Explain how "patriarchal dominance", "empathy", and "protection" apply in Susan Glaspell's Trifles.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Susan Glaspell's play Trifles, Patriarchal Dominance, Empathy and Protection rest at the core of the plot development and the story's outcome.

As the play opens, several men are searching the Wright house to find evidence to convict Minnie Wright of her husband's murder. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are there to collect some things for Minnie who is in jail.

The men casually move about, dismissive of the hard life a woman has in keeping house and caring for family, considering that the most difficult tasks are merely "trifles." One of these tasks is putting up preserves, which is a physically demanding, daylong process to prepare for the winter months.

MRS. PETERS (to the other woman). Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. (To the Lawyer). She worried about that when it turned so cold. She said the fire'd go out and her jars would break.

SHERIFF. Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves.

COUNTY ATTORNEY. I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.

HALE. Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
(The two women move a little closer together.)

It is this attitude that unites Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters—notice that the stage direction describes them moving together, as if becoming of one mind. It will also be the men's cavalier attitude that will drive the women to exact justice for a person they barely know who has been oppressed and abused by her husband.

The psychological divide between the men and women is visible throughout the play, as their different social roles and natures lead them to perceive radically different aspects of Minnie’s life.

This "divide" is first and foremost the result of patriarchal dominance. There is a sense among the men that nothing Mr. Wright could have done would warrant such an action by his wife (though numerous situations come to light that prove that the man of the house dominated everything). The dismissive attitude of the men towards the role of women in the household also reflects patriarchal dominance.

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find a great many things in the house that reveal the lonely and battered existence Minnie Wright must have endured in that house. Perhaps nothing, however, ignites their empathy as does the smashed birdcage, and soon after, the body of the dead canary.

MRS. HALE. (lifting the silk) Oh, Mrs. Peters--it's-- (Mrs. Peters bend closer.)

MRS. PETERS. It's the bird.

MRS. HALE. (jumping up) But, Mrs. Peters--look at it. Its neck! Look at its neck! It's all--other side to.

MRS. PETERS. Somebody--wrung--its neck.
(Their eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension of horror...)

Mrs. Peters is especially empathetic over Minnie's situation as she had a kitten that was murdered by a mean boy when she was a child, and she admits that if someone had not stopped her, she would have "hurt" the boy. She also shares her devastation over the death of her two-year old son—that her loneliness almost destroyed her. The women understand that the small bird was the only comfort Minnie had—with no children and only a thoughtless and abusive spouse in the house, day after day, and year after year.

It is in this moment that the women's struggle with how to proceed begins to resolve itself. While Mrs. Peters believes that crime must be punished, she knows what Mrs. Wright has endured. Then she makes the excuse that no one can be certain who killed John Wright. Mrs. Hale reflects upon how women should be more closely aligned in that they all face things that are extremely similar:

MRS. HALE. I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing. 

Ultimately they acknowledge that they must protect Minnie. An opportunity quickly presents itself when the county attorney asks about the broken cage and the women lie. Mrs. Hale says they think the cat got the bird. (There is no cat.) Mrs. Peters explains its absence: that cats are superstitious and leave (we can assume because there has been a death in the house). Just as dismissive as the other men in the house, the county attorney is preoccupied and pays little attention to what they have said.

At the end of the play, the men are fairly certain of Mrs. Wright's guilt, but they cannot understand why. They need motive to close the case up neatly for the jury.

COUNTY ATTORNEY. No, Peters, it's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing. Something to show--something to make a story about--a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it.

(The women's eyes meet for an instant...)

Once more, the men mill about. Again they dismiss the importance of the hard work of a housewife as they joke about the quilt Minnie was making. Assuming that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters would be unable to have a personal opinion that they might act on, the county attorney and the sheriff laugh, noting that there is no reason to check what the women have packed. After all, Mrs. Peters is the sheriff's wife and therefore "married to the law."

As they men turn to leave, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale silently agree to remove the box from the house and keep it from the attention of the men. Mrs. Peters is unable to pack the box away because of its size, and is loath to touch the dead bird. Swiftly, Mrs. Hale picks up the ornamental box in which the dead canary rests and secrets it in the large pocket of her coat.

The audience can assume that the women's final gesture to protect Minnie will be to dispose of this evidence upon which the outcome of the case would rest.

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