Arby has been a professional writer and researcher for over 10 years, and her areas of interest are shamefully diverse.
Of Course It's a Feminist Text, But It's Also a Window Into the Author's Psyche
It would not be a novel concept to explore Susan Glaspell’s drama “Trifles” as a feminist piece that depicts the tragic backlash of a woman painted into a corner by a patriarchal society.
The merits of “Trifles” as an empowering statement against the traditional roles of women in marriage and society are not lost or weakened by further analysis of Glaspell’s possible psychological motives for writing the piece.
That said, it could be surmised from a psychoanalytical perspective that this drama served as an outlet for Glaspell’s own tormented psyche – herself the victim of an oppressive relationship of sorts.
“Trifles” takes place during a single act, set in the kitchen of a rural farmhouse. (The fact that the drama occurs in a kitchen is just a small bit of much symbolism aptly employed by Glaspell throughout the play).
Three men - the county attorney, the sheriff, and a neighbor - are investigating a death. The victim is the man of the house, Mr. Wright. It soon becomes clear that the man’s wife is the prime suspect. Accompanying the men are the wives of the sheriff and the neighbor, Mrs. Peters and Mrs Hale, respectively– present to gather some clothing for Mrs. Wright.
While the men search around the rest of the house looking for facts and clues, the women unravel the mystery of what actually happened through their attention to the small details – the trifles. The County Attorney’s wife at first seems to want to take the hard line of the law and report their findings to the men. She changes her stance, though, as a picture is painted of a woman made subject to an overbearing and abusive dictator.
As the women piece together the details of the suspected woman’s unfortunate life, we begin to share with them an empathy for her – we may even begin to understand the woman’s breakdown and subsequent murder of Mr. Wright. They make an attempt to feign ignorance, when Mrs. Peters nervously remarks:
“My, it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us. Wouldn’t they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a – dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with – with- wouldn’t they laugh (Glaspell 927)!”
However, a reader is inclined to see that these women are more clever than they are admitting to each other, and certainly more so than their husbands would give them credit for. This is confirmed when Mrs. Hale replies quietly, “Maybe they would – maybe they wouldn’t.” Stark contrasts are drawn between the way the men and women assess the situation at hand.
The men are certainly characters of much pomp and circumstance, but are ultimately the fools in the whole affair – blinded in a sense by their own arrogance. Glaspell’s drama audaciously asks its audience to understand how the perpetrator of the crime was a victim of a society that provided no relief from an abusive marriage. The women hold no real power in society or in their marriages, but here they hold in their hands the smoking gun.
Rather than claim their findings and try to receive some kind of recognition from the men (who we’re not sure would give any credence to their theory anyway), they form a sort of sisterhood with Mrs. Wright – empowering themselves and rebelling quietly yet in a very big way. The short, one-act play manages to address a whole slew of issues that were quite controversial at the time. It was certainly a powerful message in support of women’s rights.
It doesn’t require long hours of research to find that “Trifles” has for years been hailed as a literary staple of the feminist movement. It is still used in lectures and conferences around the globe to bring awareness to such issues as the corporate glass ceiling and violence against women. Controversial in her time, all of Glaspell’s works have a decidedly feminist flavor. The life and circumstances (nature and nurture) of this talented author must be reviewed in order to analyze how “Trifles” reflects her own psychological issues.
Susan Glaspell, Pioneer
Susan Glaspell was, by all standards, a remarkable woman. Born in Iowa in 1882, she grew up in a most opportune climate to witness the playing out of traditional gender roles. She did not aspire to be like the women she saw all around her and attended college immediately after graduating from high school.
Glaspell became a journalist after college, covering the case of a woman accused of murdering her abusive husband. It is this experience that inspired her to pen “Trifles.” A decidedly independent and free-spirited woman, given the time period, Glaspell had already established herself in her writing career by the time she began her affair with George Cook. Cook, a stage director, was married to someone else at the time.
Taking up with a married man could certainly have served as further inspiration for her to look at the hypocrisy of marriage as an institution. Together with Cook, Glaspell founded the Provincetown Players, a theatre group that performed controversial dramas that often poked at societal norms, particularly the treatment of women within the confines of marriage.
