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Psychological Lenses in Glapell's "A Jury Of Her Peers"

Updated on March 9, 2018

Everyone Sees The World Through Their Own “Lens”

Each person sees the world through the lens of their own experiences, their past, and their beliefs. Similarly, there are many different viewpoints from which to approach a piece of literature. These standpoints are typically known as critical literary lenses. One such lens is the Psychological Character’s Lens. This lens focuses on how a character’s past – things like experiences, behavior, and beliefs- has influenced their actions. Susan Glaspell’s heart-wrenching story “A Jury of Her Peers” has been the subject of much debate among literary critics. One topic of contemplation is the psychological reasons behind why Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters “judged” Mrs. Wright in the way they did.

Susan Glaspell
Susan Glaspell | Source

Who Was Susan Glaspell?

Susan Glaspell was a female American novelist and play writer. Born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1876, she attended Drake University which she graduated from in 1899. During college, she wrote and published some pieces, as well as working for a local newspaper. Starting in 1901, some of her pieces began to be published in magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, the American, and Harper’s. During this time, she had returned to Davenport to focus on her writing. Between 1909-1915, Glaspell traveled to various places, wrote and published some of her work. In 1913 Glaspell married a friend, George Cram Cook, who was from a wealthy Davenport family. In 1915 Glaspell and her husband created an amateur theatre group comprised of local artists at their summer home in Provincetown, Cape Cod. The group would eventually become known as the Provincetown Players. For the group, Glaspell wrote many one-act plays. While living in Greece in 1924, Cook passed away. Glaspell moved to New York where she continued to write and publish her work. Susan Glaspell passed away on July 27, 1948 in Provincetown, Massachusetts (Britannica).

The History Behind Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”

During the period of time that Glaspell covered stories for newspapers, Glaspell encountered a court case that influenced her writing of “A Jury of Her Peers” and the play “Trifles.” While reporting for the Des Moines Daily, in Indianola Iowa, on December 2, 1900, farmer John Hossack was found murdered. His wife was suspected of murder, but eventually released due to inconclusive evidence. Some similarities that the story and actual court case share is that both Mrs. Hossack and Mrs. Wright deny having even seen the murder, and the sheriff’s wife expressed sympathy for Mrs. Hossack, much like Mrs. Peter’s does in “A Jury of Her Peers.” (“A Jury”).

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Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter's Experiences Lead Them to Sympathize With Minnie Wright

The psychology of why we as humans do things is usually complicated. For Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, the reason why they find Mrs. Wright guilty of murdering Mr. Wright can be attributed to their past and shared experiences. Lisa Ortiz speaks of this in her literary article: “An Essay on “A Jury of Her Peers”” when she writes that people are: “…subjects of their particular environments, their identities are constructed by the times, geography, gender, age, and any number of things that make them who they are. People's actions, thoughts, and feelings are informed by all these circumstances,” and: “This subjectivity is the root of an individual's epistemology, or the way they know what they know” (Ortiz). Ortiz uses this information, this epistemology, as she words it, to make the point that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s are better able to sympathize with and understand what happened to Minnie Wright because of this epistemology, - while their husbands are not (Ortiz).


Both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters regarded and are able to sympathize with Mrs. Wright via the lens of their own experiences: “Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters, and Minnie Wright all share a certain female subjectivity as wives of farmers. They live in the same town and have very similar lives, therefore knowing themselves is similar to knowing one another. It is this shared understanding of their lives that allows Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to reconstruct a picture of what Minnie's life might have been like” (Ortiz). Other similarities that Ortiz notes are that Mrs. Peters, through an experience of having her kitten killed with an ax, sympathizes with Minnie’s violent act against her husband. Through the remembrance of having a child pass away, Mrs. Peter’s has compassion for Minnie’s feelings of being left alone all the time. Mrs. Hale chimes in on this feeling of loneliness when she images what it would have been like to have the songbird gone (Ortiz). Something interesting I noticed was all three women seem to have a shared experience of being looked down upon, and treated as inferior, by the men in their lives. This could be another point of similarity.


These similarities are the psychological reason Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters finally come to the conclusion of who murdered Mr. Wright: “Although they find her guilty of the crime of murder, they justify the crime through a female solidarity built on the knowledge that women suffer from crimes of loneliness, abuse, and neglect not recognized by the American legal system” (Ortiz).

But Maybe Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s Project Themselves Onto Minnie Wright

In her piece titled "Rethinking Literature's Lessons for the Law: Susan Glaspell's 'A Jury of Her Peers,’” Dawn Keetley goes over the important way(s) in which Glaspell’s piece has influenced the law – specifically laws pertaining to women and abusers – as well as critics opinions on this. Keetley points out that most critics read the story as one of a battered woman who struck back in desperation – that Minnie Wright is not to be blamed (Keetley).


