “convict” Minnie.
See Henry Peters
John Wright is Minnie’s husband, and his murder sets in motion the action of the story. Like Minnie, he does not appear in the story and, thus, cannot defend himself. He is described by both the men and the women as a selfish, cold, unsociable
man who did not care much for his wife’s needs and opinions. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters assume that he strangled Minnie’s canary, which they find tucked away in Minnie’s sewing basket. Since Mr. Wright has been strangled himself, the women hypothesize that Minnie murdered him in retaliation for what he did to her pet bird.
Minnie Wright is the main suspect in her husband’s murder, but she does not appear in the story. Thus, she is not allowed to speak for herself; and the reader comes to know her solely by what Mrs. Hale says about her and by the “clues” she left in the kitchen that reveal her lifestyle and her frame of mind at the time of the murder. Mrs. Hale’s reminiscence of Minnie Foster, the girl she was before she married John Wright, tells readers that she was a lively and pretty young woman who always dressed well and sang in the church choir. Mr. Hale’s account of the Mrs. Wright he found after the murder indicates a “queer” woman who rocks in her chair while her husband lies dead upstairs.
Much of the tension in “A Jury of Her Peers” results from what the women understand and what the men are blind to. The kitchen, during the time the story takes place, was the sole domain of the wife. Wives themselves, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are able to determine Mrs. Wright’s frame of mind from how she left her kitchen. The men are scornful of the messy kitchen, and ultimately dismissive of
what it contains. The sheriff comments that there’s “nothing here but kitchen things,” and when Mrs. Peters laments that the jars of preserves have burst from the cold, Mr. Hale says that “women are used to worrying over trifles.” Yet the women know that Mrs. Wright would not choose to have such a shabby or ill-kept kitchen. When the attorney notices the filthy dish towels and says, “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” Mrs. Hale replies that “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.”
Because both women have been farmer’s wives themselves, they understand the loneliness of living in isolation on a farm, and they can understand how upset Mrs. Wright would be over the death of her canary. They also recognize that the erratic stitching on her quilting squares, which contradicts her earlier, neater stitching was the result of a distracted mind. Eventually, the men leave the women in the kitchen to search for clues in “more important” areas of the house, but not before telling Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale to keep their eyes open. The attorney’s comment—“you women might come upon a clue to the motive” indicates that he does not think they could deduct a motive, but only stumble on to evidence by mistake. Mr. Hale takes this line of reasoning even farther by asking “would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” Such an attitude towards women in the room of the house they know best highlights not only the differences between men’s and women’s household roles, but also that the women’s role is devalued by men. The Page 159 | Top of Articlestark divisions between men’s and women’s roles is noted by Mrs. Hale, who says “I’d hate to have men comin’ into my kitchen . . . snoopin’ round and criticizin’.”
The story makes it clear that men have obligations in the home as well. The women note that Mrs. Wright’s clothing was worn and shabby. “You don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby,” Mrs. Hale says by way of explaining why she probably had not seen much of Minnie Wright in public since she had gotten married twenty years ago. They also note the decrepit state of the stove. When contemplating what they should do about the clues, Mrs. Hale says that “The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove,” and thinks about “what it would mean, year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with.” Mr. Hale originally went to the Wrights’ house to ask if John Wright would install a telephone, “all the women-folks like the telephones,” he says, but by the way Minnie had laughed at his proposition, it is inferred that John Wright would have denied his wife even that bit of comfort in her own home.
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 sheriff’s 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 in the private sphere as homemakers, and men were required to function in the public world as breadwinners. Women did not commonly have knowledge of the more male-dominated institutions of law or business, and men were generally unaware of what was involved in homemaking and raising children. Since the domestic realm of the kitchen is so foreign to the sheriff and his male companions, they do not view its contents with the same understanding that the women do. To them, a dirty towels and dishes can signify only one thing—sloppy housekeeping. But the women know that most homemakers are conscientious and that dirty towels and dishes may be symptoms of an unsettled or disrupted mind. Because they are unfamiliar with women’s work, the men are quick to dismiss it.
The third-person omniscient narrator in “A Jury of Her Peers” is capable of relating the thoughts of each character. It differs from a first-person narrator in that it does not tell the story from only one character’s point of view but sees things from a central vantage point. Omniscient narration allows readers to witness the physical actions and often the mental and emotional states of more than one character. It provides readers with information about things that the characters themselves do not say aloud, or that they are unaware of. In the story, Mrs. Hale’s husband says that “women are used to worrying over trifles.” The omniscient narrator relates that he says it in a tone of “good-natured superiority.” It is not likely that Mr. Hale realized he was demeaning the women, but the narrator comments on it.
The narrator, however, does focus on the women in the kitchen. When the men leave to do the police work of searching the barn and the bedroom upstairs, the narrator does not report what they are doing. One reason could be that whatever they found or did not find could not be as significant to the story as what the women uncovered. The narrative Page 160 | Top of Articleperspective calls attention to what is most important for the reader to know. It reflects the decision of the author to foreground some details and events and to overlook others.
Symbolism is a literary technique in which something comes to represent something else, without losing its original meaning. It is an important device used by writers who want to impart an added dimension of meaning to a character or some element of the plot. The two main symbols in “A Jury of Her Peers” are the canary and the quilt pieces. The canary is a symbol for Minnie, who used to sing in the church choir. Mrs. Hale confronts the comparison directly: “come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery.” But the women find the bird dead; strangled, a symbol for Minnie’s squelched liveliness in a drab house. Just as Mr. Wright had clipped his wife’s wings and left her to toil alone in an insufficient kitchen, Mr. Wright killed the bird, “a bird that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too.” Both the bird’s song and Minnie’s happiness have been eliminated.
The women’s discovery of Minnie’s haphazard quilting opens up another interesting symbolic interpretation. The squares can be said to be symbolic of John Wright. Though Minnie at first was dutiful towards her quilting, making sure the stitches were meticulous, her most recent squares exhibit angry, sloppy stitches that reveal inner torment. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters question whether or not Minnie intended to knot or quilt the squares together. When they tell the men that they believe she intended to knot the quilt, that knot becomes symbolic for the other knot that Minnie made—in the noose around her husband’s neck. Mrs. Hale’s final remark that Minnie did, in fact, intend to knot the quilt symbolizes her belief that Minnie is guilty.
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 public man and private woman no longer provided the security of male mastery. English writer D. H. Lawrence’s essay “Matriarchy” exaggerated a picture of these times by theorizing that a matriarchy, or woman-centered society, was growing out of the modernist era and taking control, and destroying the “mastery” of the patriarchy, or male-centered society.
