Martha Hale, the protagonist of Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” is a farmwife who must confront a painful failure of responsibility to a girlhood friend. Mrs. Hale’s reactions and choices, as she grasps what her friend Minnie has done, draw attention to the story’s gender dynamics, suggesting that certain biases prevent the story’s male characters from seeing a truth that Mrs. Hale cannot ignore.

As the story begins, Mrs. Hale is called away from her chores to go to the home of an accused murderer in the novel’s inciting incident. The party arrives at John and Minnie Wright’s farmhouse, and Mrs. Hale finds that she doesn’t want to step across the threshold. She knows that as Minnie’s friend, she should have done so long ago. She feels guilty for having failed as a friend, a result of her distaste for her friend’s abusive husband.

As the rising action unfolds, it is clear that what the men see in Minnie’s kitchen as they investigate the crime scene differs from what the women see. Martha Hale is the only person who really knows Minnie, though the women have fallen out of touch. Now, standing in the kitchen, Mrs. Hale regrets the excuses that kept her away. Minnie had been a lively, pretty girl, but she disappeared from town life into a childless, loveless marriage to a cheap, sullen man. Both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters see signs of neglect in the kitchen furnishings, which are worn out, broken, and ramshackle. The men take in these details and blame Minnie for lacking the “home-making instinct,” but Mrs. Hale recognizes that the difficult work of a farmer’s wife would have been a struggle in such a kitchen. She is especially dismayed by the decrepit stove, the center of kitchen life, and imagines Minnie having to “wrestle” with it year in and year out. Again, guilt washes over her for having abandoned Minnie.

As the men investigate the bedroom, the women busy themselves in the kitchen, wondering what interrupted Minnie’s chores. Gradually, they come to understand her lonely life. Her clothes are old, drab, and much-mended, unlike the colorful clothes she wore when younger, back when she sang in the town choir. Her house is dreary and quiet. Yet the women also see that Minnie has carried on, canning fruit and working on a quilt—typical but demanding housework. As the women inspect the quilt pieces, they admire Minnie’s stitchery but note that it goes awry on one piece. Martha Hale, still stinging with remorse, sits down to fix the stitches, sensing that the poor sewing suggests that something went terribly wrong as Minnie sewed the piece. The men, passing through, mock the women’s discussion about whether Minnie had planned to quilt or knot the layers of the new coverlet.

Then the women notice the birdcage with the broken door. They muse on why Minnie had a bird, where it might be now, and what happened to the cage. Again, but this time aloud, Mrs. Hale regrets that she stayed away, leaving Minnie alone with John, a man like “a raw wind that gets to the bone.”

When the women decide to take Minnie’s sewing basket to her, they make the discovery that serves as the story’s climax: the canary, its neck wrenched, now wrapped in silk, has been placed in a pretty box. Neither woman will say what both understand: Minnie killed her husband because he killed her bird, the only living thing that kept her company and gave her joy. Mrs. Hale blames John but bursts out in grief at her own “crime,” having “lived neighbor” to Minnie for years but having “let her die for lack of life.” 

The story’s falling action poses the question of what the women will do with the clue that provides the motive Mr. Henderson seeks. He and Mr. Peters have laughed off the “kitchen things” that speak so eloquently to the women; ironically, the authorities, viewing the scene through masculine eyes, miss every clue that tells the tale of what happened. But the bird is another matter. John’s manner of death clearly echoes the bird’s destruction. For Mrs. Hale, whose remorse about the past is deep, there is no question. She failed Minnie for twenty years, but she will protect her now. Mrs. Peters wavers until Mr. Henderson declares that she is “married to the law.”

As the conflict reaches its resolution, the women silently conspire to hide the bird. Although she is abetting a murderer, Mrs. Hale is resolute as she says that Minnie planned to “knot” the quilt. To the story’s final line, the men continue to misread the women’s world. They assume that Mrs. Hale means her words literally, and she does. But they miss the symbolic meaning of the phrase “knot it”: Minnie tied the knot around her cruel husband’s neck, and Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have tacitly agreed that Minnie’s action is both acceptable and reasonable.

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