Literary analysis using outside sources
In the TRIFLES play by SUSAN GLASPELL:
Analyze the three women in the play. What do their attitudes toward the men and their work reveal about them? What is their attitude toward their own roles in life? Do Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peter grow during the play?
You will have to put together your own thesis statement to govern the paper. The fact that you will be incorporating outside criticism into your essay does not free you from original thoughts. The burden is still on you. I have attached two articles you must use in writing this paper.
Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell”s `Trifles” and `A Jury of Her Peers”
Critic: Leonard Mustazza
Source: Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 489?96
Criticism about: Susan Glaspell (1882?-1948), also known as: Susan Keating Glaspell, Susan (Keating) Glaspell
Genre(s): Short stories; Novels; Plays
[In the essay below, Mustazza argues that in adapting Trifles to the short story form in “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell changed the focus from the elements of women”s lives judged as trivial by men to women”s lack of power in the American legal system.]
Commentators on Susan Glaspell”s classic feminist short story, “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), and the one-act play from which it derives, Trifles (1916), have tended to regard the two works as essentially alike. And even those few who have noticed the changes that Glaspell made in the process of generic translation have done so only in passing. In his monograph on Glaspell, Arthur Waterman, who seems to have a higher regard for the story than for the play, suggests that the story is a “moving fictional experience” because of the progressive honing of the author”s skills, the story”s vivid realism owing to her work as a local-color writer for the Des Moines Daily News, and its unified plot due to its dramatic origin. More specifically, Elaine Hedges appropriately notes the significance of Glaspell”s change in titles from Trifles, which emphasizes the supposedly trivial household items with which the women “acquit” their accused peer, to “A Jury of Her Peers,” which emphasizes the question of legality. In 1917, Hedges observes, women were engaged in the final years of their fight for the vote, and Glaspell”s change in titles thus “emphasizes the story”s contemporaneity, by calling attention to its references to the issue of women”s legal place in American society” [“Small Things Reconsidered: Susan Glaspell”s `A Jury of Her Peers,”” Women”s Studies, 12, No. 1 (1986)]. Apart from these and a few other passing remarks, however, critics have chosen to focus on one work or the other. Indeed, thematic criticisms of the respective pieces are virtually indistinguishable, most of these commentaries focusing on the question of assumed “roles” in the works.
On one level, there is good reason for this lack of differentiation. Not only is the overall narrative movement of the works similar, but Glaspell incorporated in the short story virtually every single line of the dialogue from Trifles. By the same token, though, she also added much to the short story, which is about twice as long as the play. The nature of these additions is twofold, the first and most obvious being her descriptions of locales, modes of utterance, characters, props, and so on–the kinds of descriptions that the prose writer”s form will allow but the dramatist”s will not. The other type of alteration is more subtle, and it involves the revisions, embellishments, and redirections that occur when an existent story is retold. When, for instance, a novel is turned into a film or a play, the best that can be said about the generic translation is that it is “faithful,” but never is it identical. So it is with “Jury.” It is certainly faithful to the play, but it is also different in a variety of ways, and it is these differences, which took place in the act of generic translation, that I would like to consider here.
In her article on Trifles, Beverly Smith makes an interesting observation. Noting that the women in the play, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, function as defense counsel for and jury of their accused peer, Minnie Foster-Wright, she goes on to suggest that the men”s role, their official capacities notwithstanding, are comparable to that of a Greek Chorus, “the voice of the community”s conscience,” entering at various points to reiterate their major themes–Minnie”s guilt and the triviality of the women”s occupations, avocations, and preoccupations [“Women”s Work–Trifles? The Skill and Insight of Playwright Susan Glaspell,” International Journal of Women”s Studies, 5 (March-April 1982)]. This equation is, I think, quite useful, for the periodic entries, commentaries, and exits of the male characters in both Glaspell works do in fact mark the progressive stages of the narrative, which primarily concerns the women, including the absent Minnie Foster. Though not on stage for the entire drama, as is the Greek Chorus, the men nevertheless function in much the same way, providing commentary and separating the major movements of the narrative. What is more, if we regard the men”s exits from the stage as marking these movements, we will recognize the first principal difference between the play and the story–namely, that the latter contains twice as many movements as the former and is therefore necessarily a more developed and complex work.
Trifles opens with Mr. Hale”s account of what he found when he arrived at the Wright farm the day before. Of the women themselves, we know almost nothing beyond their general appearances as described in the opening stage directions–that Mrs. Peters, the sheriff”s wife, is “a slight wiry woman [with] a thin nervous face”; and that Mrs. Hale, the witness”s wife, is larger than Mrs. Peters and “comfortable looking,” though now appearing fearful and disturbed as she enters the scene of the crime. Standing close together as they enter the Wrights” home, the women remain almost completely undifferentiated until, some time later, they begin to speak. Thus, Glaspell underscores here the male/female polarities that she will explore in the course of the play.
