Susan Glaspell, an author of the one-act play “Trifles” (1916), described the position of women in twentieth-century American society through symbolism. An author argued that men restricted women’s rights and freedom; they strived to make their wives dependable. Among several symbols Susan Glaspell uses in her play, the most important one is a bird.
The Symbolism of a Bird in Trifles
A bird is used about the main character of the play, Minnie Foster, who became Mrs. Wright after her marriage to John Wright. Mrs. Wright had a canary in the cage in their quiet farmhouse. The bird used to sing a lot, but Mr. Wright did not like this singing. Their family had no children, and Minnie often felt lonely and miserable. That is why she bought a bird.
She treated this bird as if it were her child and liked to sing to the bird; it meant a lot to a woman who was very lonely and unhappy in her marriage. The birdcage in the play is the symbol of Minnie’s restricted freedom. Using this symbol, the author compares Minnie with a bird trapped in a “cage” of her marriage.
What Does Canary Symbolism in Trifles?
Once, the dead bird wrapped in silk was found in Mrs. Wright’s sewing basket. There is no direct indication of who did this to the bird, but only Mr. Wright could do this to a canary since he disliked its singing. His wife “was in the choir in her younger years, and others enjoyed her voice.” With the death of her bird, Minnie felt like she had lost a part of herself and her voice. This was a turning point in the entire play.
From this moment, Minnie’s transformation from a victim of a marriage into a free woman began. “She – 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”. It is obvious that marriage changed Mrs. Wright’s character, but she could not accept this change and, in the end, killed her husband in pursuit of freedom.
What Does the Birdcage Symbolize in Trifles?
In “Trifles,” the birdcage symbolizes not only the physical but also the societal and emotional confinement Mrs. Wright faces in her marriage. It reflects her transformation from the lively Minnie Foster to a subdued wife, illustrating the loss of identity and autonomy that many women of the era experienced. Addressing the question, “What does the bird symbolize in Trifles?” the caged bird, silenced by Mr. Wright, becomes a poignant emblem of Mrs. Wright’s stifled voice and the broader suppression of women’s desires and ambitions.
This symbol extends deeper, hinting at Mrs. Wright’s unfulfilled desires, such as motherhood, and represents the extinguishing of her hopes for a different life. Mr. Wright’s act of killing the bird symbolizes the final severing of Mrs. Wright’s ties to her former self, prompting her to seek escape from her oppressive marriage at a high personal cost.
Thus, the birdcage in “Trifles” is a multifaceted symbol that critiques societal norms restricting women, encapsulating themes of oppression, loss, and the yearning for freedom. It showcases Susan Glaspell’s critique of the gender roles of her time, emphasizing the deep impact of these roles on women’s lives and identities.
The Historical Context and Feminist Movement Influence on ‘Trifles’
In the early 20th century, the United States was a crucible of social change, particularly regarding the status and rights of women. It was a period marked by the suffrage movement, which aimed to secure women’s right to vote and a broader push for gender equality. Against this backdrop, Susan Glaspell wrote “Trifles,” a play that subtly yet powerfully underscores the feminist themes of the era. Glaspell, an active member of the Provincetown Players, was deeply influenced by her involvement with this theatre collective known for its experimental plays that often carried a political charge. This environment undoubtedly nurtured her feminist outlook, which she eloquently expressed through her writing.
“Trifles” reflects the feminist themes of its time, critiquing the patriarchal society that marginalized and underestimated women, confining them to domestic roles and denying them intellectual and emotional autonomy. Through symbolism, such as the bird and the cage, Glaspell comments on the oppression of women and their struggle for freedom and identity. The bird, representing Mrs. Wright’s lost youthful joy and her stifled voice, and the cage, symbolizing her confining marriage and societal constraints, serve as powerful metaphors for the broader feminist fight against gender-based oppression.
The play also touches upon women’s roles within the legal system of the early 20th century, a system from which they were largely excluded. Women had limited legal rights and were often invisible in the judicial process. By choosing to hide the evidence of the dead bird, the female characters in “Trifles” enact a form of rebellion against a legal system dominated by men who fail to understand or protect women’s interests and well-being. This solidarity can be seen as a metaphor for the feminist movement’s efforts to challenge and change the patriarchal power structures.
The initial reception of “Trifles” reflected the societal norms and tensions of the time. While the play was recognized for its craftsmanship, its feminist undertones were controversial. It underscored women’s intellectual and emotional depth, challenging the prevailing notions of female inferiority and the trivialization of women’s experiences and insights. Despite the mixed reactions, “Trifles” has left a lasting legacy on American literature and feminist discourse, demonstrating the power of subtle resistance and the importance of recognizing and valuing women’s voices and experiences.
Today, “Trifles” continues to be relevant, resonating with contemporary discussions on gender equality. Its themes remind us of the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and the need to challenge societal norms restricting individuals based on gender. Susan Glaspell’s play is a testament to the enduring importance of feminist literature in advocating for change and understanding the historical context of the fight for women’s equality. It is a poignant reminder of the progress made and the work to achieve gender equality, making “Trifles” an essential piece of literature in studying feminist movements and American social history.
