Susan Glaspell wrote at a time when the borders between the private and public spheres were starting to break down. No longer relegated to the home, but not yet acknowledged in the marketplace, women were trapped in a position of liminality, pinned between the customary female and male worlds by the expectations of both. Glaspell’s play Trifles falls among the various shades of gray in this crossing point of perceptions, not only for the reason of its context and content, but also for the reason of the critical reaction to the play. Even though most criticism recognizes gender conflict in the undefined area between law and justice in Trifles, both the conflict and its consequences change form as every critic sees a various shape in the shadows. In order to completely understand Trifles, it is significant to be familiar with the status of the women’s movement at the time the play was written and first produced. At that point in time, women have been looked down upon by men. They have been regarded as “dumb” and worst a form of property. Being physically and emotionally mistreated by men, women in the early 1900’s resisted to break the mold created by society.
Even with the pain of bearing children, raising them, responsibility of household and even farm chores, their hard work have never been in fact appreciated. In 1916, the majority of women still did not have the right to vote. Several states had approved women suffrage, but it was not until 1919 that the query was put to the federal government and not until August 26, 1920, that the 19th Amendment was authorized by the states. Additionally, it was not until 1975 that the courts started to demand true “juries of peers” for women; till then, in the majority of the states, merely women who firmly registered their eagerness to serve in juries were ever called. It was merely assumed that women would “rather not” serve as jurors for the reason of issues of delicacy or for the reason that they belonged at home. The majority of the women did not work outside the home and divorce was not an ordinary option. Married women had little legal rights. Hence, Trifles is an obviously political play, confronting the seldom-discussed part of women’s rights concerning to a patriarchal justice system.
Trifles explores the traditional male stereotype of women by stating that women often worry regarding matters of little, or no significance. This stereotype makes the assumption that only males are worried with significant issues, issues that females would never talk about or confront. The characters spend the whole of the play looking for clues to solve a murder case. Ironically, the female characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, expose crucial evidence and unravel the murder case, not the male characters. The men in the play, the Sheriff, County Attorney, and Hale, explore the scene of the crime for evidence on their own, and insult the women’s discussions. The women’s curiosity in the quilt, wrecked bird cage door, and dead canary, all of which are assumed to be insignificant or trifling objects, is what automatically leads to their solving of the crime. The women are able to find out who the killer is by paying awareness to detail, and establish that the items which the men consider unimportant are important after all. At the beginning of the play, all of the characters go into the abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, who was a moment ago hanged by an unidentified killer.
Various critics discover that gender differences generate a dichotomy of perception in Glaspell’s examination of law and justice. In “Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood,” Phyllis Mael disputes that the evolution of the women’s relationships, from tenuous association to collusion, demonstrates the female ethos. Mael believes that the play’s “moral dilemma” highlights the innate differentiation between male devotion to theoretical principles of morality and female empathic ethical sense which believes “moral problems as problems of responsibility in relationship” (282-83). Even though the women draw closer as the men, using abstract rules and rights, make remarks that trivialize the domestic sphere, ethical solidarity comes merely after Mrs. Peters moves from acquiescence to patriarchal law to empathy, hence effecting a change “from a typically male to a more typically female mode of judgment” (283-84). This switch permits them to formulate a “redefinition of…crime” which discovers more culpability in their earlier failure to aid Minnie than in their “moral choice” to restrain evidence (284).
Even though the ambiguity of Trifles generates such differing critical perceptions, few common images emerge. The majority of critical readings focus on female bonding as a way of gaining power. Such an idea defines women all the way through masculine precepts and proves the male value system, confirming the power of the public sphere by the perceived necessity to replicate it. But, as evidenced in the ironically-named Trifles, where male disparagement established male undoing as the women used their assigned invisibility to undermine the law and produce justice, women have a special kind of power. Women’s power, delicate and indirect, is one of the liminal essentials in Trifles; originating in, but released to, the private sphere, it glows outward into the undefined area, influencing both worlds. Bonding is both a demonstration of women’s strength and its source; maybe Glaspell hoped to illustrate the women of her time that they had more power than they or anyone else recognized.
All the cruel acts of abuse toward Mrs. Wright gets the story to an end, yet the repression of women has been a terrible and on going cycle. Even though women are growing in today’s society, a lot are still being physically and emotionally badly treated by men. Optimistically with education the male chauvinist in the world will come to recognize the damage they are doing to those who care for them and change these manners before it is too late for everyone concerned.
Mael, Phyllis. “Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood.” Literature/Film Quarterly 17 (1989):