Her entire narrative technique is different in the prose version. That story begins in Mrs. Hale”s disordered kitchen, which will later serve as a point of comparison with the major scene of the story, Mrs. Wright”s kitchen. Annoyed at being called away from her housework, she nevertheless agrees to Sheriff Peters” request that she come along to accompany Mrs. Peters, who is there to fetch some personal effects for the jailed woman. Quite unlike the play”s opening, which emphasizes the physical closeness of and the attitudinal similarities between the women, “Jury,” taking us as it does into Mrs. Hale”s thoughts, emphasizes the women”s apartness:
She had met Mrs. Peters the year before at the county fair, and the thing she remembered about her was that she didn”t seem to like the sheriff”s wife. She was small and thin and didn”t have a strong voice. Mrs. Gorman, the sheriff”s wife before Gorman went out and Peters came in, had a voice that somehow seemed to be backing up the law with every word. But if Mrs. Peters didn”t look like a sheriff”s wife, Peters made up for it in looking like a sheriff. … a heavy man with a big voice, who was particularly genial with the law-abiding, as if to make it plain that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals. (emphasis added)
Interestingly, for all the added material here, Glaspell omits mention of what the women look like. In fact, we will get no explicit statements on their appearance.
On the other hand, what we do get in this revised opening is much that sharply differentiates the story from the play. In the latter, we are provided with no indication of Mrs. Hale”s bad feelings about the sheriff”s wife, and, if anything, their close physical proximity leads is to conclude the opposite. Although the women in the story will later assume this same protective stance when they enter the accused”s kitchen and then again when the county attorney criticizes Mrs. Wright”s kitchen, the movement together there is little more than reflexive. Elaine Hedges has argued that the latter movement together begins the process of establishing “their common bonds with each other and with Minnie.” This may be so because of their physical proximity in the play, where no distance is established between the women at the outset, but the story presents a different situation altogether, for any emotional closeness we might infer from their act is undercut by our knowledge of Mrs. Hale”s lack of respect for Mrs. Peters, particularly by comparison with her predecessor, Mrs. Gorman.
Ironically, however, despite her seeming mismatch with her husband, her lack of corporal “presence,” Mrs. Peters turns out to be more suited to her assumed public role than Mrs. Hale had suspected–all too suited, in fact, since she perfectly assumes her male-approved role. “Of course Mrs. Peters is one of us,” the county attorney asserts prior to getting on with his investigation of the house, and that statement turns out to be laden with meaning in the story. In Trifles, when the men leave to go about their investigative business, the women, we are told, “listen to the men”s steps, then look about the kitchen.” In “Jury”, however, we get much more. Again here, the women stand motionless, listening to the men”s footsteps, but this momentary stasis is followed by a significant gesture: “Then, as if releasing herself from something strange, Mrs. Hale began to arrange the dirty pans under the sink, which the county attorney”s disdainful push of the foot had deranged” (emphasis added). One is prompted here to ask: what is this “something strange” from which she releases herself? Though the actions described in the play and the story are the same, why does Glaspell not include in the stage directions to the play an indication of Mrs. Hale”s facial expression?
The answer, I think, lies again in the expanded and altered context of “Jury”, where the author continually stresses the distance between the women. If Mrs. Peters is, as the county attorney has suggested, one of “them,” Mrs. Hale certainly is not, and she distances herself from her male-approved peer in word and deed. The something strange from which she releases herself is, in this context, her reflexive movement towards Mrs. Peters. Mrs. Hale is, in fact, both extricating herself from the male strictures placed upon all of the women and asserting her intellectual independence. Karen Alkalay-Gut has correctly observed that, to the men, the disorder of Mrs. Wright”s kitchen implies her “potential homicidal tendencies, inconceivable in a good wife” [“Jury of Her Peers: The Importance of Trifles,” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (Winter 1984)]. For her part, Mrs. Hale is rejecting the men”s specious reasoning, complaining about the lawyer”s disdainful treatment of the kitchen things and asserting, “I”d hate to have men comin” into my kitchen, snoopin” round and criticizin,” obviously recalling the disorder in her kitchen and resenting the conclusions about her that could be drawn. Lacking that opening scene, the play simply does not resonate so profoundly.
Even more telling is a subtle but important change that Glaspell made following Mrs. Hale”s testy assertion. In both the play and the story, Mrs. Peters offers the meek defense, “Of course it”s no more than their duty,” and then the two works diverge. In Trifles, Mrs. Peters manages to change the subject. Noticing some dough that Mrs. Wright had been preparing the day before, she says flatly, “she had set bread,” and that statement directs Mrs. Hale”s attention to the half-done and ruined kitchen chores. In effect, the flow of conversation is mutually directed in the play, and the distance between the women is thus minimized. When she wrote the story, however, Glaspell omitted mention of the bread and instead took us into Mrs. Hale”s thoughts, as she does at the beginning of the story:
She thought of the flour in her kitchen at home–half sifted, half not sifted. She had been interrupted, and had left things half done. What had interrupted Minnie Foster? Why had that work been left half done? She made a move as if to finish it, –unfinished things always bothered her, –and then she glanced around and saw that Mrs. Peters was watching her–and she didn”t want Mrs. Peters to get that feeling she got of work begun and then–for some reason–not finished.
