"A Jury of Her Peers," by Susan Glaspell
This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about “A Jury of Her Peers.” After learning about the author, Susan Glaspell, read her story.
After discussing or thinking about the questions, click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Christopher DeMuth about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
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. Read more
About the Story
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. Read more
Thinking about the Story
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, one 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.
The Characters and the Setting
- From what they say and do, what do we know about each of the characters: Mr. Hale, Sheriff Peters, County Attorney Henderson, Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Wright, and Mr. Wright?
- Look at the places in the story where Mrs. Hale refers to Mrs. Wright by her maiden name, Minnie Foster. Why might she do so? What effect does it have on her? On the reader?
- Describe the Wright house, both physically and as a place to live. What is life like in this house? In this time and place? In this community?
- What (and who) is responsible for the death of Mr. Wright?
- Why was he killed?
- Mrs. Hale, in response to Mrs. Peters’ 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”; and 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?
Men and Women, and the Search for Evidence
- 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.)
- Why are the women better able than the men to discover the motive for the murder?
- Why do the women withhold the evidence that would have supplied the motive? Are they knowingly rendering a verdict of “not guilty”? Or are they forgiving her for the murder?
- Do you approve of their decision? What would you have done in their place? If the person killed were a brother of yours, would your answer be different?
Law, Judgment, and Justice
- Was justice done? To Mr. Wright? To Minnie Foster Wright? To the law?
- 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?
Thinking with the Story
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 Fourteenth 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 “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.
Civic Obligation and Law Enforcement
- 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”?
- When, if ever, may one be excused for taking the law into one’s own hands?
- 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?
Understanding, Empathy, and Judgment
- To what extent do or should a suspect’s circumstances and motives excuse the commission of a crime?
- Someone has said: “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?
Who Should Judge?
- Who is our “peer,” fit to judge us?
- 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? 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)?
- Is impartiality of juries impossible, and is its pursuit a fiction?
- 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? Would that decision be truly impartial? Do you think most people are like you? If not, why not?