November 24, 2008
Susan Glaspell’s Feminist Classic: “A Jury of Her Peers”
Society’s views on women have drastically changed over the years. It is quite apparent that women were underrepresented in the workforce. In the early 1900’s, some women held jobs, but their options were limited. Society placed high importance on the behavior of women. Women were expected to fulfill certain roles, generally involving family and children. The traditional American female was expected to be a good homemaker, a caring mother and an obedient wife. A “good” wife was one who carried out her husband’s wishes and agreed with him on everything no matter her own opinion. Even if she wanted to voice her opinion, society would not allow it. Women also depended on their father or husband for their financial well-being. The traditional American male was valued for his competitiveness and his ability to make money. Men and women were measured only by a man’s strength and success of his ability to provide for his family. Women were not valued for their skills and were limited in their life choices.
In “A Jury of Her Peers,” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters identify with Minnie Wright as they demonstrate their powers of observation, show their understanding of the limits on the lives which women lead, and protect her from law and male judgment. This short story is significant because it challenges the images and stereotypes women face and also shows how differently men and women perceive the world. Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” is a feminist classic. Her composition was seen as an example of early feminist literature, because the female characters outsmart the male characters in solving a murder case. Throughout history, a women’s work consisted of cooking, cleaning, and sewing. This is the only role in which women took pride as they lived their lives in the early 1900s. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters understood the importance of these roles.
Throughout the story, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters uncover the motive for John Wright’s murder by observing and analyzing small clues such as: a soiled roller towel, a broken stove, a cracked jar of preserves, a poorly stitched quilt block, and a broken bird cage door. According to Linda Ben-Zvi these details are, “so central not only to the story’s plot but to its larger symbolic meanings that Glaspell gave them precedence in the title of the dramatic version she originally wrote, the one-act play Trifles, which she produced for the Provincetown Players in 1916 (Ben-Zvi, 1995).”
While Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters decode these “trifles”, the men ignore their observations. In numerous situations, the men in the story belittle the women’s comments about what they are finding. Every comment or observation that they make is turned into a joke. For example, the sheriff asked Mr. Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer and wife of Martha Hale, “Are things just as you left them yesterday?” He answered, “It’s just the same.” Mr. Hale then discussed his visit at the Wright’s house where he received the news that Mr. Wright had been murdered the night before. Later, Mr. Peters, the sheriff asked Mr. Hale again, “‘You’re convinced there was nothing important here? Nothing that would –point to any motive?’ The sheriff too looked all around, as if to re-convince himself. ‘Nothing here but kitchen things,’ he said, with a little laugh for the insignificance of kitchen things.”
The women were annoyed by the comment that Mrs. Hale’s husband made because a women’s life was made up of trifles, little things that men found unimportant.
One of the other observations that the women made was concerning a poorly stitched quilt. Ben-Zvi found that, “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” (Ben-Zvi, 1995). In “A Jury of Her Peers”, readers were told, “Mrs. Peters went to the back of the room to hang up the fur tippet she was wearing. A moment later she exclaimed, ‘Why, she was piecing a quilt,’ and held up a large sewing basket piled high with quilt pieces.” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters spread the blocks on the tables and realized it was a log-cabin pattern. Just as the stair door opened Mrs. Hale was saying: ‘Do you suppose she was going to quilt it of just knot it?’ The sheriff threw up his hands. ‘They wonder whether she was going to quilt it of just knot it!’” Again the women are ridiculed of their observations.
However, after the men leave to investigate the barn, the two women returned to inspecting the block for the quilt. Mrs. Hale was looking at the fine, even sewing when Mrs. Peters said in a queer tone: “‘Why, look at this one.’ She turned to take the block held out to her. ‘The sewing,’ said Mrs. Peters, in a troubled way. ‘All the rest of them have been so nice and even—but—this one. Why it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!’” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters suspect this poorly stitched quilt block holds a meaning behind it.
According to Clarissa Packard, “Nineteenth-century women learned in childhood to take stitches so small that 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 (Packard, 1994).”
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters react more strongly when they discover the queerness of the quilt blocks than they did when discovering any of the previous trifles. The two women recognized the crooked quilt block’s which lead to a clear signal that something is seriously wrong in Mrs. Wright’s life. As Mrs. Hale holds the badly stitched block in her hand, readers are told that she, “‘feels queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the women who had perhaps turned to it to try and quit herself were communicating themselves to her.’” Packard has shown that, “Resorting to needlework in order to quiet oneself, to relieve distress or alleviate loneliness, was openly recognized and even encouraged throughout the nineteenth century” (Packard, 1994). All of these trifles have lead Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to believe that Minnie Foster was the murderer of her own husband, John Wright.
Mrs. Peters noticed a bird cage and the two women discuss whether or not Mrs. Wright had a bird. Mrs. Hale stated that a man was around last year selling canaries cheap, although she did not know whether she bought one or not. Then, Mrs. Hale remembered that while growing up with Minnie Foster, she used to sing real pretty. Mrs. Hale still thought of Mrs. Wright as Minnie Foster even though her name had changed nearly twenty years ago.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters figured that maybe the cat got it; however, Mrs. Wright did not have a cat. The two women continued to inspect the bird cage and noticed that one hinge had been pulled apart and assumed someone must have been rough with it. The women knew that this trifle meant something, “again their eyes met—startled, questioning, apprehensive. For a moment neither spoke nor stirred.” Later, they found sewing basket with a roll of cloth inside, underneath the cloth was a pretty box, something she would have had a long time ago when she was a girl.
