Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is widely accepted as the most shining example of feminist drama. Within only one act, the author manages to evolve a complicated plotline, to describe settings in detail, and, most of all, to represent the life of a woman in the early 20th-century society. Representing such topics in the first half of the 1900s was not common after women had been granted the right to vote. Hence, the most frequent depiction of feminism on stage was the concentration on female characters and the hardships they had to endure due to being women (Keyssar 25). As critics note, Glaspell’s Trifles is the “provocative archetype” of such a form of expression (Keyssar 25). Probably the most impressive aspect of the play is not the murder but the reasons that had caused it. Through careful observation of things that men find insignificant, women manage to resolve the puzzle of what has happened in the Wrights’ house. It becomes obvious that Minnie was driven by more serious causes than hatred toward her spouse. The root of all Minnie’s hardships is not in her husband’s or neighbors’ treatment but society’s one.
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The Period Before the 19th Amendment
To understand why Minnie’s (and other women’s) life was so complicated, it is necessary to make a brief overview of females’ position in society before the 20th century and at the beginning of it. At that time, women had hardly any rights or freedoms, being dependent either on their father at a young age or husband upon getting married. Although it may seem that when a girl grew up, she could make some decisions for herself, it was not so. There existed a highly discriminatory doctrine of coverture, which presupposed that a wife’s legal personality was subsumed under her husband’s one (Holton 1114). Hence, women were robbed not only of their property but also of the “rights over their bodies” (Holton 1114). As a result, females had no opportunity to develop autonomously, which made their position miserable and pessimistic.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that women were not considered as persons by the U.S. Constitution. Even if a rare representative of the female sex living in the 19th century managed to obtain some education, she could be easily forbidden to practice her skills (Tevis 11). Quite seldom, women were allowed to be educated and work as teachers. However, unlike men, who only worked in secondary education settings, women were only allowed to teach in elementary school (Tevis 11). “Almost universally,” payment in elementary school was lower than in secondary school, so even if a female was able to work, her salary was much lower than males’ one (Tevis 11). The core problem of such inequalities lied in the Constitution, which had been written by men. According to the main document of the country, “persons” had the right to vote, own property, and live freely irrespective of their race or color (Tevis 11). However, the problem was that the term ‘person’ implied ‘man.’
Hence, it was not until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 that women gained at least constitutional equality with men. Until that time, the conditions in which females lived were dictated by their fathers, husbands, and other male individuals who did not treat women as persons. The 19th Amendment guaranteed that the citizens’ sex could not serve as a reason to deny them the right to vote (“Amendment XIX”). Still, Glaspell’s play was written before the ratification of this amendment, and its main character, Minnie, experienced the unfair treatment of society to the full extent.
The Analysis of Trifles as a Feminist Play
At first glance, it may seem that Minnie killed her husband merely out of cruelty and without any substantial reasons. When a neighbor, Mr. Hale, saw her the morning after her husband, John, died, she “looked queer” and “laughed” (Glaspell 980). It looked as if the woman was not bothered much about what had happened even though the visitor was completely astounded by the event. Mrs. Wright just mentioned that her husband had died “of a rope round his neck” and continued to pleat at her apron (Glaspell 981). However, the behavior that looked like shocking indifference to Mr. Hale had, in fact, a quite different character.
Minnie was not a cruel murderer or an impartial or heartless person. On the contrary, she had endured so much due to her humble and kind nature that she could no longer survive in the circumstances surrounding her. Mrs. Hale, who was the Wrights’ neighbor but never visited Minnie, admitted that the house “never seemed a very cheerful place” (Glaspell 982). Thus, when analyzing the reasons why Minnie killed her husband, it is necessary to start with scrutinizing why their home was not a pleasant place to stay. The main cause seemed to be the character of the man of the house. Despite not drinking and always keeping his word, Mr. Wright was “a hard man” (Glaspell 986). The very thought of having to spend a day with him made Mrs. Hale shiver (Glaspell 986). Therefore, thinking of how Minnie spent every day of her married life with such a man creates quite a sad image.
Apart from her husband’s coldness, some other issues pushed Minnie to commit murder. For instance, the family of Wrights did not have any children, which, according to Mrs. Hale, made “a quiet house” (Glaspell 986). This might have been the cause of the distance between Minnie and her neighbors as well as other people in the area. Thus, although having no children “makes less work,” this fact could have been one of the major grievances of the main character (Glaspell 986). Also, Mrs. Wright did not belong to the Ladies’ Aid, the organization that constituted the most affordable way for women to stay close and support one another (Glaspell 984). At the organization’s meetings, women did various things, each of them had some duties, and, most importantly, they could communicate. However, either by her own decision or by her husband’s, Minnie Wright was not a member of the women’s club.
