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A Feminist Criticism in “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell

Feminist Criticism of “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell. When we think about the word feminist, one usually imagines the modern women’s movement. Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, was written in 1916, long before the modern feminist movement began, yet her story reveals, through Glaspell’s use of formal literary conventions, 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.

If you want to understand the story Trifles, you should point out and understand the two main metaphors in the play. One is the 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 74). Both Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters look for Minnie’s bird cage in the cupboard, but do not understand the significance of this until they find the dead bird. 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 figurative strangles the life out of Minnie like he literally strangles the bird. The bird/bird-cage metaphor is also 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. The question that is asked about the quilt is whether Minnie was going to ‘quilt it or just knot it” (Glaspell 73). This is the decision that Minnie had to make. She either would quilt it, meaning that she would go on enduring the isolation and abuse, or she would knot it and decide that her life as it exists was “not it”, and she would do something to change it. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters begin to understand and agree with Minnie as they see how John treated her, and how she is being treated by the law.

The feminist way of Trifles was never meant to be subtle. Glaspell uses the formal elements in the play to help convey the feminist theme. The title, the character names, and the metaphors all work together to paint not only a picture of Minnie’s life with John, but by extension the lives of all women who live oppressed under male domination. Trifles is not just a reflection, however. It is also a call for women to use their perceived powerlessness as a tool to manipulate the system, and a warning to men that a system where one segment of the population dominates and oppresses another cannot and will not be tolerated forever.

About the Book
susan-glasspel-trifflesOn a wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Greenwich Village bohemians gathered in the summer of 1916, Susan Glaspell was inspired by a sensational murder trial to write Trifles, a play about two women who hide a Midwestern farm wife’s motive for murdering her abusive husband. Following successful productions of the play, Glaspell became the “mother of American drama.” Her short story version of Trifles, “A Jury of Her Peers,” reached an unprecedented one million readers in 1917. The play and the story have since been taught in classrooms across America and Trifles is regularly revived on stages around the world.

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