Discussion Topic

The feminist themes and perspectives in Susan Glaspell's "Trifles."


The feminist themes in Susan Glaspell's "Trifles" highlight the marginalization and undervaluation of women. The play illustrates how male characters dismiss the domestic space and women's insights, whereas the female characters uncover crucial evidence by paying attention to "trifles." This perspective underscores women's intelligence and capability, challenging traditional gender roles and advocating for women's empowerment and equality.

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What makes Trifles suitable for a feminist critical reading?

Feminist literature provides a platform for critical readers to investigate the results of male/female interactions in a variety of time periods and situations. Trifles by Susan Glaspell explores the effect of patriarchal attitudes on women's abilities to overcome passivity and form powerful female alliances.

A rural American town in the early 1900s wakes to find John Wright murdered in his home, with his wife the only suspect. True to the time period, the male investigators team up to find evidence to prove her guilt while their wives are relegated to the job of collecting Minnie Wright's personal items to take to the jail. Ironically, the sexist attitudes of the county attorney and the sheriff hinder their ability to definitively solve the crime.

While investigating the kitchen, the men disrespectfully wipe their dirty hands on the towels and muse that Ms. Wright is

not much of a housekeeper.

Mrs. Hale, a neighbor, remarks only after the men have left that it

seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up when she had to come away in such a hurry.

Other demeaning jokes about women's trivial pursuits of knitting and quilting follow.

When the men head upstairs, the women proceed to uncover Minnie Wright's solitary, lonely, and oppressed life. They can tell by her knitting that her mental state was

all over the place.

They discover she had owned a bird

just to pass the day with.

It isn't until they discover the battered body of the bird hidden in Minnie's sewing basket that they realize the truth.

Without the murder of the bird as a motive for Minnie to kill her husband, the charges will have to be dropped. The women's bond is solidified, with Mrs. Peters placing herself in direct opposition to her husband and hiding the bird with Mrs. Hale. Pairing up in sadness and outrage for Minnie's suffering in her bleak and abusive existence, the women take a stand against the patriarchal attitudes of their society.

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What makes Trifles suitable for a feminist critical reading?

Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles can be read through the feminist critical lens in several ways. According to Lois Tyson’s exploration of feminist criticism in Critical Theory Today, Glaspell explores multiple dimensions of patriarchy. While some characters overtly express feminist ideas, others convey the force of patriarchy, but their actions are not deeply explored.

One important point that Tyson argues is that the patriarchy exerts such strong forces on people that they internalize and naturalize social phenomena. She states,

patriarchy continually exerts forces that undermine women’s self-confidence and assertiveness, then points to the absence of these qualities as proof that women are naturally (and therefore correctly, self-effacing and submissive).

This description of the effects of patriarchy clearly applies to Minnie Wright, who is portrayed as submissive to her husband’s power. This idea helps explain the difficulty that the male characters have in believing that she killed her husband. To Mr. Hale and the others, Minnie’s usual demeanor of having low self-confidence and appearing submissive does not correlate with the violent murder that was committed.

Tyson also explores the burden that the patriarchy places on men, who are expected to follow rigid definitions of masculinity. Being compared to women, she argues, is “devastating” for men. These inflexible conceptions of gender means that “womanish” behaviors are considered “inferior, [and] beneath the dignity of manhood.” Tyson concludes that

being a “real” man in patriarchal culture requires that one hold feminine qualities in contempt.

This idea applies to the attitudes of the play’s male characters toward the women’s activities, as indicated by the title. George Henderson, in particular, is dismissive of the kinds of things to which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are attending. His contempt for women’s concerns obscures his ability to see the motives for the murder.

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Why is Trifles often called the first "feminist" play?

Trifles is not the first feminist play. For example, Ibsen's A Doll's House is a feminist work that predates Trifles by about 37 years. But Trifles is clearly a feminist work. One can justify this quite easily. The male characters take charge of the investigation because, as Court Attorney and Sheriff, Henderson and Henry Peters are simply doing their jobs. But they and Hale presume to think it is their role as men to take control of situations of such significance. They speak condescendingly to the women as they go about the business of their investigation. The men are stereotypical; they adhere to traditional notions of masculinity and male roles in society and in relation to women. Glaspell shows the stark contrast between these expected, traditional male roles and the roles expected of the women. The men are expected to be in command, assertive, and in charge of public affairs. The women are expected to be meek, subservient to men, and concerned with private, household affairs. 

However, in this play, the women uncover the real physical evidence and in doing so, they discover Mrs. Wright's (some might say) 'justifiable' motives for killing her husband. While the men go about the business of the investigation, with the unearned self-importance that goes with their expected male roles, the women, in spite of being ignored by the men, become the investigators. 

