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Gender roles and assumptions in Susan Glaspell's Trifles


In Susan Glaspell's "Trifles," gender roles and assumptions are central themes. The male characters dismiss the women’s observations as trivial, reflecting societal views that undervalue women's perspectives and contributions. However, it is the women who uncover crucial evidence, highlighting the importance of their overlooked domestic knowledge and challenging the gender biases of the time.

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In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, what gender differences does the play imply?

Trifles is a play of considerable nuance and it would be foolish to try to extract a single message or moral from it. One of its many meanings, however, is the idea that unquestioned dominance makes the dominant party stupid and lazy. It is irksome to be the oppressed party but at least one has to sharpen one's wits, for intelligence is the only way in which one is likely to be able to gain a temporary advantage.

The principal difference between men and women implied throughout the play is that the men are powerful and have become stupid and lazy. The women have no power except that of intelligence, which allows them to manipulate the men. Intelligence is of more use than power in solving a crime, however. Indeed, the men do not know what they are looking for, since a moment's reflection would tell them that all clues are trifles. It is in the nature of a clue to be trifling, otherwise it would not have been left behind. While the women ingeniously piece together a puzzle from trifles, the men miss clue after clue. When the County Attorney hits by accident upon a clue of genuine importance, the empty birdcage, and asks if the bird has flown, the women are easily able to misdirect him by referring to a non-existent cat.

One other quality of the women, also occasioned at least partly by male dominance, is solidarity. Mrs. Peters says that crime must be punished, but her sympathy with Mrs. Hale and with the tribulations of Mrs. Wright eventually leads her to acquiesce in protecting a murderess. The women connect with one another by talking about their experiences of stillness and loneliness, while the men in the play bond with one another chiefly through jocularly disparaging remarks about the foibles of women.

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In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, what gender differences does the play imply?

The differences implied between men and women in Susan Glaspell's play, Trifles, is that the male-dominated society has no concept of the hardships, trials and hard work that surrounds the life of a woman—and wife—at the beginning of the 20th Century. In that men very much still treated their wives as chattel, or a possession, they gave the women little credit for the work they accomplished, for the disappointments they faced, the ability of men to physically, mentally and emotionally abuse their wives, and their lack of concern for, and respect of, women in general.

As the play begins, the men enter the house to find evidence to convict Mrs. Wright of murdering her husband. This woman whose life centers around things the men consider "trifling," has dared to harm (and kill) her social superior. The men intend to prove Mrs. Wright's guilt and punish her.

SHERIFF. Well, can you beat the woman! 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.

The women enter, influenced at first by the attitudes of the men. They don't know Mrs. Wright very well, but it is a charitable act they are doing to bring things to Mrs. Wright while she is in jail. As the men blatantly show their disregard for this woman and her hard work, they also show their disregard for Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters—in fact, for all women. As the ladies learn more and more about Mrs. Wright's situation, they become sympathetic towards the woman accused of killing her husband. Mrs. Wright's life has changed dramatically since her youth. Mrs. Hale remembers:

She--come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself--real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery. How--she--did--change.

Whereas the men could never put themselves in the place of a woman—they discredit most of the efforts put forth by women on a daily basis by insulting Mrs. Wright—Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters can empathize. Mrs. Peters remembers a bully who killed her kitten before her eyes—she admits she could have "hurt" the bully at that moment.

MRS. PETERS. (in a whisper). When I was a girl--my kitten--there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes--and before I could get there--(Covers her face an instant.) If they hadn't held me back, I would have-- (Catches herself, looks upstairs, where steps are heard, falters weakly.)--hurt him.

Mrs. Wright's bird was destroyed at the hands of another bully: her husband.

Mrs. Peters recalls how hard it was for her, to lose her child at a very young age.

MRS. HALE (her own feeling not interrupted.) If there'd been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful--still, after the bird was still.

MRS. PETERS (something within her speaking). I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died--after he was two years old, and me with no other then--

Mrs. Wright has no children, no companionship at all, and this is another kind of pain women face.

The play shows the enormous divide that exists between men and women of the day, especially in the way that the men belittle the daily existence of the wife, and society's acceptance of this inequitable social roles and standings in the early 20th Century.

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In Susan Glaspell's one-act play, Trifles, what attitudes toward women do the men express?

The primary attitude of the men in Trifles toward the women is expressed in the play's title. The men obviously believe that roles and interests are divided by gender: the men's concerns are primary and are serious, while the women's interests are mere "trifles."

