Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles raises several questions on the
Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles raises several questions on the nature of justice, whether it is relative or absolute, as well as questions of the nature of gender roles.
One cannot help but see that the characters of the play have deeply ingrained ideas about their gender roles, nor can one ignore the fact that true justice appears to be had in the end only by breaking the established rules of law and order. While on the surface it appears that the story seems to support a relative or subjective definition of justice, the play actually presents such moral relativity as the symptom of the deeper problem of adherence to false notions of gender roles. It centers around the belief system that women live in a bubble of domesticity, where they are engaged in nurturant activities and the keeping of the home. Also ascribed to the woman’s gender role are ideals of passivity and restraint. It is a challenge to those gender roles that a woman could commit a violent crime such as murdering her husband.
And it is the refusal of both men and women to enter into each other’s spheres or interact with each other with the respect that prevents the men from ensuring that true justice is done according to the law. This, in turn, is what forces the women to seek justice outside the bounds of conventional law and order. The subjective justice which the women in the play resort to is a negative symptom of the broken system of gender roles which the play interrogates. It is not a natural feminine proclivity to subjective justice, nor is it the men’s natural obliviousness, that leads to both John Wright’s murder and the subsequent cover-up, it is the fact that the women and men of the play cannot cross the boundaries of gender roles.
Neither the men nor the women of the play seek to defy their gender roles by crossing into the sphere of the opposite sex, and if they do cross those boundaries, (in the case of the men at least) it is done with a condescending attitude. Most of the action of the play takes place in the kitchen, the presumed preserve of women and as such is discounted by those who investigate the crime as being of no significance, containing no meaning, hinting at no experience of any relevance. In the first scene, the characters enter the set into the Wright’s kitchen. The very first image presented to the audience is that of men disrespecting this symbol of the female domestic sphere. The women in contrast “come in slowly, and stand close together near the door” (Glaspell 393). The men behave confidently and feel at home in the house, automatically dominating the space they are in and using things without hesistancy. In contrast, the wives of the sheriff and neighbor enter the house with a sense of discomfort displacement. They know the house is not theirs and naturally treat the objects in it with care and caution. Their caution highlights the obnoxious nature of the men’s attitude towards the domestic sphere.
The way the men speak of the kitchen and the domestic sphere, in general, is also telling of their lack of reverence for the realm of the opposite sex. The sheriff says regarding the kitchen, “nothing here but kitchen things,” (396) demeaning the value and importance of the female sphere. The Country Attorney also speaks critically of the mess made by the broken preserve jars and the fact that the towels are dirty, remarking, “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say ladies?” (396) and “I shouldn’t say she had the homemaking instinct” (397). Mr. Hale joins in the banter, saying, “women are used to worrying over trifles,” when the two women remark that Mrs. Wright will be upset that all her hard work in canning the preserves went to waste (396). This disrespectful behavior continues in the dialogue with the women.
The men cannot show respect for the women in this first scene, even dismissing the validity of their defense of Mrs. Wright by saying that they are just “loyal to [their] sex” (Glaspell 397). Even when Mrs. Hale tries to provide valuable information about the case, the Country Attorney dismisses her, saying “I’d like to talk more of that a little later,” (397) but he never does. Every action and line spoken by the men in this first scene demonstrates their inability to accept the importance of the feminine domestic sphere. However, the women in the scene are just as guilty of endorsing the boundaries of gender roles, saying “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing” (397). “Both groups, the female and the male, keep ‘the rules’ of the separate spheres, they stay in their own territory: – so the ladies · sit in the kitchen and chat about ‘insignificant’ things, while the men go round surveying the whole house and its surroundings” (Benk? 11). All the characters adhere to their defined gender roles.
The men proceed to investigate the places they believe will be relevant to the case, beginning with the bedroom (Glaspell 397), an area in which the men have dominance. The men continue to mock the female domestic sphere throughout the play. When the men re-enter the scene from upstairs, the County Attorney laughingly mocks the women’s discussion of Mrs. Wright’s quilting, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it!” (400). After this dismissive, patronizing remark, the men immediately proceed outside to search the barn, another area of the decidedly masculine sphere (400). When the men return from the barn, the County Attorney again asks mockingly about the quilting, not even paying attention to the answer (403), as he must ask for Mrs. Hale to repeat it in the last scene (406). His attitude is one of patronizing indulgence. He does not think the conversation of the women is meaningful; he is simply amused at what he sees as their trivial little cares. In the end, the County Attorney will not even dare to search through the articles the women intend to bring to Mrs. Wright (405). He apparently cannot even bring himself to do more than rifle through her belongings and laugh with derision at the thought that there could be anything “dangerous” (read: important) among the possessions of the prime suspect of John Wright’s murder (405). It is clear that the men refuse to enter or engage with the domestic sphere with any sort of display of reverence or respect, and do their best to remain outside of that domestic sphere altogether.
