Trifles by: Tammy Wallick Mention the word feminist and most people think of the modern women’s movement. Long before the bra burning of the 60s, however, writers were writing about the lives and concerns of women living in a male dominated society. Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, was written in 1916, long before the modern women’s movement began. Her story reveals, through Glaspell’s use of formal literary proprieties, the role that women are expected to play in society, and the harm that it brings not only the women, but the men as well. Character names are important in Trifles.
Two characters who are never seen, John and Minnie Wright, provide the inciting incident for the play. The name “Wright” plays off the social stereotype of women seeking” Mr. Right,” so they also represent the roles of men and women in the larger society. Minnie’s name has a double significance, “Minnie” being “mini” or “minimized,” which was descriptive of her relationship with John and in general of women’s relationship with men. The taking of the husband’s name is also important in the story. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are not given first names.
The role that society has cast them in is one that is defined by their husbands. Mrs. Peters, who is married to the sheriff, is viewed in those terms, not as an individual. The county attorney even says “for that matter a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell .. ). Mrs. Peters herself tries to fulfill that role, saying “Mrs. Hale, the law is the law” (Glaspell .. ). She tries to reinforce that identity until she is faced with the brutality of what John Wright did to Minnie. She says “I know what stillness is. The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale” (Glaspell .. ).
The difference is that she is talking about the crime committed against Minnie, not the murder. The best example of the importance of names, especially married names, is the image of Minnie Foster. “I hear she used to wear pretty clothes and be lively when she was Minnie Foster . . . ” Mrs. Hale says (Glaspell.. ). She talks about Minnie again on page .. : “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang” (Glaspell.. ). The image of Minnie Foster is used to show, by contrast, what John Wright had done to Minnie.
Howshedidchange” says Mrs. Hale (Glaspell .. ). John Wright abuses Minnie by denying her her personality and individuality, and eventually Minnie kills John to escape that abuse. By extension of the analogy between the Wrights and men and women in general, the idea is that it is only a matter of time before women who are forced to enslave themselves to a male dominated society get fed up and seek revenge on their oppressors. Understanding Trifles takes thought to identify and understand the play’s two major metaphors. The first of these is the bird/bird-cage metaphor.
Mrs. Hale describes Minnie (before her marriage to John) as “kind of like a bird herself real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery” (Glaspell .. ). Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find Minnie’s bird cage in the cupboard, but they do not realize the importance of it until they find the dead bird with its neck twisted to one side. The comparison here is between Minnie and the bird. The bird is caged just as Minnie is trapped in the abusive relationship with John. John Wright figuratively strangles the life out of Minnie like he literally strangles the bird.
When John kills the bird, he kills the last bit of Minnie, but he makes a mistake in doing so. The broken bird cage represents Minnie’s freedom from the restrictive role of “Mrs. Wright. ” Once she is free she takes her revenge for all of the years of abuse and oppression. She strangles the life out of John like he strangled her spirit and her bird. The bird/bird-cage metaphor is also a representative of the role women are forced into in society, the bird being women and the cage being the male dominated society. The other major metaphor is the quilt.
The quilt represents Minnie’s life. She has taken the scraps and put them into a nice, neat quilt. The block she was working on, however, was “all over the place! ” “It looks as if she didn’t know what she was about! ” Mrs. Hale says (Glaspell .. ). When John killed the bird, he destroyed the last bit of personality that Minnie had held for herself. She was angry and confused, and probably literally “didn’t know what she was about” (Glaspell .. ). The question that is asked about the quilt is whether Minnie was going to ‘quilt it or just knot it” (Glaspell .. This is the decision that Minnie had to make.
She either would quilt it, meaning that she would go on enduring the isolation and abuse or she would knot it and decide that her life as it exists was “not it” and she would do something to change it. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to understand and agree with Minnie as they see how she was treated by John, and how she is being treated by the law. Mrs. Hale sums up the women’s feeling when she replies to the county attorney’s question about the quilt, saying “we call it knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell .. ).
The title, Trifles, is itself a reflection of how men view women. A “trifle” is something that is small, of no consequence. Mr. Hale says that “women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell .. ). The irony of the story is that while the men are running around looking for “clues,” the women have discovered the key to the mystery among what the men look at as only silly women’s work. The feminist agenda of Trifles is not meant to be subtle. Glaspell uses the formal elements in the play to help convey the feminist theme.
The title, the character names, and the metaphors all work together to paint not only a picture of Minnie’s life with John, but by extension, the lives of all women who live oppressed under male domination. Trifles is not just a reflection, however. It is also a call for women to use their perceived powerlessness as a tool to manipulate the system, and a warning to men that a system where one segment of the population dominates and oppresses another, cannot and will not be tolerated forever.
Susan Keating Glaspell was born July 1, 1876 (though it has been suggested she might have been born as many as six years later) in Davenport, Iowa. Her parents were Alice Keating and Elmer S. Glaspell, whose family was one of the earliest settlers in the Midwest. She was of Scotch/English and Irish descent and raised to be proud of her immigrant heritage. Glaspell was educated in public schools and upon high school graduation in 1894, was hired as a reporter for the Davenport Morning Republic.
Two years later she was the society editor for the Davenport Weekly Output. After graduating from Drake University in Des Moines in 1899, she was hired full-time as a legislative and state-house reporter and created a column, entitled “News Girl. ” With this column, she found an established and dedicated audience, mostly women who read Harper’s Bazaar and The Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1901 she returned to Davenport to dedicate her time to writing stories, plays, and novels that appealed to the readers of these magazines who desired idealism and romance.