Trifles as Feminist Literature American Drama Studies Essay

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Trifles as Feminist Literature

American drama studies often neglect the influence of female writers and focus primarily on writers such as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. However, women often worked in collaboration with their male playwright counterparts, and in fact, helped to establish and propagate various dramatic movements in the United States. Among these influential women playwrights was Susan Glaspell, who along with Eugene O'Neill, George "Jig" Cram Cook, John Reed and Louise Bryant, Max Eastman and Ida Rauh, and Edna St. Vincent Millay helped to establish the Playwright's Theatre in Cape Cod (Reuben, 2011). The Playwright's Theatre produced and presented 16 of O'Neill's plays, 11 of Glaspell's plays, and a total of 93 works by more than 50 writers during six seasons spanning from 1916 to 1921-1922 (Reuben, 2011). One of Glaspell's plays performed during this time was "Trifles" (1916) which is not only based on a murder trial Glaspell covered as a journalist, but is also a prime example of feminist literature.

In "American Drama, Feminist Discourse, and Dramatic Form: In Defense of Critical Pluralism," Patricia R. Schroeder (1993) analyzes women within the context of modern American drama and examines the different approaches to what can be defined as feminist drama. Schroeder (1993) points to several characteristics of drama that allow a play to be classified as feminist. Schroeder (1993) argues that for some, a play's content and subject matter are sufficient for a play to be considered feminist (p. 105). Schroeder (1993) cites Megan Terry and argues that feminist literature arises from "the creation of powerful, autonomous women" (p. 105). Other women, such as Karen Malpede, argue that feminist literature is about "women surviving and creating new and human communities out of the wreckage of the past" (Schroeder, 1993, p. 105). However, these two definitions of feminist literature are not applicable to "Trifles" (1916) because Glaspell does not create a play about women overcoming social constraints, nor does she demonstrate how women create new communities and relationships out of the past. On the contrary, "Trifles" (1916) demonstrates the consequences of being able to overcome the obstacles created by social conventions, and while Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are the only vocal female characters in the play, the plot does not center on them, but rather on Mrs. Minnie Wright, who was seemingly driven to murder her husband. Furthermore, the play focuses on Mrs. Peters's and Mrs. Hale's failure to create a new and human community that was inclusive of Mrs. Wright and would have potentially served as an outlet for her frustrations, and a community that would have potentially prevented Mr. John Wright's murder.

Schroeder (1993) offers a third possible definition of feminist literature as it relates to autonomous women, a definition that is the most applicable to Glaspell's "Trifles" (1916). Schroeder (1993) cites Janet Brown who argues, "When woman's struggle for autonomy is a play's central rhetorical motive, that play can be considered a feminist drama" (p. 105). Because the central theme of "Trifles" (1916) is Minnie Wright's murder of her husband, it can be argued that John Wright's death is a consequence of Minnie's struggle for autonomy and that the action that takes place onstage is a reaction to her struggle for autonomy. Furthermore, this struggle is mirrored through symbolism created through Minnie's pet canary. Mrs. Hale comments, "come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself -- real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and -- fluttery. How -- she -- did -- change" (Glaspell, 1916). Like the canary, Minnie felt trapped in her home and believed that her only escape would come through death, which can explain why Minnie killed the canary and why she murdered her husband.

The reaction to Minnie's struggle is further complicated due to Glaspell's depiction of dual perspectives that are divided based on gender lines. George Henderson -- the County Attorney, Henry Peters -- the Sheriff, and Lewis Hale have perceptions that differ greatly from those of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale who sympathize with Minnie and the social and familial pressures they believe Minnie was experiencing. Moreover, these reactions can be classified as being either male-centric or female-centric, perceptions that although are parallel, demonstrate two unique points-of-view and two unique understandings of women and their role in society. The men in the play -- Mr. Henderson, Mr. Peters, and Mr. Hale -- appear to only notice Minnie's failure to fulfill her wifely and homemaking duties, and focus only on the superficial aspects of the case. For instance, Mr. Hale comments, "Well, she looked queer…as if she didn't know what she was going to do next. And kind of done up." To describe Minnie's psychological state when Mr. Wright's body was discovered. Mr. Henderson also focuses on superficial aspects of the investigation and comments, "You're convinced that there was nothing important here -- nothing that would point to any motive," to which Mr. Peters answers, "Nothing here but kitchen things" (Glaspell, 1916). On the other hand, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale recognize the insurmountable amount of pressure exerted on Minnie, and other wives, and quickly jump in to defend Minnie's lack of housekeeping skills. When Mr. Henderson comments, "Dirty towels!...Not much of a housekeeper, would you say ladies?" Mrs. Hale retorts, "There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm…towels get dirty awful. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be" (Glaspell, 1916). This exchange between Mr. Henderson and Mrs. Hale emphasizes men's expectations and demonstrates how these expectations are shattered by reality. Paradoxically, Mr. Hale had previously commented, "women are used to worrying over trifles," implying that women focused only on insignificant issues, yet fails to recognize that focusing on Minnie's housekeeping is also a "trifle" (Glaspell, 1916). While the men focus on Minnie's failure to keep a clean kitchen, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters focus on Minnie's psychological state and recognize their failure to provide a support system for Minnie, one which could have helped to alleviate Minnie's stress. Mrs. Hale laments, "Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?" (Glaspell, 1916). Mrs. Hale continues, "I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be -- for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things -- it's all just a different kind of the same thing," which allows the reader to understand the universality of women's struggles during this time and provides insight into the fragile psychological constructs of the female psyche (Glaspell, 1916).

In "American Drama, Feminist Discourse, and Dramatic Form: In Defense of Critical Pluralism," Schroeder (1993) also argues that literature and drama can also be classified as feminist based on its structure and format. Schroeder (1993) writes, "Another approach to defining feminist drama focuses on an intersection of form and content perceived to be uniquely female" (p. 107). Schroeder (1993) notes that traditionally, drama has followed a masculine structure that parallels a male sexual response. Schroeder (1993) cites Nancy S. Reinhardt (1981) who argues, "[T]he structure of traditional Western drama, an "imitation of an action," is linear, leading through conflict and tension to a major climax and resolution. . . . One could even say that this aggressive build-up, sudden big climax, and cathartic resolution suggests specifically the male sexual response" (p. 36-37). The dramatic structure of "Trifles" (1916) is vastly different from traditional drama because the action takes place during the course of a single act, which does not allow for traditional conflict, climax, and resolution. On the contrary, the conflict in "Trifles" remains largely unresolved; Minnie is not taken in for her husband's murder…[continue]

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