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Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles reminds audiences of the differences between the perspectives and perceptions of men and women. The subject of the play is murder with the possibility of a wife killing her husband.
One important aspect of the play is the time period. It is 1916 in the rural areas, women felt isolated. Most of their time was devoted to the drudgery of housework, cooking three meals per day, and taking care of the children. These women were strong; yet, they were also subservient to their husbands.
To illustrate the difference between the approaches of men and women in solving the crime, look at these examples of evidence:
The men ridicule Mrs. Wright for keeping a sloppy house, which offends the women. The county attorney judges the type of person Minnie Wright is based on the state of her kitchen. He notices dirty towels lying on the kitchen counter and makes the observation that Minnie was not a good housekeeper; then, he kicks some pans under the sink.
The women know how hard it is to keep a clean kitchen on a farm. Mrs. Hale comments that she would hate to have a man come into her kitchen and criticize her. They find a loaf of bread that had been left to rise in order to bake. With her canning and bread making, the women determine that she was interested in taking care of her family like any other woman. Minnie Wright was not the kind of woman who kept an unkempt kitchen.
The bird cage
The county attorney sees the bird cage and asks if the bird has flown the coop. The ladies respond that there may have been a cat. Not interested at all, he joins the other men upstairs to discuss the rope.
When the bird cage is found by Mrs. Peters, both women are intrigued about where is the bird that occupied the cage. They also note that the door of the cage has been ripped off its hinges.
When the bird and the box are found, the women know the truth of what happened the night that John Wright was killed. The implication is that John Wright was an abusive husband who kept his wife on a tight leash. When he killed her canary, John went one step too far. Minnie snapped and sought revenge for killing the one thing that she had to love.
Mrs. Hale: She like the bird. She was going to bury in that pretty box. I wonder how it would seem never that have had any children around. Wright wouldn’t like the bird—a thing that sang.
The men hear the quilt being discussed. The county attorney makes a smart aleck remark about whether Minnie was going to quilt or knot the ends of the quilt. When the men hear the women talking about the quilt, they laugh about what the women are discussing.
The women see how perfectly Minnie stitched the quilt. The last stitches were skewed and irregular. Obviously, something happened at the time when she finished her last stitches. Was this when the John came after the bird?
The men treat the women condescendingly. They are insensitive and chauvinistic with regard to their wives. It is obvious that the men have no regard for Minnie Wright. They do not conduct a thorough investigation.
The women bow to the men’s authority. When they are alone in the house, the women pick up on the trifles which provide the motive for the murder. The men pay no attention to any of the actual items that would have easily convicted Minnie Wright of killing her husband.
The most poignant piece of evidence witnessed by both the men and the women in Susan Glaspell'sTriflesis the stitching. Although the men and women in the play also see
- the frozen compotes
- the state of the bare kitchen
- the disordered, unkempt home
the moment of the story where we get to understand the state of mind of Minnie Foster is when Mrs. Hale lifts the erratic piece of stitching on which Minnie was presumably working right until she snapped. This piece is extremely important because, even if the empty birdcage and the body of the dead canary had never been found, it would have pointed directly at the ultimate cause of the crime.
MRS. HALE [Examining another block.]
Mrs. Peters, look at this one. Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about! [After she has said this they look at each other, then start to glance back at the door. After an instant MRS. HALE has pulled at a knot and ripped the sewing.]
Right at this point, the women realize that something was awfully wrong. Not long after, they find the cage, the bird, and Mrs. Peters tells the story about her own state of mind when some boy hacked her kitten to death when she was a little girl...how it hurt her so much that, if she had not been held back she would have "done something". All of these pieces contribute to understand that Minnie Foster snapped.
Yet, as the women come to this realization, in comes the County Attorney, after looking around the house with the Sheriff for evidence, with a silly remark regarding the stitching
[As one turning from serious things to little pleasantries.] Well, ladies, have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?
Hence, the value that the women give to the piece of stitching is completely different to the value placed upon it by the men. To the men, everything that they see that belongs to Minnie are "trifles"; things as non-important as the woman is to them as well. However, to the women, everything is game; even the most trifling-looking piece has some significance and connects them directly to Minnie. This is what sets the double standard in the play, and what sends the central message of how women are considered as second class citizens in certain social circles.
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