A one-act play by Susan Glaspell, Trifles, is a well-known and highly anthologized work of American literature, particularly notable for its bold social commentary on the position of women in society. The play is multilayered; it has two narratives – women’s and men’s – and two distinct goals the author is trying to accomplish. A direct and logical aim of any murder mystery is obviously solving the case; however, this story brilliantly demonstrates a subtle principle that is by definition more important than the outcome of the case. Glaspell addresses a number of themes, from the evident systematic oppression of women to the female specificity in the utilization of logic and even the debate of justification of murder and gender allegiance in the face of the law.
The Female Discrimination and Its Relevance to Both “Investigation Groups”
Evidence of the social oppression of female characters can be seen from the first paragraphs of the play. The text itself takes on an ironic undertone – as the name implies, the fact that “women are used to worrying about trifles” deems them unfit for comprehending what is actually important (Glaspell 4). In particular, this idea was chosen by the author as the main anchor point of the play to showcase the delusionary nature of men’s self-assurance. Ever since the characters appear in the dark, dismal farmhouse of Wrights until the very end of the play, the men are teasing women and laughing among themselves at them while doing the investigation. The manner in which they do it is highly offensive, with them making comments about the women’s behavior and concerns while still in their presence. For instance, while Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters express their sympathy for Mrs. Wright because they understand her situation, expressing that “there’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm,” the county attorney takes a stance of the cynical commentator (Glaspell 6). This pattern continues throughout the play, as has been said, is of prime importance to the narrative.
This prejudiced behavior directed toward women has been crippling the gentler sex for centuries and has given rise to appalling injustices, some of which remain relevant even in contemporary times. In the play, however, Glaspell did the existing systematic oppression work against its clueless perpetrator in a quite simple yet clever manner. The men’s cold remarks, such as “held for murder and worrying about her preserves,” exemplify the principle that the male population used to axiomatically true – a principle of male intellectual supremacy (Glaspell 7). As has been mentioned before, this self-assurance is what leaves these professional investigators absolutely blind to the evidence. As they move upstairs to examine the murder scene, the women are left in a place that is, at first sight, irrelevant to the story; the kitchen.
The Significance of Gender-related Experiences and Women’s Allegiance
At this narrative stage – from the moment men have gone away and onwards – a particularly central theme unfolds, both for the development in case resolution and for the message Glaspell is trying to convey. Notably, here the reader takes a glimpse at a phenomenon elevated to the status of preeminence in the story. It is the unique perspective of a woman, her ability to sympathize and understand another woman’s situation is influenced by her gender-related experiences and subsequent societal status. As both the women investigating the murder and the offender herself face the same systematic oppression, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are able to empathize with Mrs. Wright in a way that no man can.
Although both women understand that it is somehow immoral to empathize with someone likely to be the murderer, their perception of the character of Minnie Wright changes as the narrative progresses. At first, the women exhibit nothing but emotional unease about the comfortless atmosphere of the house, unable to grasp the underlying motive for such an ambiance. On that note, all of the characters can agree – the farmhouse appears dark and cold – both physically and symbolically, and in a state of depressing disarray. However, one notices immediately how significantly the understanding of this condition varies for men and women. Men are keen on criticism, saying Wright is “not much of a housekeeper,” while women take a defensive stance (Glaspell 5). This careless dismission of the state of the kitchen as belonging to a trivial female domain is exactly what renders the county attorney and the sheriff useless in solving this case.
Both sexes evince signs of strong self-identification with their gender. However, the outcome for each group is drastically different; evidently, Glaspell did that in order to bring up the social injustice that women face. It is an idea about equality – although, despite being equally capable intellectually with men, women receive no credit for their contributions – therefore, it is also an idea about injustice.
Tearing Down Gender Stereotypes, Women’s Psychological Skills and the Use of Logic
The Power of Understanding of Psychology
Interestingly enough, the sheriff’s wife and Mrs. Hale never had any intention the true of solving the murder, unlike men who came specifically for this. They are simply waiting for men to finish searching for evidence around the house – and meanwhile, the women occupy their minds with, truly, trifles – inspecting Minnie Wright’s kitchen pans, unbaked loaves of bread, her cupboards, and her sewing. The close inspection of those small things, coming from sheer interest, leads them to unravel Mrs. Wright’s character and understand her motive. For instance, whilst examining the stitches of her quilt, the women were able to understand a progression of her mental and emotional state – the sewing at the beginning looks neat while nearing the end, it becomes extremely disordered. It is a point in the story where the women, unintentionally, however, quite definitely, have caught the thread of evidence.