Glaspell's play portrays the informal investigation of a home in which a murder has taken place by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, whose husbands are formally investigating the literal crime scene. The men are looking for evidence of motive and have trouble finding any, because they only pay attention to the markers most policemen and other male officials would look for as proof. The women inadvertently solve the crime and piece together Mrs. Wright's motive by observing the state of the Wrights' domestic life.

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are tasked with gathering some items to bring to Mrs. Wright in the jail. As they look around the home, they notice that Mrs. Wright's kitchen work (preserves) was interrupted——she hadn't put everything away after all the hard work she did. The women lament the loss of all that work, and they can relate, because they've completed similar tasks in their own homes. The women notice that there is a flawed stitch in Mrs. Wright's knitting, which indicates she was upset or distracted. Finally, when looking for some sewing supplies, they come across a dead bird with a broken neck. This is the primary clue to motive, because of the way Mr. Wright was killed (he was strangled). The women put together these physical clues with Mrs. Peter's past relationship with Mrs. Wright (she knew her as Minnie Foster, who loved to sing, but whose voice had been silenced by her husband). The dead bird symbolizes Mrs. Wright, whose spirit has been killed by her husband, along with the bird, which represents her struggle. The women understand why Mrs. Wright committed the crime, they sympathize, and they cover for her.

The men probably would never have figured this out anyway, though, because things like women's sewing supplies are "trifles" to them. The play emphasizes the idea that men's roles and concerns are more serious and important than those of women. Ironically, it is this exact attitude that leads the women to solve the crime while the men come up empty.

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In Susan Glaspell's one-act play, Trifles, what attitudes toward women do the men express?

This is a great question for a number of reasons! Certainly this is a play when the women win against the men hands down! What is fascinating about this play is the way that the author uses dramatic irony so well to highlight the ignorance and chauvinism of the males in their judgement of the women.

The dramatic irony in this short play lies around the crucial fact that the men are completely unable to find a motive for the killing of John Wright whilst the women are, although they are disparaged by the men for concerning themselves with "trifles", which clearly in their opinion can hold no interest to their "serious" investigations.

You will want to look at how the men mock the women and infer that they know nothing, only concerning themselves with "womanly" activities. A key example of this, and one that is referred to again and again at various points in the play to highlight the irony, concerns the quilt that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale find. Mrs. Hale says of this quilt:

It's log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn't it? I wonder if she was goin' to quilt it or just knot it?

Note then that the men descend the stairs, and the Sherrif repeats her words, drawing a laugh from the men. It is highly crucial then, that straight away after this, whilst Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are taking up their time with "little things" as Mrs. Hale says, that they find the motive in the piece of crooked sewing, that gives evidence of "anger, or - sudden feeling", as Mrs. Peters reports Mr. Henderson saying. Note how Mrs. Hale describes what she sees:

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!

The women, by engaging in their "trifles", have found the motive that the men have been looking for, whilst they have been stomping ineffectually all around the house. The answer was under their noses all the time, but needed a woman's knowledge to piece it together.

Therefore the men throughout are disparaging and dismissive of the women and what they can offer to the "real" investigation that the men think they are engaged in.

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In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, what gender differences does the play imply?

The men in Susan Glaspell's Trifles believe that the issues they care about are more important than the issues that women care about. The men arrive at the Wright farm in order to investigate a murder. The women come to care for their friend in prison. Because of this unwillingness to consider the women's emotions and concerns, the men miss out on vital clues that reveal the means and motives of the murder.

These attitudes are evident within the first few pages of the play as Mrs. Peters notices that Minnie's fruit preserves froze and the jars broke. The Sherrif laughs at this observation, saying,

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

The truth of the matter is that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are not so much concerned about the preserves as they are about Mrs. Wright's wellbeing. They know that the preserves were something that Mrs. Wright was concerned about, and her concern was well grounded.

The men also mock the women for admiring the quilt Minnie Wright was making and wondering whether or not she was going to quilt it or knot it. At the end of the play, the men's investigation has revealed no new information. The County Attorney makes this last jab at the women:

COUNTY ATTORNEY: (facetiously) Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to - what is it you call it, ladies?

MRS. HALE: (her hand against her pocket) We call it - knot it, Mr. Henderson.

In this moment, Mrs. Hale is using the phrase "knot it" as a double entendre. Mrs. Wright was knotting her blanket in the same way that she knotted the rope around her husband's neck. If the men had paid attention to Minnie's work, they may have understood Minnie's mental and emotional distress. Instead, they continued to be ignorant of what took place at the Wright farm.