“It”s a shame about her fruit,” she said. …
Although mention of the ruined fruit preserves is included in the play as well, two significant additions are made in the above passage. First, there is the continual comparison between Mrs. Hale”s life and Mrs. Wright”s. Second, and more important, we get the clear sense here of Mrs. Hale”s suspicion of Mrs. Peters, her not wanting to call attention to the unfinished job for fear that the sheriff”s wife will get the wrong idea–or, in this case, the right idea, for the evidence of disturbance, however circumstantial, is something the men may be able to use against Mrs. Wright. In other words, unlike the play, the story posits a different set of polarities, with Mrs. Peters presumably occupying a place within the official party and Mrs. Hale taking the side of the accused against all of them.
We come at this point to a crossroads in the story. Mrs. Hale can leave things as they are and keep information to herself, or she can recruit Mrs. Peters as a fellow “juror” in the case, moving the sheriff”s wife away from her sympathy for her husband”s position and towards identification with the accused woman. Mrs. Hale chooses the latter course and sets about persuading Mrs. Peters to emerge, in Alkalay-Gut”s words, “as an individual distinct from her role as sheriff”s wife.” Once that happens, “her identification with Minnie is rapid and becomes complete.”
The persuasive process begins easily but effectively, with Mrs. Hale reflecting upon the change in Minnie Foster Wright over the thirty or so years she has known her–the change, to use the metaphor that Glaspell will develop, from singing bird to muted caged bird. She follows this reminiscence with a direct question to Mrs. Peters about whether the latter thinks that Minnie killed her husband. “Oh, I don”t know,” is the frightened response in both works, but, as always, the story provides more insight and tension than does the drama. Still emphasizing in her revision the distance between the women, Glaspell has Mrs. Hale believe that her talk of the youthful Minnie has fallen on deaf ears: “Much difference it makes to her whether Minnie Foster had pretty clothes when she was a girl.” This sense of the other woman”s indifference to such irrelevant trivialities is occassioned not only by Mrs. Hale”s persistent belief in the other woman”s official role but also by an odd look that crosses Mrs. Peters” face. At second glance, however, Mrs. Hale notices something else that melts her annoyance and undercuts her suspicions about the sheriff”s wife: “Then she looked again, and she wasn”t so sure; in fact, she hadn”t at any time been perfectly sure about Mrs. Peters. She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things.” Whereas the play shows the women meandering towards concurrence, the short story is here seen to evolve–and part of that evolution, we must conclude, is due to Mrs. Hale”s ability to persuade her peer to regard the case from her perspective. The look that she sees in Mrs. Peters” eyes suggests to her that she might be able to persuade her, that the potential for identification is there. Hence, when she asks whether Mrs. Peters thinks Minnie is guilty, the question resonates here in ways the play does not.
Accordingly, Mrs. Hale will become much more aggressive in her arguments hereafter, taking on something of the persuader”s hopeful hostility, which, in the case of the story, stands in marked contrast to the hostility she felt for Mrs. Peters” official role earlier. Thus, when Mrs. Peters tries to retreat into a male argument, weakly asserting that “the law is the law,” the Mrs. Hale of the short story does not let the remark pass, as the one in Trifles does: “the law is the law–and a bad stove is a bad stove. How”d you like to cook on this?” Even she, however, is startled by Mrs. Peters” immediate response to her homey analogy and ad hominem attack: “A person gets discouraged–and loses heart,” Mrs. Peters says–“That look of seeing … through a thing to something else” back on her face.
As far as I am concerned, the addition of this passage is the most important change that Glaspell made in her generic translation. Having used this direct personal attack and having noted the ambivalence that Mrs. Peters feels for her role as sheriff”s wife, Mrs. Hale will now proceed to effect closure of the gap between them–again, a gap that is never this widely opened in Trifles. Now Mrs. Hale will change her entire mode of attack, pushing the limits, doing things she hesitated doing earlier, assailing Mrs. Peters whenever she lapses into her easy conventional attitudes. For instance, when Mrs. Peters objects to Mrs. Hale”s repair of a badly knitted quilt block–in effect, tampering with circumstantial evidence of Minnie”s mental disturbance the day before–Mrs. Hale proceeds to do it anyway. As a measure of how much she has changed, we have only to compare this act with her earlier hesitation to finish another chore for fear of what Mrs. Peters might think. She has no reason to be distrustful of Mrs. Peters any longer, for the process of identification is now well underway.
