Trifles by Susan Glaspell: The Interrelation of Sexist Culture and Law
Society has seemed to have taken it upon itself to define both the limits and expectations for male and females alike. In fact, we have all fallen prey to the recurring stereotypic issues over the centuries, and even still can see an apparent struggle with gender prejudice within this modern era. The debate of gender roles has a timeless reputation, but takes most of its development within the nineteenth century, a time in history in which women were held to far different standards and likewise treated differently compared to today’s women in American society. “In the past, men expected women to carry out the duties of a homemaker, which consisted of cleaning and cooking… men did not allow women to have opinions or carry on a job outside of the household” (Cruea 187). In today’s society, women leave their houses to go to jobs that give them the ability to make their own money, and to speak their minds, carrying on roles that would’ve been typical of solely men, in earlier years. Males in the nineteenth century more often than not stereotyped females as being inferior in comparison to them; as insignificant beings who were incapable of thinking about issues that did not pertain to either the kitchen or home life. In her play “Trifles”, Susan Glaspell portrays the unfortunately truthful reality of the sexist society that was common to the twentieth century. Glaspell’s feminist voice shines through in “Trifles”, as she embodies every criticism and stereotype pinned against women and reclaims them; shattering the sexist barrier that was suffocating prevalent to her time.
Glaspell does an astonishing job in setting the scene for the reality of the era in which “Trifles” is set; that is, the sexist, intensely stereotypical of early America. Throughout the play, the male characters are mocking the females as they converse over seemingly “trifle” matters, such as the bread being open, the quality of Mrs. Wright’s knitting, etc. In fact, they are so enthralled in their sexist behavior that they don’t realize that the ‘little things’ they are making a mockery of have actual significance when solving their case. By “worrying over trifles” (page 250), the women find out a lot more about the murder than the men do in the end. With a lucidly misogynistic instance as such, it is not hard to see that the differences in gender showcased at multiple times throughout the play are obvious and important to the story. Each of the men in the play exhibit traditional stereotypes expected of men during the time period, specifically with regard to their aggressive, arrogant and self-centered demeanor. The women likewise hold true to the standards of the time period, seeming to be more timid, intuitive and sensitive, than the men. However, these “womanly” traits are ultimately what allow the ladies to come a lot closer to figuring out the crime than the men.
As mentioned, “Trifles” takes a stab at the sexist culture of the time it was written in by presenting two women who are able to piece together the facts of a crime way more efficiently, if not solely, in comparison to men; a feat stereotypically unheard of for females. Explicitly, the women find a quilt that Mrs. Wright had been working on, presumably before the crime occured. Whilst conversing about whether or not she was going to “quilt it or just knot it?” (page 257), the sheriff enters and again ridicules both women for worrying over trivial issues; “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it!” (page 253). As the play progresses, the audience is able to see that what the women had observed was truly critical evidence to the crime, as Mrs. Wright’s poor knitting work was telling of how nervous she would’ve had to have been about something; in other words, the crimes committed.
Within the piece, Glaspell also toys with the connection between women and the law. Going back to the idea of the battle between feminism and sexism within this piece, comes the fact that women were not allowed to have any place within political or legal matters. Glaspell seems to kick around the typical ideas of justice and judgment. Typically, when somebody murders another individual, repercussions for their actions will definitely ensue; which is clearly not the case when it comes to “Trifles”. Both Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale’s unspoken agreement to hide the telling evidence of Mrs. Wright’s crimes from the men, who happen to be authoritative figures of the law. Here, Glaspell is actively challenging (once again) the societal norms of her time. When the two women decide to help a murdering woman go free, especially when they uncover tell-tale signs of how miserable life for her had been, audience members are more likely than not relieved at this choice. By harshly reinforcing the sexism through the incessant comments of the men, Glaspell is portraying to her audience a world where law is created entirely by men; creating a negative resonance towards the male characters. In turn, “Trifles” asks the daring question of whether or not women should be expected to follow set rules that they weren’t even allowed to help create.
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