These stereotypical men assume that their stereotypical women are only concerned with the trifles in life and in the assessment of the case. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are not feminists in the modern sense, being overtly against such stereotypical roles. But they are feminists in the sense that they subvert what is expected of them within those roles. The women, not the men, discover the important evidence (the so-called "trifles") and in doing so, they discover how those rigid roles of dominant male and subservient female actually led to the crime. In the end, the women are in command of the situation. They decide to not reveal what they've uncovered in order to hide Mrs. Wright's motive. Half serious and half mocking ("in a false voice"), Mrs. Hale notes that the men might not even realize what their (the women's) evidence explains: 

My, it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us. Wouldn't they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a—dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with—with—wouldn't they laugh

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Why isn't Trifles considered a modern feminist play?

Categorizing “Trifles” as feminist or not feminist depends largely on the critics’ perspective. If we consider the World War I era when Susan Glaspell wrote the play, modernism was coming into vogue in literature. Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook, founders of the Provincetown Players, also established the Playwrights’ Theater in New York; Eugene O’Neill was one prominent member of their group. They produced important European playwrights as well, including Shaw, Ibsen, and Chekhov.

Women’s rights, including the crusade for suffrage in both England and the United States, along with working conditions and wages for factory workers, were a major subject of political activism in the early 20th-century First Wave Feminism. For example, in 1913, a huge women’s suffrage march had been held in Washington before President Wilson’s inauguration; in 1911, 145 women were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, spurring the growth of the garment workers’ union.

Such topics are not considered in “Trifles,” which in many respects seems more like a 19th-century play. Glaspell, who based the play and related short story on an actual murder case, emphasizes women’s traditional roles in part to highlight that, for many women, campaigning for rights and going out to work did not form a significant part of their daily life. The hidden reality of domestic abuse was as likely to dominate their normal routine. The ironic title, as well as the male police officers’ dismissive behavior, brings home those points. The small details of the domestic world—the so-called private sphere of women—are those that reveal to them what led up to the murder. In its attention to the psychological aspects of the characters and probing the domestic setting, the play is indebted to Chekhov.

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Why isn't Trifles considered a modern feminist play?

Glaspell's Trifles is absolutely feminist, and was written and performed (1916) during the time of modern literature and modern drama. 

But it's form is realistic and naturalistic, rather than modern. 

It is rural (rather than urban, as is most modern theatre), and, as mentioned, is realistic (rather than abstract, as is most modern theatre). 

The play is naturalistic in the sense that it centers on a character that is victimized by society and its gender roles. 

Thus, while the play is feminist, it is realistic and naturalistic, rather than modern.  Modernism is a reaction against realism and naturalism. 

Just in case my answer seems a bit jumbled, let me put it into bullets for you.  Trifles is:

  • rural, not urban
  • realistic, not abstract
  • naturalistic, not abstract
  • therefore, realistic and naturalistic, not modern
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What does the play "Trifles" mean in a feminist context?

Susan Glaspell's play Trifles is charged with feminist meaning. Its feminist themes come through in the condescension of the male characters towards the female characters, the gender roles, and the dilemma of justice in a patriarchal society.

The men in the play, especially the county attorney, speak to the women with condescension. All three men mock the women for being concerned about Mrs. Wright's jars of preserves that have frozen and cracked. Mr. Hale observes that they worry about "trifles" regularly, and the county attorney says, patronizingly, "And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?" He then observes that Mrs. Hale is "loyal to your sex." The men laugh at the women's discussion about Minnie's plan for her quilt.

The play presents the clearly defined gender roles of the early 1900s. The men have occupations—farmer, attorney, sheriff. The women keep house and raise the children. When Mrs. Hale suggests that "farmers' wives have their hands full," the attorney responds by criticizing Minnie's poor "homemaking instinct." Women are also expected to be helpers to their husbands: The attorney remarks that "a sheriff's wife is married to the law." Despite the presumed superiority of the males, the women succeed where the men do not. Throughout the play, the men are the ones who are tasked with solving the crime, yet the women, by using their special intuitive skills and emotional intelligence, actually find the critical evidence the men overlook.

The most disturbing feminist theme of the play is the question of whether a woman can receive true justice in a male-dominated society. As the picture of Minnie Wright's lonely and oppressed life with John Wright becomes clear to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, they find it harder to reveal the evidence of Minnie's motive for murder that they have discovered. Although they know that "the law is the law," they also know that twelve men on a jury will not treat Minnie with understanding—they are not the "jury of her peers" that the Constitution guarantees. (Glaspell later wrote a short story version of this play titled "A Jury of Her Peers." At the time in which the play and story were written, women didn't serve on US juries.) It seems clear that Mrs. Wright did murder her husband, possibly because she feared that his temper would result in her neck being broken like the bird's if she didn't. In her patriarchal society, battered or abused women had few options for protection. Any concerns she might have expressed to law enforcement about her safety would probably have earned her a condescending laugh and pat on the head like those the county attorney so liberally doled out to women. At least if Minnie's case were to be tried in front of a jury of half women, she might have a chance of a reduced sentence. But Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters know she will appear before a male judge and an all-male jury and that she won't receive justice, so they take justice into their own hands.

Glaspell's short play brims with feminist insights about patronizing male attitudes toward women, rigid gender roles, and the lack of justice toward oppressed women.

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