In rural parts of the country, however, change was slow in coming. Away from the cities, farmers continued to toil the land like they always had. The coming of the automobile, motorized farm equipment, and the telephone began to break down some of the forces of isolation on the farm, but many farmers were not wealthy enough to take advantage of these new technologies. The spirit of the pioneers, for those who had lost touch with their rural roots, became a popular topic for literature. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books romanticized the simplicity of rural and small town life, and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia celebrated the resolve of the Midwest’s first pioneers. In stark contrast to this trend was Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” an unromantic look at the
loneliness, isolation, and desperation that can result from the harsh life of the prairie.
Little criticism of “A Jury of Her Peers” dates from the time of its initial publication or from 1927 when it was collected with Glaspell’s other stories in the collection A Jury of Her Peers. Only after the story gained acclaim during the 1970s did critical interest in it grow. However, theater reviews of Trifles, performed in 1916, one year before the publication of “A Jury of Her Peers,” relate that critics found the performance to be the Provincetown Players’ finest to date.
In Susan Glaspell: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Mary Papke lists six reviews of the play, only one of which did not enthusiastically
recommend it. Early critiques from the New York Dramatic Mirror gave it high praise as a drama of mystery and suspense and Theatre Magazine found the female actors in their interpretation of women’s intuition ingenious. On the other hand, the New York Times critic found both its acting and dialogue unsatisfactory. Later reviews of European productions agreed that the play’s appeal was for an exclusively American audience because it addressed a historical milieu specific to early twentieth-century America. No reviewers noted the story’s strong feminist statement; that reading was formulated by feminists involved in the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Over fifty years after the first performance of Trifles, feminist critics appropriated the short story version as a critique of male-dominated society. It is now considered a feminist classic. In her essay “Small Things Reconsidered: Susan Glaspell’s ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,” Elaine Hedges notes that Mary Anne Ferguson’s 1973 anthology entitled Images of Women in Literature reintroduced Trifles to readers as the forgotten text of an extraordinary writer. The recognition of women’s artistic ability and intellect challenged the stereotype of women as concerned with the “trifles” of life. Thereafter, a number or critics, including Annette Kolodony, began to consider “A Jury of Her Peers” and include it in their work in hopes that the story would become popular in classrooms and anthologies of women’s literature.
In her 1986 essay “Reading About Reading,” Judith Fetterly’s criticism of “A Jury of Her Peers” exposes what she feels is a contradiction in reading it as a feminist short story. She states, “Minnie is denied her story and hence her reality . . . and the men are allowed to continue to assume that they are the only ones with stories. So haven’t the men finally won?” Fetterley finds that because the women in the story allow the men to continue to believe their version of the truth, and they never assert their side of the story, that Minnie is not really let off the hook. Although she may never be convicted of the crime, it is not a victory since she cannot have her say and defend her actions. Fetterly’s suspicion is that this sense of feminism comes at the expense of allowing men to continue to devalue a woman’s story. Her point is that choosing to remain silent is not a feminist act if it encourages male superiority.
A different perspective of “A Jury of Her Peers” comes from the 1995 introduction to Linda Ben-Zvi’s edited collection of critical essays on Glaspell titled Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. In it, Ben-Zvi states that “Susan Glaspell’s writing is marked by strong women, personae whose consciousness of themselves and
their world shapes her plays and fiction.” Not only did Glaspell’s female persona shape her fiction, Ben-Zvi theorizes, but her strong female characters also shaped the situations in which they were introduced. Today, readers can appreciate Glaspell’s work for its historical place in the long tradition of literature written by women in the United States.
Ortiz has a master’s degree in English Literature and teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, she addresses the significance of women’s subjective experience in Glaspell’s portrayal of legal justice in “A Jury of Her Peers.”
When Mrs. Hale says to Mrs. Peters, “We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren’t—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?” she was talking about a shared female subjectivity.
A good way to understand subjectivity is to imagine that all people are subjects. As subjects of their particular environments, their identities are constructed by the times, geography, gender, age, and any number of things that make them who they are. People’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are informed by all these circumstances. This individual perspective is the person’s subjectivity. This subjectivity is the root of an individual’s epistemology, or the way they know what they know.
Objectivity would be the opposite of this. An objective perspective or way of thinking relies on a person’s ability to put aside his or her own subjective experience and view a situation from a standard or formulaic point of view. This point of view is removed from what the person thinks for him or herself and is based on a general set of assumptions.
People share a certain subjective viewpoint if they have enough common experiences. Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Minnie Wright all share a certain female subjectivity as wives of farmers. They live in the same town and have very similar lives, therefore knowing themselves is similar to knowing one another. It is this shared understanding of their lives that allows Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to reconstruct a picture of what Minnie’s life might have been like. Page 164 | Top of ArticleIt is a lack of this subjective approach that keeps their husbands unaware of the circumstances of the crime. The men’s objective approach to the crime is informed not by their own ideas of what might have happened, but by a set of assumptions of what most people agree constitutes a crime.
While looking for a certain set of clues like forced entry, a murder weapon, and signs of intruders around the barn, they are not open to other interpretations of the crime, interpretations that perhaps only a woman who shared Minnie’s experiences might see. When the men disregard the women’s attention to the kitchen, they are favoring an objective approach. Upon briefly surveying the kitchen, the sheriff decides to move the investigation upstairs. His cynical assessment of the scene is, “Nothing here but kitchen things.”—“Nothing,” as the county attorney suggests “that would point to any motive.” In fact, the men openly doubt the women’s ability to read a crime with their subjective experience. The assumption that the women are prone to do so places them under suspicion of being blinded by this subjectivity and thus unable to come up with any useful information. Mr. Hale sums up this theory by asking, “But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?”
Female subjectivity is crucial in comprehending the story because it is the only way in which readers come to have a sense of who Minnie is. It is through the shared experiences of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters that the reader comes to understand what Minnie’s life might have been like. Only when the women synthesize their observations at the crime scene with what they know about their own lives as rural housewives do they achieve a shared concept of married rural womanhood. This shared sense of identity is the basis for their shared subjectivity.
Minnie does not have to tell them that she was lonely or unhappy. They use memories of their own experiences to sympathize with her isolation and to defend her against the accusations of the law. To Sheriff Peters’s attempt to sway Mrs. Hale’s loyalty to her sex, “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” Mrs. Hale reminds him that it takes two to dirty a house and only one is expected to clean it: “Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.” The dual meaning of the phrase “clean hands” implies that husbands are not always as free from guilt as they could be. As housewives, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters know this to be true. Perhaps their own homes have been dirtied by similarly careless hands. Mrs. Hale also understands the anxiety of housework interrupted, “Things begun—and not finished.” The question of what might have interrupted Minnie’s work comes to Mrs. Hale’s mind after placing herself in Minnie’s shoes. A housewife would not leave her work undone if not for some disturbance. This insight points Mrs. Hale in the direction of a motive.
