“A Jury of Her Peers,” a short story by Susan Glaspell, delves into a mysterious murder in rural Dickson County.
Set in the early twentieth century, it’s an exploration of gender roles, isolation’s impact on mental states, and the complexities of neighborly duty. Glaspell also boldly addresses the era’s sexism and the entrenched prejudices that relegated women to domestic roles.
The story begins with Mrs. Martha Hale hurriedly grabbing her scarf on a cold, windy day. Her husband, Lewis, urges her to join a group in their buggy, which includes Sheriff Peters and his wife, the county attorney George Henderson, and herself.
They’re off to investigate the murder of John Wright, a discovery made by Mr. Hale the previous day at the Wrights’ home. He had found Mrs. Wright acting strangely and Mr. Wright strangled in his bed.
Upon reaching the isolated Wright homestead, a palpable sense of loneliness hangs in the air. Inside, the men gather by the fire, discussing the case, while the women stay in the kitchen, quietly observing. As Mr. Hale recounts his discovery of the murder, Mrs. Hale worries about her husband revealing too much, potentially complicating matters for Minnie Foster, Mrs. Wright.
The narrative reveals Mr. Hale’s intention of asking Mr. Wright about installing a telephone, a request that Wright, a man of few words and little regard for his wife’s desires, was expected to decline. Minnie Wright’s response to her husband’s death—first laughter, then fear—hints at a complex, troubled relationship.
The county attorney dismisses the kitchen, where the women remain, as insignificant, focusing instead on the rest of the house. Yet, it’s in the kitchen where the story unfolds its deeper layers. Mrs. Wright’s broken fruit preserve jars, seen as trivial by the men, become a symbol of her shattered life. The men’s belittling remarks about women’s concerns only deepen the divide.
As the men continue their investigation elsewhere, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to piece together the real story. They notice the unfinished state of the kitchen, the shabby clothes, and a quilt Mrs. Wright was working on. Their findings lead to a profound realization: the discovery of a dead canary, its neck wrung, hidden in a pretty box.
This grim token becomes a metaphor for Minnie Wright’s life, strangled by isolation and oppression.
In a poignant reflection of shared understanding and silent solidarity, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters decide to conceal the dead bird from the men.
They recognize the bird’s death as a catalyst for the murder, a symbol of Minnie Wright’s lost freedom and joy.
Their decision to hide the evidence is a subtle but powerful rebellion against the dismissive attitudes of the men and the societal constraints imposed on them.
As the story concludes, the men remain oblivious to the women’s discovery and the true motive behind the murder.
1. Underestimation and Misunderstanding of Women’s Roles and Perspectives
The story vividly illustrates how women’s roles and insights were undervalued and misunderstood in society.
For instance, the male characters in the story, including the sheriff and the county attorney, dismiss the kitchen—a traditionally female space—as irrelevant to their investigation.
They overlook the importance of the broken fruit jars and the incomplete household tasks, which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters recognize as signs of Mrs. Wright’s distress.
This lesson is a critique of the societal tendency to undervalue women’s experiences and the significance of their domestic roles.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters develop a deep empathy for Mrs. Wright as they piece together the story of her life in the Wright household.
They find the dead canary with a wrung neck, which becomes a symbol of Mrs. Wright’s lost joy and freedom.
The women’s decision to hide this evidence from the men is not only an act of solidarity but also a form of resistance against the patriarchal society that failed to understand or support Mrs. Wright.
This lesson underscores the power of shared experiences and empathy among women, especially in the face of societal indifference or oppression.
3. The Blind Spots of Justice and the Importance of Perspective
The story demonstrates how the justice system and societal norms can have blind spots, especially regarding the lives and experiences of women.
The men, representing the law and societal authority, are focused on finding tangible, conventional evidence. They fail to understand the subtler, yet significant, signs of a troubled life and a potential motive for the murder found by the women in the kitchen.
This lesson highlights the importance of diverse perspectives in understanding the whole truth of a situation, suggesting that a single, dominant viewpoint (in this case, the male perspective) can lead to incomplete or biased conclusions.
“A Jury of Her Peers” is not just a tale of a murder investigation; it’s a commentary on the underestimation of women’s perspectives, the blind spots of justice, and the quiet strength found in shared experiences.
Glaspell masterfully uses the setting, characters, and symbolism to critique the gender dynamics of her time, making the story resonate even today.