Still, it cannot be said that the women fight back against such patronizing attitudes toward the domestic sphere. If anything they endorse it; they just wish the men were less mean about it all. In the first scene, the women cautiously avoid overstepping the boundaries of gender roles, allowing the men to enter first (Glaspell 393). They are even cautious not to come too close to the men themselves, claiming not to be cold when it must be quite cold out, as all the characters “are much bundled up” (393), and as the men went straight to the stove upon entering the kitchen. In addition to hating the idea of men coming into her kitchen “snooping around and criticizing,” (397) Mrs. Hale also does not see “there’s anything so strange, our takin’ up our time with little things while we’re waiting fo them to get the evidence” (400). Not only does she reaffirm the denigration of the female domestic sphere as trivial, using the phrase “little things,” but she also condones the separation of the sexes itself in implying that there really would not be any other logical course of action for a woman than to take up her time with the quilting, as opposed to possibly even helping the men search for evidence upstairs. The women adhere to the social boundaries of gender roles in this play as much as the men do.
The refusal to cross the boundaries of gender roles is directly related to the fact that the evidence against Minnie Wright is not brought to the surface. This is most clear in the way the male characters in the play refuse to acknowledge the possibility of the importance of the female domestic sphere. The female character’s perspective of the world is dismissed outright; “women are granted no insight and no rational capacity as they are conceded no function beyond the merely domestic” (Bigsby 10). The “merely domestic” plays a vital role in the case against Mrs. Wright. It is made clear that it is essential for the case for the men to establish motive, as the County Attorney says, “it’s all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it · a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it” (Glaspell 405). Mrs. Peters also relates that the County Attorney “said · that what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger, or – sudden feeling” (199). While the men search the bedroom and the barn for signs of motive, the women are busy discovering all the critical evidence.
The first piece of evidence is the kitchen itself. While the men ignore its significance, the scene is described as “left without having been put in order,” a mess (Glaspell 393). The description of an emotional inhabitant is clear: “unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox, a dish towel on the table – other signs of incompleted work” (393). The women notice the state of disarray and intuitively seek answers for the mess and Mrs. Wright’s feelings and actions. Mrs. Peters notices that the table is only half-wiped (399). Mrs. Hale guesses that the roller towel got dirty when “that deputy sheriff that came out to make the fire” (397). She also discovers that Mrs. Wright “had bread set,” and even guesses intuitively at Mrs. Wright’s intentions for her chores (396). The women also sympathize with Mrs. Wright’s worry over her preserves, understanding what hard work it is to can fruit (396). All the incompleted work is intended as a sign of “sudden feeling” as the men are looking for, but the men do not notice, and the women do.
The women also pay close attention to what they find in Mrs. Wright’s quilting, and with their keen intuition are able to put the pieces of both the quilt and the murder together. The women notice another sign of “sudden feeling,” that is, Mrs. Wright’s crooked stitching. Mrs. Hale points out, “look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!” (Glaspell 400). Mrs. Hale clearly understands this to be a sign of distress, as she wonders, “what do you suppose she was so nervous about?” (400). The women proceed to discover the empty birdcage in a cupboard (401). While digging more in the quilting materials, they also discover a dead songbird, whose neck has been wrung (403). This, with the broken door on the birdcage demonstrating the violent end of the bird (401), as well as the fact that John Wright himself had been strangled with a rope, “a funny way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that,” (399) is a clear indication that the killer of the bird got what the bird got – his neck wrung. The women put it all together. They cleverly spot the significance of Mrs. Wright’s connection with the bird, saying “she was kind of like a bird herself” (402). They also make the connection between what was done to the bird and what John Wright did to his wife, saying “she used to sing. He killed that too,” just as he wrung her bird’s neck (403). They observe the evidence and seek to understand what it all meant to Mrs. Wright, what she was feeling. Mrs. Hale realizes, “she liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box” (403) every piece of evidence the women find points to Mrs. Wright having a motive for killing her husband.
The men notice none of this, who do not trouble themselves with women’s things. Even what the women offer to them outright they dismiss. When Mrs. Hale attempts to tell the County Attorney that John Wright was not a kind man, he dismisses her (Glaspell 397). Even when Mr. Hale explains how John Wright showed no deference or respect for his wife, saying “I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John” (394), not one man brings up the point as a factor in Mrs. Wright’s motive to kill him. Her experiences, her female domestic sphere, mean nothing to them. All the evidence which would give a reason for killing John Wright is left unseen because they could not comprehend how women’s things could have any significance in such a serious matter as murder. The way the domestic sphere plays such a crucial role in the murder case in this play is symbolic of the genuine importance of a woman’s domestic duties. They are a matter of life and death, just as the evidence in this murder case is. Worrying over preserves is called trivial, and a discussion of quilting is mocked by the men more than once. However, clearly in rural Iowa, during a quite obviously freezing winter, storing food and making quilts is what will keep this family alive through such a tough season. Women’s work is vital; it is essential to the survival of the family. It is just as important as what a man does in the field or business. Because of the willful ignorance of the importance of the domestic sphere and the avoidance of crossing over gender boundaries, justice cannot be done within the bounds of the law.