Critic Linda Ben-Zvi notes that the author conveys the constricting sense of a woman’s isolation with the symbolism of the exploded preserves jars. A summer’s worth of canning suddenly destroyed represents a form of outburst; it is a suggestion that something may have erupted. Ben-Zvi reads the cracked jars as a symbol for a break in Minnie’s composure. That “preserves explode from lack of heat” is an indicator that any violent expression on Minnie’s part may be caused by the lack of warmth she received from her own husband, “a punning reminder of the causal relationship between isolation and violence.” The women’s compassion for Minnie’s lost preserves is a form of sympathy or understanding for her isolated, fractured marriage. Perhaps without realizing it, they are reading her kitchen as a text for her life.
Critic Judith Fetterley describes the kitchen as a text, one the men cannot or will not read because they fail to see it as a text. Fetterley believes the women remove the evidence from the scene because they understand that the men could learn to read the text of women’s experience. It is not impossible for men to see it, but their unwillingness makes it unlikely. One reason why the men refuse to read or see the text could be that they also have ulterior motives. The evidence might reveal that John was a brutal man who, in addition to being miserly and curt, was also capable of murdering an animal out of spite. As Fetterley claims, they may not want to uncover any evidence that, although it proves Minnie’s guilt, also implies that John Wright, fellow husband, may have been the kind of man whose wife would want to murder him. Perhaps admitting that John was partly to blame for his own murder would be accepting responsibility for the injustices they may have perpetrated against their own wives. It might justify their own possible murders.
Fetterley’s interpretation of the kitchen investigation implies that the definition of a good man or a good husband is as much at stake as the definition of a good woman or a good wife. In the beginning, all attention is on what a poor housekeeper Minnie is, a
criticism that draws attention away from the possibility that John was a poor companion. In maintaining a focus on what a woman should be, there is a lack of focus on what a man should be. This fact clearly works in favor of the male characters.
Literary scholar Karen Stein also agrees that the women come away from the farm with a conclusion—while the men do not—because the women apply a more subjective approach to the crime rather than the standard detective formula that the men do. “[T]hey become personally involved, and throughout their successful investigations they gain human sympathy and valuable insights into their own lives. This growth, rather than the sleuthing process, is the play’s focal point.” These valuable insights are not available to a person when they maintain objectivity.
Stein points out that the mark of shared insight and similar experience can also be a common goal. She says, “For these women, solving the murder is not a disinterested act, but a cooperative endeavor which leads them to a knowledge essential for their survival as females in a hostile or indifferent world.”
To allow a fellow housewife to be convicted of murdering her neglectful and abusive husband might also be a crime against themselves. They not only share common experience, but also a common responsibility to ensure that they and other women like them do not have to suffer the consequences of defending themselves. To let Minnie go to jail would be to condone the crimes against her, other housewives, and themselves.
Mrs. Peters identifies with Minnie’s violent tendencies. She recalls for Mrs. Hale a childhood incident of violence in which a boy killed her kitten with an ax. She bitterly reflects, “If they hadn’t held me back I would have . . . hurt him.” Her bitter understanding of the urge for revenge and “female violence” is gained through an experience she then applies to the situation at hand. Ben-Zvi notes that “an understanding of female violence in the face of male brutality” is key to Mrs. Peter’s realization of the connection she shares with Minnie. From this point on, Mrs. Peters appears to be more forgiving of any crime against a man as brutal as they imagine John Wright might have been.
Mrs. Peters continues to identify with Minnie by recalling yet another traumatizing experience. She solemnly admits, “I know what stillness is. . . [w]hen we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died—after he was two years old—and me with no other then . . . I know what stillness is.” Mrs. Peters understands the suffering of a woman who is left alone all the time. Her memories evoke a sense that her baby’s death was more than the loss of a child, it was also the loss of a companion. Mrs. Hale also applies her own sense of what loneliness is when she imagines what it might be like for Minnie to miss the singing of the canary if it was the only thing that broke the stillness of her home. The canary’s death represents the same kind of loss of companionship as Mrs. Peters’s tragedy.
The women’s subjective interpretation of the murder also points to the fact that the men do not see the domestic sphere as a source of information about the murder of a man. Recognizing that there are several definitions of justice operating in the story opens up the possibility that there is more than one crime in the story. Ben-Zvi views the strangling of the John Wright as “a punishment to fit his crime.” In her reading, justice prevails because the women envision that Minnie has taken revenge upon her husband. This “eye for an eye” definition of justice is more apparent than another form proposed by Mrs. Hale. When she cries, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! . . . That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that,” she suggests that she may have contributed to Minnie’s abandonment. That she sees herself as culpable of a crime reflects yet another level of subjectivity.
A woman’s subjectivity becomes the binding force which causes the women to render their own brand of justice. As a kind of “jury,” although unrecognized and ridiculed by the law men, the women try Minnie. Although they find her guilty of the crime of murder, they justify the crime through a female solidarity built on the knowledge that women suffer from crimes of loneliness, abuse, and neglect not recognized by the American legal system. Their knowledge that the system, represented by their husbands and Mr. Henderson, does not view these predicaments as crimes, or even as legitimate concerns, causes them to assume responsibility for factoring these concerns into their analysis. They are charged with the responsibility for reading their “verdict” like no one else is able to do. As Fetterley points out, “Women can read women’s texts because they live women’s lives; men cannot read women’s texts because they don’t lead women’s lives.”
Source: Lisa Ortiz, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
An American educator, Fetterley is the author of The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978). In the following essay, she discusses how “A Jury of Her Peers” can be interpreted as a story about reading and that the women in the story are more adept at “reading” Minnie Wright’s situation than are the men.
As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which American texts are self-reflexive. Our “classics” are filled with scenes of readers and readings. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a climactic moment occurs when Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale’s shirt and finally reads the text he has for so long been trying to locate. What he sees we never learn, but for him his “reading” is complete and satisfying. Or, to take another example, in “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne’s misreading of Daisy provides the central drama of the text. Indeed, for James, reading is the dominant metaphor for life, and his art is designed to teach us how to read well so that we may live somewhere other than Geneva. Yet even a writer as different from James as Mark Twain must learn to read his river if he wants to become a master pilot. And, of course, in Moby Dick, Melville gives us a brilliant instance of reader-response theory in action in the doubloon scene.
When I first read Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” in Mary Anne Ferguson’s Images of Women in Literature I found it very American, for it, too, is a story about reading. The story interested me particularly, however, because the theory of reading proposed in it is explicitly linked to the issue of gender. “A Jury of Her Peers” tells of a woman who has killed her husband; the men on the case can not solve the mystery of the murder; the women who accompany them can. The reason for this striking display of masculine incompetence in an arena where men are assumed to be competent derives from the fact that the men in question can not imagine the story behind the case. They enter the situation bound by a set of powerful assumptions. Prime among these is the equation of textuality with masculine subject and masculine point of view. Thus, it is not simply that the men can not read the text that is placed before them. Rather, they literally can not recognize it as a text because they Page 167 | Top of Articlecan not imagine that women have stories. This preconception is so powerful that, even though, in effect, they know Minnie Wright has killed her husband, they spend their time trying to discover their own story, the story they are familiar with, can recognize as a text, and know how to read. They go out to the barn; they check for evidence of violent entry from the outside; they think about guns. In their story, men, not women, are violent, and men use guns: “There was a gun in the house. He says that’s what he can’t understand.” Though Mrs. Hale thinks the men are “kind of sneaking . . . coming out here to get her own house to turn against her,” in fact she needn’t worry, for these men wouldn’t know a clue if they came upon it. Minnie Foster Wright’s kitchen is not a text to them, and so they can not read it.