Having said that, they continue to direct their attention not towards understanding Minnie Wright’s motives but towards restoring some form of order in the house: correcting the stitches and arranging the pans. The women act out of compassion for Mrs. Wright – their actions are not guided by anything else intentionally. However, by using simple logic to complete these small acts of fellow feeling, they uncover more and more evidence while consequently understanding Minnie’s character in full detail.
Women’s Logic as Symbol of Destroying Stereotypes
As Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters continue to gather items relevant to the case, they employ the logical principle to a higher degree. Their thought patterns are especially evident through their actions, like “she reaches over and swings the broken door” (Glaspell 17). The use of logic by women is greatly contrasted with the logical fallacies that the county attorney and the sheriff exhibit. Syllogisms are particularly prevalent; for instance, when the birdcage is discovered, the women logically propose that she must have kept one – then they wonder what might have happened to it since the cage was hidden in a cupboard. Subsequently, Mrs. Peters realizes that the cage’s door is broken, “one hinge is pulled apart,” with Mrs. Hale concludes that “someone must have been rough with it” (Glaspell 16). Following this logical route while discussing Mrs. Wright’s life, they find the dead bird, which proves to be the real motive behind the murder of John Wright.
The nature of such an approach to logic can be quite puzzling to men. Nonetheless, this principle proves to be superior in the end, all due to being deeply rooted in the psychology of the offender. Glaspell’s sharp social commentary emerges here, implying that women’s intelligence might differ from men’s, however never conceding in the keenness but in the method. Apparently, men of the era were not able to recognize that, which is more likely attributable to the shortfall of their own reason. Thus, by making her female characters outwit the professionals – the men – Glaspell is aiming to eradicate the stereotypes imposed on her sex.
The Problem of Gender Solidarity and the Legality
After the culmination of the play – the resolution of the case by women – another central theme emerges. While other motifs are, if not axiomatic, then at least more concrete subjects that a large number of people can agree upon, the conflict between sex allegiance and legality is of a different kind. Although the concept of gender allegiance has a neutral connotation when viewed as a solitary idea, in the timeframe of Trifles, history has not reached the point of establishment of woman’s rights – and therefore, it should be viewed differently. As is evident, the narrative takes place in the times when discrimination and oppression were omnipresent and essentially represented the societal norm – and under these circumstances, solidarity among the oppressed is, quite literally, vital.
With regard to the morality of the women’s concealment of evidence, it is clear that this action violated the unspoken moral rule. The murder of another human being is unquestionably one of, if not the most, serious felonies one can commit. In terms of a universal moral code that the majority of the population can agree upon, it is an act of evil. Both Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale knew it – it came to them along with the realization of the motive for the murder of John Wright. Their knowledge of the background of the marital life of Wrights was fairly scarce, with Mrs. Hale only saying that she remembered Minnie’s husband as a cold and unpleasant man who must have treated his wife badly. The reader never learns many details, and neither do the women; they simply sense and understand the emotional burden that Minnie Wright carried every day of her married life. In reference to the theme of female compassion discussed earlier, Trifles’ female characters, without a word, agree to commit a crime themselves – by hiding the evidence that would cement Mrs. Wright’s guilt.
Trifle is an impeccable example of laconism and sharpness of thought. The author is capable of addressing pressing social issues and, while not afraid to do so, can do so in a simple and approachable form of dialogue. There is no doubt that Glaspell wrote of the topic that deeply concerned her, which is the system of patronizing discrimination that women, including the author, faced. In her play, she demonstrated, in a witty and accessible way, that women are just as capable as men – and in Trifles, they exceed them by a lot. Being very concise, she pictured the blind and arrogant assurance of men about their superiority and how preposterous it is. Moreover, she ignited a discussion around the morality of the actions of the characters, which is what any great piece of literature ought to do.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. Baker’s Plays, 2010.