An Analysis of Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
“A Jury of Her Peers’ is a story taut with violence. At no time do we see blood; there is no screaming; there are no corpses; there are none of the trappings our Gothic imaginations have come to expect. And yet in this homely little story about quilting and canning and pet canaries, the psychological tension is almost unendurable—and much of the tension revolves around gender-specific ways of seeing the world.
The story concerns a farmer, John Wright, who is found strangled in his bed; his wife is arrested for the murder. The story’s action begins the following day, when the sheriff, the county attorney, the sheriff’s wife, and a neighbor couple return to the Wrights’ house. The women are there to pick out some clothes for the accused wife to wear in prison; the men, to check over the crime scene.
Although the story’s purpose is to penetrate the motive for Mrs. Wright’s murder of her husband, the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, and the neighbor Mrs. Hale occupy center stage—and it is really their story. Sheriff Peters and Mr. Hale wander in and out, mostly passing through as they move from one part of the house to the other, commenting about the slovenly housekeeping and the general air of cheerlessness. At first it is clear that the women do not want to be here, either; the house is too cold and too still, and what happened here the day before was too awful. The women feel defensive in this house, partially because of the disparaging way the men refer to the little details of Mrs. Wright’s life. The men laugh at their wives’ admiration of Mrs. Wright’s fine stitching on her quilt, and when the women express sadness over Mrs. Wright’s broken jars of jam, Sheriff Peters finds this tremendously humorous: “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves…. I guess before we’re through with her she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.”
“Oh, well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
But it is precisely these types of “trifles” that eventually prove to them that Mrs. Wright did kill her husband, and why. It also convinces the two women to keep that information to themselves, lest it prove incriminating to this woman they barely know, but whom they feel certain was entirely justified in her act. The language of these “trifles” establishes a form of feminine communication that transcends words. For example, when they find that the birdcage door has been broken, the women know this was a violent act. When they find a fabric scrap with the uneven stitching in it, they instinctively recognize that as evidence of tremendous stress—and they also tacitly agree to rip the tell-tale evidence out. They probably needn’t have bothered; no man would pick up on such a “trifle”—but their act cements them together and bonds them to Mrs. Wright.
The most fascinating thing about this story is the way the two women manage to say the exact opposite of what they really think, and yet understand each other perfectly. For example, Mrs. Peters laughs over the very idea that anyone would think a dead canary had anything to do with a murder—yet they both know it did. Similarly, when Mrs. Hale pulls out Mrs. Wright’s “crazy” stitching, she says she’s “just pulling out a stitch or two that’s not sewed very good.” But they both know what that stitching means. Mrs. Hale’s next remark is a rhetorical question about why Mrs. Wright could have been so nervous—but both she and Mrs. Peters know. Mrs. Hale later asks, just as rhetorically, what could have happened to the bird—but again, they both know. The violence done in the Wright house was a repeated and systematic rape of Mrs. Wright’s bright spirit, until at last she had to retaliate. Men would never understand; but in the unspoken language of women, the secrets of the Wright house are abundantly clear.
Glaspell’s point in ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ (which was based on her play, Trifles, first produced in 1916) is that women’s worth has been sociologically devalued because men are incapable of understanding the subtlety of women’s communication. The story repeated back to its female readers many of the “slings and arrows” they had heard from men all their lives—that they wouldn’t recognize a clue if they saw it, that they were concerned only with trifles, that the tools and implements of their lives were unimportant as their feelings and motivations were unimportant—and proved how untrue that could be. Glaspell in this story showed that the activities in which the women of her day engaged were every bit as important as those of men. What’s more, Glaspell showed that men do not appreciate women, not because they are inherently valueless, but because men and women think and communicate differently. Not better or worse—just differently. In short, Glaspell glorified women’s lives by laying them bare for all to see.
This story can be found in the book of the same name.
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