Many women throughout time have faced hardships and afflictions solely based on their sex. The early 20th century, however, marked a time in which women were caught between the traditional male and female worlds, no longer limited to the home, but not yet accepted in the outside world. In the play, Trifles, author Susan Glaspell uses foreshadowing, irony, and symbolism to convey the theme that women face a power struggle when their legal obligations conflict with their protectionist and empathetic feelings for a fellow woman.
Susan Glaspell was born on July 1, 1876, in Davenport, Iowa. She graduated from Drake University, where she received a Ph. B. degree in philosophy. In Des Moines she did newspaper work, covering the murder trial of an Iowa farm woman, Mrs. Hossack, who had killed her husband in their bed. This incident became the source for the play Trifles, which later was written as a story entitled, A Jury of Her Peers, which is regarded as her most famous story. At the time, this drama was considered very controversial and disturbing, which added to its popularity.
Glaspell later married George Cram Cook in 1913. With Cook, she became active in New York literary life and in the experimental theatre movement in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The work they did there with several leading playwrights and actors resulted in the creation of the Provincetown Players, who performed Trifles in 1916. Glaspell was the leading playwright of the group, and eleven of her plays were produced during the Player’s next six years. In all, she produced fifty short stories, fourteen plays, and nine novels. She died of pneumonia in Provincetown in 1948.
The majority of Glaspell s writings evolve around her strong feminist point of view. The storylines to these writings also tend to follow the real-life experiences of Glaspell, as well. Her style of writing reflects her background as a journalist and she credits her husband s influence for changing her genre from fiction to drama. Trifles were the result of these influences in her life.
Foreshadowing can be found in the use of the jar of cherries, the quilt, the bird, and the birdcage. These objects give the reader clues of actions that may occur later in the storyline. This drama relies heavily on the reader s ability to recognize these hints and realize their importance.
The jar of cherries plays an interesting role in the drama that many people would overlook while reading this play. The cherries were introduced to the audience as two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters were discussing the food products that Mrs. Wright had left out in the kitchen. Mrs. Wright s husband, John Wright, had been found murdered in his bedroom and the police were investigating the house, and they had asked for a few of the neighbors to tell them about the Wright family. As Mrs. Hale was wandering around the kitchen she approached a loaf of bread and said, She was going to put this in there. [Picks up loaf, then abruptly drops it.
In a manner of returning to familiar things.] It’s a shame about her fruit. I wonder if it’s all gone. [Gets up on the chair and looks.] I think there’s some here that are all right, Mrs. Peters. Yes–here; [Holding it toward the window] this is cherries, too. [Looking again.] I declare I believe that’s the only one. [Gets down, bottle in her hand. Goes to the sink and wipes it off on the outside.] She’ll feel awful bad after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer. (77)
Two critics have explained that cherries represent more than simple fruit. Beverly Smith states, “Minnie(Mrs. Wright) herself stayed on the shelf, alone and unbefriended on the farm, until the coldness of her marriage, her life in general, broke her apart. Her secrets kept under pressure burst from their fragile containers . . . The single intact jar symbolizes the one remaining secret, the motive to complete the prosecutor’s case.” (Smith 175) Linda Ben-Zvi sheds a different light on this matter, “‘Preserves’ explode from lack of heat, a punning reminder of the causal relationship between isolation and violence.” (Ben-Zvi 154)
These two critics prove that the cherries foreshadow two things, the clue that will solve the mystery, and the motive that may have been behind the murder. Susan Glaspell s masterful use of foreshadowing provides suspense to the play that it may otherwise lack. The jar of cherries provides a simple object that has a much deeper meaning to the story.
The irony in the play is related to the relationship between males and females, and more specifically, in the way females are viewed by their male counterparts. Susan Glaspell wrote at a time when the boundaries between the private and public structures were beginning to break down. No longer relegated to the home, but not yet accepted in the marketplace, women were caught in a very awkward position, pinned between the traditional female and male worlds by the expectations of both. Some critics find that gender differences create a dichotomy of perception (Mael 280) in Glaspell’s examination of law and justice. In “Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood,” Phyllis Mael argues that the evolution of the women’s relationships, from tenuous connection to collusion, illustrates the female ethos.
