The use of Symbolism in "A Jury of Her Peers."
Susan Glaspell's short story, A Jury of Her Peers, was written long before the
modern women's movement began, yet her story reveals, through Glaspell's use of symbolism, the role that women are expected to play in society. Glaspell illustrates how this highly stereotypical role can create oppression for women and also bring harm to men as well.
Character names are very important in A Jury of her Peers. The two characters, John and Minnie Wright, are the focus of the story. The name Minnie has significant symbolism. Minnie is derived from mini or minimized, which was very descriptive of her oppressed relationship with John and also the male insensitivity toward most women in society. Women taking their husband's last names is also very significant in the story. The women in the story are not given first names, and are referred to only as Mrs.Hale and Mrs.Peters. The role that society has cast upon them is defined by their husbands. Mrs. Peters, who is married to the sheriff, is viewed in those terms. Mr. Peter, the county attorney, says "for that matter a sheriff's wife is married to the law"(glaspell 168). She reinforces that identity until she is faced with the brutality of what John Wright did to Minnie. She says "I know what stillness is. The law has got to punish Crime, Mrs. Hale"(glaspell 167). The difference is she is talking about the crime committed against Minnie, not the murder of John by Minnie.
The Rocking chair is another important symbol in the story. The chair symbolizes the absent Minnie Wright. The rocking chair "was dingy, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side"(glaspell 157), which was not anything like Mrs.Hale used to remember it being. Mrs. Hale also speaks of Minnie Foster, Foster being her maiden name, "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"(glaspell 167). Mrs. Hale then says "how-she- did-change"(165). The rocking chair had depreciated over the years just like Minnie Foster, but Minnie Foster's change was due to John's abuse which denied her individuality and imprisoned her in a stereotype that was mentally debilitating. This ultimately led Minnie to kill John and escape the abuse.
Other significant symbols in the story are the bird and the birdcage. Mrs. Hale describes Minnie, before her marriage, as "kind of like a bird herself-real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery"(glaspell 165). The bird is caged just as Minnie is trapped in the abusive relationship with John. John figuratively strangles the life out of Minnie like he literally strangles the bird. When he kills the bird, he kills the last bit of Minnie and her spirit. Mrs.Hale and Mrs. Peters find Minnie's bird cage in the cupboard, but they don't realize the importance of it until they find the dead bird with its neck twisted to one side. The birdcage symbolizes Minnie's life. The bird and the birdcage is a private symbol which is also representative of the role women are forced into in society, the bird being women and the cage being men. Minnie then strangles the life out of John like he strangled the life out of her bird.
Another major symbol, which the educated lawmen considered a "trifle", is the quilt which Mrs.Hale and Mrs.Peters stumble across. Minnie had taken the scraps and put them into a nice neat quilt, but one square was haphazardly sewn. This befuddles the women for "It looks like she didn't know what she was about"(glaspell 163). This represented her life, for her life was neat on the outside, but inside was truly made of scraps. When John killed the bird, he destroyed the last bit of personality that Minnie held for herself. She was angry, confused, and literally "didn't know what she was about"(glaspell 163). The question that is asked is whether Minnie was going to "quilt or just knot it"(glaspell 163). This is the decision Minnie had to make. She either had to quilt it, meaning she had to endure the abuse, or she would knot it and decide that her life as it exists was "not it" and she would do something to change it.
The referral to the quilt as a trifle is very symbolic in the story. Mr. Hale says "Women are used to worrying over trifles"(glaspell 159). This is very symbolic and ironic. A trifle is something that is small and of no consequence. This is a reflection of how the men in the story, and society in general viewed and treated the women. This is very ironic because while the men are looking for clues, the women discover the key to the mystery among what the men consider as only silly women's work, or trifles. The women rebel against their husbands, as they conspire to conceal the incriminating evidence that points to Minnie.
Glaspell effectively uses symbolism in the story to help convey the feminist theme. Through the use of symbols, she illustrates just how the self-destructive introspection of John had slowly overwhelmed the youthful vivacity of his wife. The symbolisms paint not only a picture of Minnie's life, but also the lives of all women who live oppressed under male domination. The story is a warning to men that a system where men dominate and oppress women cannot and will not be tolerated.