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What was probably the most tragic and desperate thing was that the woman’s desire to give her soul at least some way of freedom, which for Minnie was singing, was denied to her. Mrs. Hale mentioned that Mr. Wright “killed that, too,” referring to Mrs. Wright’s past hobby (Glaspell 988). When the two ladies found a bird’s cage, they expressed an opinion that Mrs. Wright used to be like a bird herself: “real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery” (Glaspell 987). Also, a critical metaphor here is manifested through comparing the life of a bird to Minnie’s existence: both of them were caged. Thus, it is possible to relate Minnie’s life in her husband’s house to the general attitude toward women in that period. Whereas this concrete family had its history of relationships, it is viable to deduce that the situation in society was what generated all of the mentioned problems.
When analyzing Trifles from a feminist point of view, one should pay close attention to the way other female characters reacted to the situation. Through a careful investigation of these ladies’ conversations and actions, it becomes evident that their situation was not much better than Minnie’s. However, neither Mrs. Hale nor Mrs. Peters was as desperate as Mrs. Wright. When the two women search the house in a seemingly not interested manner, they reveal much more than men who came with a direct purpose of investigating clues. And though the men patronizingly mention that women “are used to worrying over trifles,” the former do not quite realize what profound essence can be elucidated from simple things (Glaspell 982). The significance of sisterhood and the need to help abused women are reflected in Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale’s attitude (March 201). Apart from that, the feminist nature of the play is revealed in the author’s depiction of “the destructive potential of the objectification and devaluation of women by men” (Marsh 201). Hence, it is possible to speak about feministic implications in the play.
One of the core reasons why the two women decide not to reveal the evidence against Minnie is that they sympathize and empathize with her. According to Mael, the moral decision to conceal their findings comes from having lived “similar though different lives” (281). Manuel describes Trifles as a literary work illustrating “the tensions of being a woman” (56). Hence, critics agree that the position of a woman in 19th-century society was far from a pleasant and respectable one.
Finally, it is necessary to pay respect to the legal dimension of the problem reflected in the play. As Wright puts it, while Minnie is accused of a “socially repulsive crime,” her story is the one of “female revenge in the absence of justice” (225). Angel also emphasizes the lack of legal protection for females of that period by stating that Minnie was “closed out of a legal system” (780). Hence, it seems natural that the inclination of the two ladies visiting Mrs. Wright’s home was to protect the person whom they viewed as a comrade. Despite suffering from “isolation and male violence,” Minnie attempted to “nurture beauty to sustain life” (Manuel 56). Thus, it is not surprising that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale decided to “counter patriarchal law” by weaving a “web of sisterhood” to protect Mrs. Wright (Mael 281). Therefore, the feminist nature of the play is manifested both through Minnie’s hardships and other female characters’ willingness to protect her.
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is one of the most popular plays due to several reasons. The most important cause is the portrayal of the difficult life of a woman living in the USA before the 19th Amendment. The story, which is so artfully told, reflects the despair, loneliness, and misery of a woman who has no right to make her own decisions even in trifling things. However, it is also the story of sympathy, empathy, shrewdness, and support that are exhibited in other females’ actions. While there are many possibilities as to why Minnie killed her husband, the most viable is not his treatment of her but the society’s attitude toward women in general. It is evident both from the play and critical academic sources that women in the late 19th-early 20th centuries lacked support and understanding which could be granted to them had society been more friendly-oriented. Meanwhile, since no legal protection was granted to Minnie, other women had no choice but to defend her rights, even if it involved concealing evidence.
“Amendment XIX: Women’s Right to Vote.” National Constitution Center, n.d., Web.
Angel, Marina. “Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and A Jury of Her Peers: Woman Abuse in a Literary and Legal Context.” Buffalo Law Review, vol. 45, no. 3, 1997, pp. 779-844.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. N.d., Web.
Holton, Sandra Stanley. ““To Educate Women into Rebellion”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Creation of a Transatlantic Network of Radical Suffragists.” American Historical Review, vol. 99, no. 4, 1994, pp. 1112-1136.
Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. Macmillan Education, 1984.
Mael, Phyllis. “Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, 1989, pp. 281-284.
Manuel, Carme. “Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916): Women’s Conspiracy of Silence Beyond the Melodrama of Beset Womanhood.” Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos, vol. 7, 2000, pp. 55-65.
Marsh, Kelly A. “Dead Husbands and Other “Girls’ Stuff”: The Trifles in Legally Blonde.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, 2005, pp. 201-206.
Tevis, Martha. “The Status of Women: The Path Toward Legal Personhood.” Educational Horizons, vol. 60, no. 1, 1981, pp. 11-15.
Wright, Janet Stobbs. “Law, Justice, and Female Revenge in “Kerfol”, by Edith Wharton, and “Trifles” and “A Jury of Her Peers”, by Susan Glaspell.” Atlantis, vol. 24, no. 1, 2002, pp. 225-242.
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