Gender roles continue to evolve and change—it has only been for a relatively short time that women have broken through their defined roles to be seen on the same level as men on a wide scale basis. Indeed, much of history’s pages are written from a patriarchal perspective, opening the...
Gender roles continue to evolve and change—it has only been for a relatively short time that women have broken through their defined roles to be seen on the same level as men on a wide scale basis. Indeed, much of history’s pages are written from a patriarchal perspective, opening the way for the female protagonists and complimentary characters in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House to challenge those gender roles, providing interesting points of comparison and contrast between the plays and challenging us to think about gender roles in a new way.
Trifles and A Doll's House are both centered around married couples and are presented from the points of view of female characters. In Trifles, we are put into Mrs. Wright’s home a day after her husband has been murdered. The play takes place after the fact, and much of the script is built around a conversation between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters (two women from the same rural town as the Wrights, one being the sheriff’s wife and the other being the wife of the man who discovered the murder) concerning whether or not Mrs. Wright really did kill her husband. The reader has little doubt the entire time that she did, but is compelled to continue to find out why. Trifles is about a woman murders her husband and two other women who lash out against their gender roles by withholding evidence from their husbands.
In A Doll's House the important action also occurs before the curtain is ever lifted. We discover that Nora, a woman who seems to conform to her gender role, has gone against her husband’s will and has been paying off a debt behind his back for ten years. What’s more, she forged her father’s signature to help her get the loan in the first place! And she has no problem lying to him about this to preserve the peace in their marriage—indeed, Nora would rather Torvald continue to think of her as a “spendthrift” than as a woman in debt, further challenging the reader’s original assumption that she is a typical housewife character.
A particularly interesting comparison exists between these two women protagonists in that both of them are compared to birds—Torvald calls Nora his “lark” (Ibsen 1259), and Mrs. Hale openly says Mrs. Wright “was kind of a bird herself” (Glaspell 1054). These seem to be innocent metaphors on the surface, but darker tones soon overtake them as the plays progress—birds can be trapped in cages in the same way that women might be trapped into their gender roles, where their “duties” are not to themselves but to their husbands and children.
We discover this theme in Trifles, when a literal canary is found strangled and its dead body sewed in the pocket of a quilt—strangled by Mr. Wright and sewed away by Mrs. Wright, the same way Mrs. Wright’s spirit and free nature were discarded so she could serve her gender-assigned duties. Indeed, we actually see in her character a desire to serve those duties, a desire for children and to be a good wife through the descriptions we receive from Mrs. Hale, but these desires are denied by the cold, wintry spirit of one Mr. Wright. Mrs. Hale says as much to the County Attorney, Mr. Henderson, when she says she didn’t think a “place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” (1051). And for the woman once known as Minnie Foster, it was that same man who eroded her until she no longer was one of the town girls as she had been thirty years before, no longer a woman who sang in the choir, and definitely not one of the town women in a Ladies’ Aid. Her last solace in that otherwise drained and dreary home was that singing little canary that she had bought a year before the events of Trifles, and whose death sets her off to finally murder her own husband by tying a rope around his neck and strangling him in the same way he strangled the bird and her own spirit. This is the epitome of a marriage gone wrong.
While Mrs. Wright lashes out against the cage and her gender role by killing Mr. Wright, Nora’s character ultimately decides to seek freedom from it. Nora’s complex personality proves to be hard to predict to the very end, when she decides to shirk her duties to her husband and children to focus on herself, to serve her own needs for individuality. Indeed, Nora quite easily refuses to be the “doll” in Torvald’s house anymore, once she realizes that they have never exchanged a serious word in their relationship despite their discussion days earlier about Krogstad or about matters of money. But as Marvin Rosenberg writes in “Ibsen’s Nora,” it is the “humanizing faults that make her so exciting;” such as how she “munches on macaroons forbidden by Torvald,” and “when he discovers the sweets, she lies: her friend brought them,” or how, in response to her husband’s inquiry about the scratches on the mailbox, she “absolves herself … by blaming the scratches on her … children!” Rosenberg points out the many conflicting traits of Nora in his response to Joan Templeton’s essay, “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen” (Rosenberg 895).
