Oftentimes two realities co-exist in the nature of human experience: the way things are supposed to be and the way things are. Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” illuminates this idea through a type of allegory. On one level, the characters are attempting to solve a murder mystery, but on another level, the characters are seeking the ultimate justices. As expressed above, these things are often not the same thing. Through the use of symbols and allegory, the story seeks to reveal both the conflict inherent in simply following the letter of the law and in the gender roles of the early 20th century.Minnie Foster and Minnie Wright are the same person as far as the sheriff, Mr. Peters, the deputy, Mr. Hale, and the district attorney, Mr.
Henderson, are concerned. Minnie Foster married John Wright and thus became Minnie Foster Wright. She is the chief suspect, the only suspect, in his murder, and the men are determined to find the one clue that will allow a jury to convict her. The conflict occurs when the deputy’s wife, Martha Hale, begins to separate Minnie into two people – the former and the latter.
The former was pretty, social and “fluttery” while the latter was unhappy, isolated and quiet. It is her ability to see both Minnie’s at the same time, and to convince Mrs. Peters of the same, that ultimately provides the impetus for the action the women take in the name of justice.The ideas of law and justice run central to this play, with the men symbolizing the law and the women symbolizing justice. The law states that a murderer must be punished for her crime. Justice, to Mrs.
Hale and, later, Mrs. Peters, means that the right and fair thing is done. The ultimate gender disparity is the focus of males versus the focus of the females on this cold and sad morning. Mr. Hale jokes “women are used to worrying over trifles”(Glaspell 337) to explain Minnie’s concern about her preserves. However, it is exactly this concern over trifles that saves Minnie Foster.
While the men poke fun at the disarray of Minnie’s kitchen, the women see the significance of the work “left half done” (Glaspell 339). After all, Mrs. Hale had to leave her flour half-sifted to come to the murder scene. The dirty towels and broken preserve bottles are symbolic of the trouble and extra work that men who do not worry about trifles cause women. Both Mrs.
Hale and Mrs. Peters are aware of the hard work that goes in to putting up the fruit, of keeping clean towels, and of the general hard work of the farm and slowly align against the men who seem to dismiss it.As the men go upstairs to search the crime scene, Mr. Hale wonders if the women would “know a clue if they came upon it” (Glaspell 338). This is ironic, because it is only the women that are able to recreate the murder scene. According to Mary Bendel-Simso, “The men’s inability to see the facts of the situation is emphasized by Mrs.
Hale and Mrs. Peters’s ability to deduce the discouraging course of Minnie’s life over the previous 20 years” (293). They are able to conclude that her life had been one of solitude, that her life and energy had been pressed out of her by her husband.
They are able to realize this because they are women and because they can empathize with the woman. Minnie Foster had been figuratively killed, leaving Minnie Wright to suffer alone.Of course the ultimate clue comes in a place that the men would certainly consider a trifle – her sewing basket. Neither woman knew Minnie Wright well enough to explain the empty birdcage until they think to bring her sewing materials to the jailhouse.
There they discover the answer and the clue that would certainly hang Minnie – the strangled canary. Over the years of painful quiet and solitude, the women surmise that the bird was her only joy. Clearly, John Wright felt the cruel need to strip his wife of even this. The women guiltily are reminded of their own neglect of Minnie over the years, avoiding her because her home was off the road in a hollow and basically “uncheerful.”The story is not just about the murder of a man.
It is more about the murder of a woman, and of several women like her, even, perhaps, a part of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters themselves. The women both slowly come to understand that this “murder” of Minnie Foster must be avenged.
“John Wright slowly strangled Minnie’s spirit over the previous two decades, isolating her physically and mentally from the community of women and holding her incommunicado. In light of this spiritual homicide, he is charged with–and found guilty of–destroying his wife creatively, procreatively, and communicatively” (Bendel-Simso 295). The caged and strangled bird is Minnie, of course, and Minnie is the caged and strangled bird. Both caged, both eager to be free, their lives slowly entwined. The murder of the bird was the murder of Minnie. To the women, John Wright’s crime is far greater than his wife’s.
Mrs. Peters, slower to come to the conclusion of what she and Mrs. Hale should do, finally acquiesces, as evidenced in her remarks concerning a painful childhood memory in which a boy kills her kitten. She admits to feeling violent and having to be restrained from hurting the boy. Karen Alkalay-Gut calls this a “uniquely feminine experience” that links Mrs. Peters more to Minnie than to the men (6). Both women agree to hide the evidence, thus ensuring Minnie’s safety.
Ironically, it is the trifles – the bird, the kitchen, the preserves – that lead the women to solve the murder. While they seem to eschew the law of man, they fully, in their minds, uphold justice of women. The quilt, the ultimate work of community, unites the story. As Alkalay-Gut notes, the quilt is the means by which the “triviality” of life becomes “incorporated into the larger framework” of life (7). This is exactly what the women were able to do.
The messy kitchen, the broken jars and the odd quilt square lead the women to the exact situation while the men, the problems themselves, miss it.While the gender disparities are obvious, the story is not simply one of sexism, warns Alkalay-Gut (9). It is, after all, the desire of Mrs. Peters that Mrs. Hale come along to keep her company.
Women seek women mainly for comfort, not for battle. They seek one another because of their common experiences. It is this notion of community of women that saves Minnie.
Alkalay-Gut asserts that the idea of fairness is central in the minds of these two women (9), so central that they are willing to place it on a higher rung than law. The community of women, the jury of Minnie’s peers” is applying justice at this higher level. The law of men in this case, must fall to the justice of the peers, as the title suggests.“A Jury of Her Peers” can be read on many levels. First, it is a murder mystery in which the men are trying to apply a law. Next, it is the representation of the community of women who are finally able to apply justice to the situation.
Finally, it is an indictment against the men for failing to see the symbolic importance of what they call trifles. These trifles are the very mechanisms by which Minnie is justly acquitted. Therefore, the law, which asserts that each person be tried by a jury of his peers is upheld. The words of Mrs. Peters sum up this idea when she says “A person gets discouraged – and loses heart” (Glaspell, 341).
Indeed she did; indeed they do.