That identification becomes quite evident by the time the women find the most compelling piece of circumstantial evidence against Mrs. Wright–the broken bird cage and the dead bird, its neck wrung and its body placed in a pretty box in Mrs. Wright”s sewing basket. When the men notice the cage and Mrs. Hale misleadingly speculates that a cat may have been at it, it is Mrs. Peters who confirms the matter. Asked by the county attorney whether a cat was on the premises, Mrs. Peters–fully aware that there is no cat and never has been–quickly and evasively replies, “Well, not now. … They”re superstitious, you know; they leave.” Not only is Mrs. Peters deliberately lying here, but, more important, she is assuming quite another role from the one she played earlier. Uttering a banality, she plays at being the shallow woman who believes in superstitions, thus consciously playing one of the roles the men expect her to assume and concealing her keen intellect from them, her ability to extrapolate facts from small details.
From this point forward, the play and the short story are essentially the same. Mrs. Hale will continue her persuasive assault, and Mrs. Peters will continue to struggle inwardly. The culmination of this struggle occurs when, late in the story, the county attorney says that “a sheriff”s wife is married to the law,” and she responds, “Not–just that way.” In “Jury”, however, this protest carries much greater force than it does in Trifles for the simple reason that it is a measure of how far Mrs. Peters has come in the course of the short story.
Appropriately enough, too, Mrs. Hale has the final word in both narratives. Asked derisively by the county attorney what stitch Mrs. Wright had been using to make her quilt, Mrs. Hale responds with false sincerity, “We call it–knot it, Mr. Henderson.” Most critics have read this line as an ironic reference to the women”s solidarity at this point. That is quite true, but, as I have been suggesting here, the progress towards this solidarity varies subtly but unmistakably in the two narratives. Whereas Trifles, opening as it does with the women”s close physical proximity, reveals the dichotomy between male and female concepts of justice and social roles, “A Jury of Her Peers” is much more concerned with the separateness of the women themselves and their self-injurious acquiescence in male-defined roles. Hence, in her reworking of the narrative, Glaspell did much more than translate the material from one genre to another. Rather, she subtly changed its theme, and, in so doing, she wrote a story that is much more interesting, resonant, and disturbing than the slighter drama from which it derives.
Source: Leonard Mustazza, “Generic Translation and Thematic Shift in Susan Glaspell”s `Trifles” and `A Jury of Her Peers”,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 489-96.
Source Database: Literature Resource Center
Small Things Reconsidered: Susan Glaspell”s `A Jury of Her Peers”
Critic: Elaine Hedges
Source: Women”s Studies, Vol. 12, 1986, pp. 89-110. Reprinted in Short stories for Students, Vol. 3
Criticism about: Susan Glaspell (1882?-1948), also known as: Susan Keating Glaspell, Susan (Keating) Glaspell
Genre(s): Short stories; Novels; Plays
[An American critic and educator, Hedges is the author of Land and Imagination: The Rural Dream in America (1980; with William L. Hedges) and In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts (1980; with Ingrid Wendt). In the following excerpt from a longer essay, she discusses the reality of women”s lives in the nineteenth century, thereby explaining the significance of the events and “trifles” that figure in the plot of Glaspell”s “A Jury of Her Peers.”]
Susan Glaspell”s “A Jury of her Peers” is by now a small feminist classic. Published in 1917, rediscovered in the early 1970s and increasingly reprinted since then in anthologies and textbooks, it has become for both readers and critics a familiar and frequently revisited landmark on our “map of rereading.” For Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond in 1973 it introduced us to the work of one of the important but forgotten women writers who were then being rediscovered; and its characters, “prairie matrons, bound by poverty and limited experience [who] fight heroic battles on tiny battlefields,” provided examples of those ordinary or anonymous women whose voices were also being sought and reclaimed. For Mary Anne Ferguson, also in 1973, Glaspell”s story was significant for its challenge to prevailing images or stereotypes of women–women as “fuzzy minded” and concerned only with “trifles,” for example–and for its celebration of female sorority, of the power of sisterhood. More recently, in 1980, Annette Kolodny has read the story as exemplary of a female realm of meaning and symbolic signification, a realm ignored by mainstream critics and one, as she urges, that feminist critics must interpret and make available. Rediscovering lost women writers, reclaiming the experience of anonymous women, reexamining the image of women in literature, and rereading texts in order to discern and appreciate female symbol systems–many of the major approaches that have characterized feminist literacy criticism in the past decade have thus found generous validation in the text of “A Jury of her Peers.” The story has become a paradigmatic one for feminist criticism….
In Glaspell”s story, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters comprise an ideal (if small) community of readers precisely because they are able to bring to the “trivia” of Minnie Wright”s life just such a “unique and informing context.” That context is their own experience as midwestern rural women. As a result they can read Minnie”s kitchen trifles with full “recognition and acceptance of … their significance.” For contemporary readers, however, who are historically removed from the way of life on which Glaspell”s story depends, such a reading is not so readily available. Superficially we can of course comprehend the story”s details, since women”s work of cooking, cleaning, and sewing is scarcely strange, or unfamiliar, either to female or to male readers. But to appreciate the full resonance of those details requires by now an act of historical reconstruction. Glaspell”s details work so effectively as a symbol system because they are carefully chosen reflectors of crucial realities in the lives of 19th and early 20th century midwestern and western women. The themes, the broader meanings of “A Jury of her Peers,” which are what encourage us to rediscover and reread it today, of course extend beyond its regional and historical origins. Women”s role or “place” in society, their confinement and isolation, the psychic violence wrought against them, their power or powerlessness vis-a-vis men, are not concerns restricted to Glaspell”s time and place. But these concerns achieve their imaginative force and conviction in her story by being firmly rooted in, and organically emerging from, the carefully observed, small details of a localized way of life….
