A Jury Of Her Peers Analysis Essay

"A Jury of Her Peers" Susan Glaspell

The following entry presents criticism on Glaspell's short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917).

Known primarily as a playwright, Glaspell's short fiction went largely unnoticed until 1973 when her short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” was rediscovered. Though the author of forty-three short stories, Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers” is her most widely anthologized piece of short fiction and is based on an actual court case Glaspell covered as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily. The story, which she adapted from her one-act play Trifles in 1917, has attracted the attention of feminist scholars for its treatment of gender-related themes. On its surface, “A Jury of Her Peers” appears a simple detective story, but through extensive dialogue between two women, Glaspell slowly reveals the story's true underlying conflict: the struggle of women in a male-dominated society.

Plot and Major Characters

“A Jury of Her Peers” opens with controversy surrounding Minnie Foster Wright, who is in jail on suspicion that she murdered her husband by strangling him. Mrs. Wright's story is told indirectly through a conversation between Martha Hale—whose husband discovered the body of John Wright—and Mrs. Peters, the wife of the local sheriff. The sheriff asks Mrs. Hale to accompany them to the Wright's house so she can keep his wife company while the men investigate the murder scene. Thrown together by circumstance, the women form an immediate bond as they begin gathering some of Minnie's belongings to bring to her in her jail cell. Concluding that there is nothing in the kitchen except for “kitchen things,” the men begin their investigation in the upstairs of the house and in an outside barn. Left alone in Minnie's kitchen, however, the two women begin discovering their own clues about Minnie's possible motive for killing her husband. Gradually, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin noticing details about Minnie's life that escape the notice of their husbands. They notice Minnie's desolate, isolated existence, her broken furniture, the rundown kitchen where she had to cook, and the ragged clothing she was forced to wear because of her husband's miserly insensitivity. Eventually the two women stumble across two clues that piece Minnie's case together. They spot the crooked stitching on one of the quilts Minnie was working on, speculating that she must have been upset while trying to complete the project. The two women also find Minnie's cherished canary strangled and carefully tucked away in a box inside her sewing basket. After discovering these clues, the two women begin talking about how Minnie, once sociable and cheerful, evolved into an introverted, lonely woman after marrying her silent, cold husband. Both women also notice the broken hinge on the bird cage, speculating that John Wright might have strangled Minnie's canary, much the way he killed his wife's spirit with his overbearing manner. After the discovery of Minnie’s strangled canary, the two women conjecture that Minnie strangled her husband just as he had strangled her canary. Empathizing with Minnie, the women decide not to tell their husbands about the results of their own investigation. Instead, they repair the erratic stitching on Minnie's quilt and concoct a story about the canary's disappearance, blaming a runaway cat. In silent collusion, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters cover up the clues that reveal Minnie's motive, quietly acquitting Minnie from wrongdoing without their husbands' knowledge.

Major Themes

Now considered a feminist classic, “A Jury of Her Peers” examines the predicaments of women in a male-dominated society. Critics believe that Glaspell, who based this story on a real murder trial in which women were not allowed to serve as jurors, created a jury of those female peers in her story to mete out their own form of justice. A detective story on the surface, “A Jury of Her Peers” is more of a commentary about female oppression, justice, the confining nature of rigid stereotypes, and the differences in perspective between men and women. Throughout “A Jury of Her Peers,” the men in the story never acknowledge Minnie Wright's oppression and how it led her to a desperate act. The men in the story also view their wives as the weaker sex, only valuable as overseers of the domestic arena—an area the men consider insignificant. Bound by rigid stereotypes and the inability to step into Minnie's shoes to solve the crime, the men who are supposed to be the primary investigators in the case, miss all of the clues and are unknowingly outwitted by their wives. After the two women solve the case, they silently decide to protect one of their own, ultimately becoming the true investigators, the judge, and the jury on Minnie's case.

