Themes in A Jury of Her Peers

Susan Glaspell’s short story explores the themes of sisterhood and the role of women. In creating intelligent female characters, Glaspell challenges the gender roles of her time period and shows that women are not inferior to men. For example, both Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are shown to possess superior powers of observation and meticulous attention to detail. The intelligence of the women goes largely ignored by the male characters, who instead expect subordination and obedience from their wives, sisters, and mothers. Ironically, this patriarchal underappreciation of the female experience causes the men to miss vital clues relating to the crime at hand. In this way, Glaspell’s story critiques female oppression and marginalization.

Themes Examples in A Jury of Her Peers:

A Jury of Her Peers 28

"We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing!..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mrs. Hale’s comments reveal her capacity for empathy. In her consideration of Minnie’s life, Mrs. Hale finds a great deal of common ground. The vexing thing about this particular passage is that Mrs. Hale does not specify who “we” refers to. In the context of the scene, it would appear that “we” means women. The story conveys an underlying separation between men and women, one often reinforced by the male characters. Thus by “we” Mrs. Hale might be referring to women in general, who “all go through the same things” with slight variations. From a broader perspective, it is also possible that the “we” includes all of humanity. All humans “go through the same things” in a vast array of different permutations. It is for this reason that works of literature, such as “A Jury of Her Peers,” can succeed.

"Something to show anger—or sudden feeling."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mr. Henderson’s search for a motive underscores the conventional sense of crime and punishment at play among the male investigators. As the story unfolds and the nature of the crime reveals itself, the piece of evidence “to show anger” turns out to complicate any standard notions of justice.

""There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

This passage foreshadows the lack of predictability or standard sense underlying the case. The use of the noose, despite the presence of the more reliable gun, suggests that there is a personal or emotional logic to the particulars of the murder. Once again, the typical investigatory frameworks fall short: a theme throughout the story.

""That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?"..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The theme of incrimination is central to the story and very nuanced. As the story establishes itself, the crime at hand seems clear: Mr. Wright has been killed; his murderer needs identification. As the investigation unfolds, Mrs. Hale begins to point to another crime: her own abandonment of Mrs. Wright. It is more an act of empathy than of guilt. The issue Mrs. Hale finds is not so much her own inaction as the neglect Mrs. Wright has experiences over the course of the preceding two decades. As the nature of the original crime becomes clear, Mrs. Hale’s concerns take on a heightened relevance.

"began the sheriff's wife in a flurried voice,..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The word “flurried” serves as a double entendre. On the surface, the word denotes a kind feeling of agitation or anxiety. On a literal level, “flurried” means “moved by a flurry,” which draws on the stormy language from the story’s start. Thus, “flurried” brings in the metaphorical material of the storm—most pressingly, the conflict of the sexes.

"something to show..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Throughout the story we have seen numerous examples of men underestimating women’s capabilities and intelligence. Ironically, this very obliviousness (intentional or not) actually works in Minnie’s favor here. Although Minnie may be suspect, because the jury wrongly assumes women to be less capable or threatening, her conviction demands more solid evidence.

"Mrs. Hale's hand went out to the bird-cage. ..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The bird’s innocence and powerlessness underscores the horror of its murder. Mrs. Hale reaching her hand out to the bird cage as if to touch the deceased bird, is a strong image for the careful reader. This small gesture indicates Mrs. Hale’s compassion and empathy for Minnie. This sentence and the following also present the first more blatant admission of Minnie’s guilt. However, the imagery used here acknowledges Minnie’s heartache, desperation, and anger. We now see that she was trapped in an abusive relationship.

"hurt him."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Note that Mrs. Peters “caught herself” mid-sentence. This indicates a calculated change in wording, which we can assume is replacing the word “kill” with “hurt.” Mrs. Peters empathizes with Minnie’s situation, and we are led to wonder if Mrs. Peters reaction to this kind of abuse would have been the same.

