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juryTatiana's essay, written for English 12, gives a thorough examination of the Susan Glaspell story, "A Jury of Her Peers."

The Suggestive Mystery
by Tatiana

Mystery! Hearts of many readers will leap with a thrill of anticipation: mystery books promise a tangled web of intrigue and exciting enigmas. Why, however, do we return to some mysteries again and again perfectly well knowing who a murderer is? A reason, evidently, is that a good mystery furnishes the readers with not only a fascinating plot but also a keen observation of life; it entertains the readers additionally providing them with a deep penetration into the secrets of human nature and human relationships. The story “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell represents such a good example of a harmonious combination of a mysterious content and examination of the human characters and behaviour.

The author delivers her crime story from the limited omniscient point of view: we perceive the events of the story through the eyes and thoughts of sympathetic to a murderer and, simultaneously, perceptive and capable of independent conclusions, Mrs. Hale, its protagonist. This “big farmer woman” appears on the crime scene by chance – to keep company for Mrs. Peters, a sheriff’s wife, but her obvious insight and common sense make her the main character of the story. Glaspell doesn’t maintain suspense in this story: from the very beginning we know that Mr. Wright was killed in his own house, and his wife is the only and the most probable suspect for the murder. The main purpose of the author is not to expose a murderer, but to explore the reasons for the crime, and the limited omniscient point of view allows her by means of the concerned person, Mrs. Hale, step by step to restore the whole picture of events preceding the crime. It enables us to make our opinion of Mrs. Wright - without seeing or hearing her – through the feelings, recollections, and conclusions of the protagonist. Virtually, Mrs. Hale is a friend of the presumed murderer hence she is not an objective person, but the aim of the author – and the title of the story proves it – to examine the tragedy in perspective of the “peers” of the murderer and, therefore, to offer the readers one of the possible opinions, and for this purpose the limited omniscient point of view is most suitable.

Glaspell uses a well-known in mysteries device: entrusting a solution of enigma to the attentive amateurs – Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters – whereas the shallow officials meet a defeat; in the meantime, they treat the women with such apparent condescension that it produces irony. “A motive” is what Sheriff Peters and a county attorney – the men with the “awful important things on their mind” – need “for their case.” The women’s careful attention to the “little things”: the kitchen table one half of which “was wiped clean, the other half messy,” a “large sewing basket” with the “quilt pieces,” and the bird-cage with a broken door permit them to perceive what had happened in this house and why. “Woman are used to worrying over trifles,” Mrs. Hale’s husband asserts “with good-natured superiority,” and the county attorney agrees with him, though expressing it in a more gallant form: ”And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?” He treats the women “tolerantly” and graciously “turning from serious things to little pleasantries” about the sewing basket where the women –as it is known for the readers – have found a key to the tragedy. The author constantly accentuates this contrast between the readers’ knowledge of significance of these “little things” to the crime and utter officials’ unawareness creating the irony that makes the story more amusing.

"Trifles,” Glaspell had titled her one-act play, which became the basis of the story, thereby emphasizing its ironical and entertaining content; for the story, however, she changes the title into “A Jury of Her Peers”, and it stresses the moral aspects of the story and its main conflicts. The first, most obvious, conflict is the personal conflict between Mr. Wright and his wife. “Minnie Foster,” Martha Hale continues to name her friend, “though for twenty years she had been Mrs. Wright.” This detail gives the readers an impression that Mrs. Hale condemns this marriage and counts it unhappy. The descriptions of a place where the tragedy occurred enhance this impression: it is a very “lonesome” place; “it had always been a lonesome-looking place” for Mrs. Hale. This feeling recurs to her so persistently that it gains a symbolical meaning: we associate this “lonesome” place with the lonely person dwelling here, Mrs. Wright. “I don’t think a place would be any cheerful for John Wright’s bein’ in it,” the protagonist clears up her feeling. She completely dislikes this “hard man,” but she is full of compassion for the former town girl “singing in the choir.” Seemingly, it was not a happy home indeed: without “any children around,” with dirty towels, and “a bad stove” with a broken lining. This personal conflict between the spouses, which matures for many years, was resolved in the most devastating way after the startlingly inexplicable and cruel killing of Mrs. Wright’s bird by her husband.

The second conflict of the story is an inner conflict of Mrs. Peters, “married to the law.” This “small and thin” woman is the sheriff’s wife who “was to take in some clothes” for Mrs. Wright. She is absolutely indifferent to the crime and Mrs. Wright: “She doesn’t care,” the protagonist decides about her. Mrs. Peters surely knows that “the law is the law” and “the law has got to punish crime,” and merely a thought about the matter of the crime (“Do you think she – did it?” Mrs. Hale asks her) evokes “a frightened look.” However, as she realizes the circumstances of the tragedy and begins to understand the other woman – Mrs. Wright – she feels pity for the murderer. She still attempts “to put up a barrier” between herself and Mrs. Hale who tries to arouse in her compassion for Mrs. Wright, but, unwillingly, she becomes sympathetic to her. Eventually, after the women, with “growing horror,” have made their gruesome revelation about the murder, Mrs. Peters has to decide: to conceal “the thing that would make certain the conviction of the other woman” or to display it. “And then she did it” – she hides the dangerous evidence against Mrs. Wright, and her inner conflict was thereby resolved.

But this conflict is more than a temporary problem of choice for Mrs. Peters; it is reflection of her inner evolution, and the resolution of this conflict reveals a change of her character. Glaspell depicts her as a developing character in this story. Indeed, at the beginning of the story we see a woman with not a strong voice, who speaks “a little helplessly”, in “her thin, indecisive way” and has “her manner of timid acquiescence.” Seemingly, she does not have a habit to express her opinion, completely relying on her husband (or others) and admitting his (or their) superiority. But she is not a frivolous person; conversely, the author portrays her as an intelligent woman: she has “that shrinking manner,” but her eyes look “as if they could see a long way into things,” and further – “her eyes had that look of peering into something.” In fact, it was she who found “one piece of crazy sewing” – an evidence of “anger – or sudden feeling” of the suspect. It is Mrs. Peters “examining the bird-cage” discovers a broken door that helps to illuminate the reason for the crime. The tragedy of Mrs. Wright evokes complex feelings in her: “It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.” This emotional shock at penetration into the other woman’s life compels her to perceive herself as an independent personality: afterwards, she not only “dares” to make her own decision concerning the crime, but also take the action that obviously would not be approved by her husband. It becomes the first step from her habitual “timid” serenity to self-determination. Thus, her decision to conceal the evidence against Mrs. Wright reveals a subtle, painful, but important alteration of her character.

Glaspell’s story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” has all features of an entertaining crime story: the murder, the mystery, and the shallow officials who make the story amusingly ironical and permit the readers to feel their own superiority, but, additionally, it examines behaviour of the “timid” woman under the extreme circumstances and some tragic case of domestic relationship. This short story cannot pretend to a profound examination of human nature; nevertheless, entertaining, it gives the readers nourishment for reflection.

(May 21, 2006)

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