It is no doubt in part to escape the charge of “sneaking” that the men have brought the women with them in the first place, the presence of women legitimating male entry and clearing it of any hint of violence or violation. But Mrs. Hale recognizes the element of violence in the situation from the outset. In Sheriff Peters, she sees the law made flesh. “A heavy man with a big voice” who delights in distinguishing between criminals and noncriminals, his casual misogyny—“not much of a housekeeper”—indicates his predisposition to find women guilty. Mrs. Hale rejects the sheriff’s invitation to join him in his definition and interpretation of Minnie Wright, to become in effect a male reader, and asserts instead her intention to read as a woman. Fortunately, perhaps, for Minnie, the idea of the woman reader as anything other than an adjunct validator of male texts and male interpretations (“a sheriff’s wife is married to the law”) is as incomprehensible to these men as is the idea of a woman’s story. With a parting shot at the incompetence of women as readers—“But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?”—the men leave the women alone with their “trifles.”
Martha Hale has no trouble recognizing that she is faced with a text written by the woman whose presence she feels, despite her physical absence. She has no trouble recognizing Minnie Wright as an author whose work she is competent to read. Significantly enough, identification determines her competence. Capable of imagining herself as a writer who can produce a significant text, she is also capable of interpreting what she finds in Minnie Wright’s kitchen. As she leaves her own house, Martha Hale makes “a scandalized sweep of her kitchen,” and “what her eye took in was that her
kitchen was in no shape for leaving.” When she arrives at Minnie Wright’s house and finds her kitchen in a similar state, she is prepared to look for something out of the ordinary to explain it—that is, she is in a position to discover the motive and the clue which the men miss. Identification also provides the key element in determining how Mrs. Peters reads. From the start, Martha Hale has been sizing up Mrs. Peters. Working from her perception that Mrs. Peters “didn’t seem like a sheriff’s wife,” Martha subtly encourages her to read as a woman. But Mrs. Peters, more timid than Mrs. Hale and indeed married to the law, wavers in her allegiance: “‘But Mrs. Hale,’ said the sheriff’s wife, ‘the law is the law’.” In a comment that ought to be as deeply embedded in our national folklore as are its masculinist counterparts—for example, “a woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke”—Mrs. Hale draws on Mrs. Peters’s potential for identification with Minnie Wright: “The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove. How’d you like to cook on this?” At the crucial moment, when both motive and clue for the murder have been discovered and the fate of Minnie Wright rests in her hands, Mrs. Peters remembers her own potential for violence, its cause and its justification: “‘When I was a girl,’ said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, ‘my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—before I could get there—’ She covered her face an instant. ‘If they hadn’t held me back I would have’—she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly—‘hurt him’.”
At the end of the story, Martha Hale articulates the theory of reading behind “A Jury of Her Peers”: “We all go through the same things—it’s all just a
“Glaspell’s fiction is didactic in the sense that it is designed to educate the male reader in the recognition and interpretation of women’s texts, while at the same time it provides the woman reader with the gratification of discovering, recovering, and validating her own experience.”
different kind of the same thing! If it weren’ t—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?” Women can read women’s texts because they live women’s lives; men can not read women’s texts because they don’t lead women’s lives. Yet, of course, the issues are more complicated than this formulation, however true it may be. A clue to our interpretation of Glaspell’s text occurs in a passage dealing with Mrs. Peters’s struggle to determine how she will read: “It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself. ‘I know what stillness is,’ she said, in a queer, monotonous voice.” Obviously, nothing less than Mrs. Peters’s concept of self is at stake in her decision. The self she does not recognize as “herself ’ is the self who knows what she knows because of the life she has lived. As she reads this life in the story of another woman, she contacts that self from which she has been systematically alienated by virtue of being married to the law and subsequently required to read as a man.
When I was in high school and first introduced to literature as a separate subject of study, I was told that one of the primary reasons people read, and, thus, one of the primary justifications for learning how to read, is to enlarge their frame of reference through encountering experiences that are foreign to them which are not likely to happen in their own lives and, thus, to enrich and complicate their perspective. Since as a young woman reader I was given to read primarily texts about young men, I had no reason to question the validity of this proposition. It was not until I got to college and graduate school and encountered an overwhelmingly male faculty intent on teaching me how to recognize great literature that I began to wonder about the homogeneity of the texts that got defined as “classic.” But of course it took feminism to enable me finally to see and understand the extraordinary gap between theory and practice in the teaching of literature as I experienced it. If a white male middle-class literary establishment consistently chooses to identify as great and thus worth reading those texts that present as central the lives of white male middle-class characters, then obviously recognition and reiteration, not difference and expansion, provide the motivation for reading. Regardless of the theory offered in justification, as it is currently practiced within the academy, reading functions primarily to reinforce the identity and perspective which the male teacher/reader brings to the text. Presumably this function is itself a function of the sense of power derived from the experience of perceiving one’s self as central, as subject, as literally because literarily the point of view from which the rest of the world is seen. Thus men, controlling the study of literature, define as great those texts that empower themselves and define reading as an activity that serves male interests, for regardless of how many actual readers may be women, within the academy the presumed reader is male. . . .
The reading of women’s texts has the potential for giving women a knowledge of the self, for putting us in contact with our real selves, which the reading of male texts can not provide. Which, of course, brings us back to Mrs. Peters and “A Jury of Her Peers” and to a final question that the story raises.
Just as the women in the story have the capacity to read as men or as women, having learned of necessity how to recognize and interpret male texts, so are the men in the story presumably educable. Though initially they might not recognize a clue if they saw it, they could be taught its significance, they could be taught to recognize women’s texts and to read as women. If this were not the case, the women in the story could leave the text as they find it; but they don’t. Instead, they erase the text as they read it. Martha Hale undoes the threads of the quilt that, like the weaving of Philomel, tells the story of Minnie Wright’s violation and thus provides the clue to her revenge; Mrs. Peters instinctively creates Page 169 | Top of Articlean alternate story to explain the missing bird and then further fabricates to explain the absent cat; and Mrs. Hale, with the approval of Mrs. Peters, finally hides the dead bird. Thus, we must revise somewhat our initial formulation of the story’s point about reading: it is not simply the case that men can not recognize or read women’s texts; it is, rather, that they will not. At the end of the story, the county attorney summarizes the situation “incisively”: “It’s all perfectly clear, except the reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing—something to show. Something to make a story about. A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it.” But why, if it is all so perfectly clear to them, have the men made so little intelligent effort to find that “something” that would convince and convict? Why, in fact, has this same county attorney consistently deflected attention from those details that would provide the necessary clues: “Let’s talk about that a little later, Mr. Hale”; “I’d like to talk to you about that a little later, Mrs. Hale.” This is the question that “A Jury of Her Peers” propounds to its readers, making us ask in turn why it is more important for the men in this story to let one woman get away with murder than to learn to recognize and to read her story? . . .
