Saturday, May 28, 2016

Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 28

            Although this story was published in 1917, it gained new attention after the rise in interest in issues of women's rights in university classes.  However, the story may also be worth studying for the manner in which it illustrates the basic elements of the reading process and the nature of the short story form.  The conventions Glaspell uses are from the detective story.  The crime has been committed prior to the beginning of the story; what is left to be done is to investigate and lay bare the mystery by revealing the perpetrator and the motive for the crime.  However, "A Jury of Her Peers" combines detective story conventions with courtroom drama conventions, for as the investigation proceeds, the "jury" examines the evidence and pronounces a judgment at the end.
            In order to understand the mystery that lies at the heart of the story--the motive for the particular way the crime has been committed--the investigators require two things:  a sympathetic understanding of the characters and situation and the ability to discover clues. It is clear that the men investigators do not have such an understanding, but that the women do.  The men go upstairs to investigate what they consider to be the "scene of the crime," while the women stay downstairs to take care of "trifles," which turn out to be clues.  A clue may be defined as a detail that is relevant, that "makes a difference" or that "means" something within the overall plot. 
            As the story proceeds, the women, based on their identification with the accused, discover details--the spilled sugar, the awkward stitches in the quilt, the empty bird cage--that they determine to be clues.  The men, on the other hand, think these are merely trifles.  This difference between meaningless details and meaningful ones is an important distinction for the short story form, especially in the twentieth century.  Since Chekhov and Joyce, the short story derives meaning from the transformation of seemingly trivial details into meaninful details because of the role they play in the contextual mystery of motivation.
            The quilt and the bird cage are the most telling clues, for the bird cage not only points to a specific motive for the way the husband was killed, but it is also a symbolic clue, that is, it is symbolically identified with the wife: "she was kind of like a bird herself."  The image of the bird in a cage, who has the life squeezed out of it by the brutality of the man, dictates, at least in terms of poetic justice, that the man must be killed the same way.  The quilt takes on a similar symbolic importance, for its many pieces from different points of Minnie's life make it a composite history.  It also refers to the process of determining clues and putting them together in meaningful ways;  as the county attorney says, "let's go upstairs again and go over it, piece by piece."   
            The attorney makes the problem explicitly clear near the end of the story.  "If there was some definite thing--something to show.  Something to make a story about.  A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it."  And this indeed is the problem the reader always faces--how to look at all the details, determine which are relevant and which are not, and then rearrange them in a new meaningful way so that the motive for the mystery can be laid bare. 
            A tight, well-done film version of this story was produced and directed by Sally Heckel in 1980.  The film opens with still shots of the exterior of the house which look like oil paintings of the bleak landscape.  After the body is discovered, as is usual in the detective convention, the investigation begins as the credits roll.  Interior shots are mostly dark as if to suggest not only the closed-in nature of the lives lived there, but also the mystery embodied inside the house.  Throughout the film, as the men condescend to the "ladies," the women begin to uncover the clues and the sheriff's wife, who at first is said to be "married to the law," gradually disassociates herself from the letter of the law to affirm its spirit.  The two women become co-conspirators in the crime, as well as a jury of the accused woman's peers, who, by hiding evidence, pronounce her innocent.

Tomorrow: Frank Stockton's "Lady or the Tig

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