The play Trifles by Susan Glaspell is based on true events that happened at the turn of the 20th century in Iowa. Although a murder mystery, the play explores gender-based themes like power between males and females, gender roles, and gender relations, among others relevant to the play’s setting and contemporary society. Gender roles, in particular, are an overarching theme in 20th-century plays where individuals are expected to groom, dress, speak, act, and conduct themselves according to the gender assigned to them.

Similarly, men and women in the play are also expected to behave in a particular manner as seen in how the characters act or speak after Mr. Wright’s body is found. This is particularly conspicuous when men and women search for clues to solve Wright’s mysterious death. Therefore, gender roles in Trifles are emphasized by the roles men and women play in society, how they communicate, their powers of observation, and their physicality. 

The irony in the play’s title Trifles represents the gender role issue. Men in the play consider women’s role as trifles, even if the female characters solve the mystery around Wright’s murder. Trifles refer to things of little importance or value, which means that things women did in the 20th century were not taken seriously. As the characters explore the various forms of evidence, Lewis Hale states, “Well, women are used to worrying over trifles” (9).

The trifles in the play include the canning jar, fruits, and quilt among other items Minnie Wright worries about despite being in police custody as the main suspect in her husband’s murder. Undermining women’s roles and views through the trifles remark and subsequent remarks reveals the chauvinistic perception of women in this society. Nonetheless, women become the play’s protagonists despite the scathing criticism towards them and their female abilities because their trifling and unimportant concerns become vital to solving John Wright’s mysterious death.

The play’s setting also emphasizes gender roles, particularly in how male and female characters approach John Wright’s home from different points of view. The action unfolds in the kitchen, which enables the author to present the diverse experiences of men and women within the construction of gendered spaces. Because the kitchen is the domestic place in a home and set aside for women, the male characters do not find anything valuable for their investigation in Mrs. Right’s kitchen. The reader can sense the sarcasm when Sheriff Henry comments, “Nothing here but kitchen things” (8).

The county attorney also expresses the difference in gendered spaces when he states “I guess we’ll go upstairs first — and then out to the barn and around there. (To sheriff) You’re convinced that there was nothing important here—nothing that would point to any motive? (9). The male characters view the kitchen as irrelevant to solving the murder which emphasizes how both sexes see the setting from divergent points of view.

The differences in perspective affect the investigation because the men overlook valuable evidence that may link Minnie Foster to her husband’s murder for treating the kitchen as an area foreign to them. Contrarily, female characters approach the kitchen setting as one they belong to, allowing them to wear Minnie’s shoes and encounter evidence, particularly the dead bird in Minnie’s sewing box even if their mission is not to unearth any evidence. By confronting the gender-based prejudice in gendered spaces and its impact on the investigation, the author confronts the destructive nature of gender roles. 

The plight of women goes beyond gendered spaces and titles as it also features how women are stripped of their identity. Notably, women’s place in the 19th-century patriarchal society was always determined by patriarchy and male domination. Patriarchy in most societies was enforced and governed by the law and religious sanctions, giving women limited rights within the social, economic, and political spheres and their identities (Ryan 112).

To women, marriage in this era was like exchanging an individual’s predetermined identity for another because it led to the loss of status and rights like property ownership. The play shows how women lost their identity and became the property of their husbands by showing how the female characters only enjoy a measure of identity and autonomy within the confines of marriage. For instance, female characters are only identified as Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, thus conspicuously identified by their husband’s last names, except for Minnie Foster, who is identified by her maiden name. The author, however, has a justified reason to identify Minnie by her maiden name.

Glaspell wants to show the reader how marriage exchanges their predetermined identity after marriage by emphasizing how Minnie transforms and loses her sense of self when she becomes Mrs. Wright. Like the other characters who resonate with Minnie, she becomes miserable and isolated, especially because she does not have children. Mrs. Peters tells Mrs. Hale in the kitchen, “She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that was -oh, that was thirty years ago (13). While men could socialize outside their home, women remained home to bear children and care for their husbands and households. Glaspell, therefore, explores gender roles in how women lost identity and became isolated as their husband’s property. 

Moreover, the play shows how men insist on judging women by their ineptness within the domestic sphere. Notably, women are presented to have mastered the kitchen area given how they find the things they look for with relative ease. The men however, remain judgmental of Mrs. Wright despite her situation by discussing her as an inadequate housekeeper. George Henderson states, “Here’s a nice mess… Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies? (10). Overall, the author shows how performance in the kitchen is a major assessment tool for a woman’s effectiveness, which is essential to gender role exploration. 

In conclusion, Trifles depicts a society guided by strict gender roles, with women limited to the domestic sphere while men occupy the spaces beyond domesticity. The confinement in different areas does not only dictate the division of labor, but it also creates a male-dominated society where social restrictions and expectations favor men while limiting women by binding them to their husbands and confining them into homes, which generally leaves them with little identity and control of their lives.

However, John Wright’s death is a wake-up call for the female characters as they eventually realize how their husbands and marriages strip them of their identity, helping them develop a connection with the plight of women in their society. Finally, the women start rebelling in their own quiet but overpowering manner. 

Works Cited

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. No. 192933. 1916.

Ryan, Kelly A. “Women and Patriarchy in Early America, 1600–1800.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 2019.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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