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What assumptions do men and women make in Susan Glaspell's Trifles?

In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, the men, representing society, assume that nothing Minnie Wright has gone through in her marriage could constitute a worthwhile reason for killing her husband. As the county clerk and Mr. Hale discuss the women's concern over losing a batch of preserves, the county clerk assumes Minnie will be found guilty. Mr. Hale assumes that the life of a woman on a farm is inconsequential: made up of unimportant tasks—

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. 

When the women arrive, they don't initially see anything unusual, but they know what the men are looking for.

Mr. Henderson said coming out that what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger, or -- sudden feeling.

As they women step into the house, all seems (at first) as it should, and the women assume nothing will be found to incriminate Minnie Wright:

MRS. HALE. Well, I don't see any signs of anger around here…

However, after the women look closely, they find a birdcage with its door torn off its hinges, beaten up as if it had been attacked. At first they think something violent—like a cat—had destroyed the cage. However, there is no cat—there never has been one on the property. Soon, the women assume that Mr. Wright has killed the canary:

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...)

As the women's eyes meet, their comprehension is based upon their assumption—their certainty—that Mr. Wright killed the bird.

The men assume that something will be found in the house to incriminate Minnie—so they have already assumed her guilt. 

Like an Edgar Allan Poe mystery, the men also assume that nothing of importance takes place in a woman's life, aside from the comment about trifles—while all the time, exactly what they are looking for is right under their noses—but they ignore Mrs. Wright's domain in the home, assuming that women do little worth a man's notice (unless the men choose to criticize, as seen when the county attorney finds fault with the dirt on the kitchen towels). As the men prepare to leave, they are certain that nothing of any importance will be found in Minnie's things:

COUNTY ATTORNEY. You're convinced that there was nothing important here--nothing that would point to any motive?

SHERIFF. Nothing here but kitchen things. 

The women assume that they have evidence the men can use in the form of the broken cage and the dead bird. Mrs. Hale also believes that the messy sewing in Minnie's quilt would prove to the men Minnie's poor state of mind—enough to convict her of murder. Mrs. Hale is so convinced, that she fixes the sewing—purposely destroying what she believes will be damaging evidence:

MRS. PETERS. Oh, what are you doing, Mrs. Hale?

MRS. HALE. (mildly) Just pulling out a stitch or two that's not sewed very good. 

The men's assumptions hinder their investigation: the women's assumptions (and careful observations) protect Minnie from the men's eagerness to prove Minnie guilty under any circumstances.

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What are two examples of gender roles in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles?

The women in Trifles look at the work of a farm wife through a different lens than the men do. One example of this comes out when the country attorney, George Henderson, is dismissive and insulting about Mrs. Wright's kitchen being in a disarray. He says she is not much of a homemaker, but Mrs. Hale, knowing how hard the life of a farm woman is, defends her peer. When the attorney notes the dirty towel roll in the Wright's kitchen, blaming Mrs. Wright for it, Mrs. Hale counters by blaming the men. The passage showing the interchange is below:

Dirty towels! (kicks his foot against the pans under the sink) Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?

MRS HALE: (stiffly) There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm.

COUNTY ATTORNEY: To be sure. And yet (with a little bow to her) I know there are some Dickson county farmhouses which do not have such roller towels. (He gives it a pull to expose its length again.)

MRS HALE: Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be.

COUNTY ATTORNEY: Ah, loyal to your sex, I see.

In the Wright kitchen, Mr. Hale dismisses women's concerns as "trifles" because the women are worried about Mrs. Wright's ruined cherry preserves. He says:

Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.

Later, when the men have left, Mrs. Hale says to Mrs. Peters about the preserves:

She'll [Minnie] feel awful bad after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer.

The men can easily dismiss the work of making preserves as trifling because they don't have to do it: it is woman's work. The women, however, know how hard it is boiling the fruit in a hot kitchen because they have to do it every summer.

Gender roles make it much easier for the women to reconstruct what happened to Minnie; they are better able to understand why she snapped. Gender roles also make it easy for men to dismiss the woman's point of view and overlook crucial evidence that the women see.

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How are gender roles portrayed in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles? What are some examples of gender roles in the play?

The women in Trifles are portrayed as hesitant and timid when around the men, who are depicted as more confident. The stage directions describe Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter, entering the Wright's kitchen, as

women [who] have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door.

The men, in contrast, walk confidently over to the stove.