But no matter the resounding challenges they issue to traditional gender roles, Nora’s actions are not crimes, not for the most part, although it is a crime that she forged her father’s name on the loan papers from Mr. Krogstad; however, it is unjust that at the very heart of the challenges issued to Nora in A Doll's House, an otherwise harmless woman is forced to break what tradition would assert to be true and step out of “her boundaries” by doing so.
However, it is not only Minnie Foster’s and Nora’s crimes that challenge such gender dynamics, but the actions and circumstances of their supporting casts as well. For example, in at least one of the relationships in A Doll's House, there is a complete reversal of typical gender assignments. This is demonstrated when Mr. Krogstad loses his job to Kristine Linde, a woman who proves herself completely capable of solving problems on her own—without the help of men—during the events of the play. And not only does she replace him at the bank where Torvald, Nora’s husband, is to serve as manager, but also later renews the relationship between the two of them from ten years prior and offers to work while he stays at home—at least during the outset of their relationship—because his taking the job back “benefits” no one (Ibsen1292). Additionally, it was she who fixed her family’s problems years before by taking it on herself to break off the original relationship with Krogstad and marry a richer man. And even Krogstad himself steps out of gender role when he accepts the circumstances that fall upon him—he does not care that he is not to be the breadwinner of the family: he cares only that he and Ms. Linde are at last reunited.
Just as Ms. Linde and Krogstad provide complimentary characters to go alongside Nora in challenging gender roles, the duo of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters in Trifles performs the same task for Mrs. Wright. Together, these two women go about the home of the crime scene and discuss the case while gathering trinkets for the incarcerated Mrs. Wright—ignoring some judgmental comments from both the County Attorney and the Sheriff during the process. As the women go through the home collecting various “trifles,” they begin realizing odd things, like how the quilt is knotted strangely or how difficult it is to imagine there being a bird cage in the home. And eventually, it is not the Country Attorney and Sheriff, but they who discover the strangled canary and put together the pieces of evidence confirming Mrs. Wright committed the murder. What's more, they agree to hide the evidence away, even though Mrs. Peters is the sheriff’s wife! So not only do the women in Trifles solve the murder, but also protect one of their own in a way that influences the audience to think they do the right thing.
It is the actions of these complimentary characters, women solving murders or women taking over the breadwinning duties of a family, that enable Trifles and A Doll's House to challenge gender roles. After all, if it was only Minnie Foster and Nora that had set out to challenge the conventions, then neither play would be heralded so much for their feminist themes. It is because there are multiple characters in each play that convince the reader and the audience that what is being presented to them is realistic to life that these themes begin to be clear and thus challenge history’s patriarchy.
We are not given a glimpse into the conclusion of Mrs. Wright’s criminal trial, so we don’t know if she was released from jail because of the lack of evidence against her—for all we know Mrs. Peters relents and eventually tells the story of the dead canary to her husband the Sheriff. We also don’t know where Nora goes to when she departs Torvald’s home, and we have no way of knowing if she finds what she is looking for. But we like to think that these female characters, who become like real people to us when we allow them to do so, encountered success in their endeavors.
And because we begin to hope that these imaginary characters encounter success, our thinking may change; we may think in a new way about women’s rights and gender conventions and how the duties in marriage should not be assigned due to sex, but shared between husband and wife. We begin to see the power of human relationships when these women try to solve their problems, without the help of men, on stage. And that is exactly how Glaspell and Ibsen wrote them to be seen—not as women, but as people. Those are the far-reaching effects that occur when we allow what we read and see to influence our thinking, and ultimately they are why Trifles and A Doll's House have become so renowned as plays that challenge gender roles.