“A Doll’s Trifles” A essay comparing the plays “Trifles” and “Dollhouse. ” Joshua Long English 102 Amy Lannon March 21, 2012 Our society’s gender roles are constantly evolving and changing, all in the name of “progressive thinking”, though not all for the good. With a new “social norm” appearing every few years or so, it comes as a surprise that it has been a relatively short time since women have broken through their defined roles to be seen on the same level as men on a social basis.
Many of history’s pages are written from a patriarchal perspective, opening the way for the female protagonists and complimentary characters in Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” to make us rethink those gender roles through the events that occur during the plays and through their own complexity, providing interesting points of comparison and contrast between the plays and challenging audiences to think about gender roles in a new way. Both these plays are centered around married couples and are told from the perspectives of their respective female characters.
In “Trifles,” we are introduced to Mrs. Wright and her fellow cast of characters a day after the murder of Mrs Wright’s husband. The play takes place after the fact, and much of the script is built around a conversation between Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters (women from the same rural town as the Wrights) about whether or not Mrs. Wright really committed the murder. The reader believes the entire time that she did, but is compelled to continue to find out why. “Trifles” is about a woman who murders her husband and two other women who lash out against their gender roles by withholding evidence from their husbands.
Much shorter in length and lighter in tone than “A Doll’s House, with “Trifles” Susan Glaspell gets her point across quickly, while Idsen takes his time in grinding his message home. In “A Doll’s House” the critical aspects of the play are also divulged before the curtain is lifted. It is discovered that Nora, a woman who seems at ease with her gender role, has circumvented her husband’s will and has been paying off a debt behind his back for years, doing so as she resorted to having forged her father’s signature to help her get said loan.
We further learn that she has no problem lying to her husband about this to preserve the peace in their marriage, Nora would rather Torvald continue to think of her as a “spendthrift” than as a woman in debt, causing the reader to feel uneasy with the assumption that she is your average housewife character. A particularly interesting comparison exists between these two women protagonists in that both of them are compared to birds. Torvald calls Nora his “lark” (Ibsen 1259), and Mrs. Hale openly says Mrs.
Wright “was kind of a bird herself”(Glaspell 1054). While these seem to be innocent metaphors on the surface, darker tones soon overtake them as the plays progress—birds can be trapped in cages in the same way that women might be considered to be trapped into their gender roles, where their duties are not to themselves but to their husbands and children(Helium 3). We do discover this theme in “Trifles,” when a literal canary is found strangled and its dead body sewed in the pocket of a quilt—strangled by Mr. Wright and sewed away by Mrs.
Wright, the same way Mrs. Wright’s spirit and free nature was discarded in order to serve her gender-assigned duties. Indeed, we actually see in her character a desire to serve those duties, a desire for children and to be a good wife through the descriptions we receive from Mrs. Hale, but these desires are denied by the cold, wintry spirit of one Mr. Wright. Mrs. Hale says as much to the County Attorney, Mr. Henderson, when she says how she didn’t think a “place’d be any more cheerful for John Wright’s being in it” (1051).
And for the woman once known as Minnie Foster, it was that same man who eroded her until she no longer was one of the town girls as she had been thirty years before, no longer a woman who sang in the choir, her happy, hopeful spirit, gone. Her final comfort in that otherwise drained and dreary home was that little singing canary that she had bought a year before the events of “Trifles,” and whose death sets her off to finally murder her own husband by tying a rope around his neck killing him much in the way he killed the bird and her own spirit. This is a perfect example of something as wondrous as marriage gone horribly wrong.
While Mrs. Wright lashes out against her perceived cage, her gender role, by killing Mr. Wright, Nora’s character ultimately decides to trip the latch, to fly free from the bars. Nora’s complex personality proves to be difficult to predict to the very end, when she decides to shirk her duties to her husband and children to focus on herself, to serve her own needs for individuality, a decision that was not entirely popular with readers and audiences alike. Indeed, Nora quite easily refuses to be the “doll” in Torvald’s house, and abandons her loving, though misguided husband, and her children.
