Essay – Feminism in Trifles

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Clay Chastain
ENGL 2304
Dr. Soto
8 October 2007
Feminism in Trifles
In Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, a short play about rural life in the early twentieth
century, a strong standpoint on feminism is presented to the audience. Throughout the
play, much of the plot revolves around contrasting the men in power’s perception of a
crime scene with the more subjective, emotional women’s point of view. In the
conclusion of the poem, the women, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, decline turning in some
potential evidence that they have discovered. Their line of reasoning is that they
understand the circumstances of the crime: a cruel, oppressive man was killed by his wife
because of his wrongdoings. They understand that most likely the man probably deserved
his fate, so they do not submit any evidence for the crime to the country attorney and the
sheriff. Ethics aside, this action creates a chasm between the perceived implications of
the plot of the play versus the actual effect of the play on the audience.
In the first sense of the play, there is the literal conclusion. The women outright
refuse to give the evidence to the sheriff and the county attorney; instead, they do not
even mention that they have “solved” the crime. They end up dismissing it completely.
However, attempting to determine the meaning of these actions can be difficult. Looking
at the play strictly in a literal sense, the women have apparently done nothing for the
cause of feminism. Yes, it is true that the women have silently resisted the men and have
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asserted their own superiority. Further, it seems that the women are so confident with
their actions that they do not even need to bother with telling the men. However, what did
this accomplish?
In the play, it still seems that the men are indeed talking down to the women and
the men hardly care at all at whatever retort the women may make. The entire play seems
to be characterized by silent aggression. The women talk about preserves, quilting, and
other typically women subjects. In fact, their stereotypical women roles are allowing
them to be emotional and understand the case. They have experience where the men do
not, but most of this seems to support the idea that women are typically in these situations
– cooking and sewing. In this sense, it appears that the roles the women are cast in match
up to nearly any stereotype about women in American society of that time (and even, to
some extent, present day). While it is true that they are portrayed to be smart enough to
solve such a crime, it appears to just typecast their emotional side to come to any
conclusions. For example, they refuse to submit the evidence not out of a sense of reason
but instead out of their emotions they end up siding with the murderer. It is unfortunate to
see this because it signals that emotional decisions are stronger than rational decisions.
Rational decisions are generally based on a variety of ethical conceptions, such as those
by Kant or Mill or even Plato or Aristotle, and in these situations it would be more
focused on submitting the evidence rather than making a point about their power in the
situation. And, while they passively showed resistance to the men, the men never knew
about it, so the end result is the status quo. If for a given force there has to be a reaction,
there was no force to cause any reaction in this situation. The men assumed that they
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were right and will continue to subvert the women’s rights. Absolutely no change will
come from this for the women in the play. Perhaps if they had spoken up about how
intelligent and thoughtful they were, they would have shown the superiority of women in
some respect. But had this not been a play and instead a real life situation, this entire
exchange would have been a nonevent in any circumstances.
Of course, this is a play that many, many people have read (or seen) since its
creation. It has been taken to be a great work of feminism for the period, and continues to
be reprinted in collections for college students around the world. In this regard, the
audience gets to experience the feminism in a different way. Instead of the play being
taken for a real set of actions and consequences, it is best taken as a play that is making a
point. The audience is supposed to be able to share in the secret that the women are
having. In this way, the women are allowed to communicate with the audience that they
are indeed smarter than the men and for a variety of different reasons. The audience is
able to understand the motivations of the women more as well, which serves to make the
presence of stereotypes a less dramatic portion of the dialog. In this way, the stereotypes
that are used in the play are given depth and explanation that shows how the women are
able to think through a problem, build evidence, and solve it better than the sheriff and
the attorney can by themselves. In the conclusion of the poem, the act of silent defiance
ends up making a profound point – women are capable and should be given more credit.
And while the men have absolutely no clue that they are solving the case incorrectly and
legal justice has not been applied to the murderer, the women have shown something
greater than punishment could have done. As well, the audience is able to understand the
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men’s flaws in greater detail when they appear to have no sense of compassion, emotion,
or understanding for the women.
It should be noted that hiding the evidence allows for the women to show that
they are superior. Even though there is no punishment, the point of the play is not to give
strict legal justice, but to show that women have deep senses of understanding and that
they dislike the treatment that they are given. Because they are not really able to stand up
to the men and their omnipresent ability to oppress the women, they have taken the best
route that was presented for them. As an audience, the point of the play has been driven
home because of the passive aggression – it makes the women appear to be smarter than
the men, and it gives them complete control over the situation. So, the women have
exploited the men’s fallacies and have empowered themselves in the best way that they
have been given. To the audience, it should be clear that women have ended up as the
victors in the play, not the docile and submissive housewives that they were stereotyped
to be. The play was so effective, it seems, that the play has become a staple of feminism
because of how the positioning in the play was described.
Overall, there are a variety of ways to read this poem. The two main groups,
literally and as an audience, share many similarities, but the perspective in each changes
the meaning of the poem in an extreme fashion. On one hand, the act of defiance on the
women’s part proved absolutely nothing and no change would come from it. They were
endlessly trapped by their silent anger created nothing positive for women in the long
run; it almost appeared that they just continued to submit to the men. However, as an
informed audience, the point of the play is greater than the literal truths presented in the
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plot’s conclusion. The audience is given a chance to see that the women are defiant in
clever way that could inspire other feminists of the time to be defiant as well. While at
first the conclusion seemed to be direct, the actual message of the play appears spread the
word about women who are oppressed and the struggles they go through to fight the
oppression, even if the methods are seemingly insignificant to the cause on a small scale.
The story of the women, rather than their actions in the plot, is what creates this powerful
message of feminism.
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