Tuesday , May 28 2024
Author Susan Glaspell

Book Review: ‘A Jury of Her Peers’ by Susan Glaspell

A Woman’s World

A Jury of Her Peers (1917), a short story by Susan Glaspell – see also the prequel Trifles (1916), a one-act play, both works based on a true story – is a showcase of powerful story telling.   Effective use of scenery, both natural and artificial, and masterful manipulation of plot and structure are some of the major techniques the author employs to bring into sharp focus the overarching theme of the work:  many of her same-sex contemporaries lived in a world all their own — solitary, cold, bitter and brutal.  The way in which Ms Glaspell brings about a sense of solidarity and identification with their common lot, heretofore rarely if ever voiced, only suspected, is one of the work’s singular accomplishments.

The Plot

Prima facie, A Jury of Her Peers is a detective story. There is a crime scene (a body of a man lying in bed with a rope ‘round his neck), a prime suspect (presumably the wife since there are no signs of breaking and entering), and a follow-up investigation by the sheriff and the county attorney. 

The investigation centers about two questions:  the means (why the rope and not the gun? especially since “there was a gun in the house”) and the motive (“something to show anger – or sudden feeling”).  Mrs. Wright, knee Minnie Foster, the alleged perpetrator of the deed, is being detained in a county jail while awaiting arraignment, which provides the two lawmen with ample opportunity to go through the Wright household with a fine-tooth comb, unimpeded, in hope of discovering the necessary evidence to guarantee a speedy trial and no less speedy conviction.  Mr. and Mrs. Hale, the Wright’s next-door neighbors and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, round up the cast of characters.

Mr. Hale is needed for further questioning:  he was the first to have stumbled upon the crime, questioned Mrs. Wright about it, then reported the incident; naturally, the two lawmen hope that revisiting the scene anew might help jar his memory lest he left something out from his initial report. Mrs. Peters, being “married to the law” (the men would joke) and bound thus by protocol, is present in a semi-official capacity, to gather articles of clothing and whatnots Mrs. Wright had requested to make her stay at the county jail more comfortable.  As for Martha Hale, she’s to offer Mrs. Peters moral support.

Mrs. Peters was “getting scary [having to be the only woman at the crime scene, and wished Martha would accompany her],” the sheriff related his wife’s request.  Martha couldn’t refuse.

The two lawmen (Mr. Hale just tagging along for lack of anything better to do) proceed with their inquiry.  They work their way up to the upstairs bedroom where John Wright’s body was found, then to the barn adjacent to the Wright’s house, then to the bedroom again, desperately looking for clues.  Intermittently, during their comings and goings, they make their stopover at the kitchen now and then, but only for a short while and only in passing, for they clearly regard the kitchen, especially Mrs. Wright’s kitchen – “I shouldn’t say she had the home-making instinct,” the county attorney is overheard saying – with utter disdain.

Whatever defects the men do find in the kitchen – and they’re certainly most quick to point ‘em all out – mean absolutely nothing to them; they serve only as an excuse to avoid Mrs. Wright’s kitchen like a pox.  Yet, it is in the kitchen where both women are destined to stay, as if by default and for the duration, while the men go about their happy egg hunt.

Ironically, the kitchen and all its contents virtually define the entire space where all action, dialog and spells of introspection eventually unfold.  There aren’t any other spaces of significance aside from the forbidden if not outright hostile outdoors of the Dickson County itself, especially in the winter when the cold and the chill and the northern wind would go right thru you and pierce you with the sharpness of a boning knife the moment you ventured outside.

And this, once again, brings us back to the kitchen as the only theater of action, dialog and introspection, the only theater of note.  As to the upstairs bedroom or the barn, the two sites where the men are presumed to look for their evidence, since neither merit even the skimpiest of descriptions, the reader has no choice but to follow the author’s stage directions to the letter and give this matter no further thought.

This is by design, and the paramount function of this setting and structure is to effectively subordinate what is allegedly the main plot of the story (a murder investigation by the lawmen) to the secondary plot or subplot (of two women sitting ‘round in the kitchen, “among the kitchen things,” with presumably nothing better to do than wait for the men to get done).

