The Irony of Trifles: A Look Into Susan Glaspell's Play "Trifles"
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles brings attention to the political and social differences between men and women in the early 1900s. Trifles may seem like a simple story, but it is rich with symbolism and nuances of gender differences giving a glimpse of the insignificance of women in a man’s world. Trifles is a one act play that has themes of irony, gender differences, and oppression that ultimately played a part of sparking a revolution by bringing to light with molten clarity the unbalanced and unfounded inequality between men and women.
A woman, Minnie Wright, is accused of murdering her husband in an isolated farm house. A farmer and neighbor, by the name of Mr. Hale, recounts his story of finding Mrs. Wright to the county attorney and the county sheriff while in the presence of his wife, Mrs Hale, and the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters. The men go searching through the house looking for evidence and clues behind the murder. The women, relegated to the kitchen, find the key piece of evidence that would have given motive to the crime. Meanwhile, the men searched inside and out finding no corroboration for why the murder had happened. The men’s perception of women was that they only cared about trivial things and believed that men were the ones who saw the true importance of all things. Mr. Hale verbalized this when he said, “Well, women are used to worrying about trifles” in response to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters worrying about the jars of jam bursting because of the cold.(187) In the end, if it were not for the trifles no one would have found any evidence to what prompted Mrs. Wright to end her husband’s life.
The Cult of Domesticity
The play takes place in a time before women's liberation; a time when women were to mold themselves and their behavior to please their husbands. That could be an incredibly lonely time to be a woman. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters pieced together Mrs. Wright’s life. They saw how the marriage had crushed her spirits. Mrs. Hale even admitted to feeling guilty for pulling away because Mrs. Wright was not “cheerful”.(190) The camaraderie of women could be the only lifeline to someone who might have felt smothered. In the 1900s women were little more than possessions to the men that they married. Trifles paints this picture through the dialogue of the women. The women of the story spoke freely while the men were off in their search, but whenever the men were present the women would stop talking.
The Industrial Revolution brought great changes for women beginning around the early 1800s. A woman's sole duties were to care for the home, the children, and make the home a pleasant environment for their husband. The Industrial Revolution brought many jobs and business opportunities causing the average work week for a man to be about sixty hours.(Values Past and Present) Before this new era of domestic servitude of women, they had a very important role in the family. Women made butter, sewed cloth, they were intrinsic to their family’s survival. With industry booming they spent their husband’s money on things that they would have previously made themselves.
Women were sheltered from the stress of the world and cherished for their piety. Women were meant to be agreeable and docile to their husband. This was the “Cult of Domesticity” which reined from about 1820 through the American Civil War. (Smith, 1) Like how Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters would stop their conversations to allow the men to speak. When one of the women joined in to the conversation they were spoken to in a condescending manner, like a child who could not possibly understand.(186-187)
The Cult of Domesticity also seems to coincide with a trend of increased psychiatric conditions of women. This gave birth to new women only conditions like hysteria and anorexia nervosa.(Sigurðardóttir) On the surface the nineteenth and early twentieth century seemed to be a natural balance and in some households it surely was. As there is a darker side to human nature, there was a darker side to the cult of domesticity. One might say the women were sheltered; on the other hand, she was held prisoner and treated as a slave on the whims of her husband. Should the pious wife fail in meeting the requirements of her good christian husband, it was his duty from God to discipline her in way he saw creating a silent epidemic of domestic violence.(Swanson) Even within psychiatric diagnosis there was a scale of pleasing disorders versus disagreeable disorders like Anorexia nervosa and hysteria respectively. Anorexia nervosa was a noble disorder, where a woman would sacrifice her own well being. Contrarily, hysteria was seen as a self serving disorder where a woman would shirk her duties and languish in her own laziness. Silas Weir Mitchell had a disciplinary action disguised as a treatment. His recommendation was the “rest-cure”. In his own words he said, ”The rest-cure could be used to discipline women whose illness became a means of avoiding household duties.”(Stiles, 4) The rest-cure was much like the name suggests only much more extreme. A woman was sent to bed and not permitted to move without the doctors consent, this included movement within the bed itself.(Sigurðardóttir) If a woman was married to a cruel and domineering man there were untold atrocities that may befall her sanctioned by doctors, the law, and even God.
