After reading Trifles, one may think about the book called, Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus by Dr. John Gray. Both works tend to illustrate the vast differences between the two sexes. Due to such differences, women are often pitted against men. Mention the word feminist and most people think of the modern women’s movement. Long before the bra burning of the 1960s, however, writers were writing about the lives and concerns of women living in a male dominated society. In Trifles, the women of Venus triumph over the men of Mars to emphasize the author’s feminist theme. The feminist theme in the play can be defined by contrasting the male and female characters and analyzing the symbolism of the canary and the quilt.
Susan Glaspell wrote Trifles in 1916, a time when women were beginning to challenge their socially defined roles. Women were realizing that their identities as wives and domestics kept them in a subordinate position in society. Because women were demanding more freedom, traditional institutions such as marriage, which confined women to the home and made them mere extensions of their husbands, were beginning to be reexamined (Allison 1).
Glaspell chose as the play’s protagonist a married woman, Minnie Wright, who has challenged society’s expectations by murdering her husband. Minnie’s defiant act has occurred before the action begins and as the play unfolds two women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale piece together the details of the situation surrounding the murder. As the events unfold, however, it becomes clear that the focus of the play is not on who killed John Wright, but rather on the themes of the subordinate role of women. The men in the play, Mr. Hale, Sheriff Peters, and the County Attorney, are at the house to investigate the murder. The women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, are there to gather some things to take to Mrs. Wright in jail. The play carefully distinguishes between the affairs of men and the concerns of women. The men and the women both observe the house is generally a mess, but they see the messiness from different points of view. The men see the mess as negligence on the part of Minnie and her housewife duties. This can be understood from the County Attorney’s comment about Minnie not being much of a housekeeper and complaining about the dirty towels (Glaspell 980).
... trifle is used once in the play to indicate how the men think of what the women. are doing in the kitchen while ... in the kitchen. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find a birdcage in the kitchen cupboard. They discuss the fact that Minnie must have ... community activities. The title of the play adds to our understanding of the play's characters and theme by showing that the birdcage also ...
Mrs. Hale protects Minnie by saying, “There is a great deal of work to be done on a farm” (Glaspell 980).
The men would not know this because they are blinded to everyone else’s chores but their own. Mrs. Hale also comments that men’s hands are not always as clean as they should be and that is why the towels are dirty. When the men find that Minnie is worried about her jars of preserves, they laugh at her and say that she should be worried over being tried for murder. However, the women recognize the broken jars of fruit as hours of hard work over a hot stove. The men dismiss these things as insignificant by stating, “Women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell 980).
The men are intent on beginning their logical detective work to solve John Wright’s murder; they see only surface things (Andrews 214).
They believe that the best way to solve a crime is to look at the actual evidence of the crime. While the men prove to be unsuccessful, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale find a number of clues that could link Minnie to the murder. The men scour the house and barn looking for any piece of evidence that could turn the tables against Mrs. Wright. The women are confined to the kitchen in Wright’s home while their husbands enter and exit at will. This scenario mirrors Minnie’s daily life; she remained in the home while her husband went to work and into town. Without any intentions of solving the murder, the women entertain themselves by analyzing the inside of the house. The women realize that the house is not only disorderly, but very gloomy as well. This goes unnoticed by the male figures. The women cannot recall ever seeing any happiness within the Wright home. They decide that this is because Minnie’s every act and thought was controlled by her husband. One of the first clues that could link Mrs. Wright to the murder of her husband is the pan of unbaked bread. The bread had been left to rise but never baked; this leads the women to believe that Minnie was so distraught about a recent incident that she forgot about her rising dough. Along with the interruption of Minnie’s daily tasks comes a noticeable shift in her recreational activities. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale also stumble across the blanket Minnie was quilting. While looking over the quilt, Mrs. Hale noticed that the segment that had been worked on most recently was less carefully sewn that the prior segments. The sudden change in stitching makes it look “as if she did’nt know what she was about” (Glaspell 982).