Mael feels that the play’s moral dilemma highlights the differences between male adherence to theoretical principles of morality and the empathic ethical sense of females which considers moral problems as problems of responsibility in a relationship” (282-83). Although the women draw closer as the men, using “abstract rules and rights,” make comments that “trivialize the domestic spheres,” ethical solidarity comes only after Mrs. Peters moves from consent to patriarchal law to empathy , therefore effecting a change “from a typically male to a more typically female mode of judgment” (283-84). This change allows them to view the murder differently, which is the cause of their earlier failure to help Minnie than in their “moral choice” to hide evidence.
An entirely different path is taken by Linda Ben-Zvi, who, in “‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles,” asserts that Trifles is more about gender roles, opposed to the repression of females. Suggesting that “their common erasure” provides the cause of women’s actions, not “women’s natures,” she believes the question of guilt or innocence is irrelevant; what is on trial in the play is female “disenfranchisement” (Ben Zvi 157). By focusing on the cruelties of Minnie’s existence, her isolation, her lack of choices, and “the complete disregard of [her] plight by the courts and by society,” Ben-Zvi feels that Glaspell concretized the position of women in her society, stating that the playwright’s tactics force recognition of “the central issues of female powerlessness . . . and the need for laws to address such issues” (157). Although the ambiguity of Trifles creates such different perceptions, some common images emerge.
Most believe that the focus of Trifles is female bonding as a means of gaining power; however, as Karen Alkalay-Gut notes, “Underlying this attitude is the assumption that . . . women’s lives are individually trivial, and their only strength and/or success can come from banding together” (Alkalay Gut1). Such an idea defines women through masculine beliefs, but as evidenced in the play, where male criticism proved male undoing as the women used their limited role to challenge the law and achieve justice. The irony of the mindsets of males and females of the early 20th century is exemplified by the actions of characters in this drama. Symbolism is present in the play through the bird, the party telephone, and the quilt.
These three objects all represent deeper ideas that play an important role in this drama. The bird that Minnie owned was a friendly canary that was violently strangled by her husband, this provides a number of deeper images that the reader might not initially recognize. The bird was a “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.” (Makowsky 62) Another possible symbol of the bird is that a bird s song is traditionally a metaphor for the voice of a soul, which the female neighbors point out in the play. They realized that John Wright not only killed Minnie’s canary but her very spirit. Minnie understood her husband’s action as a symbolic strangling of herself, his wife.
It is not just because he killed the bird, but because metaphorically, Minnie herself was a caged bird, and he strangled her by preventing her from communicating with others. The party telephone line was cut off at Minnie’s home by her husband, which kept Minnie from communicating with her friends. For Mr. Wright, the party-line telephone was more than an unnecessary expense; it was a threat to his wife, threatening his sense of possession of Minnie. This image is significant here because of its relation to the question of justice which unfolds at the end of the play where Mrs. Hale concludes that the greater crime is to cut oneself off from understanding and communicating with others, and in this context, John Wright is the greater criminal and his wife had no other choice but to murder him.
The quilt symbolizes the complexity of the play. To comprehend the story one may follow the technique of the housewives, who is making their comprehensive patchwork quilt, sort and sift through trivial and discarded material, match small scraps together, and then sew piece after piece into larger squares. The log cabin patchwork the women discover is made exactly in this fashion: rectangular scraps are sewn around the original square or rectangle, followed by a series of longer scraps which are measured to the increasing size of the quilt. The general pattern is one that emerges with the quilt.
This is a very interesting symbol that helps the reader recognize the structure of this drama. In the play, Trifles, author Susan Glaspell uses foreshadowing, irony, and symbolism to convey the theme that women face a power struggle when their legal obligations conflict with their protectionist and empathetic feelings for a fellow woman. This drama, however, shows that the power of women is different, it is subtle and indirect, but can be strong enough to influence the outside world. Perhaps Glaspell wished to show the women of her time that they had more power than they, or anyone else, realized.
The Power of Women,
an Analysis of Susan Glaspell s Drama, Trifles
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “Jury of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles.” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (Winter 1984): 1-9.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder, She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.”
Theatre Journal 44 (March 1992): 141-62.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York: Theatre Book Publishers, 1981
Mael, Phyllis. “Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood.” Literature/Film Quarterly 17 (1989):
Makowsky, Veronica. Susan Glaspell’s Century of American Women: A Critical
Interpretation of Her Work. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Smith, Beverly A. “Women’s Work–Trifles? The Skill and Insights of Playwright Susan
Glaspell.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 5 (March 1982): 172-84.
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