“Trifles” By Susan Glaspell
Literary works have become extremely crucial in the contemporary human society. They have primarily been used for entertainment purposes, as well as educating individuals and inspiring social change. In most cases, authors, poets, artists and playwrights compose their works on the basis of the societies in which they live. Many are the times when they aim at exposing the ills of those societies and providing alternative ideas as to where the society should head or how the society should be operating. Needless to say, numerous issues have been explored in literary works, whether fictional or autobiographical, including discrimination, wars, love, and marriage among others. However, one of the most explored topics in literary works in both contemporary and conventional human society remains the place of women in the society. It goes without saying that women have, since time immemorial, occupied the secondary position in the human society. Indeed, they have been considered as inferior in terms of their physical features, intellectual aptitude, emotional and psychological strengths, as well as intelligence. The literary works, however, do not only aim at outlining this notion but also to underline the fact that women have similar strengths and capacities as those of their male counterparts if not better. This is the case for Susan Glaspell’s play named “Trifles”. While there may be differing opinions pertaining to the story behind the play, it is evident that the playwright aimed at outlining the downgrading of women in the society, as well as their intellectual aptitudes and strengths that can rival those of their male counterparts.
Written in 1916, the play revolves around the murder of John Wright. Someone had strangled him by stringing a rope around his neck as he slept in the middle of the night. The first suspect, of course if his wife, the forlorn and quiet Minnie Wright. In this regard, the county attorney George Henderson and Sherriff Henry Peters arrive in the farm house with the witness named Lewis Hale, Mrs. Hale, as well as Mrs. Peters in an effort to investigate the murder or Mr. Wright. Mr. Hale recounts how he saw Mrs. Wright acting in an abnormal manner as he enquired about where Mr. Wright was. Mrs. Wright had indicated that her husband had been murdered while she slept. While there was a gun in the farmhouse, Mr. Wright had been strangled gruesomely with a rope (Bryan and Thomas 45). Of particular note is the fact that the men persistently disparage the ladies for being worried about trifles while there were more serious issues to be worried about especially pertaining to the murder. However, Henderson allows the ladies to take some items to Mrs. Wright who has been taken to custody, as long as the sheriff has agreed that the items would be irrelevant in the case. The men move upstairs to replay the scene that may have led to the death of Mr. Wright while they leave the women downstairs to worry about the irrelevant trifles. It is at this point that the audience discovers the life to which Mrs. Wright may have been subjected and what may have caused her to commit that heinous crime (Bryan and Thomas 45). It is evident that she had led an extremely unhappy life, with Mr. Wright having curtailed her freedom and her happiness. While the women come across vital evidence in the trifles, which could have helped in resolving the murder, they hide it thereby resulting in the exoneration of Mrs. Wright (Bryan and Thomas 45). The conversations that the women have downstairs not only give the audience a peek at the life that Mrs. Wright led under her husband’s care but also justify her course of action. While the story revolves around the murder or Mr. Wright, it is essentially about women and the oppression that they endure every day. It shows that men, contrary to the commonly held beliefs, are not always smarter and stronger than their female counterparts, rather it is just the opposite in most cases.
Right from the first scene, it is evident that women are considered subordinate to their male counterparts. The men are the first to walk into the farmhouse, followed by the women who do not espouse the freedom of movement that their male counterparts show. Indeed, the women come in slowly and stand close to the scene together (Bryan and Thomas 45). This is testament to the patriarchal society in which the story is set, as the order of entrance is indicative of subordination of women to their male counterparts. It is worth noting that, throughout the play, the women stay huddled close together, which is indicative of the fact that they are the weaker sex, unlike their domineering male counterparts (Bryan and Thomas 45).
In addition, Glaspell uses conflict and characterization to underline gender bias in the marital relationships. The play’s main characters identify varied combinations of marital relationships. These are seen in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Hale, as well as the Sherriff and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Hale are in middle age and have children already. Glaspell brings out the intellectual inferiority of Mr. Hale using his long-winded childlike ramblings that come off as those made by small kids (Ben-Zvi 144). It comes off as no surprise that his wife is numb to them, but can only wish he could tell the story as it is. The case of the sheriff and the wife brings out the misogynistic relationship more clearly. The sheriff is depicted as a large authoritative figure, unlike his wife who is shown as small, thin and comes off with a weak voice (Glaspell 678). Indeed, Mrs. Hale comments that Mrs. Peters’ looks or appearance do not depict those of a sheriff’s wife. It is evident that Mrs. Hale would have expected the appearance of a wife to be in line with or determined by the occupation of her husband. On the same note, the contrasting physical appearance of the Hales and the Peters’ is a reflection of the power balance that exists in their relationships (Belasco and Johnson 782). Peters, the sheriff, has the capacity to judge criminals on the streets, in which case they are secondary to him. This is the same position that he imagines his wife should take: secondary to himself. Glaspell reveals this situation artfully in the play through the persistent reference that the sheriff makes about his wife as Mrs. Peters. Indeed, he goes ahead and states that she is “Married to the law” (Glaspell 1323). This underlines the dependency that women in this society have on their men, to the extent that they cannot have autonomous identities.
In addition, the men go to great lengths to dismiss their female counterparts, a habit that ironically causes the women to solve the crime. The women are left in the kitchen and the quarters, places that are associated with domesticity, while the men go to the bedroom and dismiss the women’s worth in the murder investigation (Belasco and Johnson 782). This is aimed at underlining the concept pertaining to women’s inferiority and subordinate nature in the presence of their male counterparts. Upon looking around, the women come across a quilt and decide to carry it to Mrs. Wright. Their men tease them for thinking about trivial issues, before they go on to look for more substantial evidence at the barn (Ben-Zvi 144). It is at this time that the women come across an empty cartridge and find a dead bird. Scholars have noted that the bird may have been strangled by Mr. Wright, with Mrs. Wright responding by strangling her husband in the same manner (Ben-Zvi 144). This evidence could have resulted in the incrimination of Mrs. Wright, but Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters decide to keep this evidence from the men as it would have prevented the future jury from acquitting Mrs. Wright, with whom they sympathize (Belasco and Johnson 782). Needless to say, this turn of events underlines the fact that women may be more cunning and clever than their male counterparts in spite of their relegation to the subordinate positions. Indeed, the men were more concerned with substantial evidence while the women were concerned with the details, which resulted in their resolving the murder while saving their friend for the wrong that she justifiably committed.
Belasco and Johnson, The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume II: 1865-Present, Bedford-St.Martin’s Press, Boston, 2008, p.782
Bryan, Patricia L. and Thomas Wolf. Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 9th ed. Booth, Alison et al, eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 1314-1323. Print.
Clarkson, Holstein Suzy. “Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s Trifles.” The MidwestQuarterly 44 (2003): 282-290.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Theatre Journal 44 (March 1992): 141-62.