"little pleasantries..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The county attorney’s comment again belittles the women, suggesting that they are only concerned with domestic “pleasantries” like sewing. Ironically, it is precisely the women’s attention to seemingly small details that has given them a better understanding what happened than the men. It is especially ironic that the sewing itself is ultimately what tips the women off. Something that seems a “trifle” is an extremely important and telling clue that goes unnoticed by the men because they completely underestimate the significance of women’s activities or work.

"the fire might have got a little of this on..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mrs. Hale once again shows herself to be one of the most observant characters in the story. The men have just gone around the entire kitchen, and managed to accomplish nothing but criticize Minnie’s housekeeping. Mrs. Hale is able to consider all possibilities when assessing her surroundings for context and clues which the men largely ignore, intentionally or not.

"as if releasing herself from something strange..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Notice that Mrs. Hale is able to immediately “[release] herself from something strange” after the men leave the room. Their oppressive, powerful presence keeps her from acting on her feelings, in this case especially, since the men were criticising Minnie’s homemaking and being generally condescending towards the women. Their “joking” is obviously harmful, and keeps Mrs. Hale from feeling allowed to act in the way that she naturally would.

"But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

This sentence has sexist connotations, suggesting that women are silly and unintelligent in comparison to men. Notice that the women have also proven themselves to be observant and intelligent, which has gone completely unnoticed or intentionally ignored by the men in the story. This sentence illustrates the kind of microaggressions that communicate hostile and derogatory meanings, under the guise of “humor” and “joking.” This is one of the primary, insidious ways that women and other marginalized groups are oppressed, and these seemingly “harmless” quips have big, lasting effects.

""Ah, loyal to your sex, I see," he laughed...."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The county attorney also assumes that the reasoning behind the women’s defensiveness is mere loyalty to their gender. This certainly is part of it, and women as allies for one another will become a theme as the story progresses. But the county attorney’s assumption is reductive, and his laughter indicates that he dismisses these women as mere silly protectors, rather than intelligent, logical, and observant individuals.

""Ah, loyal to your sex, I see," he laughed...."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The county attorney’s comment here underscores the sexism of this time. Women’s domestic work was a social expectation, but it was also thought to be closely tied to genetics and femininity. Women were viewed as “naturally” domestic, and any woman who deviated from this “inherent trait” was seen as less feminine. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters jump to Minnie’s defense because they understand the hard work that goes into keeping a home, and the pressure that men and society at large places on women as homemakers.

"difference between criminals and non-criminals..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Martha Hale’s description of Mrs. Peters in this passage highlights the power differences between Mrs. Peters and her husband. Mrs. Peters is “small and thin” and does not have “a strong voice.” But the sheriff is characterized as “heavy” with a “big-voice” and a disposition that made it “plain that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals.” The sheriff’s large stature and big personality completely overshadow Mrs. Peters, emphasizing both his physical and metaphorical power over his wife.

"Don't keep folks waiting out here in the cold."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Notice that the first instance of direct dialogue that we get in the story is a command issued by a husband to his wife, establishing the theme of female subservience to men. Mr. Hale’s “impatient” command also comes directly after emphasizing that, “[Mrs.Hale] dropped everything where it was,” immediately after the sheriff asked her to come along. Small details like this throughout the story will continue to underscore the way in which women were expected to be obedient to men.

"For that matter, a sheriff's wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?"..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Notice that the county attorney judges Mrs. Peters’ personality and disposition based on her marriage. Remember that at the beginning of this story, Mrs. Hale evaluated Mrs. Peters based on her individual features and decided that her small stature and weak voice made Mrs. Peters look like she was not a sheriff's wife. While Mrs. Hale can see Mrs. Peters as an individual, the male county attorney can only see her through her relationship to her husband.

" We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't—why do you and I understand? Why do we know—what we know this minute?"..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

In this statement Mrs. Hale recognizes the main theme of this story: these women are able to determine what happened because they experience a similar plight. These women are connected by their gender and the oppressive social situation in which they live. This experience allows these women to not only know what happened in the house but also exonerate Minnie. Their empathy for her situation acquits her crime.

""Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while!" she cried. "That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?"..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mrs. Hale feels guilty that she never went to Minnie’s house and kept her company. She asks why no one will punish her for neglecting her neighbor. This exclamation touches on the theme of social law vs. written law. These two women have a social obligation to Minnie because she is a woman who was abused by her husband. In Mrs. Hale’s mind, this obligation is much stronger than her obligation to the letter of the law.

"She threaded a needle and started to replace bad sewing with good...."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

To Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, the uneven stitches reveal Minnie’s deteriorating mental state. While they do not know why Minnie was so nervous, they do believe that this evidence of nervousness is potentially dangerous for Minnie. Thus, Mrs. Hale automatically takes to replacing the stitches and covering up this evidence. Ironically, because the men do not value women’s work or believe that these women are capable of detecting evidence, it is unlikely that they would find significance in the uneven stitches even if Mrs. Hale did not correct them.

"She hated to see things half done..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

This sentence emphasizes the sexism of this time, by revealing the social and domestic pressures that women faced. Women were expected to cook, clean, and carry out all of the various domestic tasks. The fact that Martha Hale is flustered at being asked to leave the home unkempt because she “hated to see things half done,” speaks to the way in which women internalize the social expectations of their time and setting.

""This is cherries, too."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

When Mrs. Peters goes to look at Minnie’s fruit, she finds that all of the jars have burst except for one. The tone of this discovery is somber. Unlike the county attorney and sheriff who laugh at the women for worrying over the fruit, the two women recognize the tragedy in ruined preserves. Mrs. Peters becomes slightly more optimistic that the jar that survived was full of “cherries” which not only suggests that this fruit is hard to preserve but also that these women know how much work goes into making preserves. Thus, the survival of the cherry preserves is a consolation for Minnie’s situation. Mrs. Peters’ recognition of this fact shows the camaraderie these women feel over their shared work.

""I'd hate to have men comin' into my kitchen," she said testily—"snoopin' round and criticizin'."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mrs. Hale’s comment touches on the theme of gender loyalty. The men believe that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale will present them with any clues they find in order to support the incrimination of Minnie. This comment makes it clear, however, that Mrs. Hale is personally offended that the county attorney would criticize Minnie’s kitchen. This reaction suggests that her alliance is with Minnie, not the men and the law, because Minnie is a fellow woman and farmer’s wife.

"The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. ..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Notice that in the face of the men’s misogyny, these women “move closer together.” Though they have little in common at the beginning of the story, this movement suggests that this type of oppression breeds female camaraderie.

""women are used to worrying over trifles."..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mr. Hale once again asserts the patriarchal perception that women’s work is insignificant and frivolous. The men fail to recognize that these so called “trifles” are the grueling work that sustain the farm household and keep the members of that household clothed and fed. The “superiority” with which Mr. Hale speaks these lines suggests that this opinion is socially reinforced by the same privileged position that allows him to say it.

""Oh—her fruit," she said, looking to Mrs. Hale for sympathetic understanding. ..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Mrs. Peters’ sympathetic response to the sticky mess in the cupboard sharply contrasts the county attorney’s disdain. Mrs. Peters looks to Mrs. Hale because the men do not seem to understand the tragedy in the woman’s broken jars. This look underscores the stark divide between the men and the women in the story. The male characters frequently bond by joking at the women’s expense, and the female characters band together as allies.

""Nothing here but kitchen things," he said, with a little laugh for the insignificance of kitchen things...."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

The sheriff and county attorney discount the importance of the kitchen in their murder investigation. In the patriarchal culture in which this story is set, the kitchen was solely the space of women. In laughing about the “insignificance of kitchen things,” the sheriff discounts women and all of the work they do on a daily basis. The careful reader will hear these words as condescending and dismissive.

"wanted another woman along..."   (A Jury of Her Peers)

Notice that the sheriff assumes that his wife is scared and makes this joke to Mrs. Hale. This assumption suggests that the sheriff never actually asked his wife why she would want another woman along at the house, choosing instead to mockingly speculate about her motives to others. This introduction to the sheriff and his wife underscores the male and female relationships that will be explored throughout the story.