“A Jury of her Peers” is set in the prairie and plains region of the United States. The story itself contains a reference to the county attorney”s having just returned from Omaha, which would literally locate the action in Nebraska. And a further reference to “Dickson County,” as the place where the characters live, might suggest Dixon County, an actual county in the northeastern corner of Nebraska where it borders on Iowa. In the narrowest sense, then, given Glaspell”s own Iowa origins, the story can be said to refer to the prairie and plains country that stretches across Iowa into Nebraska–a country of open, level or rolling land, and few trees, which generations of pioneers encountered during successive waves of settlement throughout the nineteenth century. More broadly, the story reflects the lives of women across the entire span of prairie and plains country, and some of the circumstances of Minnie Wright”s life were shared by women further west as well. While emphasizing Iowa and Nebraska, therefore, this paper will draw for evidence on the autobiographical writings by women from various western states….
When a male pioneer registered his sense of the land”s emptiness, it was often to recognize that the emptiness bore more heavily upon women. Seth K. Humphrey wrote of his father”s and his own experiences, in Minnesota territory in the 1850s and in the middle northwest in the 1870s, and he remembered that “the prairie has a solitude way beyond the mere absence of human beings.” With no trees, no objects to engage or interrupt the glance, the eyes “stare, stare–and sometimes the prairie gets to staring back.” Women, he observed, especially suffered. They “fled in terror,” or “stayed until the prairie broke them.” Women themselves reported that it was not unusual to spend five months in a log cabin without seeing another woman, as did a Marshall County, Iowa woman in 1842; or to spend one and a half years after arriving before being able to take a trip to town, as did Luna Kellie in Nebraska in the 1870s. The absence both of human contact and of any ameliorating features in the landscape exacerbated the loneliness felt by women who had often only reluctantly uprooted themselves from eastern homes and families in order to follow their husbands westward.
Minnie Wright is not of course living in circumstances of such extreme geographical isolation. By the time of Glaspell”s story, established villages and towns have replaced the first scattered settlements, and networks of transportation and communication link people previously isolated from one another. But John Wright”s farm, as we learn, is an isolated, outlying farm, separated from the town of which it is, formally, a part. Furthermore, he refuses to have a telephone; and, as we also learn, he has denied his wife access to even the minimal contacts that town life might afford women at that time, such as the church choir in which Minnie had sung before her marriage. Minnie Wright”s emotional and spiritual loneliness, the result of her isolation, is, in the final analysis, the reason for her murder of her husband. Through her brief opening description of the landscape Glaspell establishes the physical context for the loneliness and isolation, an isolation Minnie inherited from and shared with generations of pioneer and farm women before her.
The full import of Minnie”s isolation emerges only incrementally in Glaspell”s story. Meanwhile, after the characters arrive at the Wright farm, the story confines itself to the narrow space of Minnie”s kitchen–the limited and limiting space of her female sphere. Within that small space are revealed all the dimensions of the loneliness that is her mute message. And that message is of course conveyed through those “kitchen things,” as the sheriff dismissingly calls them, to which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters respond with increasing comprehension and sympathy.
One of the first “kitchen things” or “trifles” to which Glaspell introduces us is the roller towel, on which the attorney condescendingly comments. Not considering, as the women do, that his own assistant, called in earlier that morning to make up a fire in Minnie”s absence, had probably dirtied the towel, he decides that the soiled towel shows that Minnie lacked “the homemaking instinct.” The recent researches of historians into the lives of 19th century women allow us today to appreciate the full ironic force of Mrs. Hale”s quietly understated reply: “There”s a great deal of work to be done on a farm.” One of the most important contributions of the new social history is its documentation of the amount of work that pioneer and farm women did. The work as, as one historian has said, “almost endless,” and over the course of a lifetime usually consisted of tasks “more arduous and demanding than those performed by men.” Indoors and out, the division of labour “favored men” and “exploited women.” Sarah Brewer-Bonebright, recalling her life in Newcastle, Iowa in 1848, described the “routine” work of the “women-folk” as including “water carrying, cooking, churning, sausage making, berry picking, vegetable drying, sugar and soap boiling, hominy hulling, medicine brewing, washing, nursing, weaving, sewing, straw platting, wool picking, spinning, quilting, knitting, gardening and various other tasks….” Workdays that began at 4.30 a.m., and didn”t end until 11.30 p.m., were not unheard of. Jessamyn West”s description of her Indiana grandmother–“She died saying, `Hurry, hurry, hurry,” not to a nurse, not to anyone at her bedside, but to herself”–captures an essential reality of the lives of many 19th and early 20th century rural women.