Because justice could not be done as long as men and women refuse to enter into each other’s spheres and deal with each other civilly, the women of the play are forced to resort to moral relativity in order to achieve a more subjective form of justice. Mrs. Wright herself is forced to seek her justice in killing her husband. Her husband was cold, and unkind to her. Mrs. Hale says, “he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him – [Shivers.] Like a raw wind that gets to the bone,” (Glaspell 402) and she also says outright, even to the men, that “I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” (397). Mr. Hale also says that John Wright did not give much heed or deference to his wife’s wants (394). The women make a clear connection between what John Wright did to his wife and what he did to the canary, that “in breaking the neck of the songbird he is simply re-enacting that breaking of her spirit to which his life had seemingly been dedicated” (Bigsby 11). The audience is intended to see them as one and the same, and therefore to see what was done to the bird as equally wrong as the abuse endured by Mrs. Wright, to see that abuse as murder. The women see the entire situation from Mrs. Wright’s point of view. Mrs. Peters even identifies with Mrs. Wright when she says, “when I was a girl – my kitten – there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes · If they hadn’t held me back I would have – [Catches herself · falters weakly.] – hurt him.” (Glaspell 403). Both women empathize with Mrs. Wright’s reaction to the death of her songbird. Mrs. Hale imagines the pain of how “still” it would be after the bird was dead, and Mrs. Peters expands that empathetic response in speaking of the death of her first child, saying “I know what stillness is” (404). The message is clear: “Minnie had no choice, – a woman had no rights outside marriage and not much in marriage” (Benk? 21). The women see Mrs. Wright’s actions as justified, having no rights within the law and so finding her justice outside of it, which is evident in the illegal actions they take to protect her. They too feel that their actions are justified, although they are breaking the law.
Even though the women see that the crooked stitching is just the kind of sign of “sudden feeling” that would help the case against Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Hale rips the messy stitches out and fixes it, saying “bad sewing always makes me fidgety” (Glaspell 400). While she makes this excuse, it is easy to presume that a person who is covering up evidence of a crime is not going to admit to it. Making an excuse is the only logical thing to do. Mrs. Peters is doing the same when she says “[in a false voice] “My, it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us. Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a – dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with – with – wouldn’t they laugh!” (404-5). Both women actively participate in this cover-up. They say nothing to the men about their conversation about Mrs. Wright’s possible motives, from the abuse to the dead bird. They hide the bird from sight, even though they have deduced that it is a crucial piece of evidence in the case (403). Next, they lie outright when questioned about the bird, saying “we think the – cat got it” (403). Finally, at the last moment, Mrs. Peters attempts to put the bird into her bag, and when she fails, Mrs. Hale puts it into her coat pocket (405). They see Mrs. Wright as justified in her actions, and so are forced to break the law in order to ensure that Mrs. Wright will not be charged. If she were justified in killing her husband, then it would be unjust if she were to be punished for it. They believe that she will be convicted, as they intend to lie about the broken preserve jars, and Mrs. Hale says, “she may never know whether it was broke or not” (404). This implies that they believe she will not be returning to the house at all. They, therefore, see it as imperative that they do something to prevent Mrs. Wright’s conviction. Just as Mrs. Wright was forced to get justice for herself against her husband outside of the law in killing him, so too are Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters forced to break the law, lying to their husbands and hiding evidence, in order to see that justice is done.
The murder in Trifles was the result of a broken system of justice. The play shows that when justice is thwarted, as it is by the characters’ stubborn attachment to separate gender spheres, the result is that people believe it must be gotten by other, unlawful, means. This is why Minnie Wright killed her husband; she had no other means of getting justice in her situation. Both the men and the women, in refusing to cross the boundaries of gender, hinder real justice. The play does not merely attempt to portray the men as stupid villains and women as smart victims. The women are culpable in reinforcing the separation of the genders as well. In this prejudiced system of justice, Minnie Wright had no redress for her plight. She was forced to seek her own justice. As such, it is the prejudice of all the characters, and the broken system of justice born of such prejudice, which is to blame for the murder of Mr. Wright, as well as the abuse that spurred his wife’s actions. It is this, and not merely male chauvinism that the play attempts to address and to provide a remedy for. That remedy is the refusal to abide by the separation of gender-specific spheres. The separation of the sexes results in a broken system of justice, one in which a man can abuse his wife without consequence, and his wife, in turn, can get away with murdering him. The play presents the claim that if people reject the notion that men and women inhabit separate spheres, it might create a society where justice can indeed be attained.
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