Solved by verified expert:Read the attached article to answer the questionThen write a response to each of the following: 1. Summarize the article in 3-5 sentences. 2. Describe one place in the article where the author cites and responds to another scholarly source (that is, an example where the author refers to what another author has written about Glaspell’s Trifles). 3. Explain how the article responds to the source. Does the author agree? Disagree? Or both agree and disagree?. Describe in a paragraph (5-7 sentences in length) how effectively you think the author responds to the source.
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Silent Justice in a Different Key:
SUZY CLARKSON HOLSTEIN
USAN CLASPELL’S “TRIFLES” is a deceptive play:
deceptive because, like its title, it seems simple, almost
inconsequential. Yet the play represents a profound conflict
between two models of perception and behavior. An exploration of the play reveals a fundamental difference between
the women’s actions and the men’s, a difference grounded in
varying understandings of the home space. That difference
culminates, finally, in the establishing of two competing ethical paradigms. One might summarize the plot of the brief,
early twentieth-century play as follows: a country woman is
suspected of killing her husband in their isolated farmhouse.
The county attorney, the sheriff, and a neighbor retum to the
scene of the crime, attempting to collect evidence. Two of
the men’s wives accompany them to gather belongings for
the jailed woman. In the course of the action, the women
accidentally tum up the evidence which the men seek in vain,
and the women decide to keep quiet about their discovery.
But to summarize the plot in this fashion is somewhat misleading because it is in fact no accident that the women discover the evidence. Their method from the very beginning of
the play leads not only to the discovery that eludes the men,
but also to their ultimate moral choice, a choice which radically separates them from the men. That is, their way of
knowing leads them not simply to knowledge; it also leads to
the decision about how to act on that knowledge.
From the very outset, the men and women of the play
perceive the setting, the lonely farmhouse, from diverging
perspectives. The men come to the scene of a crime and
THE POWER OF SILENCE
attempt to look through the eyes of legal investigators. They
stride into the room, and, with the exception of three words,
we hear only male voices for the first quarter of the play. The
county attorney conducts his investigation by the book. He
interviews the key witness, asking for only facts (interpretations, he indicates, will receive attention later). The strict linear process also applies to spaces: the men go methodically
from room to room, following the preset plan of the search.
The sheriff and attorney are certain that they have left nothing out, “nothing of importance” (“Trifles,” 8). Yet at the end
of the play, they know no more than at the beginning. The
motive for the crime remains obscure.
By contrast, the women arrive at a home. Although neither
they nor the men realize it, they too are conducting an investigation. Their process seems formless as they move
through the kitchen, talking and reflecting. The men patronize them and gently ridicule their concerns while the women
themselves, at least at the outset, characterize their activity
in the house as relatively unimportant. But as Mrs. Hale and
Mrs. Peters gather household goods for Minnie Wright, the
two characters begin to reconstruct the accused woman’s life.
They do so through several means: memories of her, memories of their own lives (similar to hers in many ways), and
speculation about her feelings and responses to the conditions
of her life. Instead of following a predetermined schedule of
inquiry, they begin, almost instinctively, to put themselves
into Minnie Wright’s place. In her sewing box, they discover
Minnie’s dead pet bird, and this discovery would be the missing piece to the men’s “puzzle.” As they recognize that the
bird has been violently strangled and then lovingly set inside
a piece of rich material, the stage directions reveal their incipient knowledge: “[the women’s] eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension of horror” (“Trifles,” 24). They then reflect her husband would not have Hked a thing that sang and
would have silenced it as he silenced the singing Minnie. As
they share and ponder, the mundane details of Minnie’s life
lead Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to comprehend what their
THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY
husbands do not: the motive for the murder. Ear more importantly, the details that allow them this insight—details
overlooked as unimportant by the men—lead the women to
understand the almost tangible oppression of Minnie
Wright’s everyday life. In one ofthe play’s many ironies, Mrs.
Hale says, resentfully, “I don’t know as there’s anything so
strange, our takin’ up our time with little things while we’re
waiting for them to get the evidence” (“Trifies,” 17). Evidence, of course, is generally comprised of “little things,” as
we have witnessed graphically in our twentieth-century crime
labs. None ofthe play’s characters ever recognizes the irony,
for the women accept the designation of their concems as
mere “trifles.” But in another ironic turn, Mrs. Hale and Mrs.
Peters ultimately find power in being devalued, for their low
status allows them to keep quiet at the play’s end. Much like
servants and other discounted groups, the women are permitted access to knowledge because it is assumed they will
not be able to make intelligent use of it.
To understand the women’s discovery and their decision
to hide it, one must trace carefully through the brief play.
