Reflections on Susan Glaspell’s Trifles
In search of evidence and Mrs. Wright’s motive behind the murder of her husband, the sheriff, county attorney, and Mr. Hale came to the farmhouse to investigate the crime scene; the crucial evidence for the motive for the murder, however, was found by Mrs. Peters (the sheriff’s wife) and Mrs. Hale, two women who are considered concerning only “trifles” by the three men.
On the surface, Minnie’s (Mrs. Wright) dismal life commenced after she married an oppressive husband, who is also taciturn, implying a temperamental disinclination to speech and connoting unsociability. Minnie’s private agony, the motive for the murder, was kept a secret by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale’s deliberate cover-up. Beneath the surface, it is a vocalization of women’s voice which is unheard at the turn of twentieth century.
This paper first examines the use of images and symbols in the short story and how they are related to the major themes of the story. Second, the discussion apropos of gender differences in language use and conversational behavior is elucidated. At the end of this paper is a concise conclusive remark on Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.
2. The Use of Images and Symbols in Trifles
The first example is the symbol of a small canary, which is “from a singing bird to a muted caged bird” (Mustazza 494). Minnie represents the muted, caged, and strangled canary. To pass the time of day with her husband (John Wright) is “just like a raw wind that gets to the bone” and, as described by Mrs. Hale, “he was a hard man” (Glaspell 1079). As a childless woman, the canary bird is Minnie’s best friend and can be regarded as the incarnation of Minnie’s spirit. Before marriage, “she was kind of like a bird herself—real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery” (Glaspell 1079). Later, the physical death of the canary makes Mrs. Hake establish the connection of Minnie’s spiritual death and her husband’s involvement of the canary’s death (Russell 89). “Through traditional literary metaphor of the bird’s song as the voice of the soul, the women acknowledge that John Wright not only killed Minnie’s canary, but her very spirit” (Makowsky 62).
The second example is the pun on the surname of “Minnie Foster Wright,” “marking Minnie’s lack of ‘right’ and implying her ‘right’ to free herself from the societally sanctioned ‘right’ of her husband to control the family” (Ben-Zvi 154). John Wright is not Minnie Foster’s “Mr. Right.” On the contrary, he refused Mr. Hale’s invitation to arrange a party telephone line, keeping her isolated from other neighbors. John Wright is described as a hard-working farmer who kept to himself, and that is exactly what he did in the same way to his wife. Mrs. Hale demonstrates this point very clearly:
“She didn’t even belong to the Ladies Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn’t do her part, and then you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that—oh, that was thirty years ago.”
The devastating effect of isolation, especially on women, is one of the themes of the play (Glenn 221). The isolation of Minnie makes Mrs. Peters reminisce about her homesteading with her husband in the Dakota countryside and, with dread, her only child died (Glaspell 1081). It is women’s collective feeling of loneliness and isolation that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale commiserate with Minnie Foster.
3. The Use of Language in Trifles
One topic which is worth being explored in Trifles is the gender difference in language use. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen dichotomizes the concepts of “report-talk” and “rapport-talk” in her famous book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990, 111-112). “For most men,” according to Tannen’s elaboration of “report-talk,” “talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking, or imparting information” (Tannen 112). In Trifles, the conversation between county attorney and Mr. Hale reveals how men communicate with each other in a “report-talk” way:
County Attorney: Well, Mr. Hale, tell just what happened when you came
here yesterday morning.
Hale: Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes … … though I
said to Harry that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much
difference to John—
County Attorney: Let’s talk about that later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk
about that, but tell now just what happened when you got to the house.
Because of Mr. Hale’s digression from conversation topic, the county attorney reiterates his questions. Instead of focusing on the coherence and logic in conversation, women’s “rapport-talk” is “a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is placed on displaying similarities and matching experiences” (Tannen 111):
Mrs. Peters: [Who has gone to a small table … and lifted one end of a towel
that covers a pan.] She had bread set. [Stands still.]
… … … … … … (ellipsis of some paragraphs) … … … … … …
Mrs. Peters: … … … Yes, here it is. [Quickly shuts door leading upstairs.]
The difference in conversation behavior between men and women, as argued by Mann, is that “men operate from an ethos of self-reliance and competition and strive to be first with a quick, firm answer” while “women value cooperation and work to interconnect, taking time to make up their minds” (Mann 382).
Trifles demonstrates a fundamental difference between men and women. That difference culminates, finally, “in the establishing of two competing ethical paradigms” (Holstein 282). Showing empathy for the arduousness of Minnie’s life, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale choose to “knot” what they know about the motive for the crime and do “not” share it to the men (Holstein 290). This is the final line of the play, a line replete with interpretations. Silence is in justice, and fate is not so inexorable if women follow the path to sisterhood.
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