Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, was written in 1916, and reflects the author’s preoccupation with culture-bound notions of gender and sex roles. As the title of the play by Susan Glaspell, “Trifles” (click here for a full plot summary) suggests, the concerns of women are often considered to be mere trifles, unimportant issues that bear little or no importance to the true work of society, which, of course, is being carried out by men. Glaspell questions, and in so doing calls the reader or viewer to also question, the relative value of men’s and women’s perspectives and work by setting up a tension-filled drama that unfolds through the development of two distinct narratives, one male and one female. As Holstein argues in her essay, however, the questioning Glaspell provokes is not necessarily only about women’s roles in society, but rather how knowledge and perspective are valued or devalued within specific contexts.
Holstein contends that the two parallel narratives of Trifles are built upon “the differences in [men’s and women’s perceptions and behaviors as they are] grounded in the home space” (282). According to Holstein, the men in the play approach the Wright house, where Mr. Wright has been found murdered, as a crime scene, while the women who accompany them during the investigation approach the house as a home.Holstein acknowledges that the men and the women have two very different reasons for being there—the men, to fulfill their obligations as law professionals, the women, to prepare some personal effects to carry to the imprisoned Mrs. Wright. Yet she argues that in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” (click here for a full plot summary) the fact that the alterability of their motives is rigid, in the case of the men, and flexible, on the part of the women, determines how they view the scene. There are two critical consequences of this positioning on the part of the women. First, Holstein states that the women’s “way of knowing leads them not simply to knowledge; it also leads to the decision about how to act on that knowledge” (282). She describes this way of knowing as the ability to “relive [Mrs. Wright’s] entire married life rather than simply to research one violent moment” (287). Second, as a result of adopting this way of knowing, the women are able to gain power “in being devalued, for their low status allows them to keep quiet at the play’s end” (285). Because the men do not expect the women to make a contribution to the investigation, they are disinterested in the women’s astute impressions and valuable findings that solved the murder case.
Holstein suggests, and I would agree, that traditional feminist readings of Trifles are as limiting as the socially constructed categories of gender are. More than questioning gender roles, Glaspell seems to be inviting the reader to question a construct that is even more complex, and that is how human beings understand, and how they believe they understand, one another and their stories. As Holstein signals, it is not necessarily true that the women’s approach and ultimate decision to protect Mrs. Wright “simply derive from sharing… gender” (288). The most powerful piece of evidence in this regard is that Mrs. Peters initially argues that the law is the law (Glaspell 1902); she does not necessarily feel sympathy for Mrs. Wright, as Mrs. Hale does, because of their shared gender or the shared social position to which gender has relegated them. Rather, it is precisely because the women go to the Wright home without the motive of discovering something that they remain open-minded, that they find valuable evidence, and, perhaps most importantly, that they construct a plausible narrative out of that evidence. Then, because they can empathize with Mrs. Wright’s pain, they decide, quickly and without extensive debate, that they must conceal her crime; in effect, they feel her actions were justified. Clearly, the County Attorney and the Sheriff would interpret the law and their place within it differently; again, this is not necessarily because of their gender, but because of their professional positions and their accustomed ways of seeing and knowing.
Early in her essay, Holstein writes that Glaspell’s play Trifles is deceptive in that it seems “simple, almost inconsequential” (282). On the surface, it seems that Trifles is really only about the competing roles and perspectives of women and men. This is certainly one part, and an important one, of the play. It would be historically inaccurate and irresponsible to suggest that Glaspell did not intend to write a play about social divisions created by strict gender roles, specifically, that women were confined to the home and that their contributions went unnoticed and undervalued. Nevertheless, digging deeper, as Holstein does, one sees that Trifles is about a concept that is even more profound, and that is how we pursue the truth, how we come to interpret and explain it, and how we value it. Often, that process does become as divided and as divisive as gender itself; however, one should not automatically assume that men and women cling to the dominant beliefs of their gender. Doing so belies the complexity of truth, as well as of human relations.
Clarkson Holstein, Suzy. “Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s Trifles.” The MidwestQuarterly 44 (2003): 282-290.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 6th ed. Ed. NinaBaym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 1893-1903.