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A Jury of Her Peers Summary

Summary and Analysis of A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Galspell

Partially based on the infamous John Hossack murder of 1900, A Jury Of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell is considered to be one of the earliest pieces of American Feminist literature. Narrated in a limited third-person narrative voice, the story is centered around the murder of John Wright, and the two female leads, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are brought to the murder site to help their husbands look for incriminating evidence against Wright’s wife, Minnie.

American author, journalist, and playwright Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” was published in 1917

A Jury of Her Peers | Summary

The story opens with the protagonist, Martha Hale, being hurriedly made to leave her household work behind to accompany her husband, the sheriff, his wife, and the county attorney to the Wight’s farmhouse. We are told that it was one of the most extraordinary things to ever happen in the fictional Dickson County, that required her presence. On her way out, Martha muses on how she hates to leave a job half-done, which she has to because the Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, has requested her presence, the sheriff adding that she might be too afraid and wanted a woman to accompany her for support. While riding in the backseat with Mrs. Peters, Martha wonders how she barely resembles a sheriff’s wife with her small, timid, and petite appearance, an antithesis to the sheriff who looks exactly as one would expect a county sheriff to look like.

As the Wight farmhouse comes into view, we observe Martha thinking of it as a ‘lonesome-looking’ place that ‘did not make her feel like talking’. On reaching the house, Martha has a moment of difficulty in entering as she guiltily remembers that she had ought to visit Minnie Wight, who she has known as Minnie Foster ever since they were children, but never quite found the time and opportunity for it. As the party enters the house and warms up in front of the fire, the sheriff begins questioning Mr. Hale on the details of the event that is yet unknown to the reader, asking him what he saw when he visited the place the previous day.

As her husband is about to be questioned, we witness a moment of anxiety from Mrs. Hale, wishing that her husband would just keep things ‘straight and plain’, avoiding unnecessary details that might go against Minnie Foster. It is at this point of the story that the reader realizes that the crime under investigation has made Minnie Wright/Foster the primary suspect, although it is still unclear what exactly the crime is. Mr. Hale begins narrating the story nervously, saying that he and his oldest son, Harry, were here on the last day, in order to pursue Wright to install a telephone. We are told that Wight, preferring peace and quiet, was against the idea but it would have probably made his wife less lonely. Hale wonders briefly if his wife’s desires ever made a difference to Wright, signaling an unhappy marriage and a neglected wife. Upon being invited inside after knocking twice, Hale enters the house, only to see Mrs. Wright sitting on a rocking chair beside the door, with a ‘queer’ expression on her face, spent, confused, and uncertain.

Martha looks at the chair and wonders about its contrast to the Minnie Foster she remembered from twenty years ago – the old, dingy, badly maintained chair in sharp contrast to the bright, lively, and colorful girl of her youth. Hale continued with his testimony, asserting that she did not seem to pay much attention to him and kept on pleating her apron absent-mindedly even when asked questions. On him saying that he wants to meet her husband, she laughs, telling Hale he can’t see him because he is dead, going back to pleat her apron after the declaration. Her behavior seems to reflect that of a woman in a traumatic aftershock, not completely in tune with her surroundings and reality.
On being asked how he died, she replies that he died ‘from a rope around his neck’, all the while pleating her apron. Scared and upset, Hale asks his son to accompany him upstairs, and they see the body. His young son appears to be more collected here, ascertaining that he’s dead and removing the rope like his father intends to might tamper with the evidence, so they should avoid touching anything. Coming back down, Harry asks Mrs. Wright about the identity of the murderer, who replies that she doesn’t know. Incredulous, Harry asks how can she sleep on the same bed and not know, only to receive a reply asserting, “I sleep sound”. As they are about to head to the coroner, Mrs. Wright merely shifts from one chair to another, lunatically laughing on being told by Hale that he was here to persuade her husband to install a telephone, reaffirming his previous impression that she wasn’t valued or cared for by her husband.

As the group starts looking around for evidence, the men comment condescendingly over the untidiness of the kitchen, trivializing a woman’s space (traditionally, the kitchen) and her concerns about the magnanimity of possible charges of homicide. The attorney adds condescendingly that despite the silliness about their concerns, men can hardly do without the ladies, reflecting the view that it is the functional requirements of a woman in a household that makes her valuable. They continue criticizing Minnie Wright’s housekeeping skills, which makes the woman defensive, and sensitive to Minnie’s troubles. Upon being questioned about her friendship with the alleged murderer, Martha Hale asserts that she hasn’t seen her in a long time, since she was usually very busy and never really liked the house and its lack of ‘cheerfulness’. The attorney adds a sexist comment in answer, associating the gloominess of the place with Mrs. Wright’s lack of housekeeping abilities, to which Martha replies that Wright himself didn’t seem to possess much of that either. The men head upstairs after condescendingly warning the women to be careful and inform them if they find a clue, the attorney musing that they would barely be able to recognize one even if they were to find it, in a streak of classic misogynist thinking.