When men ask women to read men’s texts under the guise of enlarging their experience and perspective, they are in fact asking women to undergo an experience that is potentially inimical to them; and when men insist that men’s texts are the only ones worth reading, they are in fact protecting themselves against just such an experience. If we examine “A Jury of Her Peers” with this hypothesis in mind, we may find in the story an answer to the question that it propounds. For what is the content of the text that Minnie Wright has written and that the men are so unwilling to read? It is nothing less than the story of men’s systematic, institutionalized, and culturally approved violence toward women, and of women’s potential for retaliatory violence against men. For the men to find the clue that would convict Minnie Foster Wright, they would have to confront the figure of John Wright. And if they were to confront this figure, they would have to confront as well the limitations of their definition of a “good man,” a phrase that encompasses a man’s relation to drink, debt, and keeping his word with other men but leaves untouched his treatment of women. And if a man’s treatment of women were to figure into the determination of his goodness, then most men would be found not good. Thus, for the men in the story to confront John Wright would mean confronting themselves. In addition, were they to read Minnie Wright’s story, they would have to confront the fact that a woman married to a man is not necessarily married to his law, might not in fact see things “just that way,” might indeed see things quite differently and even act on those perceptions. They might have to confront the fact that the women of whom they are so casually contemptuous are capable of turning on them. For, of course, in refusing to recognize the story of Minnie Wright, the men also avoid confrontation with the story of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters—they never know what their wives have done alone in that kitchen.
Male violence against women and women’s retaliatory violence against men constitute a story that a sexist culture is bent on repressing, for, of course, the refusal to tell this story is one of the major mechanisms for enabling the violence to continue. Within “A Jury of Her Peers,” this story is once again suppressed. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters save Minnie Foster Wright’s life, but in the process they undo her story, ensuring that it will never have a public hearing. The men succeed in their refusal to recognize the woman’s story because the women are willing to let the principle stand in order to protect the particular woman. Thus, if the men are willing to let one woman get away with murder in order to protect their control of textuality, the women are willing to let the men continue to control textuality in order to save the individual. The consequence of both decisions is the same: Minnie Wright is denied her story and hence her reality (What will her life be like if she does get off?), and the men are allowed to continue to assume that they are the only ones with stories. So haven’t the men finally won?
Glaspell, of course, chooses differently from her characters, for “A Jury of Her Peers” does not suppress, but, rather, tells the woman’s story. Thus, Glaspell’s fiction is didactic in the sense that it is designed to educate the male reader in the recognition and interpretation of women’s texts, while at the same time it provides the woman reader with the gratification of discovering, recovering, and validating her own experience. For “A Jury of Her Peers,” I would argue, from my own experience in teaching the text and from my discussion with others who have taught it, is neither unintelligible to male readers nor susceptible to a masculinist interpretation. If you can get men to read it, they will recognize its point, for Glaspell chooses to make an issue of precisely the principle that her characters Page 170 | Top of Articleare willing to forgo. But, of course, it is not that easy to get men to read this story. It is surely no accident that “A Jury of Her Peers” did not make its way into the college classroom until the advent of academic feminism.
Source: Judith Fetterley, “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, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 147-64.
An American critic and educator, Hedges is the author of Land and Imagination: The Rural Dream in America (1980; with William L. Hedges) and In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts (1980; with Ingrid Wendt). In the following excerpt from a longer essay, she discusses the reality of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, thereby explaining the significance of the events and “trifles ” that figure in the plot of Glaspell‘s “A Jury of Her Peers.
Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of her Peers” is by now a small feminist classic. Published in 1917, rediscovered in the early 1970s and increasingly reprinted since then in anthologies and textbooks, it has become for both readers and critics a familiar and frequently revisited landmark on our “map of rereading.” For Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond in 1973 it introduced us to the work of one of the important but forgotten women writers who were then being rediscovered; and its characters, “prairie matrons, bound by poverty and limited experience [who] fight heroic battles on tiny battlefields,” provided examples of those ordinary or anonymous women whose voices were also being sought and reclaimed. For Mary Anne Ferguson, also in 1973, Glaspell’s story was significant for its challenge to prevailing images or stereotypes of women—women as “fuzzy minded” and concerned only with “trifles,” for example—and for its celebration of female sorority, of the power of sisterhood. More recently, in 1980, Annette Kolodny has read the story as exemplary of a female realm of meaning and symbolic signification, a realm ignored by mainstream critics and one, as she urges, that feminist critics must interpret and make available. Rediscovering lost women writers, reclaiming the experience of anonymous women, reexamining the image of women in literature, and rereading texts in order to discern and appreciate female symbol systems—many of the major approaches that have characterized feminist literacy criticism in the past decade have thus found generous validation in the text of “A Jury of her Peers.” The story has become a paradigmatic one for feminist criticism. . . .
In Glaspell’s story, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters comprise an ideal (if small) community of readers precisely because they are able to bring to the “trivia” of Minnie Wright’s life just such a “unique and informing context.” That context is their own experience as midwestern rural women. As a result they can read Minnie’s kitchen trifles with full “recognition and acceptance of . . . their significance.” For contemporary readers, however, who are historically removed from the way of life on which Glaspell’s story depends, such a reading is not so readily available. Superficially we can of course comprehend the story’s details, since women’s work of cooking, cleaning, and sewing is scarcely strange, or unfamiliar, either to female or to male readers. But to appreciate the full resonance of those details requires by now an act of historical reconstruction. Glaspell’s details work so effectively as a symbol system because they are carefully chosen reflectors of crucial realities in the lives of 19th and early 20th century midwestern and western women. The themes, the broader meanings of “A Jury of her Peers,” which are what encourage us to rediscover and reread it today, of course extend beyond its regional and historical origins. Women’s role or “place” in society, their confinement and isolation, the psychic violence wrought against them, their power or powerlessness vis-a-vis men, are not concerns restricted to Glaspell’s time and place. But these concerns achieve their imaginative force and conviction in her story by being firmly rooted in, and organically emerging from, the carefully observed, small details of a localized way of life. . . .