Expecting a pair of sewing scissors to be within the box, Mrs. Hale opened the box. Instantly her hand went to her nose, “‘Why--!’ Mrs. Peters drew nearer—then turned away. ‘There’s something wrapped up in this piece of silk,’ faltered Mrs. Hale.” She let out a shrinking voice as she raised the piece of silk and said, “‘Oh, Mrs. Peters!’ she cried. ‘It’s—It’s the bird.’” The women discovered that somebody must have wrung its neck with rope. The discovery of the strangled bird and broken bird cage identifies the main motive of the murder and explains the aggravation Mrs. Wright had with her husband. Mr. John Wright must have killed her wife’s bird. The women related with each other and with Mrs. Wright at this point. They could have only imagined what it could have been like to lose that bird. Along with the quilt that Mrs. Wright stitches, the bird was her escape from her isolation to accompany her and calm herself down. After the bird was taken away, that is when her quilt pieces began to look crooked.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters began to understand Mrs. Wright and the limits in which she lived her life. The two women identified with her and realized Minnie Foster’s emotional loneliness and isolation was the reason for her murder of her husband. The Wright’s farm was separated from the town of which they lived in. Also, John Wright refused to have a telephone and denied his wife access to contacts with people in the town such as the church choir, in which Minnie had sung before her marriage.
The more Mrs. Hale thought about Minnie Foster, she began to feel guilty that she did not come over to the Wright’s house to visit and see how Mrs. Wright was doing. She stated that she never felt comfortable in the house. But she began to think that if she had made a visit once in awhile and talk a little with Mrs. Wright that her life would not be as lonely and in turn Minnie Foster would not have killed her husband.
Although the two women are strangers before the murder trial, they establish a common bond with each other and with Minnie Foster. They separate from the men psychologically and emotionally and show an understanding of Mrs. Wright and each other. John Wright’s insensitivity to his wife’s needs as well as his boring and gloomy personality affects Mrs. Wright’s life. She lacks decent clothing, a fully working stove and a social life. Kathy Newman stated, “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 (Newman, 1993).” When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters looked around for clues, they saw nothing that was pretty or in good-form in Minnie Foster’s kitchen. Not only was Mrs. Wright living in a lonely house with no children to take care of or keep company, John Wright restricted his wife’s social life. Mr. Wright was a boring and gloomy man, so there was not much excitement when he would come home from work.
Throughout the story, the men’s constant ridicule and superior behavior made Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters realize that as hard as their work was, it still went unappreciated. The women begin to protect Minnie Foster from male law and judgment. Another “kitchen thing” or trifle which Glaspell introduces to us is the roller towel. Mr. Henderson shows disrespect for women when he went up to the roller towel and stated, with a sense of superiority, “Dirty towels! Not much of a Housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” He then kicks his foot against some dirty pans under the sink as the young attorney adds, “Yet what would we do without the ladies.” After the attorney’s comment on the soiled towel, it is quite clear that Mr. Henderson does not fully appreciate the hard work of women in the house. At this point, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to make remarks to the men about their mistreatment in acting as if women were inferior. Mrs. Hale replied, “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.” The men blame Mrs. Wright for the dirty roller towel but in fact it was the men who whipped their dirty hands on the towel when they prepared the fire earlier. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are perfect strangers, although, the women begin to bond and understand each other.
Then, the county attorney, Mr. Henderson was looking around the kitchen and noticed the old-fashioned, queer looking kitchen cupboard. He got a chair and opened the upper part to look in.
As he drew his hands away, he said resentfully, “Here’s a nice mess.”
The two women came nearer, and the sheriff’s wife said, “Oh—her fruit”. Mrs. Hale turned to Mr. Henderson and said that Mrs. Wright worried about when it turned so cold the fire would burn out and her jars might burst.
Just then, Mrs. Peter’s husband broke into laughter, “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves!”
The young attorney added, “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, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”
There is a sense of irony in Mr. Hale’s comment on women and worrying over trifles because it is many different minor details, which the men find insignificance. In fact, it is these trifles that lead the women to Mrs. Wright’s motive to the murder of her husband, Mr. John Wright. Through this, the men continue to pass judgment on the women.
Later, Mr. Peters and Mr. Henderson discuss the murder and reminded the others to keep their eye out for anything out of the ordinary. The county attorney remembers his position, and the importance of appealing to the women before commenting, “‘And keeps your eye out, Mrs. Peters, for anything that might be of use. No telling; you women might come upon a clue to the motive—and that’s the thing we need.’” Again, the women are treated in a condescending manner when Mr. Hale remarks, “‘But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?’” His comment is ironic because it is the women’s powers of observation which lead to the motive and in turn, the solving of the murder.
The women make a decision to keep the motive from the men. They understand why Mrs. Wright killed her husband. Minnie Foster’s isolation, limited contact with others and her stingy, unresponsive husband were the motives for her crime, but the death of the bird, at his hands was the immediate cause of his death. Their cover up is their final act of sisterhood. Mrs. Hale grabbed the bird and stuffed it in her coat pocket. The women felt the need to protect her from law and male judgment.
"A Jury of Her Peers." Literature: What Makes a Good Shot Story? 2008. Annenberg Media. 2 Dec. 2008 .
Ben-Zvi, Linda, ed. Susan Glaspell: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.1995. 49-71.
Newman, Kathy, “Susan Glaspell and ‘Trifles’: ‘Nothing Here But Kitchen Things,’” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. October,1993. 93.
Packard, Clarissa. Recollections of a Housekeeper. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1994, 11.