The Subplot

Mrs. Wright’s kitchen did indeed leave a great deal to be desired, and Martha’s watchful eye takes it all in as Mrs. Peters busies herself collecting articles of clothing and whatever trifles for Mrs. Wright.  There are dirty dishes in and under the sink; a stove that barely works (because of “broken lining,” Martha ascertained); fruit jars in the cupboard, the fruit canned only last spring, but now all busted up, all except one, because the stove didn’t hold the heat; a roller towel, towels too dirty to wipe your hands off clean; a bucketful of sugar, its lid off, and a paper bag right next to it, only half-full.  And then, there is this quilt with so great a promise, only to be botched up in the end as though at the hand of a complete novice.

It’s not just an unfinished task here and there that Martha finds so very perturbing, she knows what it means to be interrupted in the middle of chores, but the general condition of the place, a state of deterioration and ongoing decline that couldn’t be the result of a single moment, not even of several moments strung together.  It had to take time, a long time – time of inaction, of uncaring, of neglect, of letting go.

She communicates her observations to Mrs. Peters, some of the glaring details.  She also expresses her misgivings, her sense of guilt, for not having visited the Wrights more often, for Minnie’s sake:  after all, she was her next-door neighbor, even friend, and had an inkling, more than an inkling, of Minnie’s predicament, for she knew John Wright.  (Martha was always partial to addressing Mrs. Wright by her maiden name:  that’s how she always wanted to remember her, as a young girl with a sweet voice, in a white dress with blue ribbons and all, singing in a church choir, not as Mrs. Wright twenty-years since.)

Minnie loved to sing, Martha recalls.

The sheriff’s wife remains noncommittal. She can’t allow herself just yet to embrace Martha’s keen insights with open arms and provide a much-needed affirmation, not directly in any case.  But as one thing leads to another, and taking cue now and then from Mrs. Peters’ furtive looks and glances at critical moments of their conversation, from what was said as much as from what remained unsaid, Martha sees “[T]hat look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else . . .” in Mrs. Peters’ eyes.  She realizes the other woman sees what she sees, that her resistance is melting.

Then they both notice a birdcage, its door wide-open, bent out of shape and twisted, as though whoever’d done it did so in a fit of anger and with great force – and that tips the scales.  Suspecting the awful truth, the women intensify their search only to find a little canary, neatly wrapped in silk, in Minnie’s sewing basket of all things, its tiny neck broken like a twig.

At last they see eye to eye.  They’re not going to tell the men.  Right or wrong, they’re going to withhold the evidence.  And they succeed.

A Woman’s World

Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters should consider themselves fortunate.  Though the circumstances which had brought them together were indeed most regrettable, at least they’ve got something to show for it:  a sense of solidarity and identification with their lot, the common world they happened to share.  That world, to be sure, was still just as solitary, cold, bitter and brutal as before, but the quality of the understanding they’ve reached, mutual understanding by now, will go a long way to make their lives easier to bear, more tolerable.

There are other considerations of note.  Of Mrs. Peters’ personal life, we know little, but we can readily surmise that under her husband’s thumb she was not; in fact, we’ve seen her display a great deal of independence on many occasions if not all throughout, a welcome trait in any woman, especially a woman in her time and place.  She was the sheriff’s wife, besides, an important position in her community, a role which she enacted well and which earned her considerable respect, indeed, self-respect.  (Of Martha Hale’s independence and strength of character we already know.)  It is safe to assume, therefore, that both women were competent homemakers, and this says a lot.

It’s still the case that for either of them their world was just as lonesome and just as confined as before, a world replete with monotony, drudgery and never-ending tasks.  Competency, however, is a critical element in any world, especially their world.  Because they were competent, they had the wherewithal to turn it into a well-organized and coherent world and make it thus more habitable, a world with its own airtight logic, a world in which completion of tasks and tasks done well – alas, a perfection of sorts! – would become some of its permanent features, a world they could take pride in.

Minnie Foster wasn’t that lucky.  She was fragile to start with — “kind of like a bird herself . . . but timid and fluttery” — saddled besides with the likes of John Wright, a most unforgiving if not life-sapping man.  Her household chores she would discharge for as long as she could, but there was a limit.  With no sign of life around – she was childless, and John Wright didn’t count! – her spirit rapidly deserted her, eventually leading to desperation, depression and total abandon. Getting the canary was a last-ditch effort to stay connected to something, to anything, to life.  But even this feeble attempt at salvation, at retaining a modicum of sanity to be able to carry on, was met with a disastrous result at the hand of the uncaring husband.

Minnie Foster was at the end of her rope and, as befitting the concept of poetic justice, it was a rope she used to put an end to John Wright.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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