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Section 1: Introduction “A woman is like a teabag- only in hot water do you realize how strong she is” -Nancy Reagan. Trifles by Susan Glaspell is a one-act play, seen as one of the earliest examples of feminist drama (Bradford). It was composed around a time when women’s position in society was scorned and their contributions were neglected. The play is a perfect illustration of how men and women show variance in their perception of duty, law and justice because of their differing roles and experiences in society. The play begins as the author sets the scene mainly in the kitchen area. Inside the kitchen of the Wright household are the sheriff, his wife, the neighbors (Mr. and Mrs. Hale) and the county attorney; they were there to collect evidence pertaining to the murder of Mr. Wright. On the county attorney’s command, Mr. Hale begins to recount his visit to the house the previous day when he found Mr. Wright upstairs lying dead from apparent strangulation (Ronson 185). Hale notes that Mrs. Wright was behaving rather strangely and atypical for someone who had just lost her husband (Ronson 185-186). The three men begin searching the house for material evidence but are unable to find any clues, blinded by their emotionless, cold approach at investigating the case. Meanwhile, the women, attentive to even the minute details and driven by their female instincts, determine the murderer to be Mrs. Wright herself. The irony of the play’s title is evident, as the mere “trifles” that the men derisively accuse the women of concerning themselves with lead them to solve the spine-tingling mystery. Section 2: Historical look at gender differences during the setting of the story The 20th century saw the rise of radical patriarchy when men held all the power and women were essentially viewed as second-class citizens (Smith). Men were considered the head of society, while women were but mere objects. Women’s potential to contribute to society was vastly overlooked, as they were seen as weak and not meant for anything but to give birth to children, to raise the family, and to take care of the household (Smith). Subsequently, they were unable to have any views on politics, neither did they play any economic factor in society. In fact, for a longtime they were impeded from being able to work and possess their own properties; they were also denied education (EMS). This was done so they could depend solely on their husbands and their fathers.
Of course, this dependence gave men the upper hand over them and introduced a sense of ownership that men had towards women, and to a degree, the women succumbed to this way of living for decades, as they had very few options at the time. Even when it finally became the norm for women to be able to make their own money, they were still paid considerably less than men (Manpreet). Besides the manifest social and economic inequality that they had to endure during that time, women were often subject to domestic abuse and marital oppression. They were expected to stay in an unhappy marriage or face punishment by the law if they tried to flee (Manpreet). Not allowed to think for themselves, women had no say or decision-making leeway. With these gender differences often emerged the different ways justice, law and duty were perceived by both sexes. Section 3: How men and women view duty differently From a societal standpoint, the duty of a man is to be the head of the house, to make the money and to provide for the family, while that of a woman is being a homemaker, making the household pleasant to her husband and being submissive to him. The men in the play clearly view duty as something that they must do, as part of their jobs. In this case, they are blinded by their commitment to finding material evidence against Mrs. Wright. The wives’ perception of duty, however, was more emotional. They considered it their duty to protect Mrs. Wright from another lifetime of injustice by hiding the only evidence against her from the men, because they understood her motives “We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (Ronson 191), says Mrs. Hale. In the play, it can be interpreted that the wives view their duty to women in the community, as they are seen defending Mrs. Wright against the men’s criticisms “Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be”, says Mrs. Hale in defense of Mrs. Wright when one of the men mentioned her dirty towels (Ronson 187). The men criticize her housekeeping skills as if it were what defined her as a woman, highlighting what men think of a woman’s duty. Mrs. Hale showing guilt and regret for not visiting Mrs. Wright “I wish I had come here once in a while (Ronson 191)” is another example that depicts how women consider it their duty to show solidarity and loyalty towards one another, “Ah, loyal to your sex I see”, says the county sheriff to Mrs. Hale (Ronson 187).
