Style and Technique
Glaspell uses rich verbal and dramatic irony to show that women’s intuitive powers can be superior to men’s analytical skills. Aware of the details of daily household chores, the two women grasp the overall scenario: an enraged husband killed by an even more enraged wife. Besides showing how women know that trifles are not insignificant, Glaspell dramatizes gender differences to foreshadow the women’s rebellion. The women, for example, respond sympathetically on seeing the mess from broken jars of fruit, upset at the futility of a woman’s hard work in the intense summer heat. On the other hand, the men berate Mrs. Wright for sloppy housekeeping, as if she could have prevented the cold weather from bursting the jars while jailed overnight.
The descriptive narration, interwoven with insightful dialogue, skillfully reveals a sense of place, characterization, and plot events. For example, Glaspell sets the Wrights’ farmhouse in a hollow, suggesting the emotional emptiness of their lives. She compares John Wright’s hardness to “a raw wind that gets to the bone,” and Minnie is like a bird herself—“sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery.” Although caged up, small, and defenseless like the canary, Minnie becomes enraged enough to murder John.
As the pieces of a patchwork quilt are sewn together, Glaspell slowly stitches together details that reveal the pattern clearly. She makes clever use of the quilting term of “knotting” to suggest that the women have joined to block the prosecution’s case against Minnie. Quilting points to another key metaphor in defining the importance of women’s work as sisterhood. Whereas women in a community have traditionally gathered for quilting bees to finish the tedious work of stitching the patchwork top layer to the stuffing and backing, the solitary Mrs. Wright, having to rely on herself, would have chosen the faster method of knotting (pulling yarn through the material at perhaps twelve-inch intervals and tying it off in a knot). Although Minnie Wright’s community of sisters neglected her in the past, they now rally together to save her life. A jury of her peers has reached its verdict: not guilty.
Turn of the Century Images of Womanhood
The era between 1914 and 1939 is sometimes referred to the modernist period of literary history. During this time, the social climate of many Western countries began to change dramatically. In 1917 the United States entered World War I. This international event threw many accepted social traditions into chaos. While the men were off fighting in the war and dying in greater numbers than ever before, women remained on the home front and increased independence was necessary for their survival. In order to support themselves and their families, mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters began to move into the work force and take charge of their family's well-being. Modernism in literature was a movement characterized by a rejection of traditional literary methods and values. Gone was the adherence to bourgeois values, and in its place was an often pessimistic sense of foreboding and questioning.
The poet W. H. Auden characterized the national sentiment of this era and its response to women's increasing independence as the "Age of Anxiety." The rise of women's suffrage challenged the male world of politics and government and ended their absolute power over the public realm. In 1918 women in England were granted the legal right to vote and suffrage for American women followed in 1920. Political power and economics were now shared—at least somewhat—between the sexes, and the preexisting gender divide between public man and private woman no longer provided the security of male mastery. English writer D. H. Lawrence's essay "Matriarchy" exaggerated a picture of these times by theorizing that a matriarchy, or woman-centered society, was growing out of the modernist era and taking control, and destroying the "mastery" of the patriarchy, or...
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