In Trifles the tale was told by Mrs. Hale as she remembered a bubbly girl who sang in the choir to a shell of a woman who lost her light.(191) Mrs. Hale remembered Mrs. Wright as similar to a canary saying,”real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery…How she did change”.(190) It is possible that Minnie Wright was introduced to the bleaker side of the cult of domesticity until she finally hit her breaking point. Mrs. Hale hinted that Mr. Wright was an unkind man and that some domestic abuse was possible. There is no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors through her isolation. A woman, like a bird herself, accused of murder and an empty bird cage holds strong symbolism because all women were very much just a bird in a cage. Minnie Wright free of her bird cage , yet placed in another cage awaiting trial and judgement.
Duty and Justice
A woman’s whole world revolved around duty. A man would have viewed a woman's duty to the home and her husband, and possibly children if they had any. A woman on the other hand would view those things as part of her duty, but also to the women in the community. Without a strong network and support system the isolation was a terrible price to being a women in this era. A woman was expected to give freely of herself at all times. With the lack of outside stimulus women took to their homes with pride and earnestness. In the play the men criticized Mrs. Wright for her house keeping as if it were a key piece of evidence. Meanwhile, the women empathized with the plight and difficulties that surrounded the less than expected housekeeping.(187)
Men and women viewed justice quite differently as well. Women living under the thumb of men caused women to care less about he law and more about the law of their husband. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters pieced together Mrs. Wrights life and ultimately found the key piece of evidence that gave motive to the murder, they were compelled to hide it from the men. It was as if they felt that justice had already been served. Mrs. Wright had been living with a cold and domineering man. The women felt it was their duty to protect her from another lifetime of injustice by the hands of men. It wasn’t just a lie of omission that hid the evidence, bout a full coverup. When asked what happened to the bird Mrs. Hale replied that the cat must have got it. Only to be followed by another lie on what happened to the cat.(190)
It was experiences like that of Mrs. Wright that led to women’s liberation. For the women were just as capable, if not more so, to live in this so called man’s world. The strength of a woman to give freely of herself and put others needs above her own and relate to others was a driving force that separated men from women. As the younger generation, supposed to be seen and not heard, watched stories like these play out around them and deduce the real problem. The real problem was in the man’s world and it needed a woman’s touch to protect the women like Minnie Wright who had no escape, but to murder her way out. The women had done the real investigation by relating to her experiences and retracing her life. It was only then that the truth was shown the light. The trifles, as the men had called it, were anything but. The men couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Mr. Wright had laid a lifetime of untold atrocities on poor Mrs. Wright until he took things too far. He snapped the neck of her cherished canary and Mrs. Wright in turn snapped the neck of Mr. Wright in similar fashion.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Publisher Not Identified, 2014.
Sigurðardótti, Elísabet Rakel. “Women and Madness in the 19th Century The Effects of Oppression on Women's Mental Health.” Skemman, Sept. 2013, pp. 1–4., skemman.is/bitstream/1946/16449/1/BA-ElisabetRakelSigurdar.pdf.
Smith, Nicole. “Housework and the Cult of Domesticity.” Article Myriad, 17 Jan. 2012, www.articlemyriad.com/housework-cult-domesticity/.
Stiles, Anne. “The Rest Cure, 1873-1925.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web.
Swanson, Kim. “Crime Against Women - A Brief History of Laws in the US.” Get Inclusive, 28 Mar. 2014, www.getinclusive.com/blog/crime-women-brief-history- laws-us.
“The Cult of Domesticity: Values Past and Present.” Owlcation, Stove and Home, 2 Aug. 2017, owlcation.com/humanities/The-Cult-of-Domesticity-Past-and-Present.