Women’s Right in “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell
Women’s right was not taken seriously in the United State in the nineteenth century. There were not many important roles for females in literature and plays at that time. Until the early twentieth century, several prominent female literary figures appeared. The female characters in “Trifles” are among them. “Trifles” is a play written by Susan Glaspell, who is an interesting female writer in the late nineteenth century. “Trifles” tells a story of a murder that takes place in John Wright’s farmhouse. While the men are trying to find the motive of Mrs. Wright killing her husband John Wright, the two women following the men have already found the evidence. They deliberately hide evidences to protect Mrs. Wright. For example, they do not tell the evidence they found in the sewing box until the end of the play.
Overall, there are several ways to understand the women’s decision to hide the evidence. One important reason that the two women decide to hide the evidence is the feeling of sympathy they have for Mrs. Wright. From the beginning of the play, the women start to pack up Mrs. Wright’s stuff while the men are searching for the evidence. In the middle of the play, Mrs. Hale talks about Mrs. Wright’s past and tries to express that it is not fair to Mrs. Wright; however, Mrs. Peters answers, “The law is the law” (Glaspell 7), which implies that Mrs. Peters is used to the society and obey the law that the men enact. The reason why Mrs. Peters said this is that her husband is the sheriff, who is the representation of the law. As the women find out the evidence is John Wright wrings Mrs. Wright’s bird, it reminds Mrs. Peters of her childhood that she almost hurt the boy that killed her cat.
Suzy Clarkson Holstein, who is an author and former New Zealand television personality, mentions in her article “Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s ‘Trifles’” published in 2003 that “…the details that allow them this insight-details overlooked as unimportant by the men-lead the women to understand the almost tangible oppression of Minnie Wright’s everyday life”. The two women assume what life Mrs. Wright has lived by recalling “memories of her, memories of their own lives”. They realize their experience are “similar to hers in many ways”. Thus, they are able to speculate about “her feelings and responses to the conditions of her life”. In this way, the two women resonate with Mrs. Wright. At this point, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begins to comprehend Mrs. Wright’s feeling more profoundly: “Instead of following a predetermined schedule of inquiry, they begin, almost instinctively, to put themselves into Minnie Wright’s place”. As the event goes on, the two women get closer and realize that they got the similar experiences as Mrs. Wright, which make the two women sympathize with her. Finally, they choose to be silent. Holstein asserts, “the path these country women follow leads them directly to their choice of silence”. What’s more, Phyllis Mael at Pasadena City College refers Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development, which states that “when women are given Kohlberg’s test, they rarely attain the sixth stage where decisions are based upon universal ethical principles but typically are stuck at the third and fourth levels where decisions are based upon contextual concerns (Gilligan, p. 18)”. This test perfectly explains that the two women are influenced by their feeling of sympathy towards Mrs. Wright. Thus, as Mael says, “because they emphasize with the missing woman, having lived similar though different lives, they make a moral decision to hide potentially incriminating evidence”. It is understandable why the women have the motive to hide the evidence, given that they share similar background, experience, and socioeconomic status, which justifies that they stick together in the end of the play.
In spite of the morality, we can also realize that gender difference also plays an important role in decision making throughout the play. Before we go ahead into how the gender differences affect women’s decisions, we need to talk about the gender development. From my personal view, male and female have different ways of thinking. Men will care more about facts and the thinking mode is more logical; however, women will concern more about how others feel and their thinking mode is more emotional. According to Mael, “the process of becoming a male or female someone in the world begins in infancy with a sense of ‘oneness’, a ‘primary identification’……; consequently, boys and girls experience individuation and relationship differently”, we recognize that there are no differences between men and women; however, in the progress of the development, “in order to become male, boys experience more strongly a sense of being ‘not female.’ For girls, because the primary parent (or other) is of the same sex, a basis for ‘empathy’ [is] built into their primary definition of self”. That is how men and women differentiate. Holstein relates “Trifles” to some of Glaspell’s other works and recognizes that because women have different backgrounds, socioeconomic status than men, they have different opinions on justice and care.
Throughout the play, the men are performing the plan that they formulate in advance to search for the evidence all over the house, except the kitchen, whereas the two women are formlessly looking around at the crime scene, mainly in the kitchen, talking about the memories of Mrs. Wright and doing what the men consider to be “trifles”. “The men patronize them and gently ridicule their concerns while the women themselves, at least at the outset, characterize their activity in the house as relatively unimportant”. Moreover, Karen Alkalay-Gut, a professor from Tel Aviv University, separates men and women in different worlds. Man’s world represents significance, “achievement of goals (solving murder, putting in telephone)”, and “knowledge of facts” will “lead to general truths and legal definitions”. In the opposite way, woman’s world stands for kitchen, trifles, caring more about housework, and “knowledge of people which make facts useful for understanding people and situations”. The play reflects that the two women themselves own the feeling of sympathy, which is the decision made by women will influenced by feelings, discussed by Mael. These obvious differences make women remain quiet at the end of the play; however, the reason causing these differences is the social system in the early twentieth century.
At the time Susan Glaspell wrote this play, the social system was men-dominant. The women didn’t have any rights to show up their ideas. As Alkalay-Gut says, one of three basic polarizations is “the opposition between the world outside, where important events occur and murder and truths are revealed, and the kitchen, where menial and mechanical work is accomplished” (2). It reveals that the society in early twentieth century is a world that men only care about important things that they think to be and women can only complete all the housework. Furthermore, according to what Alkalay-Gut writes, man’s world is outside the house, they do everything, such as running the social system and enacting laws; however, woman’s world is only in the kitchen and do all the trivial things. Throughout this play, although the women find the evidence, their status at that time makes the men depreciate their ability to find the answer. Holstein also expresses that “…Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters ultimately find power in being devalued, for their low status allows them to keep quiet at the play’s end. Much like servants and other discounted groups, the women are permitted access to knowledge because it is assumed they will not be able to make intelligent use of it”.
According to what Holstein says, “during the early part of the twentieth century, the duties and structures of women’s lives would have predisposed them to approach a problem from a different angle than that of the men” (288). Thereby, although the two women find that it is not fair for Mrs. Wright since they find she is abused at home, the men will only justify Mrs. Wright kills her husband but not she got abused. According to the play “Trifles”, the audience are notified that women at that time do not have rights to vote or attend jury. Facing male jury members, all processes conducted by men and laws made by male, Mrs. Wright has no chance to assert herself. Therefore, the two women decide to betray the men and take justice into their own hand to protect Mrs. Wright.
Overall, this play becomes very important since there is nobody trying to change the situation of gender inequality at that time, and this social problem are expected to be noticed by the people through “Trifles”. Glaspell applies her thoughts of opposing the current social system to the two women through the play to encourage the women to change their own situations. Later on, more and more women start to defend their own rights. However, nowadays, there are still some gender issues in the society, such as glass ceiling, which prevent women from achieving a higher status in some companies. For example, Hollywood’s sexual misconduct scandals that was published a few months ago. In the scandal, to get better characters in the movie, some actress in Hollywood have to accept the producers’ unreasonable request due to their higher status and power. Therefore, people should still work on the gender equality and try to eliminate the gender differences in society.
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