The Themes of Feminism in Trifles: The Play
A play can be analyzed in a variety of ways. One of these ways is through the plays theme. The theme more often than not can be developed through the stories plot. According to Literature: A Portable Anthology, the words plot, character, and theme mean the same thing in drama as they do in fiction, though there is a difference in how they are presented. A story tells you about a series of events, whereas a play shows you these events happening in real time. The information that might be conveyed in descriptive passages in prose fiction must be conveyed in a play through dialogue. In the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell represents a society filled with strict gender roles, which the men have control over the household whereas the women exist only in the home. Trifles depicts a world controlled by men which social expectations and restrictions have confined women to the home and limit them to only do what their husbands command, with little control or identity of their own.
The play begins on the scene of an abandoned farmhouse. The house is in disarray, with dishes left out and unwashed as well as bread prepared but not yet baked. Five people enter the house to investigate the murder of Mr. Wright. The first person is the county attorney, George Henderson who is a young man that speaks in a professional manner, but he oftentimes rejects the opinion of female interest and criticizes Mrs. Wright for what he believes to be her lack of homemaking abilities to keep the house in order. The second character is Henry Peters, he is the local sheriff and husband of Mrs. Peters. He is at the farmhouse to investigate the scene of the crime. Like George, the sheriff also mocks the women about their interest in Mrs. Wright’s quilting. The third character is Lewis Hale who is the neighbor, he was the one who found John Wright’s body strangled with a rope in his bed. The men are followed by their wives, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale who explains to the county attorney the experience of finding John Wright’s dead body the previous day. He explained that he stopped by his neighbor’s house Mr. Wright to ask if they wanted to install a party line telephone. His wife, Minnie Wright, was arrested for the murder, and the two men have come to gather evidence against her. In chapter six of Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, the chapter titled “What is Evidence” the author states, “More often than most of us would care to admit, when called on to support our opinions, we manage to produce only the flimsiest of evidence. We may soothe ourselves with the notion that a thick folder of evidence lies misfiled in our minds, but the very real possibility remains that flimsy evidence was all we ever had”(Ruggiero 73). Showing that the men of the play are drawing their own conclusions by placing Mrs. Wright in jail for the murder of her husband without sufficient evidence to link her to the murder.
Throughout the play all the characters, including the women are making an effort to figure out the plot behind why Mrs. Wright killed her husband and how she did it. The overall investigation is an attempt to unfold the plot of his death. When the play opens up, all the characters enter the farmhouse together but not as equals. Towards the end of the first stage the men have taken the lead, exhibiting their superiority. They all enter the empty farmhouse confidently while the women are anxious in the back as if they need permission by the men to continue. This hierarchy plays out in how the characters position themselves in the kitchen, the men approach the stove immediately, while the women linger in the back. Showing the idea that men and women played very different roles in society. Instead of focusing on the men and their search to solve the murder of Mr. Wright, Susan Glaspell focuses on the women in the kitchen after the men have left the room. At this point in the play the men go upstairs and this is when the women begin to find out for themselves who killed Mr. Wright. The rising action of the play begins when the men leave the women alone in the kitchen and without being aware of it the women are using the same tactics that the men would use, asking a variety of questions. They begin to communicate in small talk and comment on how the kitchen was left after the murder. For example, when Mrs. Peter noticed that Mrs. Wright had begun “piecing a quilt”( Glaspell 985). The two women are wondering if she was going to quilt it or knot it, as this happens the men come downstairs and over hear the women talking. The sheriff repeats out loud what he heard the women say and the men all begin to laugh, making fun of the women. The gender roles of the play are exhibited in this moment because the men believe that women are not worthy of making assumptions. The women also notice an empty bird cage with a broken door, thinking back if Mrs. Wright had a bird, they all do recall that she once had a beautiful singing voice.
The play illustrates stereotypes through gender roles, which builds on the idea that women are lesser people than men, somewhat like a child and their actions in constant need of being controlled. The sheriff lives up to his role as he leads the investigation to solve the Wright murder. He does this with the county attorney Gerorge Henderson, and a nearby farmer by the name of Lewis Hale, who is the witness and first person to see Mr. Wrights dead body. The men exhibit their superiority towards the women when the sheriff talks to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters about the cabin pattern. For example, “They wonder if she was going to quit it or just knot it!(the men laugh, the women look abashed.)” (Glaspell, 985) which means that the men made the women feel embarrassed about the situation. Something that most men not only in that time but often times now have to look down upon women and their choices. In an essay posted on The Journal of International Women’s Studies, examines the prejudice of the role of women in the family and society, as well as how attitudes towards stereotypes are linked to gender roles holding a deeper message and how the relationship with her parents are influenced by unresolved issues connecting to the status of women. For example, “prejudices on the role of women in the society and in family life are touched upon with a specific vehemence and bitterness, as she had to confront” (Munca). Although women’s status has improved significantly since the nineteenth century in many societies, women continue to lack access to power and leadership compared to their male counterparts. For example, Mr. Hale states, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles”( Glaspell, 982). Mr. Hale carelessly makes this statement to show that women show value to things of little importance. When Mrs. Peters acknowledges the attention to what she regards as the significance of the exploded jars of fruit preserves left aside. In chapter ten of Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, the chapter titled “Errors of Procedure”, the author states, “One form of this error is seeking only evidence that confirms your bias. Another form occurs when evidence is presented to you that challenges your bias and you choose an interpretation that favors your bias, even when other interpretations are more reasonable”(Ruggiero 115). The men of the play not only draw their own conclusions on who they believe killed Mr. Wright, but they also mock the women for taking into account all of the little details that leads up to the murder. It seems that as soon as the men entered the farmhouse gathering as little evidence as they could to made their decision as far as person of interest in the murder of Mr. Wright because of how Mrs. Wright was acting on the rocking chair when asked where her husband was. The men judge the women for lacking common sense and the mental focus to pay attention to the important things, but the men exhibit the same characteristics by only focusing on substantial evidence and not completely being understanding of what the women know about other women in their society.
In the early 1900’s women had different roles in society and were treated differently compared to women in today’s society. Although gender roles are exhibited less in today’s society, men still expect women to fulfill the duties of a homemaker, which consisted of cleaning and cooking rather than having their own opinions. Men do not allow women to carry out a job outside of the stereotypical realm of being a housewive. Susan Glaspell’s play focuses on the themes of social boundaries, emotional isolation, dependency, but mainly gender-based differences and the lack of respect men have towards women. Showing an obvious representation of women’s place in society while solving the murder of John Wright, these gender roles are common and key to solving the murder of Mr. Wright. The women in the play take actions to show they are more than or equally as competent as the men are in several areas of the play portraying a sense of feminism throughout the story.
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