“A Jury of her Peers” is set in the prairie and plains region of the United States. The story itself contains a reference to the county attorney’s having just returned from Omaha, which would literally locate the action in Nebraska. And a further reference to “Dickson County,” as the place where the characters live, might suggest Dixon County, an actual county in the northeastern corner of Nebraska where it borders on Iowa. In the narrowest sense, then, given Glaspell’s own Iowa origins, the story Page 171 | Top of Articlecan be said to refer to the prairie and plains country that stretches across Iowa into Nebraska—a country of open, level or rolling land, and few trees, which generations of pioneers encountered during successive waves of settlement throughout the nineteenth century. More broadly, the story reflects the lives of women across the entire span of prairie and plains country, and some of the circumstances of Minnie Wright’s life were shared by women further west as well. While emphasizing Iowa and Nebraska, therefore, this paper will draw for evidence on the autobiographical writings by women from various western states. . . .
When a male pioneer registered his sense of the land’s emptiness, it was often to recognize that the emptiness bore more heavily upon women. Seth K. Humphrey wrote of his father’s and his own experiences, in Minnesota territory in the 1850s and in the middle northwest in the 1870s, and he remembered that “the prairie has a solitude way beyond the mere absence of human beings.” With no trees, no objects to engage or interrupt the glance, the eyes “stare, stare—and sometimes the prairie gets to staring back.” Women, he observed, especially suffered. They “fled in terror,” or “stayed until the prairie broke them.” Women themselves reported that it was not unusual to spend five months in a log cabin without seeing another woman, as did a Marshall County, Iowa woman in 1842; or to spend one and a half years after arriving before being able to take a trip to town, as did Luna Kellie in Nebraska in the 1870s. The absence both of human contact and of any ameliorating features in the landscape exacerbated the loneliness felt by women who had often only reluctantly uprooted themselves from eastern homes and families in order to follow their husbands westward.
Minnie Wright is not of course living in circumstances of such extreme geographical isolation. By the time of Glaspell’s story, established villages and towns have replaced the first scattered settlements, and networks of transportation and communication link people previously isolated from one another. But John Wright’s farm, as we learn, is an isolated, outlying farm, separated from the town of which it is, formally, a part. Furthermore, he refuses to have a telephone; and, as we also learn, he has denied his wife access to even the minimal contacts that town life might afford women at that time, such as the church choir in which Minnie had sung before her marriage. Minnie Wright’s emotional and spiritual loneliness, the result of her isolation, is, in the final analysis, the reason for her murder of her husband. Through her brief opening description of the landscape Glaspell establishes the physical context for the loneliness and isolation, an isolation Minnie inherited from and shared with generations of pioneer and farm women before her.
The full import of Minnie’s isolation emerges only incrementally in Glaspell’s story. Meanwhile, after the characters arrive at the Wright farm, the story confines itself to the narrow space of Minnie’s kitchen—the limited and limiting space of her female sphere. Within that small space are revealed all the dimensions of the loneliness that is her mute message. And that message is of course conveyed through those “kitchen things,” as the sheriff dismissingly calls them, to which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters respond with increasing comprehension and sympathy.
One of the first “kitchen things” or “trifles” to which Glaspell introduces us is the roller towel, on which the attorney condescendingly comments. Not considering, as the women do, that his own assistant, called in earlier that morning to make up a fire in Minnie’s absence, had probably dirtied the towel, he decides that the soiled towel shows that Minnie lacked “the homemaking instinct.” The recent researches of historians into the lives of 19th century women allow us today to appreciate the full ironic force of Mrs. Hale’s quietly understated reply: “There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm.” One of the most important contributions of the new social history is its documentation of the amount of work that pioneer and farm women did. The work as, as one historian has said, “almost endless,” and over the course of a lifetime usually consisted of tasks “more arduous and demanding than those performed by men.” Indoors and out, the division of labour “favored men” and “exploited women.” Sarah Brewer-Bonebright, recalling her life in Newcastle, Iowa in 1848, described the “routine” work of the “women-folk” as including “water carrying, cooking, churning, sausage making, berry picking, vegetable drying, sugar and soap boiling, hominy hulling, medicine brewing, washing, nursing, weaving, sewing, straw platting, wool picking, spinning, quilting, knitting, gardening and various other tasks. . . .” Workdays that began at 4.30 a.m., and didn’t end until 11.30 p.m., were not unheard of. Jessamyn West’s description of her Indiana grandmother—“She died saying, ‘Hurry,
hurry, hurry,’ not to a nurse, not to anyone at her bedside, but to herself”—captures an essential reality of the lives of many 19th and early 20th century rural women.
The work involved for Minnie Wright in preparing the clean towel that the attorney takes for granted is a case in point. Of all the tasks that 19th and early 20th century women commented on in their diaries, laundry was consistently described as the most onerous. . . .
In her recent study of housework, Never Done, Susan Strasser agrees that laundry was woman’s “most hated task.” Before the introduction of piped water it took staggering amounts of time and labor: “One wash, one boiling, and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water—or four hundred pounds—which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds.” Then came rubbing, wringing, and lifting the wet clothing and linens, and carrying them in heavy tubs and baskets outside to hang. It is when Mrs. Peters looks from Minnie’s inadequate stove, with its cracked lining, to the “pail of water carried in from outside” that she makes the crucial observation about “seeing into things. . . seeing through a thing to something else.” What the women see, beyond the pail and the stove, are the hours of work it took Minnie to produce that one clean towel. To call Minnie’s work “instinctual,” as the attorney does (using a rationalization prevalent today as in the past) is to evade a whole world of domestic reality, a world of which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are acutely aware.
So too with the jars of preserves that the women find cracked and spoiled from the cold that has penetrated the house during the night. It is the preserves, about which Minnie has been worrying in jail, that lead Mr. Hale to make the comment Glaspell used for the title of the dramatic version of her work. “Held for murder, and worrying over her preserves. . . worrying over trifles.” But here again, as they express their sympathy with Minnie’s concern, the women are seeing through a thing to something else: in this case, to “all [Minnie’s] work in the hot weather,” as Mrs. Peters exclaims. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters understand the physical labor involved in boiling fruit in Iowa heat that one historian has described as “oppressive and inescapable.” By the same token, they can appreciate the seriousness of the loss when that work is destroyed by the winter cold. . . .
