Trifling Men: An Analysis of “Trifles,” a one-act play by Susan Glaspell (spoilers)
There’s a link to the play posted below along with the US domestic violence hotline website.
The content of the play “Trifles” lends itself readily to an interpretation that both supports and undermines the patriarchal society in which the characters live. The ideological basis for the play is conflicted. The words often suggest the men are superior, but as the play progresses, the women become the focus of the play, while the men move into the background. The relationships between these women and their husbands as the men investigate the murder of Mr. John Wright, as well as the roles of Mr. Wright and his wife are illustrations into the behaviors of men and women. The constant struggle against oppression and maintaining suppression as presented by Glaspell reveals the mindset of the time. Women are seen as inferior to the men and while Glaspell is trying to disprove this alleged truth, she also supports the male dominating culture because she comes from the male centered society herself.
As the play opens, the stage directions begin to shape the play by presenting a prevailing ideology. The very fist line of the stage directions introduces the idea of John Wright’s farmhouse. Glaspell doesn’t suggest it is the family’s household, but only John Wright’s farmhouse. Then another issue is exposed. The naming of the characters becomes problematic when the women are only referred to by their husbands’ surnames, while the men are identified by their job titles first and personally by mister or by their first names when speaking with the other men in the play. The very nature of this type of language proves the phallogocentric ideology that permeates the culture surrounding these characters.
As the play continues on, the stage directions maintain this men centered ideology. Mr. Hale claims “women are used to worrying over trifles,” and Mrs. Peters reaffirms that at the end of the play. They are worrying and speculating about the dead canary, but she says they “[are] getting all stirred up over a little thing like a –dead canary” and underestimates the importance of their findings because these women were viewed by their counterparts and the society as unimportant, and Mrs. Peters obviously believes what she has been taught to believe.
When the reader first meets these characters, they are entering the house of Mr. Wright, the murdered man. The household chores left undone; there are several things out of place. Glaspell feeds into the culture of the time and reaffirms it is a woman’s place to keep the house in order. Mrs. Wright left these chores neglected and the men are upset that the house isn’t together properly. Mrs. Hale does come to her defense but it is a weak point. She thinks it “seems mean to talk about [Mrs. Wright] for not having things slicked up” only further the idea that it is a woman’s job to do these duties. Later in the play the sheriff comments on how there is “nothing here but kitchen things,” meaning things of little importance but the women do not defend themselves against this suggestion, and they continue to be portrayed with these types of offensive comments both by Glaspell in the stage directions and by the language used in the play itself.
The next direction shows the men entering first with a purpose, the women then follow the men, entering slowly, supporting the women’s (alleged) submissive nature. Here Glaspell is furthering the dominance of the men, not affirming Mrs. Hale’s and Mrs. Peter’s role, but she begins to introduce a major concept in the play as the stage directions end. Although the women enter following their husbands into the Wright’s home, the following direction shows these women standing close together. This action begins to show the relationship of support between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. The relationship between these two women would prove to be personally empowering however insignificant.
Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have a “sisterhood” of sorts and they use it to defend themselves against their husbands throughout the play. The women are bonded together by their common plight of living in a man-based world, a world they have little authority in changing. When the county attorney looks to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters for their disapproval in the way the chores were done, Mrs. Hale disagrees with him. The sisterhood keeps them from turning their back on each other even when facing adversity from a group of higher power, specifically these men. Even the men recognize the women’s “loyalty to [their] sex,” when Mrs. Hale, the more assertive of the two women, defends Mrs. Wright again by directly disagreeing with that attorney. The county attorney was appalled that the roller towel wasn’t as clean as he thought it should be, so Mrs. Hale told him “men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.” Throughout these scenes in the play, the women are moving closer and closer together. They are using their sisterly bond to stand against these men when they are strongly discouraged from standing up for themselves or other women.
The focus of the play is on the murder of Mr. Wright, although the reader never directly meets him. The insight the reader receives into the life and personality of Mr. Wright is through the conversation between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. The reader never has the opportunity to meet Mr. Wright because apparently his wife killed him prior to the start of the play. The very act of a man being killed by his wife establishes a shock to the man dominant culture, however it doesn’t affect the culture as a whole. This notion can be symbolic for the killing of the male domineering culture by women but it is only a minute step in dismantling the male centered world.
Throughout the play, the women are continually insulted and put into categories their men believe they belong in. The play doesn’t relay the message of women fighting back against their oppression blatantly, but rather cautiously. The reason is because Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters don’t believe they have the ability to dispute the entire culture at large, but they fight this oppression on a small scale with Mrs. Hale’s comments to the men in the play, and when they find the motive to the murder. The women then keep this evidence from the men asserting a kind of dominance over them, while protecting Mrs. Wright from prosecution. The women’s “sisterhood” becomes more important than staying within the borders of the male centered society and it comes into light again when Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters stand by Mrs. Wright and never tell the men about the canary. This small victory for the women’s break from oppression is crucial to these women to begin to empower themselves, but the success is for their own satisfaction not for women as a whole.
However, the patriarchal views are also supported in Mr. Hale and Mr. Peters’ condescending nature towards the women. The play reveals the women’s unwillingness to fight back against their counterparts and this negates the women’s act of solving the murder of Mr. John Wright. As the play moves on the reader sees how the women are bystanders in their own lives and not active participants. The men direct their thinking and actions and the action of these women breaking away from their husbands and the entire male dominant culture is still far away.
Glaspell tries to highlight Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter’s actions in “Trifles” but Glaspell herself is a product of the male domineering culture and can’t be separated from her circumstances. The men still rule over the women in the play and obviously, they still rule over Glaspell personally. She tries to accentuate the women’s role, but she can’t because of her own long suffering oppression. Glaspell’s play shows support for the patriarchal point of view while trying to minimize its effects on her and the women of her surrounding culture. She isn’t able to resolve this conflict. She may believe women deserve more liberation from their male counterparts but the effects of her upbringing and society’s power to “keep women in their place” keeps Glaspell from breaking free from the culture. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are the embodiment of these ideas but the sheriff, county attorney, and Hale still govern the majority of the women’s actions.
- First print 2004 by Dayna Brown Dolan
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