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Trifles: Women in Early Americana, Research Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1856

Research Paper

Trifles is a one-act play written by playwright Susan Glaspell in 1916. The event described in the play was inspired by a real-life crime, the murder of a farmer in Indianola, Iowa. Glaspell worked as a reporter from 1899 – 1901 for the Des Moines News. During this time she covered the murder trial of Margaret Hossack, the farmer’s wife who was accused of killing him by striking him in the head with an ax while he slept. Years later, Glaspell and her husband, George Cook, helped to found the Provincetown Players theatrical company in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and it was suggested Glaspell write a one-act play for the company. Trifles was the result, a murder mystery that explores gender relationsips, power between the sexes, and the nature of truth. Through her writing, Glaspell exposed the pyschological, social, and physical divide that created two distinct worlds in early Americana and used her play, Trifles, to explore the themes of female identity, patriarchal dominance, and domesticity. The story itself focuses on the prosecutor, George Henderson, who has come out to investigate the murder;  the local sheriff, Henry Peters, and his wife, Mrs. Peters; and Lewis Hale, the neighbor who discovered Wright’s body, along with his wife, Mrs. Hale. John Wright, the victim, and his accused wife, Minnie Wright, are never actually seen during the play. The setting is the bleak, untidy kitchen in the hastily abandoned farmhouse of John and Minnie Wright. It is deep winter and bone-chillingly cold, both outside in the winter wind and within the kitchen. Trifles is a play filled with many minor details that take on major significance. Throughout the play it is the women that make the most meaningful observations about what truly happened in the house regarding the murder, motivation for the murder, and the relationship between Minnie Wright and her husband, John. Unfortunately, because of the perception of women and of “women’s things”  in early Americana, these observations go unnoticed by the two men they would be most useful to, the prosecutor and the local sheriff.

When they first enter the house, it is single file. The men, led by George Henderson, enter first and go immediately to the stove to get warm. The women follow more slowly, reluctant to enter the house. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters remain in the kitchen when the men leave to investigate the bedroom upstairs. An interesting note here, is that the men leave the kitchen without ever seriously considering investigating it. To the men, the kitchen is simply a woman’s room. Well, it is a woman accused so would it not be of interest to search the place she likely spent most of her time? To the men, no, since they are not looking to discover what kind of person Minnie Wright was. To them, she was Mrs. Wright, John Wright’s wife. There is nothing else to discover, just the hard facts of the murder itself. The problem, is that Minnie Wright is not seen as having her own identity to discover, but as her identity being that of her husband’s. , Sheriff Peters, and Hale make an important mistake when addressing the women. The three men assume that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale base their identity entirely on their relationship with the men, the dominant gender at this time in history. A great example of this is one particular exchange between Henderson and Mrs. Peters. During this exchange, Henderson tells Mrs. Peters he knows she is a lawful citizen, because being married to the Sheriff is the same as being married to the law. Henderson assumes that Mrs. Peters is nothing more than a reflection of her husband. Mrs. Peters’ response would suggest that she does not feel the same as Henderson. She replies, “Not – just that way.” (Glaspell) This response by Mrs. Peters gives us the impression that the current event has caused her to rethink her association with her husband and rediscover an identity of her own separate from Sherriff Peters. Mrs. Hale ties it together when she states that women, “all go through the same things – it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.” (Glaspell) Mrs. Hale is seeing the murder of John Wright to be Minnie’s final rejection of her husband’s forced identity.

The obliteration of the individual female identity lent itself to the continuing relationship of patriarchal dominance in early Americana. dominance is a predominant theme of Trifles. the play, Glaspell’s male characters typify the belief of the early Americana that women’s identity is a reflection of their relationship to men, rather than a separate identity built from their own inherent female qualities. It is interesting to note that, except for Minnie Wright, the two most prominent figures are referred to only as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters. There is no use of the women’s first names. Furthermore, the men assume that the women’s interest in Minnie’s personal effects, such as the sewing basket, are of a trivial nature. From the men’s attitude, it is clear that the women are perceived to be small-minded and only concerned with “trifles.” It never enters the men’s minds that the women may have discovered something useful to the investigation. The unified acceptance of their dominant role is shown again through the observations the men make regarding the untidy state of the kitchen. A dirty towel on the roller immediately leads to the conclusion that Minnie Wright must have been a poor homemaker. They all know John Wright was a dutiful man who paid his debts on time and kept to the law; any fault in the home would not be his and so would have to lie with his wife. This unified mindset served to form an allied front that would protect Mr. Wright’s reputation as a man in the community. Even though the neighbor states that John Wright was a man who didn’t seem to care about what his wife might want, the idea that John Wright was an unloving and possibly brutal husband does not begin to cross their minds. In short, how Wright was with his wife is of no consequence; his reputation is determined by how he was with the other men. If the women wish to act outside patriarchal dominance, this show of complete male solidarity leaves Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale with no choice but to aid Minnie.

