The play “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell is one of the shortest plays that I have read. It is also one of the least dramatic and extremely difficult to interpret plays. To understand the significance in this play the viewer or reader should have a better understanding of the cultural context in which this play was written. To do this it is beneficial to know what events were happening in the author’s, Glaspell, life at the time she wrote this, the role of women in everyday life back then, and how the suppression of women males affected their social recognition now and then.
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The play “Trifles” was written in 1916 (McMahan, 1099). In the early 1900’s, up until 1920, the women’s suffrage movement was still working to guarantee all women in the United States equal civilian privileges beside men. Susan Glaspell wrote many of her plays on the social issues of “feminism, socialism, Darwinism, and legal reform” (Beatty, unpaginated). Along with her husband they, “founded the Provincetown Players, a theater group committed to transforming American theaterâ€¦ into an artistic medium in which serious social issues could be treated realistically” (Beatty, unpaginated).This is important to understanding the play because it brings up the important theme of the play of male dominance over the women. “Trifles” shows the audience first hand a case in where male dominance and ignorance of the women’s observations actually hinders their abilities to solve the case of the murdered husband, Mr. Wright.
To get a further insight into how she was able to portray such a realistic incident, it is important to know that this play was written based on a real incident that she, as a reported, covered. As a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, she was assigned to cover the murder story of Mr. Hossack. The kitchen at the crime scene of the Hossack farmhouse played a huge role in the depiction of the kitchen in “Trifles” (Midnight Assassin, unpaginated). She was not an investigator, just like women in the play, but solely an observer, just like the women as well. She viewed the world and the crime scene the same way that women in the play did. Unlike the men, who were looking for large key pieces of evidence, the women noticed small, seemingly unimportant, out of place kitchen items and connected that with the emotions and feelings of the deceased husband’s wife, Mrs. Wright. After the women notice a view of these minor clues, Mr. Hale says to one of the other men, , “well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (McMahan, 1093). This line is the basis for the entire play. “Trifles” not only refers to the out of place items but also the women themselves. By them worrying about such miniscule occurrences they are, as the men see, not capable of doing a man’s business.
This leads into the next aspect of the play which is male dominance and ignorance. When this play was written it was the woman’s job in society to be around the house to raise the children, mend cloths, cook dinner, clean the houseâ€¦etc. They were not able to get jobs or live out on their own. In the husbands eyes they did not have significant roles in society, only in the house. Many men at this time did not show the appreciation, love, attention, and affection that most women should always be shown. Their role was to be the head of the house and provide their family with the necessities to live, nothing more. Glaspell does an excellent job of showing this by describing the kitchen setting in the play. The men overlook details about the house and Mrs. Wright that women notice almost immediately. As Jenny Cromie put it, “They notice Minnie’s desolate, isolated existence, her broken furniture, the run-down kitchen where she had to cook, and the ragged cloth-ing she was to wear because of her husband’s mi-serly insensitivity.” (“Jury”, 277) These clues, which could ultimately decide the guilt or innocence of Mrs. Wright, are completely overlooked as dumb or unintelligent, solely because the women found them. Also, at a point in the play Mrs. Hale describes Mr. Wright as, “Yes-good; he didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (McMahan, 1097). She acknowledges that he was a decent man but, by the more she looks into the life of Mrs. Wright, she notices that he was not a decent husband, as were many of the men at that time.
Greg Beatty found an important part of the play in which male dominance is showed at its finest. Glaspell shows their dominance, not by words or actions but, through dramatic devices. The play follows, strictly, the outline for a tragedy. However, Glaspell leaves out the closing of the curtain to show a different or a switch of scene in the play. Instead, this brought about through the absence of the men. Beatty stats, “Each time the men leave, the women exchange private information; each time they enter, the men force or prevent crucial decisions.” (Beatty, unpaginated) This suppression of information was not fully by the choice of the women. Even if they did speak up and tell them about the so called “evidence” that they had found, the fact that they were women trying to do a man’s job, would hinder the ability for the men to take them serious in their findings. The men would not be able to see how the “trifles” could be linked to the murder because that is not the way that they think.
