Mrs. Peters: Beyond a Traditionalist
Protest is defined as “a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to someone or something.” On first instinct, most consider a protest to be a physical act, like marching through the streets towards a noble goal. A monumental event, such as the women’s suffrage movement, is the archetypal protest for most people. Susan Glaspell, author of the play Trifles and the short story “A Jury of Her Peers,” proves that a protest can be something as simple as asserting one’s own importance within the confines of the home. Being one of the few progressive authors during the early 20th century, Glaspell’s works reached many women who had been too afraid to speak upon the abuse they had been enduring. Mrs. Hale, the progressivist, and Mrs. Peters, the traditionalist, are perfect examples as to how contrasting views are shaped by life at home. Women like Mrs. Peters had almost no voice left at all, but with the help of a progressive friend for encouragement, Mrs. Peters was able to break away from the status quo and form her own opinions. Glaspell outlines the progression of Mrs. Peters from an oppressed housewife to a free-thinker to give 20th century women a model for withstanding the subjugation of domestic abuse.
Being married to a man of authority, Mrs. Peters had never thought of herself as anything more than a housekeeper, representative of the traditionalist women of this time. Immediately, we see the authority that the men possess over the women, simply by how they address them. The sheriff, Mr. Peters, refers to Mrs. Peters by her full name, never “my wife” or even by her first name. A descriptor so concrete and unfeeling makes men’s position of dominance very firm. Mrs. Peters will never be seen as anything more than married to a man of authority, something she had never before thought to question. Accepting her position as nothing more than the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters embodies the qualities required for the role: she is meek, subdued, and unprotesting. She became so embroiled in defending her husband’s job that she hadn’t considered what he actually does. Even though undeserving people end up behind bars, Mrs. Peters feels she must agree that “‘the law is the law’” (par. 145). The entirety of Glaspell’s works takes place in a kitchen setting, the “women’s place,” where Mrs. Peters brings up the tragedy of Mrs. Wright’s preserves being destroyed by the cold. Mrs. Peters, being a housewife herself, knows how much labor goes into making and storing these fruit preserves: “‘Oh — her fruit,’ she said….Mrs. Peters’s husband broke into a laugh. ‘Well, can you beat the woman!’” (pg 1036). This interaction describes the lack of consideration Mr. Peters has for his wife and all the hard work she puts into her “wifely duties.” This absence of acknowledgment plays directly into why Mrs. Peters’s voice is disregarded. Mrs. Peters is established as a traditionalist not by choice, but by necessity. Through her lifestyle of trailing behind her husband and forgoing the duties of motherhood, this sheriff’s wife has not been challenged in her thought process until she steps onto the scene of John Wright’s “tragic” death.
By being exposed to a progressive mindset, Mrs. Peters is able to empathize with Mrs. Wright, and she begins to question her blind acceptance of the law. Throughout the story, it becomes very clear that Mrs. Peters has two sides that appear when men are or are not in the room. This distinction begins to spark a curiosity in the reader that there may be more to this “sheriff’s wife” than she has let on. She must not have always been this hushed woman, and this persona slowly fades as the mystery of Mr. John Wright’s murder unravels. In Trifles, the stage notes initially describe Mrs. Peters as “quiet” or “nervous,” a subtle way of expressing her forced introversion. The longer she is away from her husband and the more she empathizes with Mrs. Wright’s lifestyle, readers begin to see her use a “rising voice,” or have “something within her speaking” (pg 9). Furthermore, “A Jury of Her Peers” sheds a more detailed light on Mrs. Peters thoughts, allowing readers to witness her transition as a dynamic character. Although she “had that shrinking manner” found in many traditionalists of this time period, she has started to develop something found in progressives: “her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things” (par. 124). She is able to look past the customs and routines she has subserviently followed for so long, and she sees through the cookie-cutter mold society forces upon women. As Mrs. Peters’s is challenged to form her own opinions through the conversation with Mrs. Hale, the transformation from unexpressed discontentment to full-fledged indignation is evident.
Despite her circumstances and beliefs, it is ultimately Mrs. Peters’s decision to put the dead canary in her pocket, defying everything she has ever known. Upon finding the bird with its neck wrung, Mrs. Peters is struck with an overwhelming sense of empathy towards the suffering Mrs. Wright has endured. “…my kitten — there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes…..If they hadn’t held me back I would have — hurt him” (pg 1042). Mrs. Peters connects to her own past experiences of losing not only a pet, but also a child, seeing that Mrs. Wright had none. A wife’s sole purpose during this time period was to be a mother, and having that “right” taken away from her, killing her bird was the last straw. Mrs. Peters had never felt so isolated and alone in her life, but for the first time, she fully understood Mrs. Wright’s actions. Once this connection is made, Mrs. Peters is compelled to save Mrs. Wright from another jail cell outside of her home. “…throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the handbag she is carrying….[she] starts to take bird out, cannot touch it, goes to pieces.” By hiding the incriminating evidence, Mrs. Peters hinders the male-centric justice system and exonerates her neighbor. Her eyes have been opened and her mind has been changed; she can now be considered a free-thinker. Although Mrs. Peters can start to hide the evidence, she cannot carry out the full action, however. She needs help from Mrs. Hale, a woman who has the experience and mindset far beyond former traditionalists. Protests can be started by those who are new to the fight, but they can not be sustained without seasoned warriors.
Mrs. Hale asserts that “‘the law is the law — and a bad stove is a bad stove’” (par. 148). Being the foil character to Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale challenges the common line of thinking and asserts that things don’t have to stay this way. Although Mrs. Peters has been enlightened to this notion, these women aren’t able to foresee that society cannot and will not change for decades to come. “There was a laugh for the ways of women, a warming of hands over the broken stove” (par. 159). Since the broken stove is a representation of the biased law, women are too powerless to change it. Can anyone truly warm their hands to feel relief from the cold of a broken stove? Glaspell’s purpose in this story is to give courage to traditionalist women of this era by showing them that they don’t have to succumb to this abuse. Mrs. Wright was isolated in every way possible, leading her to end her own suffering in the only way she knew how: a cold-blooded kill. There is more to this life than what these women have experienced within their homes; Mrs. Wright’s marriage was proof that women need each other to unite against oppression. We must build one another up if we are able to stand at all.
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