Critical Reception

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her drama Alison's House, Glaspell attained much critical acclaim as a playwright and as an important contributor to the development of modern American drama. Her short fiction, however, was often considered regional, sentimental, and full of formulaic plots. Most of her forty-three short stories fell into the genre of local color writing, the staple of many magazines at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of Glaspell's stories were published in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and the Woman's Home Companion. Of all her short fictional works, however, critics have hailed “A Jury of Her Peers” as a feminist classic, noting the story's significance-laden details and its insight into motivations of men and women. In 1912, a reviewer for the Boston Evening Transcript praised Glaspell, saying: “Rarely do we meet with a writer who lifts the masks of life, who shows us the naked souls of men, their dreams, their sufferings, their hopes.”

Feminist Analysis - Planning a Thesis Statement

Drafting Your Thesis
In order to begin drafting your paper, you will need to form a working thesis statement. The thesis statement is the backbone of the analysis, and the rest of the essay should work to back up this statement. A great thesis needs to make an arguable statement about the text, so this is where you can draw from your notes, questions, and new interpretations.

Your thesis will likely be closely related to the theme you developed while inventing, but it is more specific to the work. The thesis statement for a literary analysis essay is also more specialized than a generic thesis. It includes the author’s name, the title of the work, the theme, and a method of development.

Your thesis statement needs to be specific. If we were to use Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers’ for example, you wouldn’t want to say, “Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” deals with sexism. That statement is far too vague. Choose something specific and arguable. For instance,“Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” illustrates how women’s confinement to the home sphere creates a shared female experience that men cannot understand.” This statement is clear, arguable, and specific.  

It’s important to remember that your thesis may change over the course of developing your essay. This may only be your starting point, but it could also remain the same.


My thesis evolution
My thesis went through many changes during the drafting process, from vague statements of my initial ideas to a conscise thesis dependent on theory.

My Initial Thesis
Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” illustrates how women may be swayed by patriarchal views if they are trusted by men, but that women’s confinement to the home sphere creates a shared female experience that ultimately wins out because men cannot understand it.
This thesis was very basic. It simply combined the two main ideas I garnered from inventing. But it was rather vague and too wordy. It is difficult to immediately understand how the two ideas are related.

My Second Thesis
Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” illustrates how women’s moral judgement is influenced by the authority of men and how a shared female experience gives insight that is ultimately more important to women’s moral judgement.
This thesis is a little better because the language is clearer. It also better shows how the ideas are connected but they still seem a little unrelated. It also needs an introduction to give it more context so that I can specify and expound my thesis.

My First Introduction and Third Thesis Attempt
It is easy to see the sexist discrimination in Susan Glaspell’s 1927 short story “A Jury of Her Peers”. The men overtly belittled and laughed at the women, who are clearly uncomfortable in their presence.  But how does this obvious gender dynamic play into the women’s ultimate decision to cover up evidence and become co-conspirators in a murder? The answer lies in feminist justice theory, and the idea that women are more concerned with the care when it comes to moral decisions. Mrs. Peters’ wavering decision to convict Minnie Foster illustrates the influence of male authority on women’s judgement and how care is ultimately more important to women’s morals.
The new introduction gives the thesis more context, but the transition is still a little abrupt. Now that I had a better idea of what I intended to focus on, I felt freer to expound my thesis into multiple sentences. However, the ideas still don’t seem too clearly related. I’m also trying to be very specific, which doesn’t make too much sense without a previous introduction of the characters.