The work involved for Minnie Wright in preparing the clean towel that the attorney takes for granted is a case in point. Of all the tasks that 19th and early 20th century women commented on in their diaries, laundry was consistently described as the most onerous….
In her recent study of housework, Never Done, Susan Strasser agrees that laundry was woman”s “most hated task.” Before the introduction of piped water it took staggering amounts of time and labor: “One wash, one boiling, and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water–or four hundred pounds– which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds.” Then came rubbing, wringing, and lifting the wet clothing and linens, and carrying them in heavy tubs and baskets outside to hang. It is when Mrs. Peters looks from Minnie”s inadequate stove, with its cracked lining, to the “pail of water carried in from outside” that she makes the crucial observation about “seeing into things … seeing through a thing to something else.” What the women see, beyond the pail and the stove, are the hours of work it took Minnie to produce that one clean towel. To call Minnie”s work “instinctual,” as the attorney does (using a rationalization prevalent today as in the past) is to evade a whole world of domestic reality, a world of which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are acutely aware.
So too with the jars of preserves that the women find cracked and spoiled from the cold that has penetrated the house during the night. It is the preserves, about which Minnie has been worrying in jail, that lead Mr. Hale to make the comment Glaspell used for the title of the dramatic version of her work. “Held for murder, and worrying over her preserves … worrying over trifles.” But here again, as they express their sympathy with Minnie”s concern, the women are seeing through a thing to something else: in this case, to “all [Minnie”s] work in the hot weather,” as Mrs. Peters exclaims. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters understand the physical labor involved in boiling fruit in Iowa heat that one historian has described as “oppressive and inescapable.” By the same token, they can appreciate the seriousness of the loss when that work is destroyed by the winter cold….
Hard as the work was, that it went unacknowledged was often harder for women to bear. The first annual report of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 included a study of the situation of farm women which concluded that they worked harder than men but were neither treated with respect as a result nor given full authority within their domestic sphere. And Norton Juster”s study of farm women between 1865 and 1895 leads him to assert that women”s work was seen merely as “the anonymous background for someone else”s meaningful activity,” never attaining “a recognition or dignity of its own.” Indeed, he concludes, women”s work was not only ignored; it was ridiculed, “often the object of derision.” Mr. Hale”s remark about the preserves, that “women are used to worrying over trifles,” is a mild example of this ridicule, as is the attorney”s comment, intended to deflect that ridicule but itself patronizing–“yet what would we do without the ladies.” It is this ridicule to which Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters especially react. When Mr. Hale belittles women”s work we are told that “the two women moved a little closer together”; and when the attorney makes his seemingly conciliatory remark the women, we are further told, “did not speak, did not unbend.” Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who at the beginning of the story are comparative strangers to each other, here begin to establish their common bonds with each other and with Minnie. Their slight physical movement towards each other visually embodies that psychological and emotional separation from men that was encouraged by the nineteenth century doctrine of separate spheres, a separation underscored throughout the story by the women”s confinement to the kitchen, while the men range freely, upstairs and outside, bedroom to barn, in search of the “real” clues to the crime….
In “A Jury of her Peers” John Wright”s murder is discovered because Mr. Hale and his son stop at the Wright farm while travelling to town with their potato crop. Once in town, men had places to congregate–the market, the country store, the blacksmith shop, the saloon. That “women really did little more than pass through the masculine haunts of the village,” as Faragher concludes, was a reality to which at least one 19th century male writer was sensitive. “The saloon-keepers, the politicians, and the grocers make it pleasant for the man,” Hamlin Garland has a character comment in his story of midwestern rural life, “A Day”s Pleasure”; “But the wife is left without a word.” Garland wrote “A Day”s Pleasure” to dramatize the plight of the farm wife, isolated at home, and desperate for diversion. Mrs. Markham has been six months without leaving the family farm. But when, over her husband”s objections and by dint of sacrificed sleep and extra work to provide for her children while she is gone, she manages to get into town, she finds scant welcome, and little to do. After overstaying her leave at the country store, she walks the streets for hours, in the “forlorn, aimless, pathetic wandering” that, Garland has the town grocer observe, is “a daily occurrence for the farm women he sees and one which had never possessed any special meaning to him.”
John Wright”s insensitivity to his wife”s needs parallels that of the men or Garland”s story. Lacking decent clothes, Minnie doesn”t travel into town. What she turns to in her isolation is a bird, a canary bought from a travelling peddler. It is after her husband strangles that surrogate voice that, in one of those “intermittent flare-ups of bizarre behavior,” as one historian has described them, which afflicted rural women, she strangles him.
Here again Glaspell”s story reflects a larger truth about the lives of rural women. Their isolation induced madness in many. The rate of insanity in rural areas, especially for women, was a much-discussed subject in the second half of the 19th century. As early as 1868 Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential Godey”s Lady”s Book, expressed her concern that the farm population supplied the largest proportion of inmates for the nation”s insane asylums. By the 1880s and 1890s this concern was widespread. An article in 1882 noted that farmer”s wives comprised the largest percentage of those in lunatic asylums….