Beatty also made a connection between the names that the women and the men had in the play. The last names of men were befitting for them because of their position in society. “Mr. Hale is hale and hearty,” and, “Mr. Peters, whose name means ‘rock’, is a sheriff, or a foundation of society” (Beatty, unpaginated). These titles are relevant to the women because that is the only name they are referred to by throughout entirety the play. They are referred to by society through the legal connection of their husbands and not by the independence of their first names. Even though they are individuals that take care of the house and family, they do not have enough freedom from their husbands to be called anything but their husband’s names. Mrs. Peters admits her duty to her husband and the law when she says, “But, Mrs. Hale, the law is the law” (McMahan, 1095). Here she clearly states that she is loyal to her husband and the laws. Also the County Attorney says, “a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (McMahan, 1099). Contradicting what she had say earlier she agrees with him even though she is hiding key pieces of evidence from the “law”. She has chosen to break her obligation to her husband and law in order to stick up for her fellow woman.
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Sticking along the arguments of being legally bound, Bailey McDaniel claims that Mrs. Wright would not have had the right to a proper jury in today’s terms. It would have more than likely consisted of just men. Bailey says, “A certain irony underscoring the legislated inequality toward women is established before the play even begins” (McDaniel, unpaginated). The women in the play and the people in the audience at the time knew this little fact. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters did not share the “trifles” with the other men because they were rebelling against the social norms. They knew she was guilty but had compassion for her after Mrs. Hale tells her story of when she was a child. She said, “When I was a girl–my kitten–there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes–and before I could get there–. If they hadn’t held me back I would have–hurt him” (McMahan, 1098). Here she states that she would have hurt the boy because he killed her cat. Mr. Wright not only killed his wife’s bird, but also her., metaphorically. Beatty compares the similarities of the two by saying, “The bird symbolizes Mrs. Wright, a beautiful creature who loved to sing. When her husband killed to, it was as if she had been killed, and she killed him in turn.” Mrs. Wright had to put up with all of her husband’s troubles but he would not put up with hers. She was lonely and only had him for company. When she got the bird she was finally a little happier. However, Mr. Wright did not like that so he killed her bird. McDaniel says that back then though, women did not have as many, if any, options after they were married. If they got married and were unhappy they were stuck and did not have the option for a divorce like current women do (McDaniel, Unpaginated). For this reason of unhappiness they are willing to show compassion for Mrs. Wright.
Even though the 19th amendment gives women the same rights as men and dissuades for the domination of men over women, it is still a large part in our society today. In 2001, the film “Legally Blonde” came out to theaters. This movie gives a modern twist on the inequality, and the dominance and ignorance of men that was found in the play “Trifles”. Elle, the main character, has a hard time in her job because of her gender, a woman. She is not given the same opportunities that men of her same career are given. She, however, just like the women in the play, can see the littlest “Trifles” in a crime scene and solve the case. The men push her off but she is persistent in proving her evidence. The women in the play had all of the right evidence but due to society at their time could not, and would not, release it to the sheriff. Kelly Marsh describes this situation perfectly in her article Dead Husbands and Other “Girls’ Stuff”: The Trifles in Legally Blonde when she says that “Trifles” is about, “the destructive potential of the objectification and devaluation of women by men” (Marsh, 201). This problem has still not been resolved and is, in many eyes, still a very large problem in today’s societies. The only difference is women have more resources and more social support to get help this devaluation occurs to them not only in the house but also in the career fields.
To sum this everything up, “Trifles” is not just a play, but a tool. A tool used to convey, to every person that watches, the suppression and hardships that some women had and still have to go through because of “devaluation” in a male dominance oriented society. When reading the play it is short, unelaborated, and un-dramatic. But by now knowing the actual murder story that this play was based off of, by knowing a little more about the personality and the early life of Susan Glaspell (the author) and finally understanding the strong male domination in this play, back then, and now, it makes the play that much clearer.
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