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Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of her Peers”
Challenging a culture in a patriarchal world during the early 20th century, Susan Glaspell wrote the dramatic short story, “A Jury of her Peers.” Based on a court case she witnessed as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News in Iowa and adapted from her classic play Trifles, the short story was first published in 1917. As a determined and independent woman, Glaspell never liked “to feel controlled or delimited” (Ozieblo), which is reflected in her story where she demonstrates that women are just as intelligent as men and equally important. A feminist viewpoint offers an examination of the representations of women in the story, how men regard them as the inferior gender and how they are portrayed as socially different. Through these points, Susan Glaspell reveals in an ingenious manner how women’s “worries over trifles” (264), their powers of observation and the agility of their communication serve as key factors in solving the murder case.
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During the early 20th century it was a known fact that the kitchen was “the sole domain of the wife” (Napierkowski). This, among other things, has attracted the attention of feminist critics to the story and inspired them to examine how the female characters are represented. At this time in history, the husband was evidently the dominant figure in the family and once a woman was married, her own personal identity nearly vanished. She became her husband’s wife and was loaded with all the domestic duties that came with it. Like Minnie Foster, who once was a beautiful young woman with a lovely singing voice and a good sense for clothing (92), is, when the story takes place, solely known by the name of Mrs. Wright, the wife of John Wright, suspected for killing her husband. Women were to be little more than housewives and their place was in the kitchen, far away from important and virile matters. When it comes to the story, they are “used to worrying over trifles,” as Mr. Hale states firmly at one point in the story, with “good-natured superiority” (85). His attitude, along with the rest of the men investigating the crime scene, reveals plainly how men used to regard their women as the inferior gender. As the men are walking around Mrs. Wright’s kitchen, their eyes are scornful, only noticing the mess and instantly marking it as something that could be natural: “Dirty towels! Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” (86) Later on, one of them states: “I shouldn’t say she had the home-making instinct” (86). When the women show concern over Mrs. Wright’s broken fruit jars the men burst into laughter: “Well, can you beat the women!” Mrs. Peters husband says, “Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves.” This mocking annoys the women and they “move a little closer together, neither of them speaking.” Being housewives themselves they know that this certainly is not the way Mrs. Wright wished to have her kitchen and the work behind the fruit jars is not easy. Filled with sympathy, Mrs. Hale starts to arrange the pots and pans, irritably proclaiming to Mrs. Peters: “I’d hate to have men comin’ into my kitchen snoopin’ round and criticizin’.” By laughing at the kitchen things, the men are literally laughing at the women’s entire existence. They disregard them, treat them as unimportant subordinates with “trifles” that have no meaning and are of no significance. This is a world extremely different from what the men are used to, they are not able to understand it and thus they dispose of it. Ironically, it is exactly those “trifles” that lead the way to solving the mystery of the murder. The social differences between them are so great that they are incapable of working together as a team, which turns out to be fatal to the men. The women perceive their surroundings very differently, causing them to see and notice things that the men are blind to and their “lacking” abilities prove worthy.
Thus, the women are represented as the men consider them, though not as unintelligent and unworthy as their husbands imply. Their powers of observation allow them, for example, to realize how unjustly their men are treating them but they do not think it is their place to stand up to them. They accept it, some more easily than others. Martha Hale, for instance, who is called by her first name on a few occasions in the story and is completely entitled to that, does obviously not relent to the men’s conduct and Glaspell reveals that fact subtly through her delicate use of sarcasm. When the county attorney is commenting on the dirty towels in the kitchen, she says: “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.” Mrs. Peters however, does not earn the mentioning of her first name. She is a bit more timid and insecure than Mrs. Hale, not sure whether she should side with her own gender or the supposedly more powerful one, the men. The county attorney even tries to manipulate her to stay on their side by stating with “entrusting responsibility” that “of course she was one of them” while his “glance rested on the big farmer woman who was not Mrs. Peters,” (86) knowing that Mrs. Hale had a mind of her own. As the story progresses and the evidence start to appear along with more mocking statements from the men, she is able to gain perspective. The men continue to disregard their wives, “leaving them among the kitchen things” (86) while they embark upon a search of valuable clues. The county attorney tells them to “keep their eyes out for anything that might be of use,” adding that “they might come upon a clue to the motive” (86). At that, Mr. Hale “rubbed his face after the fashion of a show man getting ready for a pleasantry” (86) and says: “But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” (86) It is therefore clear that the men do not think their wives are their equals and that their lack of intelligence would not be of any help, except if they were lucky enough to find a clue by accident. However, the women prove them wrong in a brilliant manner by finding clues all over the kitchen area and decide not to “bother” the men with their “insignificant” findings. The first clue is the kitchen, which is not as it should be. Mrs. Wright had evidently left things half done, an act that Mrs. Hale instantly recognizes as uncomfortable, having done so herself when leaving her house in a hurry that morning and she wonders what might have happened to cause Minnie Wright to do it (87). The second clue is involved with the clothes that Mrs. Peters was asked to bring to “the woman who was being detained in town” (87). They were old and ragged and “bore the marks of much making over” (87), so utterly disparate to her once clean and beautiful clothes. The third clue is the quilt they find in the sewing basket and how widely the pieces are differing from each other, all of them “nice and even,” except for one (89). The fourth and strongest clue is the strangled bird that had obviously been roughly pulled out of its cage. Through their feminine intuition and astuteness they put the pieces together, realizing how unhappy Mrs. Wright was in her marriage. When her husband killed the light of hope and the only good thing in her life, the bird, her troubled spirit reacted in the same manner, by strangling her husband. The men are so arrogant that they overlook the fact that the suspect is a woman, a housewife like their wives, and pursue to look for more masculine clues, everywhere but in the kitchen. They, who are supposed to be the more intelligent gender, ironically do not come across any clues what so ever. The women, however, mind their own business, just like the men tell them to do and that is how they discover the truth of the matter.
