Literature Lesson: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”

This is a story about the importance of stories. Humans cannot exist without stories. We observe reality and then always create a story out of what we see. But to what extent are the stories we tell ourselves an invention? How much do we distort reality as we weave it into a narrative? Do the stories we tell say anything about reality at all? Or only about us?

In “A Jury of Her Peers,” a man is apparently murdered by his wife. While the sheriff searches the house for clues, his wife and another neighbor try to figure out what happened. The stronger-willed of the two women is, for reasons that remain unexplained, feeling resentful against men in general. She invents a story where the murderous wife is, in reality, a victim of her husband and convinces the weaker woman to go along with her narrative.

Whenever a reader might start doubting the story created by the two women, Glaspell brilliantly throws in some hooks that push the readers towards the mindset of the strong, resentful female character. Men pop in and out of the storyline to make some casually sexist comment. These comments keep the reader – who is most likely female – in line with the concocted narrative. We feel victimized by the sexist comments and likelier to believe that the murderous woman is a victim.

The title of the story makes one wonder about the capacity of any jury to notice anything at all but the stories that play in their heads on a loop. And it’s not just juries. “A Jury of Her Peers” is a standard chapter in every feminist reader when, if you keep your cool long enough to disregard the emotional hooks that the author deploys, it’s kind of the exact opposite.

3 thoughts on “Literature Lesson: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”

  1. “A Jury of Her Peers” is Glaspell’s adaptation of her own short play “Trifles”–Glaspell co-founded the Provincetown Playhouse, and was a major force in developing modern American drama. (The Playhouse was the first artistic home to Eugene O’Neill.)

    I think your reading of Glaspell is a little loaded–but that’s what all readings are, I suppose. In the world she creates, Glaspell makes it pretty clear that 1) Mrs. Wright strangled her husband the way he strangled the canary, and 2) the wives, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, figure it out by concentrating on the “trifles” that the male investigators ignore. The decision they make to hide the evidence is what lends the story its notoriety. It’s definitely a good example of an early 20th century jab at patriarchy, but I don’t think Mrs. Hale needs to “concoct” anything.

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    1. Let’s say the husband did kill the canary. That’s not a nice thing to do. But she murdered him! He’s dead. Over nothing. Yet the readers invariably side with the murderous wife. That’s brilliant authorial manipulation.

      It would have been so easy for the author to make the husband a wife beater, a child abuser, something definitive like that. But instead she uses not a dog, not a cat, not a horse but a caged bird whom the woman has been torturing this whole time. Why? Why not make the husband clearly the bad guy in this equation?

      I think the story is a lot deeper than the “patriarchy” readings allow.

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