Section 4: How men and women view law differently The concept of law to the men can be related back to what they think a woman’s duty is. In the 20th century, women, by the law, were bound to their husbands once they got married. Any effort from women to get out of an unsatisfying marriage would be shunned, sometimes resulting in punishment by the laws set up in a patriarchal society. These laws often saw women forced to act and behave a certain way, especially after getting married. In Trifles, Mrs. Peters, because she is married to the sheriff, is expected to play by the men’s rules and follow the law since she is “married to the law” (Ronson 192). There were specific ways that women were expected to act, behave and function in society, whereas men weren’t bound by such societal standards. Section 5: How men and women view justice differently The men’s assessment of what is just and what is unjust is clearly subjective. They discriminately see the murder of Mr. Wright as the unjust act that deserves punishment by law, but neglect the apparent injustice that Mrs. Wright had to endure during the course of her marriage to Wright. In fact, the county sheriff avoids the topic of Mr. Wright’s wrong doings, dismissively saying “I’d like to talk about that little later” (Ronson 187) when Mrs. Hale brings up the cold nature of Mr. Wright and his shortcomings as a husband. The wives felt violated by the men’s many disparaging remarks, but they could not openly express their frustration to them. The women get defensive, and in a passive act of rebellion, they decide to take matters into their own hands and resolve what justice is concerning the murder case. The conversation between the two wives gives us a glimpse into the life of Mrs. Wright before and after getting married. Before becoming Mrs. Wright, she was known as Minnie Foster, the “lively” girl who “used to wear pretty clothes” and was “one of the town girls singing in the choir” (Ronson 191).
After marrying Mr. Wright, Minnie became dead, and like many of the women in the 20th century after getting married, she lost her identity to become her husband’s property. “She [Minnie Foster] was like a bird herself”, “she used to sing. He [Mr. Wright] killed that too”, says Mrs. Hale (Ronson 191). There is an apparent symbolism of the bird here representing Minnie. Many wives in the 20th century became like birds in cages after they got married. It can be implied that Mr. Wright killed Winnie’s spirit from the life of confinement and oppression she lived after becoming her wife. She then killed her last source of joy, when he killed the canary, causing Mrs. Wright to reach her breaking point after all the years of putting up with his oppressor. Showing empathy for Mrs. Wright, and likely understanding the agony of being oppressed, the two wives, who turned out to be the successful sleuths in the case, hide the evidence against her, deciding that justice had already been served when Mr. Wright was murdered. Section 6: Conclusion Trifles plays into the divide between the psychological states of women and men. The title itself, a word used to describe things of little importance, is derived from one of the lines uttered by the neighbor “women are used to worrying over trifles” (Ronson 187 ).
From this, a connection can be made to the type of items that the two wives find in Mrs. Wright’s kitchen; it can also be inferred that men do not acknowledge the value of women, neither do they care about their interests. Many instances in the play see the men making disparaging comments like “Nothing here but kitchen things”, and even kicking some of the kitchen items in contempt (Ronson 186), irking the two wives. The kitchen was viewed as the most important place in the house for the woman. It was the only place where a woman was dominant and had complete control over (Smith). That kind of dismissal of the woman’s sphere by the men further proves how little they valued the things of women. Their contempt towards the “trifles of women” leads the men to dismiss the kitchen as a potential and valuable source of evidence and therefore fail in discovering the clue that would find Mrs. Wright guilty of her husband’s murder.
The strangled bird most likely was the motive for Mr. Wright’s death, but it was one of many events leading up to Mrs. Wright finally reaching her breaking point and killing her husband. As described by her neighbor, Minnie used to be a sweet girl, but her marriage to Mr. Wright brought about a radical change in her. Her innocent was gone. Her motive to kill her husband might have also been self-defense. Either way, it is hard to think that she was strong enough to strangle her husband to death even while he was sleeping; surely, the pressure on his throat would have waken him up and Minnie would have stood no chance during the struggle. There was no hard evidence of the way Mr. Wright was killed apart from the rope around his neck, so there can be plenty of room for assumptions. It can be assumed that Minnie poisoned her husband to death and then put a rope around his neck (as if he was strangled) to symbolize justice for her dead canary which suffered the same fate.
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