Hard as the work was, that it went unacknowledged was often harder for women to bear. The first annual report of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 included a study of the situation of farm women which concluded that they worked harder than men but were neither treated with respect as a result nor given full authority within their domestic sphere. And Norton Juster’s study of farm women between 1865 and 1895 leads him to assert that women’s work was seen merely as “the anonymous background for someone else’s meaningful activity,” never attaining “a recognition or dignity of its own.” Indeed, he concludes, women’s work was not only ignored; it was ridiculed, “often the object of derision.” Mr. Hale’s remark about the preserves, that “women are used to worrying over trifles,” is a mild example of this ridicule, as is the attorney’s comment, intended to deflect that ridicule but itself patronizing—“yet what would we do without the ladies.” It is this ridicule to which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters especially react. When Mr. Hale belittles women’s work we are told that “the two women moved a little closer together”; and when the attorney makes his seemingly conciliatory remark the women, we are further told, “did not speak, did not unbend.” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who at the beginning of the story are comparative strangers to each other, here begin to establish their common bonds with each other and with Minnie. Their slight physical movement towards Page 173 | Top of Articleeach other visually embodies that psychological and emotional separation from men that was encouraged by the nineteenth century doctrine of separate spheres, a separation underscored throughout the story by the women’s confinement to the kitchen, while the men range freely, upstairs and outside, bedroom to barn, in search of the “real” clues to the crime. . . .
In “A Jury of her Peers” John Wright’s murder is discovered because Mr. Hale and his son stop at the Wright farm while travelling to town with their potato crop. Once in town, men had places to congregate—the market, the country store, the blacksmith shop, the saloon. That “women really did little more than pass through the masculine haunts of the village,” as Faragher concludes, was a reality to which at least one 19th century male writer was sensitive. “The saloon-keepers, the politicians, and the grocers make it pleasant for the man,” Hamlin Garland has a character comment in his story of midwestern rural life, “A Day’s Pleasure”; “But the wife is left without a word.” Garland wrote “A Day’s Pleasure” to dramatize the plight of the farm wife, isolated at home, and desperate for diversion. Mrs. Markham has been six months without leaving the family farm. But when, over her husband’s objections and by dint of sacrificed sleep and extra work to provide for her children while she is gone, she manages to get into town, she finds scant welcome, and little to do. After overstaying her leave at the country store, she walks the streets for hours, in the “forlorn, aimless, pathetic wandering” that, Garland has the town grocer observe, is “a daily occurrence for the farm women he sees and one which had never possessed any special meaning to him.”
John Wright’s insensitivity to his wife’s needs parallels that of the men or Garland’s story. Lacking decent clothes, Minnie doesn’t travel into town. What she turns to in her isolation is a bird, a canary bought from a travelling peddler. It is after her husband strangles that surrogate voice that, in one of those “intermittent flare-ups of bizarre behavior,” as one historian has described them, which afflicted rural women, she strangles him.
Here again Glaspell’s story reflects a larger truth about the lives of rural women. Their isolation induced madness in many. The rate of insanity in rural areas, especially for women, was a much-discussed subject in the second half of the 19th century. As early as 1868 Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential Godey ‘s Lady’s Book, expressed her concern that the farm population supplied the largest proportion of inmates for the nation’s insane asylums. By the 1880s and 1890s this concern was widespread. An article in 1882 noted that farmer’s wives comprised the largest percentage of those in lunatic asylums. . . .
That the loss of her music, in the shape of a bird, should have triggered murderous behavior in Minnie Wright is therefore neither gratuitous nor melodramatic, as is sometimes charged against Glaspell’s story. In the monotonous expanses of the prairie and the plains, the presence of one small spot of color, or a bit of music, might spell the difference between sanity and madness. . . .
There is no spot of beauty in Glaspell’s description of Minnie’s kitchen, which is presented as a drab and dreary space, dominated by the broken stove, and a rocking chair of “a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side.” When the women collect some of Minnie’s clothes to take to her in prison, the sight of “a shabby black skirt” painfully reminds Mrs. Hale by contrast of the “pretty clothes” that Minnie wore as a young girl before her marriage.
Unable to sing in the church choir, deprived of her surrogate voice in the bird, denied access to other people, and with no visible beauty in her surroundings, Minnie, almost inevitably one can say, turned in her loneliness to that final resource available to 19th and early 20th century women—quilting. Minnie’s quilt blocks are the penultimate trifle in Glaspell’s story. The discovery later of the strangled bird and broken bird cage explain the immediate provocation for Minnie’s crime. But it is with the discovery of the quilt blocks, to which the women react more strongly than they have to any of the previously introduced “kitchen things,” that a pivotal point in the story is reached.
The meaning of quilts in the lives of American women is complex, and Glaspell’s story is a valuable contribution to the full account that remains to be written. Quilts were utilitarian in origin, three-layered bed coverings intended to protect against the cold weather. But they became in the course of the 19th century probably the major creative outlet for women—one patriarchically tolerated, and Page 174 | Top of Articleeven “approved,” for their use, but which women were able to transform to their own ends. Through quilting—through their stitches as well as through pattern and color—and through the institutions, such as the “bee,” that grew up around it, women who were otherwise without expressive outlet were able to communicate their thoughts and feelings.
In “Trifles” Glaspell included a reference she omitted from “A Jury of her Peers,” but which is worth retrieving. In the play Mrs. Hale laments that, given her husband’s parsimony, Minnie could never join the Ladies Aid. The Ladies Aid would have been a female society associated with the local church, where women would have spent their time sewing, braiding carpets, and quilting, in order to raise money for foreign missionaries, for new flooring or carpets, chairs or curtains for the church or parish house, or to add to the minister’s salary. Such societies, as Glenda Riley has observed, provided women with “a relief from the routine and monotony” of farm life. They also provided women with a public role, or place. And through the female friendships they fostered they helped women, as Julie Jeffrey has noted, to develop “feelings of control over their environment,” mitigating that sense of powerlessness which domestic isolation could induce.
Denied such associations, Minnie Wright worked on her quilt blocks alone, and it is the effect of that solitude which the women read in her blocks and which so profoundly moves them. It is, specifically, the stitches in Minnie’s blocks that speak to them, and particularly the “queer” stitches in one block, so unlike the “fine, even sewing,” “dainty [and] accurate,” that they observe in the others. Nineteenth century women learned in childhood to take stitches so small that in the words of one woman, it “required a microscope to detect them.” Mothers were advised to teach their daughters to make small, exact stitches, not only for durability but as a way of instilling habits of patience, neatness, and diligence. But such stitches also became a badge of one’s needlework skill, a source of self-esteem, and of status, through the recognition and admiration of other women. Minnie’s “crazy” or crooked stitches are a clear signal to the two women that something, for her, was very seriously wrong.
Mrs. Hale’s reaction is immediate. Tampering with what is in fact evidence—for the badly stitched block is just such a clue as the men are seeking: “Something to show anger—or sudden feeling”—she replaces Minnie’s crooked stitches with her own straight ones. The almost automatic act, so protective of Minnie, is both concealing and healing. To “replace bad sewing with good” is Mrs. Hale’s symbolic gesture of affiliation with the damaged woman. It is also the story’s first intimation of the more radical tampering with the evidence that the two women will later undertake.