The Importance of Deception within Trifles
Apart from the evident problems of justice and law, the author portrayed reality through the prism of the relationships between men and women, which are usually ambiguous and deceptive. Although the play encompasses a wide range of themes and motifs, one should bear in mind that Glaspell managed to call the reader’s attention to the prevailing importance of deception within the lines of her masterpiece. However, the matter of deception has an indirect profound representation in the play.
“Trifles” begins with the stage directions with proper functional characteristics in the play’s text. The potential reader initially confronts the “abandoned farmhouse of John Wright”. Such an atmosphere creates the suspense of possible accidents that might have occurred in the house. In addition, the settings evoke an emotional anxiety response towards the characters. Only then does the reader realize the significance of deception in the play.
Apart from the settings, Glaspell’s stage directions present the main characters or the intruders into the mysterious atmosphere of the house: Sheriff, Attorney, Hale, Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters. Even though the play is difficult to perceive, their clues become crucial in understanding the plot and creating the first impression of Glaspell’s creative writing.
In Glaspell’s interpretation, the problem of deception brings into focus the key aspect of the relationships between men and women. Although the play is rather short, the main characters are well-developed. It is noticeable from the clues that men and women had conflicting views on examining the place of crime.
The most vivid example of deception concerns the women’s reluctance to show the trifles to the men. It is due to the reason that male characters considered it ridiculous to pay attention to the findings of their wives. Undoubtedly, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Peters, the attorney and the sheriff, respectively, despised women for their growing interest in minor things, such as the quilt, the apron, the fruit, etc.
Susan Glaspell portrayed the main characters in the light of the event that occurred in the farmhouse, the mysterious murder of John Wright. Deception exists within the borders of this crime and the nature of relationships. John Wright’s wife, who was believed to be the murderer, lived the life of a woman whom her husband did not understand.
That is why the female characters decided to hide the evidence from their husbands, the dead canary in particular, so that they could not prove the guilt of Minnie Wright and find the potential motive of the murder.
Not surprisingly, raising feministic views on the matter, Glaspell held a supportive position towards the female characters and emphasized the drawbacks of men’s mobility. She provided the reader with feelings of empathy towards the women. The most striking point that Glaspell criticized concerns Lewis Hales’s claim: “Women are used to worrying over trifles”.
Chiefly, it is clear from the above that deception plays an important role in “Trifles”. Seemingly, it deals with the gender differences in marriage and the particular attitude that the characters possess towards each other in the play. In “Trifles”, deception should embody the potential consequences for the investigators of the crime as their foregone conclusions were not objective.
Trifles Reader Response Sample
It was a time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which struggled for their rights. Susan Glaspell was one of the writers who described this situation in her works. “Trifles” is the play that uncovers the problem of women’s place in the male society.
Thus, the author discusses several problems concerning men’s attitudes towards women. First, the men fail to see the clues Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover. The reason for such men’s behavior traces back to the social situation in America when patriarchal society was the leading one. As the author describes this situation, male characters possess traits peculiar to such social situations. Men consider themselves very clever and superior to women, thinking that women can be useful nowhere except in the kitchen and cannot make any decisions.
The author transmitted such a superior position of men with the help of men’s conversations and actions, which is the first thing showing the reader their attitudes toward women. From the beginning, the reader understands that men do not care about women. After the first county attorney’s proposal, it became obvious that women refused to come up to the fire, and men have not proposed to come up again and left them standing near the door. As stated above, men consider that women cannot be serious: “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (Glaspell 6).
They do not believe that women can act according to the situation, saying, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it!” (Glaspell 9) while men are trying to discover how the murder was committed. One more phrase, which can prove this point of view, is “Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worrying’ about her preserves” (Glaspell 6). Moreover, almost all their retorts are accompanied by laughter or irony, which makes women feel embarrassed: “The men laugh, the women look abashed” (Glaspell 9).
The next way the author shows the relationships between men and women is their location on the stage. As said earlier, women stayed near the door, and men were near the fire. Such a location shows that men are superior to women, and women play a secondary role in society.
While men were discussing Mr. Wright’s murder by the fire, women had nothing to do but stand silently. Women are described as the shadows of their men. They are always behind them and follow men everywhere but have no right to speak or pretend to make their own decisions.
Truthfully described in the play, such a social situation has influenced men’s assumptions about women. Men’s characters conclude that women always worry over trifles; consequently, they consider women unserious. They also think that a woman must be a good housekeeper and always have the house in order, so when the county attorney saw dirty towels and a lot of pans under the sink, his speech became full of sarcasm: “Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?” (Glaspell 6).
Female characters try to be independent, so they challenge men’s assumptions. It is understandable even from the words of the county attorney: “Ah, loyal to your sex, I see” (Glaspell 6). Women try to be a unified whole and to support each other. They are angry with men who try to hurt them: “I’d hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing” (Glaspell 7). Moreover, to remonstrate against such assumptions, women hide evidence to help Mrs. Wright.
Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” is a bright example of the representation of American society at the beginning of the XIX century. It fully transfers the problem of women’s place in society, their desire to become independent, and their struggle for freedom.