The chief gender role the women play in this rural society of a century past is that of homemaker. This role includes baking, cleaning, sewing, and putting up preserves. This work is belittled by the men as "trifling." The men assume that their professional credentials as police officers and detectives make them more competent at crime solving than the women. In this society, men have paid work outside of the home or as farmers, while women's work is unpaid domestic labor. The women are subordinate to men, as is shown in the dismissive way the men treat the women.

By concentrating on what the men overlook as trifles not worth noticing, the women are able to piece together what happened to cause the death of John Wright. They realize that Minnie Wright snapped when her husband killed her beloved pet canary and retaliated by killing her husband. The women are able to empathize with her isolated life on a farm with an abusive, uncaring man, because they know what it is like to be in her position.

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In Trifles, what assumptions do the male characters make about women, and how do the female characters react?

The first assumption that the males make in the play Trifles is that women have absolutely no worries or concerns to care for in life with the exception of tending to their homes and families.

We find evidence in the beginning of the play, when the country attorney and the sheriff scoff at the state of the house where Minnie Wright was found in a state of shock after having snapped and murdered her husband. The reader will find out later that Minnie was subjected to a tragic pattern of domestic abuse, and that her husband's murder was not planned. However, this is a big case either way, and still all that the men can do is criticize what they feel are Minnie's lack of domestic skills.

COUNTY ATTORNEY: Here's a nice mess.

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.

The silly, gender-digging dialogue goes all throughout the play. The county attorney, Mr. Hale, and the sheriff are equally guilty of promoting their thoughts of gender superiority.

COUNTY ATTORNEY: (with the gallantry of a young politician) And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies? [...] Dirty towels! (kicks his foot against the pans under the sink) Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?

MRS HALE: (stiffly) There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm.

Clearly, there is a line of respect and deference that the women do not dare crossing in challenging the men directly about their thoughts. However, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters do their part subtlety. They try, as we just saw above, to counteract the words of the males. They also try their best to come in defense of Minnie. Mrs. Hale even tells of how Minnie had changed ever since her wedding; that the home became a sad and cold place where she never wanted to go and visit. .

Therefore, while the man continue their attacks against the "joys" of womanhood, the women focus on finding the cues as to what could be there that can help Minnie at least get evidence that she has snapped, and not that she is a cold-blooded killer.

Eventually the audience will find out that the so-called "trifles" that the men called on, and the women were looking into around the house, were much more than that. The audience finds out that the crazy stitching pattern,  the frozen compote, and the house where Minnie kept her canary were not merely disparate objects around the house. They were all symptoms or consequences of the abuse that Minnie was enduring. Therefore, while the men continued to overlook the obvious, the women were sure to hide anything that would be negative for Minnie's defense.

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In the play Trifles, what assumptions about women do the male characters make? In what ways do the female characters support or challenge these assumptions?

Mrs. Hale both supports and challenges the assumptions the men make.  She is a dutiful wife and does what her husband tells her to do.  She engages in womanly activities and allows the men to do their duties without interfering.  However, she insidiously conspires to hide the evidence of Minnie's guilt.  Her intelligence and her quick thinking challenge the assumptions for the audience, but not for the men in the play.

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In the play Trifles, what assumptions about women do the male characters make? In what ways do the female characters support or challenge these assumptions?

The mere title of the play tells you everything you need to know.  They continue to laugh and smile condescendingly at the women and the things they talk about--whether or not Minnie intended to quilt or knot her quilt, if they should tell her all her fruit jars busted up in the cold, or what happened to the bird which probably occupied the empty and broken birdcage they found.  They assume that women are not capable of intelligent and logical thought; that all they busy themselves with are "trifles"--unimportant tidbits that couldn't possibly offer any evidence to point to Minnie's guilt or innocence.  Women are unthinking, silly creatures who waste much of their day dealing with unimportant and silly things.  Too emotional, too caught up in gossip, worrying about everything...they are to be taken care of as children are because they can't be trusted to deal with things as a man can.

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In the play Trifles, what assumptions about women do the male characters make? In what ways do the female characters support or challenge these assumptions?

The men think the women know little about law and even less about evidence. The men are trying to figure out the motivation for the crime, and make fun of the women who sit and talk about silly things like quilting and worrying about the preserved fruit freezing.  It is these details, of course, which provide the motivation for the crime. The play celebrates “women’s ways of knowing”, empathy, and female camaraderie, while it satirizes men’s “ways of knowing” and male condescension toward women.

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