31 May 2012

Trifling Through "Trifles"


by Deborah Elliott-Upton

The play, "Trifles", is a one act play written by Susan Glaspell based on a true story of the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell was working as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News and covered the case. The wife was accused as the killer and convicted, with the verdict later overturned on appeal. A year following the play, Glaspell used the play's storyline to compose her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers."

Reading this mystery play inspired me to be more observant and look to the little things to make a better assessment of what is really going on in my life and those around me. It is the little things we normally dismiss as irrelevant that accurately tell the true story often hidden beneath the obvious like an extravagant gift beneath wispy and inexpensive tissue papers. It is the little things that happen in our lives that gathered together comprise who we become. How and more importantly why a person chooses to do the things they do are subliminally addressed in this play where it is indeed the little things, the trifles, that count.

The historical setting of "Trifles" engages the reader in a look back at a not-so-distant time when women were supposed to be like children: seen and not heard. A woman's worth was less than a man's in more than wage earnings in these early twentieth century days. She was important as a bearer of children, keeper of the home and to pleasure a man. Other than that, she probably gained some recognition among other women by her homemade jams, quilting expertise and attendance at church, but rarely for her intelligence of reasoning skills. Though smart women surely were in abundance, they were stifled by men who were more physically strong and in charge. By the setting of this story, women had not had opportunity to exercise the right to vote much less be a voice heard in a community unless it dealt with child rearing or recipe collections.

Thinking like Sherlock Holmes in an investigation, it was the women who emerged as the true detectives due to the fact they unearthed the truth of the crime and its motive by seeing what the men could not: the little clues left behind to follow like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.

The women also acted as the self-appointed jury by deciding to allow her to get away with the murder, especially since the crime seemed justified to another woman, the men weren't wise enough to pick up on the not-so-hidden clues and a jury of the women's peers would surely not be her own, but a panel of twelve angry men who would more likely view a woman killing her husband as guilty without consideration of the circumstances leading to the crime.

Taking a cue from the men, the women left them to make their own evaluations as the men studied the crime scene in their Barney Fife manner undertaking the homicide analysis enough to formulate what had happened in the household leading to the husband's death. In their arrogance, the men didn't consult with the women on what a woman may have thought or done in such circumstances. Instead, believing themselves smarter than the fairer sex, the men brought the women along only to gather some clothing items for the widow in her jail cell awaiting their investigation report.

Irony runs rampant through the play as the men repeatedly give little relevance to the women and their mentions of the little things they notice in the household. The men overlook the importance of no outside communication via the party line telephone not hooked up to this home because the husband was too cheap to invest in the service even though his wife had once been a very social type whose isolation had robbed her of more than a cheerful song to sing. The dead bird who would sing no more was reminiscent of the new widow who had also been trapped, caged and no longer allowed to sing by a stingy and jealous husband. The men could not see beyond the empty birdcage with a broken door. The half-cleaned table should have been something to note in an otherwise clean household, but the men overlooked its importance.

History shows the strides women have made in being taken seriously for their choices whether they decide to become homemakers, astronauts, detectives or merely portraying ones on television. The true worth of any of us is by how we choose to define ourselves and not what others say we are or should be.

We've come a long way baby, and a lot of that was accomplished by not overlooking the little things in life. Sometimes the little things really are a matter of life or death.

3 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Deborah, I read the short story and loved it but didn't know it was based on a real case. Your comments on how women's lives have changed in our lifetime rang a bell for me. I just attended a
70th birthday party in Berkeley, CA at which a number of Sixties activists were lamenting that in spite of all their efforts, the world today is not much different in terms of peace and prosperity. On the other hand, everyone agreed that the women's movement really made a huge difference. My own mother, born in 1902, was a lawyer and neither silent nor easily dismissed. But my life is still less constrained on some levels than hers was. She vacuumed, she ironed.... And speaking of parties, I remember the first one I attended, in 1969 or 1970, at which the women's conversation took place in the living room rather than in the kitchen. It struck me as significant at the time, and I still think it was a turning point.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

I think history is fabulous and how we have all changed throughout the ages (to me at least) is very interesting. I love to find stories or plays or movies set in another time and take a peek into what it must have been like. That's probably why I was so interested in the History Channel's "Hatfields and McCoys" mini-series.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

I agree that history is fabulous. And I love historical research for my writing. Sometimes I envy folks who are born right now because when they want to know what was going on in the world when they were born, they will probably just press a chip in their index finger and stored date will pile into their brain, which will then explode,but that's another story.

"Jury of her Peers" is one of my favorites, probably because there are two series of events going on flawlessly--what the men see and do and what the women see and do. Thanks for reminding us that the story is still very relevent.