Eor this is more than a story of women leaming something
that the confident, powerful men remain ignorant about: the
path these country women follow leads them directly to their
choice of silence. Though this silence sounds no different to
the men than the women’s initial speechlessness, we as an
audience hear a completely new tone in the quiet. In the
beginning, the women are silent from the powerlessness Belenky has described (23-24); their final refusal to speak rings
with the power of intention and choice. Claspell continued
to develop such powerful refusals in her later plays. For example, Madeline Fejevary, the heroine of The Inheritors, refuses to use her powerful connections and apologize to the
judge for her actions. Instead, she faces a probable incarceration. Although her civil disobedience and conscious heroism
set her apart from the farm women of “Trifles,” her ultimate
choice of powerful silence links her to the earlier characters.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
Like Madeline, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters use their imaginations to picture troubling situations and identify with those
involved. They therefore wander through vastly different territory than the men present on the scene. The women’s conversation probes past an easy, abstract characterization ofthe
dead man into memories of personal, almost visceral responses to him. When Mrs. Peters remarks, “They say he was
a good man” (my emphasis), Mrs. Hale agrees, but with significant qualifiers. “Yes—good: he didn’t drink, and kept his
word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was
a hard man. . . . Just to pass the time of day with him—
(shivers) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone” (“Trifles,”
21-22). They contemplate what life would be like with such
a man, and they also recall pertinent information about his
wife. The women remember stories of the young, singing
Minnie Foster and contemplate the lonely quiet ofher childless farmhouse. Similarly, Madeline Fejevary marks off an
imaginary jail cell and pictures the confinement of the imprisoned conscientious objector. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters
also remember Minnie’s fear of cats—another trifle. But the
county attomey’s ignorance of that trifle later draws him to
overlook the potential clue the empty bird cage presents.
When he asks, off-handedly, if the bird has flown, Mrs. Hale
lies: “We think—the cat got it.” Or perhaps Mrs. Hale’s remark is an oblique reference to the women’s silence, as in
the old question “has the cat got your tongue?” In any event,
the attomey is oblivious to the remark, as he replies “(preoccupied) Is there a cat? (“Trifles,” 24). The attomey seeks
only information about the visible evidence of tlie murder
itself. The idiosyncratic, often intangible dynamics of the
Wright household remain outside his purview. They do not
fit his procedural, separate knowledge (Belenky, 103-4). As a
result, neither the missing bird nor the fictitious cat arouse
his curiosity or his suspicions.
But the women do not simply remember and sympathize
with Minnie. They identify with her, quite literally. In her
first Knes, Mrs. Hale defends the accused women’s house-
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keeping from the county attomey’s attack. Mrs. Hale also
moums the loss of Mrs. Wright’s preserved fruit, remembering her own hard work during canning season. Again, to the
men, this empathy is trivial and harmless, but it is the emotional entree for die play’s outcome. Later, Mrs. Peters empathizes in more significant ways: she evokes precise moments in her own life that parallel Minnie Wright’s pain. After
discovering the canary with its neck wrung, Mrs. Peters recalls the boy who murdered her kitten long ago, and whispers,
“If they hadn’t held me back I would have—hurt him” (“Trifles,” 25). She also contemplates the stillness of her old homestead after her first baby died and compares it to Minnie’s
solitude. This evocation of memories compels the women to
see Minnie Wright not as an abstract murderer but as a fully
developed, complex victim who at last retaliated against the
source of her pain. Indeed, the women’s very discovery ofthe
bird stems from their kindness, their desire to bring Minnie’s
quilting material to her jail cell. Because they identify with
her and because they see her as an individual and not simply
a participant in a criminal action, they uncover the key evidence in the case. Their perspective impels them imaginatively to relive her entire married life rather than simply to
research one violent moment.
Clearly, as several feminist commentators have noted, the
women are able to empathize with Minnie Wright because
they share her experience. Annette Kolodny points out that
the men cannot “read” the messages Minnie Wright sends
silently through the details of her house since the men don’t
“share her context” (Kolodny, 462). But the men’s method of
reading, I would argue, is fundamentally different from the
women’s. The plot of the play is not simply the women reading Minnie’s experience while the men read John’s, not simply a mral version of “he said, she said.” The county attomey,
Mr. Peters, and Mr. Hale never attempt to identify with John
Wright or even consider him as a distinct individual with specific behaviors. Instead, they view him as they do his wife, an
abstraction. He is the victim of a crime, she the criminal.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
(Today, she would be a “perpetrator,” in our even more abstract language of criminology.) The men, ignoring the context or “web” as Carol CiUigan might describe it, can make
no sense of a seemingly aberrant moment (62).
The women’s approach and their recognition ofthe web of
experience also propel Mrs. Hale to another stage unthinkable to the men. She takes direct responsibility for the desperation that led to the murder. Early in the play, she regrets
not visiting “Minnie Foster” (significantly using the woman’s
maiden name). After the women have found the dead bird,
she responds emphatically to Mrs. Peters as they discuss Minnie’s guilt and their pending decision:
Mrs. Peters: The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale.
Mrs. Hale: . . . I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a
white dress with blue ribbons and stood up in the choir and sang.
[A look around the room.] Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in
a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who’s going to punish
From Mrs. Hale’s perspective, people are linked together
through fragile, sometimes imperceptible strands. The tiny
trifles of life—a neighbor’s visit, a bird’s song, the sewing of
a quilt—have profound reverberations. Further, Mrs. Hale
observes, “We live close together and we live far apart. We
all go through the same things—^it’s all just a different kind
of the same thing” (“Trifles,” 27).