That the loss of her music, in the shape of a bird, should have triggered murderous behavior in Minnie Wright is therefore neither gratuitous nor melodramatic, as is sometimes charged against Glaspell”s story. In the monotonous expanses of the prairie and the plains, the presence of one small spot of color, or a bit of music, might spell the difference between sanity and madness….
There is no spot of beauty in Glaspell”s description of Minnie”s kitchen, which is presented as a drab and dreary space, dominated by the broken stove, and a rocking chair of “a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side.” When the women collect some of Minnie”s clothes to take to her in prison, the sight of “a shabby black skirt” painfully reminds Mrs. Hale by contrast of the “pretty clothes” that Minnie wore as a young girl before her marriage.
Unable to sing in the church choir, deprived of her surrogate voice in the bird, denied access to other people, and with no visible beauty in her surroundings, Minnie, almost inevitably one can say, turned in her loneliness to that final resource available to 19th and early 20th century women– quilting. Minnie”s quilt blocks are the penultimate trifle in Glaspell”s story. The discovery later of the strangled bird and broken bird cage explain the immediate provocation for Minnie”s crime. But it is with the discovery of the quilt blocks, to which the women react more strongly than they have to any of the previously introduced “kitchen things,” that a pivotal point in the story is reached.
The meaning of quilts in the lives of American women is complex, and Glaspell”s story is a valuable contribution to the full account that remains to be written. Quilts were utilitarian in origin, three-layered bed coverings intended to protect against the cold weather. But they became in the course of the 19th century probably the major creative outlet for women–one patriarchically tolerated, and even “approved,” for their use, but which women were able to transform to their own ends. Through quilting–through their stitches as well as through pattern and color–and through the institutions, such as the “bee,” that grew up around it, women who were otherwise without expressive outlet were able to communicate their thoughts and feelings.
In “Trifles” Glaspell included a reference she omitted from “A Jury of her Peers,” but which is worth retrieving. In the play Mrs. Hale laments that, given her husband”s parsimony, Minnie could never join the Ladies Aid. The Ladies Aid would have been a female society associated with the local church, where women would have spent their time sewing, braiding carpets, and quilting, in order to raise money for foreign missionaries, for new flooring or carpets, chairs or curtains for the church or parish house, or to add to the minister”s salary. Such societies, as Glenda Riley has observed, provided women with “a relief from the routine and monotony” of farm life. They also provided women with a public role, or place. And through the female friendships they fostered they helped women, as Julie Jeffrey has noted, to develop “feelings of control over their environment,” mitigating that sense of powerlessness which domestic isolation could induce.
Denied such associations, Minnie Wright worked on her quilt blocks alone, and it is the effect of that solitude which the women read in her blocks and which so profoundly moves them. It is, specifically, the stitches in Minnie”s blocks that speak to them, and particularly the “queer” stitches in one block, so unlike the “fine, even sewing,” “dainty [and] accurate,” that they observe in the others. Nineteenth century women learned in childhood to take stitches so small that in the words of one woman, it “required a microscope to detect them.” Mothers were advised to teach their daughters to make small, exact stitches, not only for durability but as a way of instilling habits of patience, neatness, and diligence. But such stitches also became a badge of one”s needlework skill, a source of self-esteem, and of status, through the recognition and admiration of other women. Minnie”s “crazy” or crooked stitches are a clear signal to the two women that something, for her, was very seriously wrong.
Mrs. Hale”s reaction is immediate. Tampering with what is in fact evidence–for the badly stitched block is just such a clue as the men are seeking: “Something to show anger–or sudden feeling”–she replaces Minnie”s crooked stitches with her own straight ones. The almost automatic act, so protective of Minnie, is both concealing and healing. To “replace bad sewing with good” is Mrs. Hale”s symbolic gesture of affiliation with the damaged woman. It is also the story”s first intimation of the more radical tampering with the evidence that the two women will later undertake.
In so quickly grasping the significance of Minnie”s quilt stitches, Mrs. Hale is performing yet another of those acts of perception–of seeing through a detail or trifle to its larger meaning–on which Glaspell”s dramatic effects depend throughout her story. As she holds the badly stitched block in her hand, Mrs. Hale, we are told, “feels queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the woman who had perhaps turned to it to try and quiet herself were communicating themselves to her.” Resorting to needlework in order to “quiet oneself” to relieve distress, or alleviate loneliness, was openly recognized and even encouraged throughout the 19th century, especially in the advice books that proliferated for women….
