Representations of Rural Women in Susan Glaspell's Trifles

By Al-Khalili, Raja | Studies in Literature and Language, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Representations of Rural Women in Susan Glaspell's Trifles


Al-Khalili, Raja, Studies in Literature and Language


Abstract

Rural American women usually appear as marginal characters in mainstream early twentieth century literature. Susan Glaspell, however, sought to represent the lives and hardships of the simple rural women residing in various regions in America and forgotten by society. In Trifles (1916) the characters were molded after real people residing in the American countryside and the protagonist resembles a real woman involved in a sensational murder case that Glaspell covered during her early days as a journalist. Consequently, most critics link the domestic murder to the playwright's ideals of advocating political rights for women. Moreover, the play written in 1916 preceding the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 is indicative of cultural transformations in American society. Critical opinion, however, varies and Trifles is often regarded as a one-act drama focusing on the individual hardships of women and therefore does not reach an apogee of a political play. However, the play's vivid description of the daily lives of rural women in America and their individual struggle with patriarchy emphasize the play's insistence on the importance of gaining political rights for women as a major theme. The present paper suggests that a reading of the political themes as relevant because the historical setting and the precise account of rural American women living in 1916 were accurately portrayed in the exposition.

Key words: Domesticity; Space; American; Glaspell; Women; Rural; Twentieth century; Representation; Feminism; Minority; Regional writing; Drama; Literature

As a representative of an early twentieth century American text, Trifles (1916) becomes important in revealing important facts about social views of women and their domestic roles. Yuval Davis in Gender and Nation states that "women especially are often required to carry this 'burden of representation', as they are constructed as the symbolical bearers of the collectivity's identity and honour, both personally and collectively" (Davis, 1997: 45). Susan Glaspell pays particular emphasis to the setting and especially to the home of rural women as a place, where power relationship takes place and as Hanna Scolnicov (1994) in Women's Theatrical Space states:

The social position of women as well as the exigencies of the plot often relegate the heroines to the indoors, in circumstances not unlike house-arrest...The house itself is so closely identified with the woman that entering the guarded house becomes a theatrical metaphor for sexual conquest (64).

Glaspell staged her heroine in a power struggle with patriarchy which emphasized the domestication of women as a source of security for the welfare of the household and the nation. According to mainstream culture maintaining traditional feminine behavior was often imagined as important in the stability of the home and if not observed often leads to disastrous consequences as in the example of Mrs. Wright. The house, closely identified with women and their environment, becomes important as a location of the domestic struggle. However, the violence in the Wright's home undermines old-fashioned perceptions that blame inappropriate female conduct as the reason behind the destruction of a stable home.

Susan Glaspell used domestic violence as a motif to arouse questions concerning motives that lead women, who are relegated to the house, to become physical aggressors. In Trifles, the simple farmhouse which appears as a background to this domestic violence situation becomes an instrument that directs the audience not to condemn the wife for the crime, as the motive displayed through the careful scrutiny of the domestic space reveals a life of abuse.

Mrs. Wright, similar to the other female characters in Glaspell's literary production, wanted to play a greater role than the ones prescribed by their society. Glaspell's protagonists belong to particular regions, such as the Woman from Idaho in The People, and the women were often portrayed as rebelling against traditional roles especially marriage which was an integral part of a rural existence. …

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