Trifles by Susan Glaspell is a one act play written in 1916 about a murder in a farmhouse. The victim is John Wright and it is implied that his wife, Minnie, is the murderer since she is being held in prison. The real focus of the play is not the murder itself, but the investigation that follows. The investigation is lawfully conducted by George Henderson, the County Attorney and Henry Peters, The Sheriff. The other male character included in the investigation is Mr. Hale, the neighbor, who reported the murder.
The female characters in the investigation are Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale who are there to gather things to bring to Minnie. This investigation is a game of observation between the men and women. The diction and symbolism in Trifles furtively speaks against the customary role of women, showing a woman's wit is equal to if not greater than a man's.
The author Susan Glaspell was born in Davenport, Iowa 1882. She was a well-known playwriter during the first wave of feminism during the progressive era. Her upbringing in Midwestern America is what influenced the background for Trifles. Glaspell was raised and lived in a time where a woman, especially a married woman was seen as property and was to please and serve the man. A woman living on a farm whether she be married or single (ie. daughter) was expected to do all domestic chores, which also included tending to the garden and live stock. A woman's domestic duties included doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children.
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Glaspell immediately displays the dominance of men in the scene description. The play opens with the men entering the farmhouse huddling around the stove for warmth in a kitchen that is in disarray. After the men enter, " They are followed by the two women... and stand close together near the door" (1248). Glaspell makes a point to state that the women followed behind the men and stood near the door. Instead of using the phrase "come in" or any other phrase to indicate the women's entrance, she uses followed. Followed has the connotation of submissiveness, which fits into the view that women should be submissive to men. She includes the detailed position of the women to show the audience how the women stand to the side, out of the men's way.
This represents women's passive role in society. More evidence of patriarchal dominance is shown two lines later. Depending on the viewer's interpretation, the County Attorney either orders or suggests for the women to "come up to the fire"(1249). My interpretation is that it is a suggestion. In the stage directions, it is written that Mrs. Peters "after taking a step forward" (1249) responds to the County Attorney. It is important to point out that Mrs. Peters steps forward before speaking, because in a way it is militaristic, Mrs. Peters being the cadet and the County Attorney being her superior.
During Glaspell's time it was also a customary duty for the woman to seasonally preserve fruit, meat, and vegetables. Mrs. Peters notices that the fruit Minnie had preserved in glass jars had broken because of the cold. The jar represents society's confinement of women to their duties. The jars being broken symbolize the breakthrough of women to surpass the status quo during the Progressive Era. The cold that broke the glass is the first wave of feminism that swept through The United States in the early twentieth century. Although, not all the jars were broken, one jar remains.
The remaining jar represents that even though the idea of the customary role of women had been broken, the stigma of the idea still remained. While the women are talking about the broken jars, Mr. Hall says, Women are used to worrying over trifles. (The women move a little close together."(1251). The interesting part is that in the stage directions, the women move closer together, in response to the comment made by Mr. Hale. The comment itself is insulting to the women; it views women spending time worrying about mundane problems. The action of the women is reflective of Glaspell's feminism, having the women stand as a united front.
Her feminism is more outwardly shown by the County Attorney telling Mrs. Hale that she is loyal to her sex. Glaspell's feminism is more evident in the fact that the women in the play never refer to Minnie as Minnie Wright, but as Minnie Foster, her maiden name. Referring to Minnie by her maiden name is Glaspell speaking against the patriarchal society of her time. The women begin their unofficial investigation with Mrs. Hale unbuttoning her coat just as the Sheriff did at the beginning of the play. The women's investigation starts with Mrs. Peters noticing that Minnie was piecing a quilt together. The process of making a quilt consists of sewing patches of fabric together. Glaspell begins the women's investigation with the quilt to foreshadow and symbolize how the women will piece the case together and uncover the motive.
In quilting there are two types of sewing techniques which are quilting and knotting, the women are wonder which Minnie was going to use. The men walk in during this conversation and laugh at the women's wonderment, thinking their wonderment is trifling. The women, especially Mrs. Hale, does not think it is funny, and the men move on to the barn. The women first look at Minnie's sewing, which was even and then became uneven and messy. The sewing is subtle symbol of Minnie following society's expectation of women (even stitching) and dismissing the expectation (uneven stitching). The women continue packing things up for Minnie and find a bird cage; the women know there is a bird since there is a bird cage. The women eventually find the bird in the sewing box, dead. The bird's neck had been wrung.
The women came to the conclusion that most likely John Wright killed Minnie's bird, which in turn caused Minnie to choke her husband to death. The women found the motive. After the women come in and the sheriff ask whether they figured out if Minnie was going to quilt it or knot it, Mrs. Hale said knot it. The men do not consider what Mrs. Hale means by knot it because they are incapable of considering trifle. In this game of observation the women win, unlocking the motive to the murder. In this play Glaspell shows how women can do a man's job.
In fact the women actually do the men's job better, because they solved the case. Glaspell shows how women can do much more than the roles they are given and are not confined to society's expectations. Since Glaspell's death, society's view of women in the culture of The United States has expanded from the expectation of a woman staying at home. In twenty-first century America, women and men are equals thanks to women, like Susan Glaspell, who have brought attention to women's rights and equality.
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