Little Trifles Like Law and Order

Winter Elliott is an Associate Professor of English at Brenau University, an institution composed of an historic women’s college and a coeducational undergraduate college.  She teaches courses in composition and British lit, and enjoys the saucier side of literature — murder, mayhem, monsters, and the war between the sexes.


At first it seems like a clear cut case of right and wrong:  a husband is murdered in his sleep, strangled to death by a rope around his neck.  His wife, who appears all “done up” to the man who discovers the victim, pleats her apron and laughs crazily.  Her alibi, if it can be called that, is so asinine as to be ludicrous:  she didn’t wake up from a sound sleep while the deed was done, and in modern parlance, some other dude did it!


While the facts of the murder seem obvious, two decent, otherwise law-abiding housewives eventually decide to hide the evidence of the wife’s motive – and whether or not justice will be done is left unclear.  This murder mystery is the subject of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, which she renamed “A Jury of Her Peers,” when she published it a year later as a short story.  In some ways, the title of the short story better indicates Glaspell’s point.  Even the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not immediately give women the universal right to serve on juries.


Thus, Glaspell implies that the two housewives in the play or short story are more truly the “peers” of the murderer, Minnie Wright, than would be an all-male jury.   Consequently, as Mrs. Wright’s peers, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, uncover evidence of Minnie’s long-term abuse and decide to hide the strangled canary that both represents Minnie herself and provides evidence of her motive – she strangled her husband as both she and her pet had been, figuratively and literally, strangled by him.


A one-act play, simple in terms of plot, characterization, and symbolism, Trifles is a frequent inclusion in college literature anthologies and on syllabi of writing about literature courses.  In this context, my students encounter the ethical dilemma suggested by the play.  As students at a women’s college, one might expect, as one of my students herself put it, that all or most of the young women would immediately side with Minnie Wright and her female supporters in the play.  This is not the case.  Students who read Trifles for the first time usually position themselves alongside the male representatives of “law and order” in the play, the sheriff and country attorney.  Like these men, students first encountering the play don’t really care why Minnie Wright killed her husband; they perceive only a crime that must be punished – regardless of the status of either the victim or the murderer.

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The Experience of Democracy

photo by trialbyjury on Flickr

Kathy McLellan is the Youth Outreach Librarian at the Johnson County Library in Kansas. From 1998-2008 she facilitated CLTL groups for juvenile offenders and visited residents at the Juvenile Detention Center bringing books and promoting literary discussions.  She is currently working to create an Early Literacy Center for the library.

 

A recent summons to jury duty reminded me of what it means to be a participating member of a democratic community.  When the judge entered the courtroom, we all rose until he was seated and his first order of business was to explain the reason for that little ritual.  It was, he said, not for him that we stood, but for the robe, a symbol of justice. It struck me as significant that these were his first words to us. I had first met this judge while facilitating a CLTL session. I was reminded of the many CLTL participants I’ve encountered over the past 10 years and thought about the similarities of these two different experiences.

 

Foremost, serving on a jury can change how an individual thinks of him or her self and society; CLTL practitioners believe that literature is a vehicle for change and a mirror of self in relation to society.  As Professor Waxler says, CLTL is an exploration into the meaning of democracy of which trial by jury is a fundamental right.

 

Looking around at this ‘jury of peers’ I realized that, like a CLTL group, there was a diverse mix of experience and opinion. Attitudes ranged from those eager to participate to those with a hint of contempt for the system.  Based on their answers to the attorney’s questions and under-the-breath comments, I recognized the cynicism that often shows itself in those first few meetings of a new CLTL session.

 

The individuals selected as jurors would be called upon to apply their judgment and decision-making skills to the case they heard. The position required a level of commitment and willingness to engage. The jury would engage in focused discussion that would require them to communicate their thoughts and analyze a situation.  There would be disagreement, persuasion and a presentation of various points of view.  Hopefully, the jurors would eventually reach an agreement.  
 

This type of conversation and commitment strongly resembles the qualities inherent in CLTL classrooms across the country. For both groups, the process is pure democracy at work.  

 

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