“A Jury of Her Peers”
Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) wrote “A Jury of Her Peers” in 1917. The story is a fictionalized account loosely based on a true crime story Glaspell covered in 1900 when she was a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. In that true story a farmer’s wife—after being convicted for the murder of her husband with an axe—was released on appeal for lack of evidence.
Many years later, after leaving journalism to become a fiction writer, Glaspell first wrote her account inspired by this factual murder in a play for Providence Players called Trifles (1916). The next year, she turned the play into the short story “A Jury of Her Peers.” At the time of publication, the story was considered both controversial and disturbing.
The story itself is not a fast-paced thriller. The main action—the murder—is never seen. Instead, one character simply reports what he saw when he discovered the scene. Later, he and his wife, the sheriff and his wife, and the county attorney return to the household where the murder occurred looking for evidence of a motive. The men investigate, and the women mainly stay in the kitchen tidying up and pulling together a few items (apron, shawl, jar of preserves) to bring to the wife/suspect as she awaits charges.
The main story develops from what the women find and share. The attorney, however, condescendingly dismisses anything the women might observe or think with such statements as “Women are used to worrying over trifles” and “But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” You can access the full story online—it is a good read.
I first discovered this story when I was teaching back in the 1980s. I used it in class to teach writing and critical thinking. [I was not teaching literature courses at the time but always tried to add something literary into every course I taught anyway.] Student writers can see the importance of detail—what is and what is not noticed by the various characters in the story as well as the form and punctuation of dialog.
Young critical thinkers can use those descriptive details and the telling dialog to draw inferences, explore the assumptions of the various characters depending on their role in the story, and make their own assessment about what actually happened. Lively discussions ensue especially if there is wide diversity of students represented in the class, as there usually is: men and women; older and younger; married, single or divorced; and perhaps even city dweller and country dweller. Sometimes the students are asked to take on the role of prosecutor or defense and make the case for a jury.
If I use the story in March, then I could also explore its historical and sociological details as an homage to Women’s History Month. What was life like in the early 1900s? What were societal attitudes toward women and the options open to them: stay single, work outside the home, divorce? What was transportation and communication like without cars, phones, neighbors? Glaspell is considered an early voice for feminism. Students can research these areas or guest speakers can come to class and help the students practice taking notes.
A blogger named Jennifer posted her analysis of the story a few years ago and offered this observation: “In this era women didn’t get divorced. Minnie was forced to be with this cold, hard man. He was such a cold person that most people didn’t want to be near him. Minnie was completely isolated and cut off from her happy youth. In a sense she was a caged bird. I don’t know how she endured all of this for twenty years.” The short story generates some good discussion as well as writing opportunities.
If the students are intrigued by the story and want to read further—or have an assignment to read a novel or other short stories for class and write a report—they might be interested in reading more works by Glaspell. She was an accomplished author. In fact, although this story was a bit controversial and most of her works looked at social issues, Glaspell’s fiction was well received. Her first novel (1909) won rave reviews and was a national best seller, and her play based loosely on the life and family of Emily Dickinson won a Pulitzer Prize (1931).
Other authors from the early 1900s the students might explore are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Willa Cather. A short story with a comparable theme was written by Kate Chopin: “The Story of an Hour.” Although written a bit earlier (1894), this story builds on the options available to and assumptions about women and marriage at the time. It is really, really short—just a few pages—so can easily be used in class for further discussion.
I hope you are intrigued enough to read this provocative short story. Alfred Hitchcock found it fascinating enough to use it as an episode for his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His version of “A Jury of Her Peers” first aired in December 1961. The editorial comments that frame Hitchcock’s dramatization are not fully grounded in the details from the story—and the presentation shows the wife/suspect as an actual character, but otherwise it is true to the story.