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A Theme of Gender Equality in Trifles by Susan Glaspell

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Marie Shear stated, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” There are no truer words when it comes to the story portrayed in the short drama, Trifles, written by Susan Glaspell. This play emphasizes the gender roles placed onto women and illustrates the difference in society’s expectations of both men and women. Throughout the story, Glaspell has the characters display a theme of gender equality through their dialogue and actions. The men, who are supposed to be in charge of an investigation, miss details due to their gender stereotype beliefs whereas the women, prove to be more insightful, realize the deeper issue in the story, and provide the biggest plot twist of all.

To begin, the men are investigating the home while women follow along and mostly observe. They started in the kitchen, the County Attorney discovers that Mrs. Wrights preserve jars had broken and spilled, leading to an informative exchange illustrating gender stereotypes.

The County Attorney, after again looking around the kitchen, opens the door of a cupboard closet. He gets up on a chair and looks on a shelf. Pulls his hand away, sticky.

COUNTY ATTORNEY. Here’s a nice mess.

The women draw nearer.

MRS. PETERS. (to the other woman) Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. (To the County Attorney) 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 sheriff’s choice of words here expose his stereotypical gender beliefs and expectations. He acts as though Mrs. Wright’s concern over spilled preserves is unimportant, a joke even. This implies that his male brain believes that women do not understand what the real, practical issues are and rather concern themselves with trivial things, such as spilled preserves. Furthermore, he uses a pun that provides a condescending attitude towards the woman and references abusing a woman, by beating them. This use of dialogue by Glaspell displays clearly the Sheriff’s attitude towards the opposite gender.

In addition, another male character in this drama, Hale, begins to make negative remarks about women shortly after the broken preserve jars are discovered. Hale implies that women concern themselves with trivial, unimportant things as well as the Sheriff did just beforehand. He is also credited with saying the title of the drama in his dialogue, showcasing Glaspell’s thorough use of symbolization.

SHERIFF. Well, can you beat the women! 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.

HALE. Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.

There it was, the title in the text! Glaspell’s use of diction here says plain and simple that she wants to illustrate the unfair treatment of women during this time as well as having Hale state his line in this situation. He is further reinstating the Sheriff’s earlier opinion, that women do not have their priorities in order and concern themselves with unimportant things. The fact that these men keep stating that women are concerned with the wrong things is a huge use of irony as well. Throughout the story, the women characters, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, are the ones noticing the more important details, the details required the close the case. The details the men were searching for were right there in front of them, but they were more concerned with trivial things. The women are able to cover for Mrs. Wright because of men’s lack of attention to detail and ability to process women as human beings, looking past their stereotypical expectations and gender roles.

Finally, to further understand the expectations of women during this time, focusing on a statement by the County Attorney, it provides the reader with the idea that women are the sole housekeeper/caretaker in a home. It hints that a woman is less respectable or even less valuable if they do not do a good, thorough job of taking care of the home.

The two women move a little closer together.

COUNTY ATTORNEY. (with the gallantry of a young politician) And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies? (The women do not unbend. He goes to the sink, takes a dipperful of water from the pail and pouring it into a basin, washes his hands. Starts to wipe them on the roller towel, turns it for a cleaner place.) 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.

In this exchange, the County Attorney’s opinion of women who do not keep up with housework is clear. His remark to the women about Mrs. Wright not being much of a housekeeper, some sort of misogynistic pun/joke did not get a good response. The “stiffly” description of Mrs. Hale’s comment about the amount of farm work required, lets the reader know that the female character’s find discontent in the men’s attitude towards their own gender and that they take sides with Mrs. Wright.

To sum up, Trifles, written by Susan Glaspell, could be considered an early feminist drama, focusing on the early gender stereotypical issues and how women were perceived during the early 1900s. She explores the theme of gender equality by her use of diction, symbols, and dialogue for her characters. The specific statements made by male characters illustrate the treatment and expectations of women and prove to be completely ironic when it comes to the plot of the play and the twist at the end. The women prove the men wrong by being the most knowledgeable and insightful during the entire investigation, more or less taking the gender-negative commentary by the men. The powerful theme of gender roles is unmistakable and unfair treatment towards women is dramatically shown in this perceptive drama. 

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