Forward the Link

Share this page with friends! Please add your recipient's email address below.

Law-Abidingness

Reading: “A Jury of Her Peers” By Susan Glaspell

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Christopher DeMuth (Hudson Institute) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Debate the elementary civic virtue of law-abidingness and the appropriateness of civil disobedience through reading and comparing Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” and Abraham Lincoln’s “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions;”
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone;
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; and
  • Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Common Core State Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • RH.9-10.1, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.3, RH.9-10.5, RH.9-10.8, RH.11-12.1, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.4

English Language Arts: 

  • RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, RL.9-10.4, RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.3, RL.11-12.4, RL.11-12.5 

Writing Prompts | Based on Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • Do you approve of the women’s decision to withhold the evidence? If the person killed were a brother of yours, would your answer be different? After reading “A Jury of Her Peers,” write a narrative from the perspective of a friend or family member of the deceased Mr. Wright.(Narrative/Description; Task 27)
  • One commentator suggests that, in the story, the men—concentrating on the external deed and the visible evidence—are practitioners of human justice, whereas the women—seeing more deeply into the minds and hearts, and effectively practicing mercy and forgiveness—are practitioners of something more like divine justice (and mercy). Assuming that this description has some merit, do you think that it is good for human justice—the “law is the law”—and for the political community to be modified by the intrusion of elements of God’s justice (with its emphasis on mercy and forgiveness)? After reading “A Jury of Her Peers,” write an essay that compares human and divine justice, and argues for the suitability of one over the other in our legal system. Be sure to support your position with evidence from the text. (Argumentation/Comparison; Task 4)
  • Should the principle for jury selection be impartiality in judgment (the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee) or equality of discernible traits (choosing “peers” of the same sex, race, class as the accused)? After reading “A Jury of Her Peers” and the Sixth Amendment, write a position paper that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text. Be sure to acknowledge competing views. Give examples from past or current events or issues to illustrate and clarify your position. (Argumentation/Analysis; Task 2)

About the Author

Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist; a writer of short stories; and, for a short while, a journalist. She was born in Davenport, Iowa, attended Drake University in Des Moines, and worked for several years as a reporter at the Des Moines Daily News and other local newspapers, but she discovered early on that her interest was in writing fiction. Her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered (1909), became a national bestseller and drew a rave review in The New York Times. Subsequent novels in the early teens did almost as well.

In 1915, she was introduced to and fell in love with George Cram Cook, a wealthy, young rebel from Davenport. He came from a well-to-do background, but he was a philosophical radical, a leftist, and a sometime professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa and at Stanford University. Glaspell and Cook eventually moved to the East Coast, where they married and fell in with a set of avant-garde intellectuals. In 1915, they founded the Provincetown Players, a theater company located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which would have an important role in the history of the American theater. The company helped to launch the career of Eugene O’Neill, among others who went onto greater renown.

Glaspell also wrote plays for the Provincetown Players and became one of its most important actresses. Her 1931 play Alison’s House, based loosely on the life of Emily Dickinson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In her later years, in the 1940s, she returned to her Midwestern roots, living in Chicago and back in Davenport, but toward the end of that decade, she returned to Provincetown, where she died in 1948.

Although she was widely regarded during her lifetime, Glaspell is little read or performed today, with one major exception: “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917). It was adapted from her one-act play, “Trifles,” written and produced in Provincetown a year earlier. Set in the rural Midwest, it was inspired by an actual murder that took place in Iowa in 1900, which Glaspell had covered for the Des Moines Daily News. The short story was an immediate hit. It was anthologized in that year and in many, many years throughout her lifetime. It was rediscovered in the 1970s by the feminist movement and has become a staple of women’s studies courses in colleges and universities in recent decades. In 1980, it was made into a movie and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dramatic Live-Action Short.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

