The Dubious Moral Message of Susan Glaspell's Trifles
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles concerns a woman who was once young, pretty, and outgoing until she found herself in a loveless marriage with a stern, anti-social farmer. Her isolation, the gloom of her surroundings, and her husband’s dispassion slowly drove her to the brink of insanity. She tried to fend off her depression with bits of gaiety—brightly colored quilting and a caged songbird—but when her husband, in a sudden act of aggression, broke the cage and killed the bird and its singing, she was driven over the edge.
In the middle of the night, she slipped a noose around her husband’s neck, and strangled him in his sleep. When the county prosecutor arrives with the town’s sheriff and a local farmer to investigate the scene, their wives quickly discover the miserable life Mrs. Wright led, and choose to hide the evidence of her crime.
For all its protestations about the treatment of women in rural America at the turn of the century, and in spite of the nearly unanimous approval of the play’s final outcome among feminist literary critics, there is something unsavory about the resolution of Trifles. The most shocking and irresponsible act in the play is not John Wright’s mental abuse of his wife, Minnie, nor is it even the murder itself, which happened before the play actually begins.
The most shocking act is the deliberate coverup of Mrs. Wright’s heinous act by two well intentioned but ultimately criminal conspirators. Their decision to cloak Mrs. Wright from the prying, but bumbling, eyes of the men in the play suggests a dubious sense of morality, and poses a frightening model of vigilante justice that, if widely adopted by those who felt neglected or marginalized, would seriously undermine the efforts of any judicial system.
Everything about Trifles, from its harsh treatment of its two-dimensional male characters to the play’s final words, Mrs. Hale’s clever, sarcastic remark, ‘‘We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson,’’ suggests the audience should endorse, even applaud these women for their shrewdness and loyalty to their sex.
Yet what, really, is their accomplishment? In rationalizing and justifying Minnie Wright’s actions, then concealing evidence from her investigators, these formerly innocent, law-abiding Mid- western farm wives have become accomplices to a grisly murder. In seeking retribution for perceived oppression, and in trying to reform society, they have actually denigrated the moral fiber of their world.
Interestingly, in the years since Trifles was first produced, many scholars have found reason after reason to condone the actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale. Intentionally or not, Glaspell has encouraged successive generations of critical scofflaws.
Feminist critics in particular have suggested a variety of people to blame for the crime of murder, other than Minnie Wright. According to these sympathetic scholars, John Wright, her difficult husband, Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale, and the town that abandoned her all contributed to the inevitable tragedy.
In an essay entitled ‘‘A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,’’ Annette Kolodny suggests, ‘‘The essential crime in the story, we come to realize, has been the husband’s inexorable strangulation, over the years, of Minnie Foster’s spirit and personality; and the culpable criminality is the complicity of the women who had permitted the isolation and the loneliness to dominate Minnie Foster’s existence. . . .’’
Kolodny employs one of the most important ruses of creative defense attorneys: create sympathy for the defendant, and cast the blame somewhere else. She even goes so far as to propose that ‘‘the ending is a happy one: Minnie Foster is to be set free, no motive having been discovered by which to prosecute her.’’
Karen F. Stein echoes Kolodny’s judgment in ‘‘The Women’s World of Glaspell’s Trifles .’’ She observes, ‘‘The lack of a telephone, the shabby furniture, the much-mended...
(The entire section is 4,963 words.)