The two were eventually married to each other, and as one might suspect, Cook was reportedly not faithful to Glaspell any more than he had been to his previous wife. This may well have been a source of frustration for Glaspell, which seems to translate in to her work. On the surface, she appears to preach from on high; an educated and successful woman, on the cutting edge of a social cause – she herself in a most progressive marriage to a man who not only supports but collaborates with her in her career.
Beneath this veneer, however, we might see Glaspell as much more like one of her own square-peg-in-a-round-hole female characters than one might first suspect. Vilifying traditional marriage through writings like “Trifles” could well have served as a sort of counter-balance to the inequities in her own. Within even her modern and progressive marriage, she was still in the subordinate role – victim to a male oppressor – just for different reasons.
Later, when Cook died, Glaspell took up with a man seventeen years younger than she. While this affair took place well after the writing of “Trifles,” it seems psychologically indicative of her frustration with male/female relationships. “In archetypal language: young men can play the Lover to the hilt, without the distracting and irritating need to be the King, the Magician or the Warrior.” (Pittman)
Perhaps Glaspell sought to finally hold some power in her relationship with men. This lack of power seems to be at the heart of her own problems, as well as the drama we are looking at.
A Woman's Place
Let us turn now to the play itself as a corollary to Glaspell’s own life and the psychological suffering she endured. She sets the drama in the kitchen of a rural home, likely in the American Midwest.
We already know that this setting is familiar to Glaspell, having grown up in probably the slowest area to progress in the area of women’s issues. From the outset, the men are established as holding the traditional, breadwinning roles in the three marriages displayed in the drama.
As a career woman herself, Glaspell likely grappled with the conflicting aspiration to achieve literary and successful acclaim – thus claiming her own identity - and the desire to “keep” her wandering husband. Certainly, she struggled with her identity as a person, and it seems that this inner wrestling match manifested itself in the form of her characters and their actions.
Misters Hale and Peters, decidedly better husbands to have than Mr. Wright, acknowledge early on that perhaps “what his wife wanted (didn’t make) much difference to John (Wright) (Glaspell 919).” In a society where women are already second-class citizens, this woman is not even given the dignity of the condescending niceness with which the other men in the story seem to treat their wives. Glaspell’s own marriage is, by standards of the time, very progressive.
Her husband is supportive of her career and presumably does not expect her to fulfill traditional wifely duties; he seems to respect her as a person and acknowledges her identity as a valid artist and career woman.
Yet, like Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, while she may have it better by a set comparison, she is still made subordinate – she, by her husband’s philandering ways. This idea begs the concept of “other” to be examined.
The “other,” from a feminist psychological standpoint, alludes to the idea that women are defined merely in how they relate to, complement, or fit in with the man or men in their lives- rather than as their own autonomous person. “He is the subject, he is the Absolute--she is the Other" (de Beauvoir, xix). Perhaps the women in the play, knowing the men will not give credence to their thoughts as being valid (they being the “other” to their husband’s “absolute”), relish and have secret delight in the fact that they have solved the mystery and will not include the men in their discovery.
That the men view the women as extensions of themselves rather than as their own individual selves is portrayed again and again in such cryptic exchanges as the following:
County Attorney: No, Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising. For that matter a sheriff’s wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?
Mrs. Peters. Not – just that way.
Sherriff (chuckling). Married to the law… (Glaspell 928)
Perhaps the author’s disdain for marriage in her drama was a way of expressing her own personal dissatisfaction with such matters. “Trifles” seems to show that there are perhaps two sides to any married woman; her true self versus the role she must fulfill as a wife. Glaspell herself must have struggled in this way, too.
As an artist, she was appreciated by her partner, George, and had an identity there. As Mrs. Cook, however, she was trapped - in as powerless a position as one of her characters – a knowing victim.
After reviewing “Trifles” within the context of the author’s own experience as a woman, it seems that the play does illustrate some of the issues within the writer’s own psyche. With all the respect that is due Susan Glaspell as a pioneering woman writer, it is apparent that her works were at least partially a manifestation of personal frustrations within her own life. I won't digress into the fact that this can be said of many, if not all, creators of art.
The beauty and importance of Glaspell’s writing, particularly “Trifles,” is not diminished by the belief that the author was working out her own neuroses through it. If anything, her inner battle served as the hard-won fuel for her monumental work.
© 2018 Arby Bourne