The negation of the importance of or concern for knowing the personal life between John and Minnie Wright can be used to explore the theme of domesticity presented in Trifles also.Take Henderson’s observations of the Wright’s kitchen, for example. Because of the unkempt kitchen, Henderson arrives at the conclusion that Minnie must not have had the homemaking instinct. Since the presentation of the home would have been the main measure of a woman’s worth in early Americana, Mrs. Hale takes Henderson’s observations personally. She responds with the notion that perhaps it was John Wright who did not have much of a homemaking instinct. The exchange between Henderson and Mrs. Hale creates two different concepts of the idea of domesticity. The first concept is familiar and ordinary, referring to keeping up a home by way of cleaning and decorating. The second concept is less familiar to the men and refers to making the home a warm, safe, and emotionally comfortable environment. This second concept of domesticity is lost on Henderson and he fails to see its importance, to the investigation or otherwise. Throughout the play, John Wright is referred to as a man who didn’t talk much, who was tight with his money, hard and unwelcoming. In their discussion of Minnie Wright, they describe Minnie as someone who used to “wear pretty clothes and be lively” (Glaspell) and mention that she used to sing in the choir, “when she was Minnie Foster.” (Glaspell) Those descriptions are all in the past tense, and describe a woman before she married and became Mrs. John Wright. If the second definition of domesticity is applied, it can be determined that John Wright failed as a husband to provide an emotionally warm home for Minnie, where she would feel loved, protected, safe, and encouraged in her own endeavors. The behavior shown by Henderson, and mirrored by Hale and Peters in their actions, was an accurate reflection of how domesticity was perceived in early Americana. The responsibility, and fault as it were, for the environment of the home fell to the woman. In society’s view at the time, the man had nothing to do with domesticity.

Minnie Wright strangles her husband because of an uncontrollable need for revenge, but her ability to complete the murder was aided by years of isolation, loneliness, and a deep unhappiness within the marriage. As noted before, John Wright is described as being a hard man who did not like to talk and did not seem to care about his wife’s need for companionship. Even Mrs. Hale stayed away from the Wright farm, only contributing to Minnie’s sense of isolation. For the women, it is clear that Minnie may have placed uncommon importance on the canary, caring for it as a substitute for Minnie’s lack of children or friends. An account of the loneliness experienced by Mrs. Peters while homesteading in Dakota helps to illustrate that companionship is an important element to the female, and human, psyche, and the effect the lack of companionship can have. Mrs. Hale takes it further with the realization that a lack of unity and support within the female community has subjected all women to a certain loneliness, a realization that brings that three women closer together.

Concerning the play, if the three men had given any consideration to Minnie Wright as a person, Henderson would have made it a priority to search her personal items and made searching the kitchen a priority, thereby happening upon the same clues as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters did. If they had been less the products of a partriarchal society, they would have took note and paid interest in what the women were looking at, what they were talking about, even their posturing and the glances that passed between Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. A closer look at the marital relationship between John Wright and his wife, Minnie, would have given them a clearer picture of what could lead a wife to strangle her husband. However, because of these three themes of female identity, patriarchal dominance, and domesticity in early Americana society, that were natural to the men to act out, they left the farmhouse without any hard evidence and without any insight as to the motivation of the murder. Henderson, Hale, and Peters were just as clueless when they left as when they went in, both regarding the murder of John Wright and to the women in their lives.

Bibliography

“Trifles by Susan Glaspell, study guide.” enotes. n.d. 17 March 2012. Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York: Frank Shay, 1916.

Zehfus, Ruth E. “The Law and the Ladies in “Trifles”.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College,      v19 n1, p42-44. Feb. 1992. 17 March 2012.Ben-Simon, Daniel. “Everyone is Busy with Trifles.” Ha’aretz, #56058, Jan. 2007. 17 March 2012.

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