Thursday, April 21, 2011

Story Note: Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917)

Spoiler alert! The following comments spoil much of Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” If you want to read the story, you may do so here.

Though Susan Glaspell’s early noir “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917) has been canonized in Tony Hillerman’s The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2001), it is not a mystery story in the conventional sense. Minnie Wright has murdered her husband. No one in the story believes her claim that she slept undisturbed next to him while someone strangled him with a rope, nor is the reader given any reason to doubt her guilt. The only mystery is why Minnie did it. (Significantly, the name “Minnie Wright” never appears in the story. Martha Hale, a neighbor, still thinks of her as Minnie Foster because Martha remembers her as she was before marriage. In all other instances, she is referred to as “Mrs. Wright,” symbolic of the appendage she became.)

The plot of the story proper describes a visit to the Wrights’ empty house as the sheriff (Peters) and the county attorney (Henderson) collect information for the prosecution of Minnie Wright. Peters and Henderson want to interview Martha Hale’s husband, Lewis, at the house, for it was he who discovered the murder. The day before, he had stopped by to see John Wright and was informed by Minnie that her husband was dead. Upstairs, Lewis found the body. The three men are accompanied on their errand by two women. The sheriff’s wife, whose name is given only as Mrs. Peters, is going to gather items that Minnie Wright wants in jail. When Mrs. Peters becomes nervous, she asks Martha Hale to come as well.

Martha feels sympathy for the accused from the outset. When her husband begins talking, she is concerned that he will “say unnecessary things that [will] just make things harder for Minnie Foster.” Thus, she disapproves when Lewis says that he “didn’t know as what [John’s] wife wanted made much difference to John” because this hints at a motive for the murder. Lewis does not follow up on this observation, however, because the attorney asks him to focus on the murder itself.

When the three men go upstairs to look at the murder scene, Martha and Mrs. Peters stay below, and this is when then real action of the story begins. Piecing together evidence that the men are oblivious to (“Nothing here but kitchen things,” says the sheriff), the women come to understand why Minnie Wright killed her husband. First, Martha notices a paper bag of flour only half emptied into a wooden bucket. Then she notices that the kitchen table has been only half cleaned. Then Mrs. Peters notices where Minnie seems to have lost her ability to sew, and she wonders, “What do you suppose she was so—nervous about?” The answer comes, literally and/or symbolically, when they find Minnie’s pet bird, its neck broken, wrapped in a piece of silk in her sewing basket. Earlier, Martha had observed that Minnie Foster was herself like a bird (“Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery. How—she—did—change”), and now the two women lock eyes “in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror.” Literally, the dead bird, along with a birdcage whose door has been forcibly broken, indicates that John killed his wife’s pet. Symbolically, the dead bird shows what marriage to John Foster did to the vibrant young Minnie Foster; as well, the manner of the bird’s death suggests the possibility of spousal abuse.

Though Martha and Mrs. Peters know little about the Wrights’ marriage, they know enough about the naturalistic weight of patriarchy to intuit the details that the dead bird suggests. From their perspective, if the men knew of the dead bird, it “would make certain the conviction” of Minnie Wright. Their sympathy is with Minnie, however, so they will not tell the men what they know. Commentary on the story tends to end here: As a jury, Martha and Mrs. Peters have united in support of their peer. But to stop here is to overlook what may be the story’s deepest irony: While Martha and Mrs. Peters believe that they have the power to prove Minnie’s guilt, they may well be wrong. Throughout the story, the men have treated Martha and Mrs. Peters with condescension bordering on contempt. Just as John Wright did not care what his wife wanted, it seems likely that the men would not take seriously the amateur detective work of the two women. The womens confidence in their own power, when they may have no power at all, is classic noir.

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