Gender: an Ambiguous Factor
Referencing the role that gender played in early twentieth century rural life made for an interesting character dynamic in this play. Susan Glaspell’s Trifles presents a murder mystery with a slightly twisted plot. The play itself, at first glance, seems simple enough. A man is murdered, his wife thought to be the murderer. An investigation is forged in their quaint farmhouse. However, the men are unable to find anything that leads to a motive. But then the twist! The women are able to solve the murder and choose not to share the findings with their husbands.
What exactly hinders the investigation set forth by the men? A case can be made in gender differences. The mental approach of each sex determines everything. The dynamic between the women, their husbands, and the county attorney creates a mental divide that cannot be bridged. Inevitably, what appears to be a simple plot, seemingly filled with mere trifles, the end of the play quickly develops into something that is almost surreal. Within a casual conversation the women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, manage to recreate Minnie Wright’s state of mind – seemingly putting themselves through her last day in the farmhouse.
In an article analyzing the play, Suzy Clarkson Holstein remarks that, “the play represents a profound conflict between two models of perception and behavior” (Holstein 282). On the whole, the men and women involved observed the identical information – with the exception of the canary. However, minus the canary, the women were already reconstructing Minnie’s life with John Wright. In their reconstruction they are able to uncover and comprehend evidence that would seem like useless information to the formal investigation the men were conducting. The county attorney searching the Wrights’ home cannot detect the significance in a loaf of bread left out of the breadbox, a kitchen table half wiped, a quilt in progress, and a missing pet canary” (Marsh 201-02). These simple details prove to be the key to ending the mystery. Holstein’s analysis goes on to mention the “ultimate moral choice” as presented to the women. Here she references, “their way of knowing leads them not simply to knowledge; it also leads to the decision about how to act on that knowledge” (Holstein 282). On the notion of morality alone, the reader must analyze several debates.
What exactly is at stake here for these women? And, if they withhold information from the investigation, are they harming themselves? The men have been neglecting the observations of the women, even teasing them for their observations. Mr. Hale comments, “ Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell 938) and later, overhearing a conversation between the women, Sheriff Peters comments, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it” (Glaspell 941). Immediately after his remark the stage directions state, “The men laugh, the women look abashed” (Glaspell 941).
There isn’t even the slightest hint of spousal respect here! The men dismiss the thoughts of the women because they are merely women. They do not believe that they could be of any aid to the investigation at hand. Have the women compromised their morality when evading the truth with their husbands? The men’s perspective is completely regimented. Their tunnel vision approach seems to be a hindrance in the investigation. They are unable to come to any conclusions about Mrs. Wright’s motive to kill her husband. In the final moments of dialogue, Mr.
Henderson can be heard saying, “No, Peters, it’s all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it… If there was some definite thing… a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it – “ (Glaspell 945). Holstein’s article in “The Midwest Quarterly” makes an interesting statement comparing biological and cultural issues in regards to the way both parties observe the facts. “Certainly, during the early part of the twentieth century, the duties and structures of women’s lives would have predisposed them to approach a problem from a different angle than that of the men” (Holstein 288).
This is evident in her mention of sex vs. gender and its implications. Sex, referring strictly to the biological, and gender, referring strictly to the cultural implications of gender roles in society. “The men, Mann argues… strove to be first with a quick, firm answer. Women on the other hand valued cooperation and worked to interconnect, taking time to make up their minds” (qtd. in Holstein 289). The juxtaposition of these two terms most always sparks an interesting debate. Some see them as one in the same, while others see them as two completely separate entities.
The debate between sex and gender comes up often in the debate on transgender issues. “Just as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters understand well the hardships of the rural lifestyle they share with the accused Mrs. Wright, so Elle finds that the accused Mrs. Windham is a ‘peer’” (Marsh 201). This statement draws parallels between Trifles and the 2001 film, Legally Blonde. In a 2005 article for “Literature Film Quarterly,” Kelly A. Marsh paired the message of sisterhood in the pages of Trifles with similar messages in a 21st century blockbuster hit.
The similarities in these two works are uncanny and whether the parallels are intentional is unclear. Marsh explains, “ the key evidence in both cases is precisely the evidence that the men overlook” (Marsh 201). Parallels at many levels can be drawn from Glaspell’s text. The women’s ability to uncover key points of evidence and solve this murder mystery speaks volumes to their characters, and, their husbands’ inability to see things for what they really are. “The women in this play develop a highly differentiated and reflective moral schema” (Holstein 288).
They make conscious decisions to hide the evidence that solves the murder from the men. In the closing stage directions, Glaspell writes, “Suddenly Mrs. Peters throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the bag she is wearing. It is too big. Sound of a doorknob turning in the other room. Mrs. Hale snatches the box and puts it in the pocket of her big coat” (Glaspell 945). In this moment the women have overcome their husbands and shown that their mere trifles can indeed come in handy.