Essay, Research Paper
Susan Glaspell wrote in a time when women were supposed to be submissive to the men of the society, especially their husbands. She bucked the system and fought traditional gender roles with her plays, short stories and essays.
Susan Glaspell was born in 1882 in Davenport, Iowa. She led a rather uneventful childhood. She attended Drake University in Des Moines where she received her Ph.D. in Philosophy. Before becoming an author, she was a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. She married her husband George Cook in 1913 and together they founded the experimental Provincetown Players, a theatre group managed by artists, created to present plays written by new artists (Hunter, Paul A80).
In 1931, Glaspell received the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison’s House, a play about the life of Emily Dickinson. She is one of only two women to receive a Pulitzer. She is also well know for her play Trifles and its sister short story A Jury of Her Peers. In all Glaspell wrote fourteen plays, nine novels and over fifty short stories, articles and essays (Carpentier 92).
The play for which she is most recognized is Trifles. Trifles is a murder mystery that explores the oppression women felt during the twenties. The main characters are the middle-aged wives of the investigator, Mrs.Peters and the wife of the witness Mrs. Hale. We get a sense of the domination these women dealt with early in the story when the key witness was talking to the investigator about Mr. Wright, the dead husband, and a party phone he was interested in investing in. Mr. Wright’s comment about the party line was, “folks talk too much anyway and all he asked was peace and quiet”(Glaspell 1330). This begins to show the domination of his wife by keeping her silent and at home. This turns out to be the case, as later in the play we find out that because Mrs. Wright had no children, she had a bird to sing to her, and when she was single, she loved to sing. She sang so well and so much that Mrs. Hale compares her to a bird when she is telling Mrs. Peters about her. “Wright wouldn’t like the bird-a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too” (Glaspell 1337).
Mrs. Wright was not the only oppressed figure in the play. When the men are looking through the house for clues to the crime, they notice the women concerning themselves with “trifles”. For example, they notice that some of Mrs. Wright’s jars of preserves are broken and to this the sheriff comments “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves” (Glaspell 1332). To the men all this women’s work of keeping a house, and performing wifely duties is simply not important. The things women do are “trifles”.
Some of the other images of oppression are not as obvious to someone who is not looking for them, but upon examination they are easier to spot. The incomplete kitchen work to the men seems like the work of an inept housekeeper, but the women understand this to show that she acted quickly in an aggravated manner (Smith 182). The last name Wright, as selected by the author, was a pun telling us about the lack of rights that the women had (Ben-Zvi 153-54). Finally, the jars of cherries were represented in Mrs. Wright’s life. She was isolated on the farm and the coldness of her life finally caused her to break like the jars. The one unbroken jar symbolized the one thing left intact and that was her secret about the death of her husband (Ben-Zvi 154).
This theme of the oppression felt by women is not only seen in the writings of Glaspell, but in Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, and the stories by Franny Fern. All of these female authors acknowledged the sexism in society and tried to wage war on it the best way they could. Too bad they wrote when the only people to analyze their works were men.
Beaty, Jerome and J. Paul Hunter, eds. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.
Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Murder, She Wrote: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.” Theatre Journal 44 March 1992: 141-162.
Carpentier, Martha. “Susan Glaspell’s Fiction: Fidelity as American Romance.” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 40 (1) Spring 1992: 92-113
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. W.W. Norton and Company, 1998. 1329.
Smith, Beverly A. “Women’s Work—Trifles? The Skill and Insight of Playwright Susan Glaspell.” International Journal of Women’s Studies 5 March 1982: 172-184