The problem of gender inequality has affected the relationships within society extensively, shaping people’s perceptions of themselves and the extent of their potential significantly. As a force that has caused multiple women to suffer injustice, gender inequality has been the center of numerous discussions and inspirations for artistic interpretations, literature not being an exception. One of the landmark stories on the problem of social injustice suffered by women, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” introduces a unique yet relatable perspective on the problem. Supporting the theme of the urgency for women’s liberation, the symbolism in the “Jury of Her Peers” incorporates the elements pointing to the loss of freedom and agency (Gomes 59). These include the birdcage, the jar of fruit, and the abandonment of hope implied by the dead bird, with the possibility of an eventual resolution implied by the box hidden from the sheriff.
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The short story is rife with symbols, portraying the hardships that Minnie, the lead character, has been suffering. As the investigation incited by the three women continues, the details that are seemingly irrelevant yet profoundly meaningful on second consideration are revealed, leading to the creation of powerful symbols of oppression and fight against it. Several key types of symbols can be distilled in the short story, yet all of them serve the purpose of outlining the challenges of surviving the suffocating nature of Minnie’s relationships with her late husband.
Birds as a symbol of the desired freedom and the constraints that Minnie has been experiencing in attaining it appear throughout the short story. Firstly, a missing bird is mentioned, creating a symbolic representation of the much-yearned freedom that Minnie lacks. One of the women remarks, “Seems kind of funny to think of a bird here,” which is symbolic of the suffocating environment of Minnie’s house, where s is not allowed even a modicum of freedom, thus, rendering the house impossible to inhabit (Glaspell 7). Therefore, the image of a bird appears rather early in the story, setting the premise for the main suspect’s backstory.
The presence of a birdcage completes the metaphor, creating a symbolic idea of a prison, both physical, since Minnie is tethered to her house under the control of her husband, and metaphorical, representing the shackles of the patriarchy. Mentioned quite early in the story, the birdcage is depicted as a barrier that needs to be challenged yet represents a force to be reckoned with: “’Look at this door,’ she said slowly. ‘It’s broke. One hinge has been pulled apart’” (Glaspell 7). Thus, the symbol of a bird in a cage is complete, creating a rather simple yet powerful metaphor for the crushing power of patriarchy. Finally, the bird as a symbol for the yearned freedom and the lack thereof appears at the end of the short story, when the missing bird is eventually discovered dead. Serving as the metaphor for the loss of hopes and agency of Minnie, the dead bird serves as a somber yet effective warning to continue fighting for women’s liberation against patriarchy.
While the symbol of a bird remains the leitmotif of the short story, other symbolic elements scattered across the narrative also serve an important function of reinforcing the main idea. For example, the broken stove in Milly’s kitchen can be seen as the representation of her unhappy marriage: “The law is the law–and a bad stove is a bad stove. How’d you like to cook on this?” (Glaspell 6). The stove is mentioned in the narrative quite often, sometimes without any qualifiers and simply being referred to in a passing manner as an item of furniture: “There was a laugh for the ways of women, a warming of hands over the stove” (Glaspell 6).
However, whenever the stove is mentioned, it serves a functional purpose of emphasizing the characters’ dynamics and relationships (Carpentier and Jouve 198). For instance, it is brought up during an important decision-making point in the story: “The sheriff’s wife had looked from the stove to the sink—to the pail of water which had been carried in from outside” (Glaspell 6). Thus, serving as the barrier between the sheriff’s wife and the rest of the world, the stove represented a metaphorical barrier between the cage of the household roles that women in “A Jury of Her Peers” cannot escape and alluring yet unachievable freedom.
Another subtle symbol used in the short story to convey the desperate situation of women is the telephone – or, to be more accurate, the absence thereof in Minnie’s house. The specified detail is mentioned in the short story briefly, yet it serves as a crucial point in understanding the nature of Minnie’s misery and suffering: “I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone; and at that she started to laugh, and then she stopped and looked at me – scared” (Glaspell 3). The fact that Minnie’s house had no telephone in it not only set it apart from the other houses in the neighborhood, but also conveyed the sinister nature of the relationships between Minnie and her husband. Specifically, the absence of a telephone indicated that Minnie was mostly disconnected from the community, particularly, her friends, and was largely influenced by her husband. In turn, given the distorted nature of these relationships demonstrated with the help of the birdcage symbolism mentioned above, the absence of the telephone in Minnie’s household starts looking especially sinister.
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Finally, when considering the symbols used in “A Jury of Her Peers,” one should also examine some of the abstract concepts that Glaspell injects into the narrative. For example, the concept of trifles, though being mentioned in the short story only once, leaves an immediate impression dude to the context in which it was used: “Women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell 4). By trivializing the concerns of women and belittling their emotional needs, the specified sentiment voiced by one of the male characters defines the core problem that Glaspell seeks to oppose in her short story, specifically, that one of the false sense of male superiority that the social status quo imposes on women. Therefore, while being mentioned only briefly, the concept of trifles becomes a powerful symbol in “A Jury of Her Peers.”
Addressing the problem of gender inequality through the power of symbolism, “A Jury of Her Peers” becomes infused with rich metaphors and thought-provoking symbolism. While often being quite covert, these symbolic elements point to the issue of inequality directly, demanding change. Thus, with its symbolism and a compelling message, the short story remains one of the essential statements in the plight for equal rights for women.
Carpentier, Martha C., and Emeline Jouve, eds. On Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and” A Jury of Her Peers”: Centennial Essays, Interviews and Adaptations. McFarland, 2015.
Glaspell, Susan Cook. A Jury of Her Peers. The Crowell Publishing Company, 1917.
Gomes, Elisabete Pinto. “Between the Theatre and the Classroom: From Trifles to A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell.” e-Teals: An e-Journal of Teacher Education and Applied Language Studies, vol. 3, 2018, pp. 57-75.