In so quickly grasping the significance of Minnie’s quilt stitches, Mrs. Hale is performing yet another of those acts of perception—of seeing through a detail or trifle to its larger meaning—on which Glaspell’s dramatic effects depend throughout her story. As she holds the badly stitched block in her hand, Mrs. Hale, we are told, “feels queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the woman who had perhaps turned to it to try and quiet herself were communicating themselves to her.” Resorting to needlework in order to “quiet oneself,” to relieve distress, or alleviate loneliness, was openly recognized and even encouraged throughout the 19th century, especially in the advice books that proliferated for women. . . .
Minnie’s stitches speak with equal directness to Mrs. Peters. It is she who first discovers the badly stitched block, and as she holds it out to Mrs. Hale we are told that “the women’s eyes met—something flashed to life, passed between them.” In contrast to the often outspoken Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters has been timid, self-effacing, and “indecisive,” torn between sympathy for Minnie and resigned submission to the authority of the law, which her husband, the sheriff, represents. She has evaded Mrs. Hale’s efforts to get her more openly to choose sides. The flash of recognition between the two women, a moment of communication the more intense for being wordless, is, as one critic has said, “the metamorphizing spark of the story.” It presages Mrs. Peter’s eventual revolt against male authority. That revolt occurs when she snatches the box containing the dead bird—the evidence that could condemn Minnie—in order to conceal it from the men. Her defiant act is of course the result of the effect on her of the accumulated weight of meaning of all of the “trifles” she has perceived and interpreted throughout the story. But it is here, when she reads Minnie’s stitches, that she is first released from her hesitancy into what will later become full conspiratorial complicity with Mrs. Hale.
In examining Minnie’s quilt blocks Mrs. Hale observes that she was making them in the “log Page 175 | Top of Articlecabin pattern.” The log cabin pattern was one of the most popular in the second half of the 19th century, frequently chosen for its capacity to utilize in its construction small scraps of left-over fabric. For Minnie in her poverty it would have been a practical pattern choice. But there accrued to the pattern a rich symbolism, which would not have escaped a farm woman like Mrs. Hale and which adds yet another rich layer of meaning to Glaspell’s exploration of women’s place. The log cabin quilt is constructed of repetitions of a basic block, which is built up of narrow overlapping strips of fabric, all emanating from a central square. That square, traditionally done in red cloth, came to represent the hearth fire within the cabin, with the strips surrounding it becoming the “logs” of which the cabin was built. As a replication of that most emotionally evocative of American dwelling types, the log cabin quilt came to symbolize both the hardships and the heroisms of pioneer life. More specifically it became a celebration of women’s civilizing role in the pioneering process: in the words of one researcher, “women’s dogged determination to build a home, to replace a wilderness with a community.” . . .
That Minnie is making a log cabin quilt—and the women find a roll of red cloth in her sewing basket—is, both in this historical context and in the context of her own life, both poignant and bitterly ironic. The center of her kitchen is not a hearth with an inviting open fire but that stove with its broken lining, the sight of which, earlier in the story, had “swept [Mrs. Hale] into her own thoughts, thinking of what it would mean, year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with.” In Glaspell’s story the cult of domesticity has become a trap, Minnie’s home has become her prison. Minnie has asked Mrs. Peters to bring her an apron to wear in jail, a request the sheriff’s wife at first finds “strange.” But when Mrs. Peters decides that wearing the apron will perhaps make Minnie feel “more natural,” we can only agree, since in moving from house to jail she has but exchanged one form of imprisonment for another. . . .
Throughout much of the 19th century married women were defined under the law as “civilly dead,” their legal existence subsumed within their husbands, their rights to their own property, wages, and children either nonexistent or severely circumscribed. Nor did they participate in the making and administering of the law. In 1873 Susan B. Anthony had challenged that legal situation, in a defense that was widely reprinted and that would have been available to Glaspell at the time of the final agitation for the vote. Arrested for having herself tried to vote, and judged guilty of having thereby committed a crime, Anthony had argued that the all-male jury which judged her did not comprise, as the Constitution guaranteed to each citizen, a “jury of her peers.” So long, she argued, as women lacked the vote and other legal rights, men were not their peers but their superiors. So, in Glaspell’s story, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters decide that they, and not the men, are Minnie’s true peers. They take the law into their own hands, appoint themselves prosecuting and defense attorneys, judge and jury, and pass their merciful sentence. . . .
As the characters prepare to leave the Wright farm, the county attorney facetiously asks the women whether Minnie was going to “quilt” or “knot” her blocks. In having Mrs. Hale suggest that she was probably going to knot them (that is, join the quilt layers via short lengths of yarn drawn through from the back and tied or knotted at wide intervals across the top surface, rather than stitch through the layers at closer intervals with needle and thread) Glaspell is using a technical term from the world of women’s work in a way that provides a final triumphant vindication of her method throughout the story. If, like Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, the reader can by now engage in those acts of perception whereby one sees “into things, [and] through a thing to something else,” the humble task of knotting a quilt becomes resonant with meaning. Minnie has knotted a rope around her husband’s neck, and Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have “tied the men in knots.” All three women have thus said “not,” or “no” to male authority, and in so doing they have knotted or bonded themselves together. Knots can entangle and they can unite, and at the end of Glaspell’s story both men and women are knotted, in separate and different ways, with the women having discovered through their interpretation of the trifles that comprise Minnie’s world their ties to one another. One 19th century woman described quilts as women’s “hieroglyphics”—textile documents on which, with needle, thread, and bits of colored cloth, women inscribed a record of their lives. All of the trifles in Glaspell’s story together create such a set of hieroglyphics, but it is a language we should by now begin to be able to read.
Source: Elaine Hedges, “Small Things Reconsidered: Susan Glaspell’s ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,” in Women’s Studies, Vol. 12, 1986, pp. 89-110.
Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Davidson, Cathy and Linda 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 Lashgari, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 203-18.
Makowsky, Veronica. “American Girl Becomes American Woman: A Fortunate Fall?,” in Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women; A Critical Interpretation of Her Work, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 13-28.
O’Brein, Edward, ed. The Best of Short Stories of 1917, Small, Maynard & Co., 1918, pp. 256-82.
Papke, Mary E. Susan Glaspell; A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 15-27.
Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 36-57.
Stein, Karen F., “The Women’s World of Glaspell’s Trifles,” in Women in American Theatre: Careers, Images, Movements, An Illustrated Sourcebook, Crown, 1981, pp. 251-54.
Makowsky, Veronica. “American Girl Becomes American Woman: A Fortunate Fall?,” in Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women; A Critical Interpretation of Her Work, Oxford University Press, 1993.
An essay on the actual trial upon which “A Jury of Her Peers” and Trifles are based and the historical context and other circumstances which led to their being written.
Mustazza, Leonard. “Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’ and ‘A Jury of Her Peers’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 489-96.
Argues that in adapting Trifles to the short story form in “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell changed the focus away from the elements of women’s lives judged as trivial by men toward women’s lack of power in the American legal system.
Waterman, Arthur. Susan Glaspell, College and University Press, 1966.
A comprehensive biography of the author.