Today I would like to comment on a story which I found anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison in 2000. It has been anthologized in other collections as well, I believe, though incredibly enough (considering that it was written at a time before women got the vote) it was first published in 1917 in a periodical called Every Week. It’s the short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” by Susan Glaspell. Though I’ve sort of hinted at the symbolic outcome in the title of my post, you will get a great deal more out of the experience of the story by actually reading it, regardless of anything I might write about it (it’s one of those “it helps to have been there” stories).
As we all know, justice is often (maybe even usually) a partial thing. Just think of how long media, public, and private debates about any but the most extremely obvious and egregious breaches of law or custom can go on. In this story, the topics dealt with are things such as community responsibility towards members (in the fellowship of women, for example, something almost forbidden by the tight fellowship of the male bonding in the story, which makes fun of the women’s ties); the manner in which surroundings can reveal a person’s life to an attentive viewer; and fellow feeling as the source of true justice.
The women in this story are two married women who go with their husbands (one the sheriff) and a third man (a prosecuting attorney) to view the scene of where, it is suspected, a woman killed her husband. At first, though one woman is more clearly open-minded and views things from her own ability to relate to other women, both of the women stand unresisting in their husbands’ shadows. Things begin to change, however, when the men go upstairs in the house of the murdered man to view the “scene of the crime” and the women stay downstairs by the fire, intending only to find and take some of the accused woman’s possessions to her where she waits in custody in the jailhouse. The women down below get a chance, instead, to view things which make it obvious how the woman bore up under her husband’s bad treatment: they see that she was isolated and alone (though not by choice), that she made do with unnecessarily shabby clothes and home goods, and that she was not only negligently but cruelly treated in a casual, despicable way by a man accounted a “good” man by his peers. Meanwhile, the men stay mostly in the top of the house, certain that their wives are the stereotypical “good” women (ones who provide for and abide by their husbands’ wills); when they do confront the women, their attitudes are sexist, condescending, and full of undeserved criticism of the accused woman (for not keeping a good clean house, for example, or for leaving things half done). Though the men have reached the correct answer (for we are fairly sure throughout the story that the woman is somehow responsible for her husband’s death), they have done so for the wrong reasons, and in an entirely wrong spirit.
It is the women who, with simple innocent curiosity are led to the truly correct answers regarding the murder, though they start by knowingly suppressing the details they are finding downstairs from the men; the men josh and joke them about what they are doing and handling, not for a moment seeing how it connects; and the more they discover, the more we are led to question the nature of evidence, and whether or not the women will reveal what they have “seen.”
As with every jury, some of the members start on one side, some on another, and at first the most timorous of the two women (the sheriff’s wife, whom the men joke about as “married to the law”) is Mrs. Peters. When she is finally and fully persuaded by Mrs. Hale of the injustice with which the accused woman was treated by her husband, even of the psychological brutality which has no outright link with physical punishment in the story, we read “It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.” These two women are the informal “jury” of the story: though Mrs. Wright, the accused woman, was to a degree less fortunate than they, that they truly are “a jury of her peers” is born out by the way in which they both quickly reach the same conclusions from the same evidence and comparison of it with what they know of their own lives.
The climax of the story comes when the men arrive back downstairs, fully convinced that they have seen “the scene of the crime” (while the women whom they laugh at and condescend to have been viewing downstairs the “scene” of another “crime” entirely). They say in the women’s hearing that what they actually need is a motive, something which would explain the woman’s actions. What will the women do? All they have to do is surpress their knowledge of the other “story” they have pieced together (just as the woman who was arrested was said to be “piecing together” a quilt, an important symbol in the story): should they live within the foolish, silent limitation their husbands have set for them? Or, perhaps, they can speak to the men about what they know (which the shy, quiet Mrs. Peters would certainly prefer). Does Mrs. Hale (as in “hale and hearty”) persuade Mrs. Peters, or does Mrs. Peters lead Mrs. Hale to give way? There’s no assurance for them either way that their actions will make any difference to the outcome. And yet, there’s the story they now share between them. Man or woman, become a part of their community, and read the story. Though I’ve done a lot of hinting about how things proceed, it’s always better and more rewarding to see for yourself!