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Mrs. Hale’s analysis of the quilt gives the reader the impression that something had been bothering Mrs. Wright to the point that she could no longer stitch neatly. Finally, the most revealing pieces of evidence are the birdcage and the bird itself. When the canary is discovered, the women determine that John Wright had killed the only thing that Minnie loved so she killed him.
These “trifles” eventually prove that Minnie killed her husband. The men wanted to find something concrete that would easily convince an all-male jury, but they never did because they could not think like Minnie Wright. To men, dead canaries are dead canaries. They would never read into it like the women; therefore the women never inform the men of their discoveries. The women also sympathized with the accused woman and respected her work as a homemaker. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters felt sorry for Minnie because her husband was emotionally abusive to her; they do not pay attention to the fact that she did kill someone (Brennie 39).
This contrast between the male and female counterparts demonstrates the feminist theme because the women have the power to set Minnie free or condemn her due to the knowledge gained in the kitchen. The kitchen is no longer a place that reflects a woman’s role as nurturer, but a place where women have secrets that provide ultimate empowerment.
... until she is faced with the brutality of what John Wright did to Minnie. She says "I know what stillness is. The law ... educated lawmen considered a "trifle", is the quilt which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters stumble across. Minnie had taken the scraps and put them ... story reveals, through Glaspell's use of symbolism, the role that women are expected to play in society. Glaspell illustrates how this ...
The play’s feminist theme can also be gleaned from comparing Minnie Wright to the dead canary. The canary is a symbol of Minnie’s confinement; it was caged just as Minnie is trapped in the abusive relationship with John. Mrs. Hale described her as “kind of a bird herself – real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and – fluttery” (Glaspell 984).
Before Minnie married John Wright, she was beautiful and happy; she even sung on a regular basis. Mrs. Hale tells Mrs. Peters, “I wish you’d have seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang” (Glaspell 981).
After she wed John, however, she changed completely because he did not like singing. John Wright abused Minnie by denying her personality and individuality; he strangles the life out of his wife just like he strangles the canary. For almost thirty years Mrs. Wright had lived with only her cruel husband to keep her company; the canary had been her only solace (Richardson 3).
When John kills the bird, he kills the last bit of Minnie and makes a big mistake in doing so. The broken birdcage represents Minnie’s freedom from the restrictive role of abused housewife. Once she is free, she takes revenge for all the years of abuse and oppression. She strangles the life out of John like he strangled her spirit and her bird. The bird/birdcage metaphor is also representative of the role women are forced into in society. The bird symbolizes the women and the cage is the male dominated society. By killing her husband, Minnie reclaims a bit of her life and dignity.
The quilt also portrays feminist themes. The quilt can be seen as a symbol of Minnie’s life. She had taken the scraps and sewn them into a nice, neat quilt. The block she was working on, however, “was all over the place” (Glaspell 982).
After the death of her beloved pet, Minnie probably was angry and confused; the stitches represented her state of mind at that time. The question that was asked about the quilt was whether Minnie was going to “quilt it or knot it” (Glaspell 986).
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This represents the decision that Minnie had to make about her future. She could either quilt it, meaning that she would go on enduring the isolation and abuse, or she could knot it and decide that her life as it exists was “not it” and she would do something to change it (Bourn 9).
Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale begin to agree with Minnie as they uncover how John treated her. Mrs. Hale sums up the women’s feelings when she replies to the County Attorney’s question by saying, “we call it – knot it, Mr. Henderson” (Glaspell 986).
Minnie decided to take control of her life; the path that she had been taking was “not it”.
The feminist agenda of Trifles was never meant to be subtle. Glaspell uses the contrast between the men and women and the symbols of Minnie’s life to demonstrate the oppression of women in a society dominated chiefly by males. The author makes evident that before anything, we are human and directly following, we are either man or woman. The play is a call for women to use their subordinate role as a tool to manipulate the system and a warning to men that male domination cannot and will not be tolerated forever. Why should our sexuality limit us?