Originally written and performed in 1916 as a play called Trifles, “A Jury of Her Peers” appeared in Everyweek on March 5, 1917, and became Susan Glaspell’s best-known story. On one level, readers may see it as an evocative local color tale of the Midwest, but its fame and popularity rest largely on its original plot and strongly feminist theme. Indeed, the story anticipates the feature-length film The Burning Bed and the legal issues debated in the 1970s and beyond: When is a wife justified in murdering her husband?
When the story opens, Minnie Foster Wright has been taken to jail for the possible murder of her husband, John Wright, names suggesting the diminutive and powerless wife and the confident husband. The protagonists of the story are Martha Hale, friend to Minnie since childhood, and Mrs. Peters—whose first name we never learn, married to Sheriff Peters, a blustery overpowering man who seems a double for John Wright. The men—including the sheriff, the county attorney, and Martha’s domineering husband, Mr. Hale—comb the house for evidence to convict Minnie of murder. So confident are they in their methods, however, that they fail to search the kitchen, the province of women, whose work they repeatedly criticize and belittle.
Martha and Mrs. Peters, the female sleuths in this story (which actually may be viewed as a form of detective fiction), examine the kitchen and, through such evidence as jam jars, quilts, an empty bird cage, and, finally, a dead bird, deduce the loneliness, poverty, and emotional devastation of Minnie Foster’s marriage. The loud, heavy footsteps of the men punctuate the two women’s gradual understanding that Minnie Foster murdered her husband in the same way that he had cruelly killed her canary. Although Martha Hale has been sympathetic all along, the little bird corpse is the deciding factor for Mrs. Peters, who recalls a similar incident in her youth: She easily could have killed the boy who destroyed her cat. More important, however, is Mrs. Peter’s awakening to the similarities between Minnie’s husband and her own. She joins Martha in conspiring to hide the dead bird, thus destroying the only physical evidence of Minnie’s motivation to murder. Minnie has been judged by a jury of her peers, and they have found her innocent.
Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of Her Peers.” In American Short Stories. 6th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-García and Bert Hitchcock. New York: Longman, 1997.