My Fourth Thesis Attempt
    It is easy to see the sexism in Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”. In this 1927 short story, inspired by a true case of a woman who ax murdered her husband, the men overtly belittle and laugh at the women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. When the two women accompany the men to the scene of the crime, they are deemed incapable of helping to solve the case:  “Mr. Hale rubbed his face after the fashion of a showman getting ready for a pleasantry. ‘But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?”’(8) However, it is the women who, through attention to small details and an understanding of women’s experience, discover evidence that would prove Minnie Foster guilty of her husband’s murder. Ultimately they decide to conceal these signs of motive. So how does the obvious gender dynamic play into the women’s complicity in manslaughter? The answer lies in feminist justice theory, and the idea that women have a different orientation than men when it comes to moral dilemmas.
    Author of “A Different Voice” Carol Gilligan advances one feminist justice theory that explains the women’s decision. According to Gilligan, women have a care orientation when it comes to moral issues as opposed to a justice orientation. This means that, unlike men, women view relationships as more important to making ethical decisions. Gilligan explains that “With the shift in perspective from justice to care, the organizing dimension of relationship changes from inequality/equality to attachment/detachment, reorganizing thoughts feelings, and language so words connoting relationship like “dependence” or “responsibility” or even moral terms such as “fairness” and “care” take on different meanings”(34). When deciding whether or not to incriminate Minnie, the women take into account the nature of her relationship with her husband John, which is important to their care moral-orientation. When Mrs. Peters’ wavers in her decision making process, it illustrates the influence of male authority and male-dominated justice-moral legal system on women’s judgement.  In choosing not to convict Minnie despite the dominant view of justice, the women take an anti-patriarchal stand.
This is better because the introduction eases the reader into the ideas. It also works to show how the theory directly relates to the work. It also covers the paper’s conclusion, or the “so what?” However, this really isn’t necessary here. “Male-dominated justice-moral legal system” is also excessively wordy.

My Final Thesis 
   It is easy to see the sexism in Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” In this 1927 short story, inspired by a true case of a woman who ax murdered her husband, the men overtly belittle and laugh at the women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. When the two women accompany the men to the scene of the crime, they are deemed incapable of helping to solve the case:  “Mr. Hale rubbed his face after the fashion of a showman getting ready for a pleasantry. ‘But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?”’(8) However, it is the women who, through attention to small details and an understanding of women’s experience, discover evidence that would prove Minnie Foster guilty of her husband’s murder. While these signs of motive would give the men the clear guilty conviction they are searching for, the women decide to conceal these signs of motive and by doing so effectively deem Minnie innocent. The obvious question, then, is how the women’s complicity in manslaughter relates to the overt gender dynamics at play. The answer may lie in feminist justice theory and the idea that women have a different orientation than men when it comes to moral dilemmas.
    Carol Gilligan, author of InA Different Voice, advances one feminist justice theory that helps explain the women’s decision. According to Gilligan, when it comes to moral problems women tend to have a care orientation as opposed to a justice orientation. A care-moral orientation considers fairness in terms of relationships and attachment while a justice-moral orientation considers fairness in terms of rules and a standard of equality. Though using the term “justice perspective” to describe male-favored moral reasoning potentially implies that the care perspective is not just, this is the term designated by Gilligan, and should be considered separate from a general definition of justice. Gilligan explains that “With the shift in perspective from justice to care, the organizing dimension of relationship changes from inequality/equality to attachment/detachment, reorganizing thoughts feelings, and language so words connoting relationship like “dependence” or “responsibility” or even moral terms such as “fairness” and “care” take on different meanings”(34). While justice and care considerations are not mutually exclusive when considering moral dilemmas, there is a penchant to value one perspective over the other, with women often leaning towards care. As the American legal system was established and run by men who are largely justice oriented, the popular understanding of morality was determined by men. Neil Noddings, author of Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, explains that because of this it was not considered that women’s understanding of morality was potentially different,  but women were simply viewed as immature moral thinkers by theories based in a justice-moral system (Noddings 23). Glaspell’s short story is an illustration of how women’s morality differs from the legal and masculine system of justice.
     The women’s moral orientation comes into play when deciding whether or not to incriminate Minnie because they take into account the nature of her relationship with her husband John. Mrs. Peters’ wavering in her decision-making process illustrates the influence of male authority and male-dominated justice-moral legal system on women’s judgement.  In choosing not to convict Minnie the women choose a care-oriented moral system despite the dominant view of justice, and therefore take an anti-patriarchal stand.
This thesis is good because the idea is concisely stated with a single idea that covers the entire topic. While it may seem a little short, it doesn’t need much because it has all of the previous background and theory to explain it. It is also a good thesis because including the title of the work makes it specific and also works to signal that this is the thesis.


Next step: Drafting
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