As the men go, the women appear to be more at ease, cleaning and arranging the disheveled place. Martha finds a half-empty bucket of sugar with an open packet beside it, evidence of the task being left incomplete, and wonders what might have interrupted Minnie Foster. The women are devastated to see the ruined fruit garden, sympathizing with Minnie’s seemingly trivial, homely interests. While picking up clothes for her in the lock-up, Martha finds an old, dirty, and faded black skirt, realizing that it must have been difficult for Minnie Foster who used to dress and sing prettily, to adjust to such a life devoid of every happiness and luxury. Mrs. Peter’s apparent indifference to Minnie’s fate irritates her. Suddenly, Martha asks the Sheriff’s wife if she thinks it was Minnie who committed the murder, to receive an uncertain reply. Martha furiously asserts her belief in her innocence, while Mrs. Peters admits that the evidence does not favor Minnie, given the unlikelihood of her not waking up while the murder happened, musing that the method of murdering was indeed curious, despite the availability of a gun in the house.

While Mrs. Peters, influenced by her husband’s ideology, asserts the necessity of upholding the law, Martha points out the greys between the blacks and whites, asserting that “”The law is the law–and a bad stove is a bad stove.”. The stove here is a metaphor for Minnie’s unhappy marriage. Now, even the former begins to empathize with Minnie’s plight. They come across an unfinished quilt of Minnie Wright’s in a scene that starkly represents female bonding over domestic elements, prompting sexist derision from the men again. The quilt seems to be sewn absentmindedly towards the end, reflecting a disturbed state of mind. Martha mends a stitch or two, effectively tampering with the evidence. They also find an empty bird cage with a broken door, Mrs. Peters thinking that maybe it was killed by a cat, and Martha responding that Minnie did not have cats. She once again regrets her failure to check up on her old friend in her moment of crisis. She reminisces that Minnie was lonely, with no children and a hard, uncaring husband who killed the spark of life in her. She compares her to a bird herself, and how that changed after her marriage.

As they decide to bring the quilt along to give Minnie something to do, they chance upon a box that gives off a rancid smell, which turns out to be a dead bird with a broken neck, implying that Wright must have killed it, just like he had killed Minnie’s songs. They hide the box as the attorney enters. Martha remembers how she would have liked to hurt the boy who killed her kitten in childhood, concluding that Wright wouldn’t like anything that sings, drawing a parallel between the bird and Minnie again. The manner of Wright’s murder mirrored that of the bird, cementing Minnie’s conviction if caught. In an act of reminiscing again, Martha remembers how difficult ‘silence’ and nothingness can be, experienced when she lost her first child, realizing that it must have broken Minnie to have her only source of joy snatched from her. They successfully hide the box with the dead bird as the men prepare to leave, deciding that they won’t tell Minnie about her ruined fruits in the orchard.

A Jury of Her Peers | Analysis

The story is an excellent critique of the patriarchy embedded in society as well as the legal system, reflected in a conversation amongst the men on how a single piece of evidence is needed by the male jury to get a woman convicted, busting the myth of law being an institution of equality. The men of the story are completely blind to the plights of a helpless, miserable woman trapped in an abusive marriage; to them, Wright’s status as a respected and hard-working farmer in society is proof of his innocence and goodness, while the woman’s lack of housekeeping abilities is proof of her failing as a wife. The story is also a tale of sisterhood and solidarity between women, who are sensitive to the miseries and failings of each other and work hard to support and shield each other. In a staunchly patriarchal society where women are openly subjected to misogyny and ridicule, women like Martha know that they are each other’s only source of help and support. She is able to see the grays amidst the black and whites of legalities and helps in enlightening her subdued partner, Mrs. Peters.

The scenes of their womanly bonding over traditionally feminine objects and spaces like the quilt and the kitchen are powerful motifs, as is the bird as a symbol of female desire, and its cage as a space of patriarchal oppression. The bird is also a metaphor for Minnie herself – it parallels her in a beautiful, singing voice, as well as its death, cementing the death of her song as well. Childbirth and child-rearing also become psychosocial spaces of female solidarity, the woman sympathizing with Minnie’s loneliness given her lack of children, and Martha understands the ‘silence’ of the house through the ‘silence’ that she experienced during the death of her first child. Thus, the author employs traditional ideas of female roles and spaces to portray solidarity and sisterhood.

The women of the story are also a step ahead of the men, who ironically think that they will hardly be able to find anything useful for the case. It is they who find the incriminating evidence, actualizing the attorney’s foreshadowing when he mused the possibility of the women finding evidence. In a way, the story also uses a detective storyline only to subvert it. Much like in the genre of detective fiction where the male detective finds evidence and successfully upholds law and order, Glaspell’s women are as capable as detectives in joining the dots. They intuitively understand the motives and problems that the men fail to see, showcasing a sensitivity and keen observation. However, the story subverts the genre of detective fiction such that, despite finding the evidence of Minnie’s guilt, the women hide it in order to shield her, raising questions of the validity of patriarchal legal mechanisms that fail to see and consider the silent, psychological t crimes a woman suffers for decades, only being able to see the only physical one that she has committed. The ending line also mocks the men’s superiority complex, this time the women patronizingly validating the men’s ideas on women’s concerns, reversing the ridicule that they faced throughout.

A Jury of Her Peers | Significance of the Title

The title of the story highlights the differences between the two sets of juries of Minnie Wright – the traditional one of men who only view her as a murderer of her innocent husband even without conclusive evidence, and one of her fellow women who, despite having proof of her guilt, understand and sympathize with the long years of psychological abuse that lead to the act of murder.



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