Using other sources to argue the point, Keetley says that: “The women arrive at these truths by coming to an understanding of what they share with Minnie and by caring about her. They arrive at the truth, in other words, through a process of sympathetic identification” (Keetley). The women look for the things they have in common – so that they can then relate to Mrs. Wright. But, here, Keeltey then diverts from the traditional view, instead arguing against taking what Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters say as fact, like most critics, and instead focuses on why they do this (Keetley). Keetley writes that: “…Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters create rather than find the "truth" that critics also find in this story. Also ignored are the ways in which Martha Hale's and Mrs. Peters' invention of a palatable truth about Minnie Wright's crime is made possible by their ignoring of her tangible, possibly unsympathetic presence” (Keetley).


Keetley points out that Minnie never physically appears in the story – that everything the reader grasps about her comes through the lenses of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters (Keetley). And that, in fact, they seem to replace Mrs. Wright with Minnie Foster: “In sum, as Martha pieces together her interpretation of the crime, she tends to replace the older Minnie Wright (and we have few to no clues as to what she is like) with the young Minnie Foster of twenty years ago” (Keetley). This seems like an interesting point to ponder. If everything we know about Minnie Wright comes from the sole perspectives of two characters – what would lead them to this conclusion?


Keetley argues both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s want to make sense of the horrible tragedy that has taken place – they are trying to justify her actions: “…Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters struggle to come to some truth about an absent Minnie Wright, and how in the process they shape only one story about her, a story made mostly out of their own experiences projected outward” (Keetley). We all, as humans, look for the why. Why am I here? Why did this happen to me/a loved one? In searching for the why, we oftentimes project ourselves into the answer. This is what Keetley is saying – that, instead of looking objectively at the situation, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters look subjectively (Keetley). The fact of the matter is that neither women actually knew Minnie Wright, they simply project themselves onto her. I think Keetley is saying that they do this in order to find a meaning to the horrible tragedy – not necessarily to find the truth.


The constructed view of Minnie Wright, as Dawn Keetley discusses, – the projections that Martha Hale and Mrs. Peter’s put on her – and the presumed truth most readers retain – that Minnie killed out of retaliation and or self-defense for abuse - may be wrong (Keetley). Keetley suggests that the women could have been “inventing” the truth of the murder – that maybe Mrs. Wright did murder her husband out of a cold heart, not self-defense: “Could it be that neither woman wants to imagine a Minnie Wright who was upset by what her husband did, the years of deprivation followed by his killing her canary, but who then killed her husband calmly, matter-of-factly, and without agitation or remorse?” (Keetley). While given Keetley’s arguments in her essay, this seems like a valid point, it’s not one I agree with. To me, it seems that the women did have some shared experiences with Mrs. Wright which leads them to a valid conclusion.

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Minnie Wright Doesn’t Reach Out For Help

Something I find rather interesting is that Minnie never bothered to reach out to others. She could have visited neighbors and asked for help. This could be a sign of the times, and it could also be a result of past experience – Mrs. Hale never bothered to visit or befriend Minnie in the past. Minnie might have felt like an outcast, or unwanted, because of this. This leads to the question of why Mrs. Hale never visited - because, from past experience, she found she didn't like Mr. Wright's company. This is sort of ironic - that both women let past experiences they've had restrict them from helping each other.

Conclusion

In conclusion then, when looking at a piece of literature, the Psychological Characters lens can provide an interesting, and sometimes over-looked, point of view. The reason people do things is not always black and white, and there can be many interpretations, as with Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” As Dawn Keetley points out, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s seem to be projecting their own feelings and experiences onto an absent Minnie Wright. Their underlying reason for this could be that they want an explanation to a horrific tragedy (Keetley). On the flip side, as Lisa Ortiz points out, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s really did have shared experiences with Minnie Wright, therefore their conclusion is valid (Ortiz). I think that it’s a combination of both. I do believe that all three women had legitimate shared experiences – which would lead Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to their conclusion. However, I do think they wanted to make sense of the tragedy. At the end of the story, neither women seem interested in going to speak with Minnie Wright, which would have been a valid step to take. Susan Glaspell’s thought-provoking piece, “A Jury of Her Peers,” portrays the intricate web of truth verses projected assumptions.

Works Cited:

“A Jury of Her Peers.” Short Stories for Students, Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jury-her-peers. Accessed 3 Mar. 2018.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Susan Glaspell.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 22 Feb. 2013, www.britannica.com/biography/Susan-Glaspell.

Keetley, Dawn. "Rethinking Literature's Lessons for the Law: Susan Glaspell's 'A Jury of Her Peers.'." Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 132, Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420098065/LitRC?u=mlin_s_masscomm&sid=LitRC&xid=b7ba981f. Accessed 3 Mar. 2018. Originally published in REAL, vol. 18, 2002, pp. 335-355.

Ortiz, Lisa. "An essay on “A Jury of Her Peers”." Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420004458/LitRC?u=mlin_s_masscomm&sid=LitRC&xid=fc4ca68d. Accessed 3 Mar. 2018.

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