by: Tammy Wallick
Mention the word feminist and most people think of the modern women’s movement. Long before the bra burning of the 60s, however, writers were writing about the lives and concerns of women living in a male dominated society. Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, was written in 1916, long before the modern women’s movement began. Her story reveals, through Glaspell’s use of formal literary proprieties, the role that women are expected to play in society, and the harm that it brings not only the women, but the men as well.
Character names are important in Trifles.
Two characters who are never seen, John and Minnie Wright, provide the inciting incident for the play. The name “Wright” plays off the social stereotype of women seeking” Mr. Right,” so they also represent the roles of men and women in the larger society. Minnie’s name has a double significance, “Minnie” being “mini” or “minimized,” which was descriptive of her relationship with John and in general of women’s relationship with men. The taking of the husband’s name is also important in the story. Mrs.
Hale and Mrs. Peters are not given first names. The role that society has cast them in is one that is defined by their husbands. Mrs. Peters, who is married to the sheriff, is viewed in those terms, not as an individual. The county attorney even says “for that matter a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell .
.). Mrs. Peters herself tries to
fulfill that role, saying “Mrs. Hale, the law is the law” (Glaspell ..
). She tries to reinforce that identity until she is faced with the brutality of what John Wright did to Minnie. She says “I know what stillness is. The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale” (Glaspell ..
). The difference is that she is talking about the crime committed against Minnie, not the murder. The best example of the importance of names, especially married names, is the image of Minnie Foster. “I hear she used to wear pretty clothes and be lively when she was Minnie Foster . . .
” Mrs. Hale says (Glaspell..). She talks about Minnie again on page ..
: “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang” (Glaspell..). The image of Minnie Foster is used to show, by contrast, what John Wright had done to Minnie. “Howshedidchange” says Mrs. Hale (Glaspell .
.). John Wright abuses Minnie by denying her her personality and individuality, and eventually Minnie kills John to escape that abuse. By extension of the analogy between the Wrights and men and women in general, the idea is that it is only a matter of time before women who are forced to enslave themselves to a male dominated society get fed up and seek revenge on their oppressors.
Understanding Trifles takes thought to identify and understand the play’s two major metaphors. The first of these is the bird/bird-cage metaphor.
Mrs. Hale describes Minnie (before her marriage to John) as “kind of like a bird herself real sweet
and pretty, but kind of timid and fluttery” (Glaspell ..). Mrs. Hale and Mrs.
Peters find Minnie’s bird cage in the cupboard, but they do not realize the importance of it until they find the dead bird with its neck twisted to one side. The comparison here is between Minnie and the bird. The bird is caged just as Minnie is trapped in the abusive relationship with John. John Wright figuratively strangles the life out of Minnie like he literally strangles the bird. When John kills the bird, he kills the last bit of Minnie, but he makes a mistake in doing so. The broken bird cage represents Minnie’s freedom from the restrictive role of “Mrs.
Wright.” Once she is free she takes her revenge for all of the years of abuse and oppression. She strangles the life out of John like he strangled her spirit and her bird. The bird/bird-cage metaphor is also a representative of the role women are forced into in
society, the bird being women and the cage being the male dominated society. The other major metaphor is the quilt. The quilt represents Minnie’s life.