Minnie”s stitches speak with equal directness to Mrs. Peters. It is she who first discovers the badly stitched block, and as she holds it out to Mrs. Hale we are told that “the women”s eyes met– something flashed to life, passed between them.” In contrast to the often outspoken Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Peters has been timid, self-effacing, and “indecisive,” torn between sympathy for Minnie and resigned submission to the authority of the law, which her husband, the sheriff, represents. She has evaded Mrs. Hale”s efforts to get her more openly to choose sides. The flash of recognition between the two women, a moment of communication the more intense for being wordless, is, as one critic has said, “the metamorphizing spark of the story.” It presages Mrs. Peter”s eventual revolt against male authority. That revolt occurs when she snatches the box containing the dead bird–the evidence that could condemn Minnie–in order to conceal it from the men. Her defiant act is of course the result of the effect on her of the accumulated weight of meaning of all of the “trifles” she has perceived and interpreted throughout the story. But it is here, when she reads Minnie”s stitches, that she is first released from her hesitancy into what will later become full conspiratorial complicity with Mrs. Hale.
In examining Minnie”s quilt blocks Mrs. Hale observes that she was making them in the “log cabin pattern.” The log cabin pattern was one of the most popular in the second half of the 19th century, frequently chosen for its capacity to utilize in its construction small scraps of left-over fabric. For Minnie in her poverty it would have been a practical pattern choice. But there accrued to the pattern a rich symbolism, which would not have escaped a farm woman like Mrs. Hale and which adds yet another rich layer of meaning to Glaspell”s exploration of women”s place. The log cabin quilt is constructed of repetitions of a basic block, which is built up of narrow overlapping strips of fabric, all emanating from a central square. That square, traditionally done in red cloth, came to represent the hearth fire within the cabin, with the strips surrounding it becoming the “logs” of which the cabin was built. As a replication of that most emotionally evocative of American dwelling types, the log cabin quilt came to symbolize both the hardships and the heroisms of pioneer life. More specifically it became a celebration of women”s civilizing role in the pioneering process: in the words of one researcher, “women”s dogged determination to build a home, to replace a wilderness with a community.” …
That Minnie is making a log cabin quilt–and the women find a roll of red cloth in her sewing basket–is, both in this historical context and in the context of her own life, both poignant and bitterly ironic. The center of her kitchen is not a hearth with an inviting open fire but that stove with its broken lining, the sight of which, earlier in the story, had “swept [Mrs. Hale] into her own thoughts, thinking of what it would mean, year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with.” In Gaspell”s story the cult of domesticity has become a trap, Minnie”s home has become her prison. Minnie has asked Mrs. Peters to bring her an apron to wear in jail, a request the sheriff”s wife at first finds “strange.” But when Mrs. Peters decides that wearing the apron will perhaps make Minnie feel “more natural,” we can only agree, since in moving from house to jail she has but exchanged one form of imprisonment for another….
Throughout much of the 19th century married women were defined under the law as “civilly dead,” their legal existence subsumed within their husbands, their rights to their own property, wages, and children either nonexistent or severely circumscribed. Nor did they participate in the making and administering of the law. In 1873 Susan B. Anthony had challenged that legal situation, in a defense that was widely reprinted and that would have been available to Glaspell at the time of the final agitation for the vote. Arrested for having herself tried to vote, and judged guilty of having thereby committed a crime, Anthony had argued that the all-male jury which judged her did not comprise, as the Constitution guaranteed to each citizen, a “jury of her peers.” So long, she argued, as women lacked the vote and other legal rights, men were not their peers but their superiors. So, in Glaspell”s story, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters decide that they, and not the men, are Minnie”s true peers. They take the law into their own hands, appoint themselves prosecuting and defense attorneys, judge and jury, and pass their merciful sentence….
As the characters prepare to leave the Wright farm, the county attorney facetiously asks the women whether Minnie was going to “quilt” or “knot” her blocks. In having Mrs. Hale suggest that she was probably going to knot them (that is, join the quilt layers via short lengths of yarn drawn through from the back and tied or knotted at wide intervals across the top surface, rather than stitch through the layers at closer intervals with needle and thread) Glaspell is using a technical term from the world of women”s work in a way that provides a final triumphant vindication of her method throughout the story. If, like Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, the reader can by now engage in those acts of perception whereby one sees “into things, [and] through a thing to something else,” the humble task of knotting a quilt becomes resonant with meaning. Minnie has knotted a rope around her husband”s neck, and Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have “tied the men in knots.” All three women have thus said “not,” or “no” to male authority, and in so doing they have knotted or bonded themselves together. Knots can entangle and they can unite, and at the end of Glaspell”s story both men and women are knotted, in separate and different ways, with the women having discovered through their interpretation of the trifles that comprise Minnie”s world their ties to one another. One 19th century woman described quilts as women”s “hieroglyphics”–textile documents on which, with needle, thread, and bits of colored cloth, women inscribed a record of their lives. All of the trifles in Glaspell”s story together create such a set of hieroglyphics, but it is a language we should by now begin to be able to read.
Source: Elaine Hedges, “Small Things Reconsidered: Susan Glaspell”s`A Jury of Her Peers” ” in Women”s Studies, Vol. 12, 1986, pp. 89-110. Reprinted in Short stories for Students, Vol. 3.
Source Database: Literature Resource Center