She feels driven to do this once she realizes that she and Torvald had never exchanged a serious word in their relationship, despite their discussion days earlier about Krogstad or about matters of money. But as Marvin Rosenberg writes in “Ibsen’s Nora,” it is the “humanizing faults that make her so exciting;” such as how she “munches on macaroons forbidden by Torvald,” and “when he discovers the sweets, she lies: her friend brought them,” or how, in response to her husband’s inquiry about the scratches on the mailbox, she “absolves herself … by blaming the scratches on her … children! (Helium 2) But no matter the challenges they issue to usual gender roles, Nora’s actions are not crimes, not for the most part, although it is a crime that she forged her father’s name on the loan papers from Mr. Krogstad; however, it is unjust that is at the very heart of the challenges issued to Nora in “A Doll’s House” that an otherwise harmless woman is forced to break what tradition would assert to be true and step out of “her boundaries” by doing so.
However, it is not only Minnie Foster’s and Nora’s crimes that challenge such gender dynamics, but the actions and circumstances of their supporting casts as well. One example being that in at least one of the relationships in “A Doll House,” there is a complete reversal of typical gender assignments: it is exampled when Kristine Linde takes Mr. Krogstad’s job. Kristine, a woman who proves herself capable of solving her own problems by herself—without any man’s aid—during the events events that unfold.
Not only does she replace him at the bank where Torvald, Nora’s husband, is to serve as manager, but also later renews the relationship between the two of them from ten years prior and offers to work while he stays at home—at least during the outset of their relationship—because his taking the job back “benefits” no one (Ibsen1292). It was also she who fixed her family’s problems years before by taking it on herself to abandon her original relationship with Krogstad and marry a richer man, though she loved him not. Krogstad himself steps out of gender role when he accepts these ircumstances to fall upon himself—he does not care that he is, for the moment, not to be the breadwinner of the family: he cares only that he and Ms. Linde are at last reunited. Just as Ms. Linde and Krogstad provide complimentary characters to go alongside Nora in challenging gender roles, the duo of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters in “Trifles” perform the same task for Mrs. Wright (Helium 2). Together, these two women go about the home of the crime scene and discuss the case while gathering trinkets for the incarcerated Mrs.
Wright—ignoring some judgmental comments from both the County Attorney and the Sheriff during the process—and as the duet go through the home collecting various “Trifles,” they begin realizing odd things: like how the quilt is knotted strangely or how difficult it is to imagine there being a bird cage in the home. Eventually, it is they, and not the Country Attorney and Sheriff, who discover the strangled canary and put together the pieces of evidence confirming Mrs. Wright’s criminal acts.
What is more, they agree to hide the evidence away, even though Mrs. Peters is the sheriff’s wife. So not only do the women in “Trifles” solve the murder, but also protect one of their own in a way that influences the audience to think they do the right thing, even though that thing is protecting an admittedly sympathetic murderer. It is the actions of these secondary characters, women solving murders or women taking over the male duties of a family, that enable “Trifles” and “A Doll’s House” to challenge gender roles.
If it was only Minnie Foster and Nora that had set out to challenge the conventions, then neither play would be heralded so much for their feminist themes. It is because there are multiple characters in each play that convince the reader and the audience that what is being presented to them is realistic to life that these themes begin to be clear. The conclusion of Mrs. Wright’s criminal trial is never shown, so we don’t know if she was released from jail because of the lack of evidence against her—for all we know Mrs.
Peters relented and eventually tells the story of the dead canary to her husband the Sheriff. Nora’s destination after she departs Torvald’s home is also left in the dark, and we have no way of knowing if she finds what she is looking for. Because the readers begin to hope that these imaginary characters encounter success, their thinking may change; they may ponder in a new way about women’s rights and gender conventions and how the duties in marriage should not be assigned due to the apabilities of one sex or the other, but shared between husband and wife. This is certainly the most socially and politically correct way of thinking, though there are some schools of thought that believe, while both sexes are equal to one another in their humanity, each sex possess unique strengths and weaknesses and that therefore, gender roles, while they can be taken to an extreme, do have a positive place in society.
This way of thinking suggests that the true beauty of gender interaction lies in the differences between them, not in the lifeless “sameness” (not to be confused with equality) that is so naively sought after, and that the the abolishment of the positive dynamics that have existed between sexes simply because they’re “traditional”, and because this destruction falls under the very shaky moniker of “forward thinking,” will cause great harm.
The audience of these plays however, begins to see the power of human relationships when these women try to solve their problems, without the help of men, on stage. And that is exactly how Glaspell and Ibsen wrote them to be seen—not as women, but as people. Those are the far-reaching effects that occur when we allow what we read, and see, to influence our thinking, and ultimately they are why “Trifles” and “A Doll’s House” have become so renowned as plays that challenge gender