Although the issues it raises are complex, the gist of the story is simple: Law enforcement officials and a key witness, joined by the wives of the sheriff and the witness, search the domestic scene of a crime, seeking clues to why the woman of the house might have murdered her husband. A farmer, John Wright, had been found—by a visiting neighbor, Mr. Hale—strangled to death by a rope in his bed. His wife, Minnie (née Minnie Foster), has been arrested, jailed, and accused of the murder. The story takes place the next day, when Sheriff Peters and the county attorney (Mr. Henderson), accompanied by Mr. Hale, visit the Wright house, seeking evidence that might convict the accused. Martha Hale, Mr. Hale’s wife, is summoned by Sheriff Peters to accompany his own wife as she gathers some things from the house to bring to Mrs. Wright in jail. The two women, formerly unfamiliar to each other, spend their time downstairs, looking through “kitchen things” and the like—dismissed by the men as mere “trifles”—while the “real” investigators search the bedroom upstairs and the outside barn. The men come up empty. The women do not. More penetrating in their vision, they piece together the sort of married life Mrs. Wright had lived. And, following up on a series of clues—including unfinished work in the kitchen; some crooked stitching on the quilt she had been sewing; a broken door hinge on an empty bird cage; and, finally, the corpse of a strangled canary—they also reconstruct Minnie Wright’s motive. In silent collusion, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters choose not to disclose the clues that reveal the motive, thereby constituting themselves as a jury and tacitly acquitting Minnie of any wrongdoing.


Section Overview

To better appreciate what Susan Glaspell is doing in her tale, it is helpful to know about the true story that inspired it. On December 2, 1900, John Hossack, a well-regarded farmer, was murdered with an axe while sleeping in bed with his wife, Margaret Hossack. Convicted of the murder, Mrs. Hossack was sentenced to life in prison. But on appeal a year later, she was released for lack of sufficient evidence. The mystery of John Hossack’s death was never solved. Transforming the real case into fiction, Glaspell takes the liberty of supplying the missing evidence and motive, as a result of which the characters, the crime, the search for the evidence, and the judgment rendered appear in a very different light.

More important, the fictional story—with its provocative title—raises large questions about law and justice and about judgment and punishment, questions very much alive today. It also raises questions about the role of gender in relation to law and justice: when the Iowa crime was committed, and even when the story was published, women in Iowa were not yet allowed to vote or serve on juries. For this reason, some people treat Glaspell’s story largely as a political protest on behalf of women’s rights. But in the story itself, the gender issues are much richer and subtler.


A. The Characters and the Setting
  1. From what they say and do, describe each of the characters: Mr. Hale (3), Sheriff Peters (3), County Attorney Henderson (3), Mrs. Hale (1), Mrs. Peters (2), Mrs. Wright (5), and Mr. Wright (6). What do we know about them?
  2. Look at the places in the story where Mrs. Hale refers to Mrs. Wright by her maiden name, Minnie Foster. Why might Mrs. Hale do so? What effect does it have on her? On the reader?
  3. Describe the Wright house (5), both physically and as a place to live. What is life like in this house? In this time and place? In this community?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is life like in this time and place?

B. The Crime
  1. What (and who) is responsible for the death of Mr. Wright? How do you know? (For evidence, look especially at page 6 for the context of Mr. Wright’s death, and pages 19–20 for a discussion of the birdcage.)
  2. Why was he killed? (See especially pages 19–22.)
  3. Mrs. Hale, in response to Mrs. Peters’s assertion that “the law has got to punish crime,” answers, “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang”; she then adds, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! . . . That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?” (23). Is Mrs. Hale guilty of a crime? Why does she think she is? Does she deserve punishment?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What (and who) is responsible for the death of Mr. Wright?

C. Men and Women, and the Search for Evidence
  1. The men and the women in the story have decidedly different outlooks, sympathies, and insights, and perhaps even different views of justice. Carefully describe those differences. With which group do you most sympathize, and why? (Before answering the question, try to make a positive case for each group.)
  2. What enables the women to discover the motive for murder (23)? Why do the men in the story overlook it?
  3. Why do the women withhold the evidence that would have supplied the motive (24–25)? Are they knowingly rendering a verdict of “not guilty”? Or are they forgiving her for the murder?
  4. Do you approve of their decision? What would you have done in their place? Does your answer depend on your sex (or the sex of the accused)? On the historical time in which the crime took place? Or something else? If the person killed were a brother of yours, would your answer be different?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: Why are the women better able than the men to discover the motive for the murder?
Video Excerpt 4
WATCH: Why do the women withhold the evidence that would have supplied the motive?

