Feminist Symbolism in Glaspell’s “Trifles”
Have you ever wondered; just how much can one person take from another? What amount of cruelty and abuse persuades the fury in a typically passive person to leap into aggressive action? Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles shows us just how far one woman, Mrs. Wright, is pushed before she snaps. This is a classic tale of spousal abuse, based off of a true story, which was not too uncommon and almost expected back in the late nineteenth century. Back then women were controlled by their husbands and were seen as insignificant by all the men around them.
In this play the women fight the patronizing and belittling society and join together to support another woman. During this time in history, “marital conflict, frequently including violence, was mostly taken for granted in many working-class communities; in itself, it was rarely sufficient to warrant communal censure. ” (Hammerton 155) Since the women of modern day have much more freedom than women did back then, it is hard for many people, men and women to understand exactly what Mrs.
Wright was going through.
Unlike now where women are allowed to get divorced and not be shunned from society, in this time period husbands were allowed to kidnap their wife, imprison her, beat her, etc. Any police intervention was to discourage or lessen the abuse but not stop it. (Hecker 34)(DeLuzio 96) Women had few resources and even fewer sources of support, no matter what was taking place in their homes. Women could not sit on juries nor give a judgment of their peers (Ruben). Mrs. Hale remembers Mrs. Wright as a girl; Minnie Foster. Mrs. Hale described the young girls, as “kind of like a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery. (Glaspell) If you notice, even the name Minnie belittles her. There are several indicators that Mr. Wright is abusive to his wife, but the people of their town see John Wright as a “good man. ” (Glaspell) Mrs. Hale says “he didn’t drink, and he kept his word as well as most . . . but he was a hard man . . . like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (Glaspell). The ladies start to consolidate Mrs. Wright’s things, they see her shabby clothes and say, “I think that’s why she kept so much to herself . . . you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby”. (Glaspell) This is the opposite of the way things were before she was married.
Mrs. Hale comments “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster”. (Glaspell) Mr. Wright purposefully didn’t let his wife have nice clothes so that he could keep her bound to the house, so that she wouldn’t go anywhere. Then, when Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find the quilt pieces “all over the place” they start to ponder why she was so nervous. (Glaspell) Eventually, they find the birdcage and the dead bird and it all becomes apparent. Obviously, the birdcage, with its broken hinge, along with the bird with the broken neck shows Mr. Wright’s abuse on Mrs. Wright.
While this work has many “trifles” the bird is the most significant. The women assume that Mrs. Wright bought the bird because she was never allowed to have any children, we can sympathize with Mrs. Wright when Mrs. Hale states, “If there had been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful – still, after the bird was still” (Glaspell). She says, “Wright wouldn’t like that bird – a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too”. (Glaspell) The women again assume that Mr. Wright killed the bird to stop it’s singing on purpose, it is unclear whether he did this with or without any thought about Mrs. Wright’s attachment to it. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are very surprised by the things they find that indicates the abuse by Mr. Wright. They feel guilty and see it reflecting in their lives. The women unite together in the very first scene, first they are gossiping and comment that she must’ve done it, but as the men belittle Mrs. Wright and the way she did things, they move closer together feeling like they themselves were being mocked by the men. This forms a kinship with Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters also now forming one with Mrs. Wright.
They prove their loyalty and sympathy to one another and also to Mrs. Wright. They begin to understand Mrs. Wright’s homemaking abilities and they can both identify with her now. They see that she was lonely and sad about never being able to have children or have a life outside of their farmhouse, and that her husband killing her bird was the last straw. They start to feel guilty, like they should have seen it and they could have helped her. Mrs. Peters verbalizes her understanding of “what stillness is” (Glaspell) and Mrs. Hale comments that she knows “how things can be – for women.
We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things – it’s just a different kind of the same thing” (Glaspell). This helps them unite and their common oppression becomes apparent to them both. It is awful just how condescending society is. Even the Sheriff, Mrs. Hale’s husband, is arrogant and condescending and comments that there is nothing obvious that would point to a motive; he says “just kitchen things”. (Glaspell) Even though both the county attorney and the sheriff are in a hurry to find motive, they miss the evidence that is right in front of them.
Then county attorney comments on Mrs. Wright’s poor housekeeping abilities and then interrupts Mrs. Hale after specifically asking her a question about Mr. Wright. The women see this as the men “snooping around and criticizing”. (Glaspell) The men repeatedly patronize not only these women, but most likely all women. Mrs. Hale’s husband makes light of Mrs. Wright’s concern about her canning saying, “Well, can you beat the woman?! Held for murder and worryin’ about her preserves”, completely minimizing the effort it takes to make them.
We see how judgmental the county attorney is when he strikes the pans that are beneath the sink and then in response says, “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies? ” (Glaspell) Once more the ladies move closer together and unite with Mrs. Hale, defending Mrs. Wright, replies with a snarky attitude, “There is a great deal of work to be done on a farm. ” (Glaspell) Knowing exactly how hard life on a farm is for a woman; Mrs. Hale describes her life, verbalizing she knows women should be respected and not belittled. The men in the story do not and the women in the story are greatly underappreciated.
Even Mr. Henderson doesn’t allow Mrs. Peters to have her own identity. Mr. Henderson states that she is “married to the law” (Glaspell) therefore forcing her to take on her husband’s identity. The community knows her as “The sheriff’s wife. ” Because of their arrogant and superficial egos, they completely miss that the women have all but handed them the evidence they are looking for. This is detrimental to the case, the men are unable to solve the case without the help of the women, because the evidence is in the “trifles”. When Mrs. Hale comments on her thoughts about if Mrs. Wright was going to sew or knot the quilt, the men laugh at this as if she is an ignorant woman. This, to me, is the best irony. The men make light of Mrs. Hale’s words, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it” (Glaspell) setting up the end of the play where the women hide the evidence that would very well convict Mrs. Wright, meanwhile the attorney repeats, “She was going to – what is it you call it, ladies? ” (Glaspell) The ladies respond “We call it – knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell), answering him with not only the truth and description of, but also the evidence he needs for a conviction.
According to the secret language of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Wright had “knotted” her husband. Much like a quilt the women joined up together to help a fellow woman who was emotionally oppressed by her husband. A woman’s life is much like a quilt. There is a piece for everything. One for her husband and another for her children, one for the church, one for her work in the house, one for the community, and one for her friends. The “trifles” of life are sewn, or knotted together to make something suitable for approval from the society. Is there a piece for any respect? Is she allowed a piece for self-esteem or dignity?
Susan Glaspell really nailed the oppression of women in her play “Trifles”. Even though Mrs. Wright, after thirty years of an unhappy abusive marriage, finally had enough and “knotted” her husband, the authorities can’t find any evidence because they are men, and her fellow “sisters” in the oppression of the world take advantage of the authorities’ blatant disregard for things they see as “trifles”, when in fact these “trifles” are exactly the compelling evidence that they need for a conviction. Her sisterly neighbor ladies’ empathy turned out to be exactly what she needed to get her justified ending.
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