Also, what is remarkable about the way the women are represented, is how they are able to communicate with each other about these consequential matters without making the men suspicious. Their agile ways of communicating is by far more intelligent than the ways of the men, who do not understand the “silly” ways of women. Their language is incomprehensible by men. For example, when the women are “engaged with the quilt,” wondering whether Mrs. Wright was “going to quilt it or just knot it,” the men enter with “a laugh for the ways of women” (89) and mockingly restate their speculations. However, the situation turns drastically around at the end of the story when the women have covered up all the evidence that connect Mrs. Wright to the murder of her husband, holding all the knowledge in the palm of their hand while the men hold nothing, and the county attorney asks “facetiously”: “at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to – what is it you call it, ladies?” and Mrs. Hale replies: “We call it – knot it, Mr. Henderson.” REFERENCE? This in itself is symbolic for the action of the women, for they knot together all the loose ends to Mrs. Wright’s revenge. In the end, it is revealed that the women are those who have the power over the situation, although it may not look thus on the surface. Another factor in the social difference between the men and women is how the women are able to say what they mean without putting it into words. They are able to look into each other’s soul through the eyes and they do so on a regular basis. In fact they look into each other’s eyes every time they discover something new: “She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things,” (87) and “again their eyes met – startled, questioning, apprehensive,” (90) and after a while “the eyes of the two women met again – this time clung together in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror” (91) and finally
There was a moment when they held each other in a steady, burning look in which there was no evasion nor flinching. Then Martha Hale’s eyes pointed the way to the basket in which was hidden the thing that would make certain the conviction of the other woman” (94).
It is a mixture of feminine instincts and sympathy for their own gender that ultimately solves the case. They stick together, supporting each other against the patriarchy of their existence, not obliging to the ways of men and law and are thus able to safe their kindred spirit from jail.
“A Jury of her Peers” is in a way written from the perspective of men, however subtly intertwined with the perspective of women. The two hang together, equally serving the purpose of the story, which is to bring to light the real value of women and to show how their abilities, though incomprehensible by men, are significant to the final outcome. Susan Glaspell had a heart for the matters of women and knew what they were worth, her writing in fiction and drama present a good picture of feminist issues and “women’s struggle for expression” (Ozieblo). What was not acknowledged then is greatly appreciated today, that it, the equality of men and women. Like the good old phrase says: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Works Cited and Consulted
Gaspell, Susan. “A Jury of her Peers.” Literary Theory ENS415G: Study Notes.
Comp. Anna HeiÃ°a Pálsdóttir. Reykjavík: University of Iceland, 2010.
Gaspell, Susan. “A Jury of her Peers: Themes.” Literary Theory ENS415G: Study
Notes. Comp. Anna HeiÃ°a Pálsdóttir. Reykjavík: University of Iceland, 2010.
Ozieblo, Barbara. “About Susan Glaspell.” Susan Glaspell Society, 2010. 7 April
“A Jury of Her Peers: Introduction.” Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose
Napierkowski. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 8 April
Dear Anna Lilja.
This is a very well written essay, with good insights, and would normally deserve 9.0. However, you do a terrible mistake, which I thought a student would not even do at menntaskóli level – you CHANGE the text of Susan Glaspell’s story, to suit your purpose. You should know that everything within quotation marks, both the text, punctuation, lower or upper case letters, it is “holy” – you can’t change it. I would understand if you do it accidentally in one quotation, but you do it again and again, and therefore it is not a slight oversight. You’ve done so well in the quizzes, that it hurts me to see this, and to give you a low grade, but I simply must, and I really do hope that you never do these mistakes again. I have normally deducted one whole (1.0) for each misquote from a student, and you have SIX of them. Your grade should therefore be 3.0, but I’ll give you 6.0 and hope this will not happen again.
Kind regards, Anna HeiÃ°a
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