In the end, Mrs. Peters comes to participate in this vision
of solidarity. The men, however, remain oblivious to it: indeed, they feel no more common bond with Mr. Wright than
they do with his wife. Their vision, their way of knowing,
narrows their focus, and in this case leads to a type of blindness as to what has occurred at the farmhouse. Of course, if
they had discovered the evidence, they would have had no
doubts about how to use it: their strict, legal path leaves no
room for ambiguous margins. It is the women’s altemative
path, the way they discover the evidence, that leads them to
withhold it because they recognize that they are bound up in
the texture of events just as Minnie Wright is. As they read
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her story, they understand it as their story also. But their
decision, I emphasize, does not simply derive from sharing
Minnie Wright’s gender. It springs from their map of the
territory, one fundamentally different from the men’s overview of the spaces before them.
Much popular and theoretical exploration has been made
of the differences between genders. Some have tried to untangle the biological and environmental strands ofthe puzzle
but we are far from being able to isolate essentially “feminine” or essentially “masculine” behavior as distinct from cultural conditioned performance. Certainly, during the early
part of the twentieth century, the duties and structures of
women’s lives would have predisposed them to approach a
problem from a different angle than that ofthe men. As many
commentators have noted, even today, despite the significant
changes in women’s lives and opportunities since mid-century, women’s responsibilities and concems tend to remain
somewhat distinct from men’s.
Whether these differences between men and women are
primarily based in biology (sex) or culture (gender), they remain evident in current culture. We recognize Glaspell’s
women constructing an altemative paradigm of justice and
care, for they posit it on different grounds than the tradition
of rights and rules, the standards used in the dominant culture. The ethic of care, the notion of responsibility within
relationships especially, takes precedence in such a construction over strict formulations of justice based on precise reciprocity (Gilligan, 73). Therefore, unlike some moral development schemas whose highest stage strives for principles
which are universal in application (e.g., Piaget and Kohlberg,
cited in Gilligan), the women in this play develop a highly
differentiated and reflective moral schema. The paradigm is
probably not exclusively the domain of women but it is the
domain of those who have been shaped since birth by conventions that support an ethic based on a “psychological logic
of relationships” rather than a “formal logic of fairness” (Gilligan, 73). Although an individual might appropriate the logic
THE POWER OF SILENCE
most closely associated with the other gender, to do so requires overcoming intense cultural conditioning. Indeed, it is
likely that individual women have attempted to adopt the
“fairness” ideology Cilligan describes so as to succeed in the
dominant masculine culture. The pattem is familiar: just as
members of minority cultures often must study “mainstream”
culture and embrace new ideologies to succeed, so some
women have worked to place themselves within the predominantly masculine logic. For even though Claspell’s play was
written more than eighty years ago, social critics still document the devaluing of women’s altemative pattems. In The
Difference, Judith Mann observed the divergence between
the two ethics visible in men and women making decisions
and in the responses to those decisions. The men, Mann argues, operated from an ethos of self-reliance and competition
and therefore strove to be first with a quick, firm answer.
Women on the other hand valued cooperation and worked to
interconnect, taking time to make up their minds. Such behavior was “dismissed as indecisive” instead of being understood as a separate model that promoted integrated thinking
(Mann, 382). The distinction Mann observed echoes what we
hear in Claspell’s play.
Early in the two women’s discussion, Mrs. Hale expresses
discomfort at the men’s violation (from her perspective) of
Mrs. Wright’s house. Mrs. Peters counters matter-of-factly,
“But Mrs. Hale, the law is the law” (“Trifles,” 16). Yet as
Mrs. Peters begins to follow Mrs. Hale’s lead, her perspective
also begins to shift. By the end of the play, both women operate in a contextual rather than an abstract mode: in CiUigan’s terms, they are concemed more with relationships than
with rules. The neat, rigid order of criminal law, an order
defined and upheld by their husbands and the county attorney, has given way to the messier pattem of day-to-day hfe
and shared responsibilities and experience. Significantly, Mrs.
Peter’s final action of the play goes far beyond mere silent
complicity with Mrs. Hale’s concealment of evidence. It is
the sheriffs wife herself, the woman the county attomey
THE MIDWEST QUARTERLY
deems to be “married to the law” (“Trifles,” 29), who frantically tries to hide the bird. Of course, the women’s choice
to adopt an altemative model of perception can succeed only
in silence, but it is no longer a silence of powerlessness. In
the play’sfinalline, a line replete with several puns, Mrs. Hale
and Mrs. Peters intentionally “knot” their knowledge and do
“not” share it. Their silence has become a mark of their solidarity, a refusal to endanger a sister. For the men in the play,
their secret remains an undiscovered trifle.
Belenky, Mary, et al. Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind
New York: Basic Books, 1986.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Glaspell, Susan. ‘Trifles.” Plays. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1920. 7-29.
. The Inheritors. Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 103-57.
Kolodny, Annette. “A Map for Rereading: or. Gender and the Interpretation of Literaiy
Texts.” New Literary History, 11 (1980), 457-71.
Mann, Judith. The Difference: Growing Up Female in America. New York, N.Y.: Wamer,
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