Susan Glaspell is a celebrated American writer, and Trifles, a one-act play, is among the many works that she wrote in the early twentieth century. At the time, women in American society were facing various challenges and Glaspell used her literary skills to highlight the same, albeit dramatically. In this play, the author uses the “unseen woman” device to emphasize the theme of sisterhood. In this technique, the protagonist of a story does not appear on stage. According to “Susan Glaspell 1876-1948”, when viewed within the context of “contemporary discussions about the reconstitution of the subject position and the possibility of a feminist mimesis, the unseen woman can be seen to provide a means of reconfiguring the female subject and recuperating realistic representation through feminist stage practice” (p. 70). This paper discusses the theme of sisterhood in Trifles to show that while women have not always been friends, they stand in solidarity at times of crisis to defend their gender.
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Trifles is a dramatic story about murder, but as it develops, issues of domestic violence, especially against women emerge. A typical Midwestern farmer, John Wright, is found lying dead on his bed. The investigating officer is convinced that Mrs. Wright, the dead farmer’s wife, is responsible for the murder because she gives a flimsy explanation that someone sneaked into their bed at night and strangled her husband while she lay by his side and she did not notice the incident until morning. By the time the play starts, Mrs. Wright is already in jail and three men, a neighbor (Lewis Hale) who found Wright’s corpse, a local sheriff (Henry Peters), and county attorney (George Henderson), arrive to investigate the scene of the crime. They are accompanied by two women, Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Wright’s longtime friend, and Mrs. Peters, wife to the local sheriff. The men have a sexist attitude, and they complain that women are obsessed with trifles, and they cannot find any evidence to line Mrs. Wright to the murder of her husband.
However, the two women in the murder scene, due to their obsession with trifles, manage to uncover evidence implicating Mrs. Wright in the murder. In the process of collecting items for Mrs. Wright, they come across an empty birdcage and eventually discover the dead bird carefully placed in the suspect’s sewing basket. It appears that the bird has been strangled the same way as Mr. Wright, which is a clear indication that the victim killed the bird, and in retaliation, the wife killed him. This incriminating evidence is strong and it can be used to convict Mrs. Wright. However, the women decide to hide it.
From the play, it is clear that women have not always been friends. Mrs. Hale is a longtime friend to Mrs. Wright, having known her even before she married Mr. Wright. In the play, Mrs. Hale reminisces how her friend, Mrs. Wright, was a happy woman before she was married. However, she indicates that despite knowing that Mrs. Wright was having problems with her marriage, she had not visited her for a long time. This confession is a clear indication that while the two were friends, they were not very close. True friendship requires the involved people to remain in contact by knowing what is happening in the other party’s lives and rendering help where necessary. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Wright fall short of this threshold. Mrs. Hale knows that her friend is unhappy, but she does not make the effort to visit and stand with her or offer any other form of help. Therefore, it suffices to argue that women have not always been friends. However, when the occasion presents to defend one another in the face of chauvinism, they are prepared to stand in solidarity.
The discovery of a dead bird implies carefully tucked in Mrs. Wright’s sewing bag is a clear indication that she did not kill it. Therefore, there is a high probability that Mr. Wright killed the bird. This understanding is used symbolically to underscore gender violence, especially towards women, where they suffer in silence. The two women can identify with Mrs. Wright’s suffering, which explains why they choose to hide the evidence that could incriminate her. According to Alkalay-Gut,
The women here realize, through their involvement in the murder investigation, that only by joining together can they, isolated and insignificant in their society, obtain for themselves and extend to others the support and sympathy that will help them endure the loneliness and unceasing labor required of them (p. 1).
In other words, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters perhaps know the pain of being a woman in an abusive relationship, hence the reason why they decide to conceal the evidence. This act has nothing to do with friendship, but everything to do with standing in solidarity with sisterhood in defense of the female gender. This assertion holds given that, Mrs. Peters does not even know Mrs. Wright in person. They have never met in their lives, but she can identify with her pain and support her course. Mrs. Peters relates to the suffering of seeing something close to one’s heart is taken away. She says, “When I was a girl – my kitten – there was a boy who 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” (Glaspell, p. 8). Mrs. Peters is speaking metaphorically about her kitten – she is talking about domestic violence, which is similar to what Mrs. Wright has been going through.
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Therefore, the two women in this play remain loyal to sisterhood even to the point of risking their lives with jail time should their actions be uncovered. They are willing to break the law to defend one of their own in what Shih calls “the importance of women bonding” (p. 244). It should be noted that Mrs. Peters is the wife to the sheriff investigating this murder, and thus she chooses loyalty to sisterhood over her husband.
Trifles highlights the theme of sisterhood by showing the lengths that women are willing to go in defense of their gender. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters can relate to Mrs. Wright’s pain and suffering in an abusive relationship. This aspect explains why they decide to hide the evidence that could incriminate Mrs. Wright in a patriarchal court of law. They are ready to pay the price by supporting their gender by their lives, to the point of breaking the law and abetting murder. While the play does not clarify whether Mrs. Wright is ultimately acquitted or indicted, Glaspell achieves her objective of showing that, while women might not be friends, they are willing to stand in solidarity in defense of their gender.
- Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “Jury of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 21, no.1, 1984, pp. 1-10.
- Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” One Act Plays, n.d. Web.
- Shih, Yi-chin. “Place and Gender in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Woman’s Honor.” Humanitas Taiwanica, vol. 5, 2013, pp. 237-256.
- “Susan Glaspell 1876-1948.” Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, vol. 75, n.d, pp. 49-161.