30 November 2018
Women are NOT their Husband’s Keeper
At the turn of the twentieth century, women were often left with little importance or ‘trifles’, while men were able to possess professional jobs, political rights, and land ownership. Throughout history the gendered roles place the woman cooking in the kitchen, cleaning the household, bearing the children, and being the husband’s caretaker. Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” is a representation of the feminist movement that sparked in 1916 when America was challenging its views on women. “Trifles” examine the relationship between husbands and wives and through dialogue shows the social oppression of women throughout the time period in which the play is portrayed. For the duration of the play, the audience sees the women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, take action against the social standards and expectations of women during 1916. Both women push back against their husbands to stand as one representing a movement towards change in women’s role in society.
From the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, women were taught at the start adolescence that marriage was the single greatest moment in their lives. A woman’s path was paved before she was even capable of distinguishing her left from her right. “Her training was designed to enable her to catch her man and to provide the necessary elementary information for a housewife” (Riegel 1). Women were taught how to cook and how to keep the house clean, for this is what men expected of women in this society. From the beginning, the audience can see these expectations for women based on the sly remarks made by the men towards the women and comments of how untidy Mrs. Wright kept up the farmhouse. The reader first notes this at the beginning of the play when Mr. Hale is explaining to the sheriff and county attorney what happened when he went to visit The Wright’s home and discovered the news of Mr. Wright’s death. “Well, I was surprised; she didn’t ask me to come up to the stove, or to set down, but just sat there, not even looking at me” (Glaspell 694). Mr. Hale is surprised by Mrs. Wright’s hospitality because during this time period a woman is expected to offer her guest food or a seat, so they feel welcomed and comfortable in their home. In this male dominating society, women are unconsciously brainwashed to the idea they have no other position in life than to be in the kitchen. The readers can clearly acknowledge that women give into the roles that the men and society have placed them in when Mrs. Wright requested her apron in her list of personal belongings, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters were to bring to her. “I suppose just to make her feel more natural” (Glaspell 697). In this line of dialogue, Mrs. Peters is implying that Mrs. Wright would feel more comfortable with her apron because in this time period the social ideology that women should be in the kitchen is ‘natural’. The men continuously make remarks on the uncleanliness of the farmhouse because a woman’s main purpose and role in the society was to keep the house clean and organized, while her husband provided the income. Mr. Henderson makes many complaints about the dirty towels and unwashed dishes. “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” (Glaspell 696). He addresses this comment directly to Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters because they were housekeepers of their own homes just like Mrs. Wright. Another reason for Mr. Henderson directing his comment toward just the women would be because the men know nothing about keeping a house clean because that is a job for a woman and not a man. While men held decision making positions and professional careers, women were given the role as maid and cook. The dialogue between the male roles and women roles in the play gives proof to the idea that gender defines the characters in the play.
Before the play even begins, the audience can see the difference in gender roles and social ideology between the men and women in the play when they are introduced to the characters. “George Henderson (County Attorney), Henry Peters (Sheriff), Lewis Hale (neighboring farmer), Mrs. Peters, Mrs. Hale” (Glaspell 693). Notice that only the men are given first names and the women are referred to only by their husband’s last name, hinting the male identity in the female self which both women struggle with throughout the play. In the time period in which the play was written, men took on the dominant role in society and women were just considered as dependents or extensions of their husbands. “In the early and mid-century, prominence for all but a handful of women remained a local matter dependent upon the social standing of the woman’s husband…essentially reflected woman’s restricted role in society” (Campbell xi). The readers and the audience can recognize the restriction of an independent identity for the women throughout the play. Before Minnie was married, Mrs. Hale described her character as someone who was pretty, lively and loved to sing. But by following the role mapped by her husband and society, loses her own sense of identity. Through dialogue, the reader can see how Mrs. Peters’ identity is suppressed by her husband’s professional career as a sheriff. When Mr. Henderson says, “a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” he is making Mrs. Peters simply an extension of her husband giving her no separate identity of her own, much like society did in this time period (Glaspell 703).
While investigating Mrs. Wright’s home in search of substantial evidence for the murder of her husband, the men are so focused on trying to pinpoint an obvious motive, they miss the little details that are of great importance. Unlike Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, the men overlook the emotional implications of the “unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table” (Glaspell 693). Mr. Hale, Mr. Peters, and Mr. Henderson are too masculine to even consider evaluating the significance of such little things. They think that their way of solving the crime is the only way that can bring results. On the other hand, the women notice the significance of the small details because during this time women were felt to approach conclusions more by their sixth sense than by logic. The universal male superiority in the play compliments the idea that women were considered lesser of human beings in the early twentieth century. As the women look for the personal belongings Mrs. Wright requested such as her apron. The men laugh at Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters for indulging in such ‘trifles’. Mr. Hale even makes the comment, “Well, women are used to worrying about trifles” (Glaspell 696). Because of this demeaning remark, the women are initially brought closer together, and the audience can visually see this happen through stage direction. Ironically, those so-called ‘trifles’ the men find silly turn out to be the key to solving the murder. The men in the play are so entitled to the social ideology that man “had the superior brain and superior brawn” that they were blind to the clues that were right in front of them (Campbell 2).
Before women took action to win a more important role in the eyes of the male dominating society, men considered it “man’s right to decide what women should be like is ‘inalienable and eternal'” (Campbell 2). As the play progresses, the audience observes how both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters steer against the social oppression of women by their husbands and society. They start to gain their own independent identities by hiding substantial evidence of the motive to the murder to protect Mrs. Wright from the men who seek to convict her. “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively when she was Minnie Foster” (Glaspell 697). By giving Mrs. Wright a first name, Minnie, Mrs. Hale is giving her an identity separate her husband. As the women gain their separate identities, their bond grows stronger with the realization that their lives are much more alike than they initially realized. “We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things- it’s all just different kind of thing” (Glaspell 702). Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters receiving a more important and independent role in the play represent the spark of the women’s movement which resulted in women’s suffrage and women’s liberation in the 1960s.