D. Law, Judgment, and Justice

  1. Was justice done? To Mr. Wright? To Minnie Foster Wright? To the law?
  2. Who is fit to sit in judgment of Mrs. Wright?
  3. What is the meaning of the story’s title? Does it raise a question, or does it rather provide an answer about who is someone’s peer, fit to judge?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

The story raises questions less about the justice of the law and more about its proper enforcement, less about the obligation to obey it and more about how—and who is—to judge those who may have violated it. It is commonly thought that we are legally entitled to a trial by a jury of our peers (or “equals”). But the United States Constitution, in its Sixth Amendment, simply guarantees the right to “a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where the crime shall have been committed” (emphasis added). And the 14th Amendment to the Constitution adds only that no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (emphasis added). The notion of a “jury of one’s peers” has its origins in the Common Law; it can be traced back to the Magna Carta (1215), chapter 39 of which states that “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed . . . except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (emphasis added). (“Peers” in this context meant members of the same class. Notice, too, that “judgment of his peers” is not the same as our (right to) trial by jury: Judgment by one’s peers is not required if the person has clearly violated the law of the land.) In the United States in recent decades, there has been much controversy about jury selection and jury composition, and there have been famous cases of what is called “jury nullification,” where juries choose to ignore the weight of the evidence and reach a verdict in favor of a defendant for whom they have greater sympathy. With this background, consider the following questions.


A. Civic Obligation and Law Enforcement

For these questions, consider the story in conjunction with Abraham Lincoln’s “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

  1. What are the obligations of sworn jurors—or any other citizen—to the enforcement of the law? What is the relationship between the “letter” of the law and its “spirit”? Can—or should—the law’s “letter” be applied fully in every case? If not, how—and who—determines this?
  2. When, if ever, may one be forgiven or even praised for taking the law into one’s own hands?
  3. When, if ever, is it permissible to withhold evidence? Would you want jurors in a trial for a crime committed against you to behave as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters did? Would you wish their reasons to govern the juries of your peers?
  4. In “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Abraham Lincoln traces the dangerous effects of Americans’ slide into lawlessness and urges Americans to “reverence” all laws, even bad ones: “Bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they are in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.” How would Lincoln’s argument apply to the case of Minnie Foster? Do you agree? Defend your answer.

B. Understanding, Empathy, and Judgment

  1. To what extent do or should a suspect’s circumstances and motives excuse the commission of a crime? Of a crime as heinous as murder?
  2. What is the relevance, and what are the limits, of empathy and understanding when it comes to enforcing the law? Is it really true that to understand is to forgive?
  3. Some people think that empathy has no place in judging guilt or innocence, though it may properly enter in sentencing and determining punishment. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  4. One commentator suggests that, in the story, the men—concentrating on the external deed and the visible evidence—are practitioners of human justice, whereas the women—seeing more deeply into minds and hearts, and effectively practicing mercy and forgiveness—are practitioners of something more like divine justice (and mercy). Assuming that this description has some merit, do you think that it is good for human justice—“the law is the law”— to be influenced or modified by God’s justice (with its emphasis on mercy and forgiveness)? What might this imply for jury selection, or, even for the selection of judges?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: To what extent do or should a suspect’s circumstances and motives excuse the commission of a crime?

C. Who Should Judge?
  1. Who is our “peer,” fit to judge us?
  2. Do men and women—or people of different races, religions, and classes— have different standards of what is just or how to judge? If so, what should the law do about this? Is one or the other standard to be preferred? Which one, and why?
  3. Should the principle for jury selection be impartiality in judgment (the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee) or equality of discernible traits (choosing “peers” of the same sex, race, class as the accused?
  4. Is impartiality of juries impossible, and is its pursuit a fiction?
  5. Are you capable of an impartial weighing of the evidence and rendering of judgment? How would you have ruled if you were on Minnie Foster Wright’s jury (assuming the women did not withhold the evidence they found)? Would that decision be truly impartial? Do you think most people would rule the same way as you? If not, why not?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What is the meaning of the story’s title?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

ONLINE DISCUSSION

No Discussions Posted

Post a Comment

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *