This paper, by referring to the concrete themes and characters in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, examines this play as the one that focuses on women, widely concentrating on the theme of maternity and motherhood, which become disassociated from sweetness
Many critics consider Trifles to be Glaspell’s major work because it is an exciting, innovative contribution to American drama. In this play, Glaspell creates dramatic heroines who begin to realize that in living for others they are destroying themselves. As Adrienne Rich states in her book on motherhood, “Oppression is not the mother of virtue; oppression can warp, undermine, turn us into haters of ourselves” (xxxv).
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Glaspell’s fiction has been considered much more conventional than her plays, but the difference is substantial. Although the heroines of her plays are more visibly, vocally, and sometimes violently, rebellious than those of her novels, her fictional heroines are hardly models of perfect behavior. In The Glory of the Conquered, Ernestine Hubers manages to pursue her career as an artist and learn the methods of scientific research despite sexism on all sides; in The Visioning, Katie Jones leaves the safety and comfort of the military brass for the uncertainties of life with a socialist organizer and artist (Austin, 89).
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Similarly, Glaspell’s plays have been found more innovative than her fiction. For instance, the distinguished Glaspell scholar Linda Ben-Zvi states:
Nothing in a Glaspell play is linear. Plots do not have clearly defined beginnings, middles, and ends; they self-consciously move out from some familiar pattern, calling attention as they go to the fact that the expected convention will be violated, the anticipated order will be sundered (152).
Ben-Zvi is undoubtedly correct, but this difference is less a rebellion against the conventional well-made play and more of a continuation of some of the techniques of Glaspell’s novels, which often do not follow a conventional marriage pattern, and often end with the question of the heroine’s future left open. Glaspell’s dramatic use of understated gestures and comments also derives from her fiction; as early as 1904, her fictive heroine Christine Holt observes:
At crucial times people acted just as they did in the commonplace hours -- really they acted more so. And that would be a good feature to bring out in the play. The tragedy of the play must be very quiet, very conventional, and commonplace (Qtd in Austin, 78).
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The relative lack of action and speeches in Glaspell’s Trifles arises from her work as a writer of women’s fiction; in the restricted sphere of the domestic, a woman’s life is mainly interior, inside her own mind as well as inside her home.
Trifles may not be formally or thematically different to her fiction, but the dissimilarity in the degree of rebellion is significant. The rebellions of her fictional women are private while those of her heroines in Trifles lead them to the public sphere of demonstrations, courts, and prison. Their actions demand that the patriarchal world consider their feelings and situations as something more than domestic ‘trifles’.
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The increased degree of rebelliousness in Glaspell’s Trifles has a number of causes, personal, generic, and cultural. First, in biographical terms, Glaspell was married to a believer and practitioner of free love whom she loved; she did not want to live without him, but his numerous affairs made him hard to live with, and her anger finds an outlet in these plays, sometimes quite specifically against Cook and sometimes against patriarchal men in general (Smith, 174). Secondly, her situation with the Provincetown Players as playwright, actress, and co-founder gave Glaspell an artistic freedom and control quite unusual for a woman.
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In Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism, Gayle Austin points out:
The writing of plays requires mastering to some degree a maledominated, public production machinery, something that relatively few women have been able to do over the long history of the form, and consequently there is not as large a body of extant plays by women as there is of novels (2).
In Trifles, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale accompany some male authorities to the remote farmhouse of Minnie and John Wright where they are supposed to collect some personal belongings for the imprisoned Minnie while the men try to establish a motive for Minnie’s alleged strangling of her husband. As numerous critics have demonstrated, the men present themselves authoritatively but cannot find the clues because they are unable to read quiet, domestic trifles. In contrast, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale realize that the disordered kitchen, ragged sewing, and strangled canary indicate that the isolated Minnie would accept no further abuse from her cold, stingy husband and revenged the death of her pet and friend by killing John the same way (Smith, 176).
The women display female solidarity by concealing the dead bird, and their conclusions, from the men.
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The sympathy of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters arises not only from sisterly solidarity but from the two women’s self-identification as mothers, in contrast to the childless Minnie. Love, particularly maternal love, is associated with sound and its absence with silence.
Mrs. Hale wonders “how it would seem never to have had any children around,” and Mrs. Peters can tell her: “I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died…” (Glaspell, 25, 26).
They realize that the pet was a kind of child-substitute for the solitary Minnie; the canary’s voice was to displace the silence of a coldly authoritarian husband and replace the sounds of the unborn children.
Mrs. Hale notes, “If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful -- still, after the bird was still” (Glaspell, 26). Mrs. Peters even remembers a similar loss and response: “When I was a girl-my kitten-there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes-and before I could get there-If they hadn’t held me back-I would have-hurt him” (Glaspell, 26).
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Their maternal feelings not only help Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters understand the importance of the canary to Minnie, but also help them direct their solicitude toward Mrs. Wright herself through the memory of Minnie as a vulnerable, pretty young girl who loved singing in the choir. Mrs. Hale makes the identification clear when she states that Minnie “was kind of like a bird herself -- real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and -- fluttery. How -- she -- did –change” (22). Mrs. Hale finally places the blame for that change on John Wright: “She used to sing. He killed that, too” ( 25). Through the traditional literary metaphor of the bird’s song as the voice of the soul, the women acknowledge that John Wright not only killed Minnie’s canary, but her very spirit.
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Adrienne Rich observes that “powerless women have always used mothering as a channel -- narrow but deep -- for their own human will to power” (38). Similarly, Glaspell is not idealizing motherhood or maternal feelings here but demonstrating that these rural women have no outlets for expression aside from domesticity focusing on children, though Minnie Wright lacks even that. In other words, if a husband and children are the determinants of most women’s lives, then Minnie has nothing. Glaspell’s early fiction repeatedly identifies artistic creativity with motherhood, but Minnie Wright is not allowed that outlet either, through an unfinished quilt or through the voice of the canary. In a sense, Glaspell’s trifles are as unnoticed and unappreciated by her culture as are Minnie’s domestic artifacts by the investigating men.
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Glaspell demonstrates that maternal feelings are a double-edged sword in that they make Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters sympathize with Minnie’s childlessness and want to protect her as if she were a child, but their maternal devotion also prevents them from helping Minnie until it is too late. Mrs. Hale declares, “I know how things can be -- for women. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things -- it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (Glaspell, 27). She realizes that her narrow focus on her own domicile and children have kept her from nurturing Minnie, and cries, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?” (27). Not the men certainly, who want the women locked into separate domestic spheres and would like them to accept the blame, which really belongs to men. When she makes this comment Mrs. Hale is sympathetic; not until she conceals the evidence with Mrs. Peters at the end of the play does she silently place the guilt where it really belongs.
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If one regards Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters as the heroines of Trifles, their rebellion must be characterized not as active fight but as passive resistance, which is all these women can realistically achieve under the circumstances. If Minnie Wright is the central figure of Trifles, the play may seem different since she does murder her oppressor, but the glimpses one gets of her after the killing, through Mr. Hale’s spoken memories, indicate the weak nature of her act. She has moved herself from her rocking chair in the center of the kitchen to a “small chair in the corner” (8), as if she is acknowledging her marginalized and outlaw status.
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She keeps rocking as if she knows that she must comfort herself the way a mother would a child. Most expressively, she is largely silent, except to laugh when Mr. Hale mentions that he came to see if John Wright wanted a telephone and to tell him “I sleep sound” (7) as her excuse for not hearing the killing. Both these sounds are in effect silences that point to her past and future silencing: John had cut her off from the sounds of human voices, and her sleep in the grave will be sound and silent if she is convicted of murder. Even a rebellious woman like Minnie knows that men may be laughable in their blindness but that they still have overwhelming power.
Austin, Gayle. Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Susan Glaspell’s Contributions to Contemporary Women Playwrights”, in Enoch Brater, (ed.) Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, New York: Oxford University press, 1989.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, New York: Norton, 1996- revised edition.
Smith, A. Beverly. “Women's Work - Trifles?: The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan Glaspell”, International Journal of Women's Studies, 5 (1982): 172-84.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles, in Plays, Boston: Small, Maynard, 1920, 1990.