Caged Birds Without a Song
Written within the nineteenth century, both Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, use symbolism within the play to illustrate how different the roles were between men and women during this time. Reputation and public appearance were viewed as intrinsic forms of value within nineteenth century marriages, as though they were solely the backbone of the marriage’s success. Women were viewed as subordinates, mere extensions of their husbands, creating a strong theme of male dominance that echoes equally throughout both plays.
Incidentally, in direct correlation to their false presumptions and patronizing mannerisms toward women, in the end, the men are ultimately responsible for their own fall. In Trifles, the concerns of women are considered to be mere trifles, unimportant or of any value to society, which men are ultimately controlling. The play opens at the Wrights’ home a day after Minnie Wright either did or did not killed her husband. The sheriff, Mr. Peters and his wife, the county attorney, and Mr. Hale with his wife have arrived at Wrights’ the home to find evidence proving Minnie’s guilt or innocence, while she’s being held in prison for the murder.
Then men repeatedly comment on the unkempt conditions of the Wrights’ home, particularly the kitchen, implying Mrs. Wright must have been unstable because a home is such disarray is outside their perception what a women’s role entails. It’s during this scene Mrs. Peters calls attention to the exploded jars of fruit preserves, understanding the hard work involved in canning preserves, and Mrs. Wright’s concern that the cold weather would cause her jars of fruit to freeze and burst. “She worried about that when it turned so cold. She said the fire’d go out and her jars would break” (Glaspell 322).
The Sheriff’s response is, “Well can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves” (Glaspell 322). The men view her concern as trivial and unimportant in comparison to the trouble Mrs. Wright is facing. In A Doll’s House, Nora, the protagonist, like other women during this time, was considered property of her husband, Torvald. Women were not allowed to own any type of property or borrow money without the co-signature of a man. Nora’s role as a woman was to take care of the children and make sure everything was perfect within the household.
Torvald treats Nora like a small silly girl and believes his wife only focuses on trivial matters. He views her as his prize and at no point does he see her as an individual to be considered equal in their marriage. He continuously coddles her and implies she is a secondary element within their marriage. He calls her his “squirrel” and “little lark” in a seemingly affectionate manner, yet the implications of these pet names are somewhat derogatory and imply her abilities are simply to scamper about carefree.
He lectures Nora on how to spend their money wisely because to him she does not possess an intricate understanding of business principles. In the weeks leading to Christmas, Nora spent her evenings alone working. Torvald assumes that his wife is using the time spent during these busy nights making trivial family Christmas ornaments and other holidays treats. In reality, Nora is working on side jobs she has acquired for money to repay a loan she illegally acquired during a time Torvald was critically ill.
She spends eight years of his or her marriage together trying to keep this scandal secret and repay the loan entirely before anyone had the chance to find out. She knowingly plays into Torvald’s patronizing mannerisms because she knows that he is more concerned with how their marriage looks in public than actually understanding the implications of her actions. Viewing the women as extensions of themselves, in Trifles the men express no desire to see the world through Minnie Wright’s or the other two women’s’ point of view. At first, both Mrs.
Peters and Mrs. Hale seemed apprehensive about Minnie’s guilt and which side of the law to be on. It is only after Mr. Hale’s comment, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles”, that you feel the women start to draw together in unity. (Glaspell 322). His words imply that women are lacking the common sense and mental focus to pay attention to the important things at the same time suggesting that the men should expect such a character flaw as status quo because they are only women and therefore deal everyday in small, unimportant details.
The men venture off in search of evidence proving the guilt of Minnie Wright while the two women are left alone in the kitchen to gather some of the personal items she has requested. As the two women engage in conversation, they begin to reminisce about the woman who they once referred to as “friend. ” A short time into this task they discovering an empty, damaged birdcage. Unsure of the cage’s purpose the women begin hypothesizing why it would be in the Wrights’ home. During their discussion Mrs.
Hale states, “She—come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and –fluttery. How—she—did—change” (Glaspell 328). Upon further investigation the women find the bird, a canary, wrapped in a piece of silk tucked away in Minnie’s sewing box; it was dead, someone had wrung its neck. Again thinking of Minnie, Mrs. Hale states, “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird—a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too” (Glaspell 329).
Of course, the canary is what ultimately proves Minnie Wright’s guilt, but because the women are able to acknowledge what makes this discovery so significant, they empathize with Minnie, and without ever voicing their decision to do so, they never tell the men. The concept that women are viewed as an extension of their husbands is also seen in A Doll’s House, when Torvald learns of Nora’s deception and illegal loan. He says to her, “Oh, what an awful awakening! In all these eight years—she who was my pride and joy—a hypocrite, a liar—worse, worse—a criminal!
How infinitely disgusting it all is! The shame! I should have suspected something of the kind. I should have known…. all your father’s flimsy values have come out in you. No religion, no morals, no sense of duty—Oh, how I’m punished for letting him off! I did it for your sake, and you repay me like this” (Ibsen 245). Torvald continues this rant as he attempts to sort out what actions he should take next, “This thing has got to be hushed up at any cost. And as for you and me, it’s got to seem like everything between us is just as it was—to the outside world, that is.
You’ll go right on living in this house, of course. But you can’t be allowed to bring up the children; I don’t dare trust you with them… from now on happiness doesn’t matter; all that matters is saving the bits and pieces, the appearance” (Ibsen 246). He is so consumed with himself and how the implications of Nora’s actions affect him that he is completely blind to the fact she now understands how he truly views her, incapable. It is this defining moment in which Nora boldly states, “When your big fright was over—and it wasn’t from any threat against me, only for what might damage ou—when all the danger was past, for you it just as if nothing had happened. I was exactly the same, your little lark, your doll, that you’d have to handle with double care now that I’m turned out so brittle and frail. Torvald—in an instant it dawned on me that for eight years I’ve been living here with a stranger, and that I’d even conceived three children—oh, I can’t stand the thought of it! I could tear myself to bits” (Ibsen 252). Nora then decides she will no longer carry on this martial masquerade and leaves Torvald for good.
As stated above, in both Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the men are ultimately responsible for their own fall in the end. The men maintain their view of women being subordinates and they are often dismissive regarding anything involving even the general realm of women. Each play uses symbolism within the context to illustrate just how different the roles of men and women were during this time and how reputation and public appearance were viewed as intrinsic forms of value within nineteenth century marriages.